Mago loved the deafening cry of the excited crowd shouting his name and clapping their hands as he fought in the huge colosseum. He was a champion, as he was called by the audience, and that was his life. He didn’t mind the cruel weapons threatening him whenever he stepped on the hot sand of the arena because he was confident in his ability to win. The other imprisoned slaves feared for their lives that they would have to fight Mago in the arena, and Mago loved it. He welcomed any challenger and always ended victorious.
Sweat trickled down Mago’s face as his heavy breath filled his helmet. All he could see through the small holes in the galea was only what was straight ahead of him, a metal barred gate rising. As soon as there was enough space for him to squeeze out, Mago bolted out of the tunnel onto the sand. The sound of shouts and whistles and claps of the crowd thrilled Mago even more than before. He walked to the center of the massive circle of sand and shouted to the crowd with his arms flinging up and down, raising the volume of the audience higher. He watched the other gladiator, a thin man with a small arm shield, a net, and a spear, walk with shaking legs to the center. Mago assessed his opponent as he approached, figuring out strategies and tactics to give the best showdown possible.
Mago shifted his gaze to a Roman guard coming to the center where Mago stood posed in front of his terrified opponent. The guard took his position next to the pair of gladiators, ready to run to safety once the battle started. He nodded at both gladiators and said with a raised voice, “One!” Excitement overtook Mago as the crowd quieted to silence. “Two!” He shifted his feet, digging deeper into the sand. “Three!” Mago flinched, wanting to run straight at the other gladiator. “FIGHT”
Mago raised his shield to his helmet and circled his opponent. The other gladiator struck first, swinging the large net over Mago’s head. It caught on his galea and his head was jerked towards his opponent, but before he could get a stab at him with his spear, Mago swung his shield at him. It knocked him back, but he regained his balance and swung again with the net. This time it grabbed on to his shield and Mago managed to keep himself from falling towards his opponent.
My turn! Mago taunted in his head. For a third time, the opponent threw the net over Mago, but he caught it and yanked it out of his hands, causing the other gladiator to fall, defenseless. Mago could have killed him there but decided not to. A short easy battle would not enthrall the audience much at all.
Mago had a sword, shield, and now a net while the other had just a spear and a small arm safeguard. Mago laughed at him and spit on the ground in his opponent’s direction. The face of horror that spread across the other slave filled Mago with a wicked joy.
Mago rushed at him and swung as hard as he could with his sword. It hit the small shield on his opponent’s arm but didn’t do any damage. The other gladiator yelled and ran with his spear directed to Mago’s stomach. He rolled under the crude weapon and stood back up with a handful of sand clutched between his bruised fingers and turned around. Again, his enemy ran at him, but Mago quickly sprayed the coarse grains at his opponent’s face. The man yelled when the sand landed in his burning eyes and stumbled back. I bet you didn’t expect that! Mago thought with pride as the crowd cheered to see something new. The other gladiator, now blazing with rage after rubbing his eyes and regaining his stance, rushed at Mago ready to kill. Mago lunged at the man and stabbed with his sword as hard as he could muster. It sliced through his opponent with ease, and Mago subconsciously added to his list of victories.
The world swirled around Mago as the deafening roar of the audience faded into a high-pitched ringing in his ears, a common annoyance. Finally, the sound of cheering came rushing back to him and he clapped his hands at the crowd and hit his chest like a wild beast before turning and walking back to his cell.
* * *
Mago was confused when, the next morning, he was led through the winding corridors of the Colosseum by a Roman guard. The walk through the tunnels led them up a few flights of stairs and through a lush courtyard laden with beautiful flowers and bushes. The guard seemed nervous to Mago, and he noticed that he was quite gentle for a Roman. Finally, they stepped into a small office with a polished wooden desk, a large window on the right wall, and a few shelves lined with leather books pressed against the far rugged clay-brick wall. Behind the desk sat a Roman official who was eating some bread that had been cut and laid out on the table. He looked up at Mago and a friendly smile spread across his face.
He waited to swallow and then said, “Ah Mago, glad to see you’re here.”
Mago was confused. Who was this and why did he seem hospitable? Mago struggled for something to say, but finally said the only thing he could think of. “Sir, should I know who you are?”
“No. My name is Atticus. I was a general in the war,” he said smoothly. “Perhaps you want to know why you are here.”
“Yes sir, did I do something wrong?” Mago said uncertainly.
“Well, that I do not know, but I’m asking you if you know how you came to Rome.” He took a sip of water from a small bowl laying on the desk. He put it down and said through swallowing, “Carthaginian, I assume?”
Mago couldn’t tell what Atticus was trying to get at. “Yes, I am from Carthage.” The memory of his life haunted him. All I am is a gladiator, nothing more. He tried to shove the memory back and snapped, “Why do you care?”
The man chuckled slightly. “You love glory, right? The feeling of being praised, rejoiced over? You love killing, but does that obsession apply to everyone?” Atticus said as a thin grin spread across his face. “Tell me, Mago, do you love honor?”
Mago raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “What are you getting at?”
Atticus leaned back in his chair and stroked his scruffy chin. “I heard once that you did.”
Mago bowed his head slightly and looked at his feet “I did, but what I have done is unforgivable.” He caught himself and snorted as he said what he had meant to say. “And how did you hear this?”
“I knew a slave who was brought to me after the wars ended. He spoke of you and how he had forgiven you, despite your desertion. His name was Appius.”
Mago was shocked. Mago had abandoned his post and his best friend, Appius, during a battle in the Punic Wars, and Romans had found him alone and captured him. After returning to find out Appius had been captured, Mago and a group of soldiers had tried saving him, but his plan was discovered. He and his men were imprisoned as well and brought back to Rome as slaves. Ever since then, Mago thought that Appius was killed as a slave or tortured at a faraway farm. The thought that Appius’s death was Mago’s fault sent him into weeks’ long depression. “Appius is gone.” Mago felt a small tear slide down his dirty cheek.
“He, maybe, but every other imprisoned slave down there, in a way, is an Appius, Mago. Did it ever cross your prideful mind that one of those gladiators you killed could have been Appius? All of them were captured, some of them were even the ones in your escape group. and, with my help, you can be the one to save them, to set them free! That would be true honor,” Atticus said charmingly.
Mago longed for honor, but his mind kept twitching back to his role as a champion in the arena. That glory was also desirable. Mago, torn between the idea of bloody glory and respectable honor, finally managed to say, “Why should I even try? I like my career as a gladiator!”
“You like the glory, rather. The fame. Humilitas occidit superbiam. ‘Humility conquers pride’. I am a Roman, I have money and wealth. I should be living a happy life. You should be asking me that question. Why should I try?” Atticus paused for a second, giving Mago a few moments to think before saying, “I hate the way the slaves are treated, imprisoned, slaughtered by men or beast. I long for their freedom. I hate that cruelty enough to leave my home and money. Mago, out of penance for your “killing” of Appius, please accept this challenge to help free the slaves.”
Penance for my killing of Appius. He would have wanted this. Mago shook himself. But I’m not Appius, why should I care? He thought over it again. If I do this, I will be making up for my lost honor.
* * *
Mago was awakened the next morning by the same guard who had brought him to Atticus the previous day to check if Mago had changed his mind. To the guard’s astonishment, Mago was eager to go and see Atticus. The guard, whose name was Aurelius, agreed to bring Mago to him, and when he entered the office of the Roman official, the two of them thought out a plan while Mago was given warm bread, cheese, and wine. It might need a miracle to pull off, but it was the best they could think of. Besides, any plan, however well thought out it was, most likely needed a great amount of luck to work in the well-guarded fortification of Rome.
The following night, Mago was seized with the realization that he would be risking his own life for others, which bothered him immensely. He wanted to continue his career as a champion gladiator. He loved the glory, the fame, the feeling of victory whenever he struck down his opponent, but he suddenly remembered something Appius had said before he and Mago fought in the war, “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” He had never understood this saying, and it had no meaning to him at all after his list of glorious victories in the arena multiplied. But if Appius was alive to see Mago rebel, he would understand that if he died, he would be dying for his countrymen.
He wanted to cancel the escape for fear of his life, but the option was quickly dismissed when Atticus and Aurelius came through the stone tunnels to commence their plan.
Every so often, all the prisoners would be taken out for examination by the Roman officials, so Atticus provided the plan to pretend to do this as a way to get all the prisoners out and together. After they led them to the armory, the whole plan would be explained to them with haste. Both Atticus and Mago were skeptical of the plot, but had nothing else to propose, so they put their trust in hope and luck.
Under the torch-lit tunnels, Aurelius whispered to Mago, “Pretend you’re a prisoner reluctantly following me.” Mago nodded and clasped his hands together behind his back, bowed his head, and dragged his feet as he followed Aurelius across the hall. Without hesitation, Aurelius and Atticus started unlocking prisoners’ doors and announcing the “examination”. Mago was surprised when the prisoners didn’t act bewildered as to why they were being led away at night. They looked sad with their heads bowed, like Mago’s, and their torn clothes swaying back and forth with their strides. Soon the whole underground prison cells had been swept empty and a long line of emaciated slaves followed Aurelius, Atticus, and Mago to the armory.
As expected, three guards stood with spears clutched in their hands in front of the large opening into a room full of shields, armor, swords, spears, flails, and other sorts of weapons laid out on racks. Atticus nodded at Aurelius and Mago and they all ran at the guards and cupped their hands over their mouths as they bundled them up in a rope that had been brought with them. Mago preferred killing them, but Atticus disagreed. They gagged them with cloths and locked them in a nearby cell. With the armory unguarded, Atticus, Mago, and Aurelius started cutting the prisoner’s binds off and leading them to get shields and weapons as the whole plan was explained to them. They seemed suddenly enthused at the hope of freedom, and Mago thought of his friend, whishing he could be there as well.
The whole process seemed like hours to Mago, but finally they all were equipped and ready for battle. The prisoners were led all the way back to Atticus’s office, and when they entered, the window had already been removed according to plan, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. They were a mess of terrified and confused yet hopeful men in clanking armor, who hadn’t eaten for probably two days. Mago felt guilty as he thought of the food he had so hastily eaten in this same office when he and Atticus met.
Almost all the prisoners had been led out of the wall when they heard the pounding of feet running towards the door. The door shook as the Roman guards began beating on the other end and shouting. Mago watched Atticus and Aurelius push a desk in front of it before the three of them ran out of the window down the hill and towards the river with the rest of the prisoners. They were all running, armor clanking, metal against metal, under the starry night sky. Mago was at the end of the line, looking back towards the room from which they left. He was suddenly seized with fear when he saw the approaching Roman troops running towards the escaping prisoners. Mago started running down the steep hill and almost fell a few times. As hoped, small boats stood gently rocking in the calm water tied to shore. He heard someone yell, “TO THE BOATS!” and shoved his way through the crowd inconsiderate of the fleeing slaves around him.
He started yelling with the others and ran to the muddy banks ready to jump into a boat and float away. Someone made it first and stood in his way. Mago didn’t hesitate to shove the other down to the ground to get in. He started getting the oars ready, but stopped when he heard a familiar voice cry out over the mob. A voice too familiar.
Appius. Mago felt an unbelievable hope rise in his chest and he swung around and scanned the crowd. He couldn’t find him. “Where are you?” If there was an answer, it was muffled by the cry of the fleeing prisoners. He was about to lose hope and his heart skipped a beat as he caught sight of a figure being tossed underfoot by the fleeing slaves. Oh no.
Mago was sick with guilt as he watched his best friend, who he had thought was dead and who he had now unknowingly shoved to the ground, get trampled. He couldn’t believe he had done this. Appius was probably doomed now as his boat, now full, started drifting away. He couldn’t let him die like this. He couldn’t let him die at all. He couldn’t experience the heart-wrenching guilt for years again.
Suddenly the boat gave a great lurch in the water and he realized the rope holding it back was still tied to the wooden post on the shore. The Romans were almost to the banks now, and Appius laid on the ground with bloody bruises covering his body. He was struggling to get up, but Mago knew he wouldn’t make it. Sorry, Appius. I’ll fix this.
Mago’s fear left his body as he dove off the boat into the freezing water. He coughed and sputtered as he paddled his way to shore where his dying friend sat. Mago crawled onto the muddy beach and pulled Appius into the water. It was hard to swim back to the boat with a limp man holding on to him, but he managed to haul him onboard with the help of Atticus.
But it wasn’t over yet. The rope still stood taut, holding the boat back. If it wasn’t cut, its whole crew would die, and the Romans would have something to cross the river with. Mago rested his feet on the side of the boat and pushed off with all his strength, propelling himself through the black water. When he reached shore, he ran to the post with the rope tied to it, grabbed a dagger on his belt, and started cutting away.
Mago gasped as an arrow flew into his side. He staggered back but regained his position by the rope. As he continued cutting at the rope the pain was worse than anything he had ever experienced.
Almost there! he shouted in his mind as the dagger dug deeper into the rough rope. A noise shot through the air and landed with a thud as a second arrow impaled Mago in the chest. He fell this time clutching the dagger with all his strength. His scream was silent as pain flashed through his body. With the last of his strength, he stood up and swung the dagger at the rope. The rope snapped and was whisked away with the free boat. Mago watched the fleet of boats cross the river and then turned to face the pursuing Romans. A third arrow came flying through the air, and Mago watched it spin through the brisk night air and into his stomach.
He fell to his knees and then to the muddy banks of the Tiber River, seeing his blood spill onto the ground. He turned his eyes, once more, to the fleeing boats. He could make out the figure of Atticus giving Mago a respectful nod and thought he heard someone yelling his name, but he couldn’t tell anymore if anything he heard was real or not. As the light left his eyes, the weight of guilt was finally drained from his deep wounds, leaving stains of his blood on the prideful fields of Rome. A thin smile spread across Mago’s dirty face. For the first time in his life, he felt peaceful.
And the saying never understood by Mago finally revealed its truth as life poured from the holes in his body. “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” were the only words he could muster the strength to say. And with that last breath, the world faded into darkness.
Author Notes: I know I'm no great author, but this is my first attempt at a story with true meaning.