Iason Hirudo, Discipulus in Veritas

(Reading time: 6 - 11 minutes)

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N.B. For those unpractised in Latin, a dictionary is advisable

Ronald Vellars was in front of a pint at the ‘Goat,’ rabbiting on to anyone who’d listen. As most tales were fairly humorous, his performances were generally well received and usually earned him complimentary drinks. However, for the past two days he’d been coming in much later, due to some reality show – the Apprentice - the BBC were showing.

“You see all the history books tell you Vespasian was the real constructor of the Roman Colosseum, but actually he only did the middle part, with son Titus finishing off the topmost upper galleries.

The initial building was Nero’s brainchild and, right from the start of building, many wild and bloody games were held on its lower floors when he wanted to impress, satisfy and placate the citizens, or simply keep them off his back!”

“Now, in order to find money for this project, Nero decided to cut back on earlier ones. A few years earlier he’d scoured his world for the best teachers, businessmen, merchants and scholars he could find; enslaved them, and put them to work forming the greatest library Rome had ever seen.

And the Senate, highly impressed with the idea, had immediately voted full funding.”

“Iason Hirudo was a well known Greek scholar who’d been working on a thesis explaining how the innate, and taught, brutality of the Legions invariably took over when they invaded a country.

A novel way of looking at Roman warfare and Nero didn’t like it, nor the aspersions cast on his troops. Initially he’d wanted to execute Iason straight off, but wiser senators counselled him to pick the young man’s brains first. So Iason ended up working on the library.”

“Now, though, Nero had stonewalled this project and appropriated its funding; he still wanted to earn even more by using the bodies of his slaves. So he had them re-designated from academics to intellectual ‘gladiators’ –Discipuloi, actually, which translates as Apprentices - and, in order to learn basic survival skills, sent them to a special section of a well known gladiatorial academy run by his loyal henchman, the subtle Senator Saccharon.”

“Saccharon thought that ‘a veritas show,’ where groups of young men and women would compete against each, with one person from the losing team being ritually burned alive at the end, would be an excellent way of focussing citizen interest on the project; and keep away any revolutionary thoughts regarding those parts of the city Nero, himself, had burnt down the previous year, so as to appropriate taxpayers’ land for personal use.”

“It was also very cost effective, he thought, in needing only 15 bodies burnt, and would last three months. The 16th contender, the winner, would be given their freedom and a paid job at one of Saccharon’s estates. Yes, an excellent financial earner, in addition to being popular; and the Senator smiled as he visualised the final scenes of the victim.”

“First they’d be dismissed from service. ‘Missos facere’ he’d say with a finger pointed at them. Then, after a last glass of wine with their comrades, tied to a stake. Again his finger would rise and the word “cremare,” uttered, at which the torches would fire the kindling.”

“Oh, how the citizens would love those agonized, piercing screams as the loser slowly turned to ashes. And what a spurring effect it would have on the performance of the others!” Saccharon felt very satisfied, intuitively knowing this contest would appeal to the people and, also, greatly enhance his own standing with Nero.”

“Even nicer was the thought of the spin off he’d get – in addition to that from issuing betting licences. His aides could place bets for him at the best odds and he could ensure those would be the winning ones. ‘Yes, what a delightful and prosperous plan’ he thought.”

“As I said earlier, Iason was a well respected historian and, due to his eclectic working style, often referred to as the Chamaeleon Historicus. Many also remembered an earlier work - Dux - that focused on intellectually seducing one’s ruler by teaching him how to rule effectively – if not always popularly - that was praised by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

” This manuscript was discovered long after, and represented as his own, by a certain Machiavelli who renamed it ‘De Principe.’ However, neither Nero nor Saccharon had read it.”

“On the first Games day the two teams were led out in front of the citizens. Most were already known as advertising tablets had been around the Forum for the preceding fortnight, whipping up interest and bets as to winners or losers.”

“One girl was a Druid medicine woman from Hibernia. Tall and blonde, she was quite a stunner, while another, with delightful slanting eyes, came from the East, beyond the boundaries of the known world.

Among the men was a tall rugged Pathan with an outsize ego, a chap from Cambria with strange eyebrows believed to be favoured by disciples of the blood sucking Vespertilioi cult, and a failed mathematician who’d calculated the size of a flag destined for the Roman Forum as that of a pocket handkerchief. The others, all handsome specimens, came from various parts of the empire.” 

Iason was quickly singled out. ‘Looks too posh, talks too posh’ said one; ‘probably never worked a day in his life, just a dilettante’ said another, while a third suggested ‘he’d learnt to ride by sitting on the gardener’s back and trotting him round the estate.’ 

“Fortunately others appreciated his warm smile, amusing retorts, quick mind and mobile facial expressions. They also viewed his willingness to help others as indicative of a morality usually lacking in modern Rome, though they deplored his apparent lack of business sense. 

‘Nice guy, seems intelligent, but probably useless down at the market. He’d end up selling everything below cost and, finally, burying his poor kids who’d died of starvation.’ Then furtively looking around, one added ‘however, he’d probably make a better consul or senator than some of those we have now!’

“The women named their team Evolvere while the boys, at Iason’s suggestion, plunked for Conari - to try hard. ‘You want to win, but you won’t always do it!’ he emphasised.”

“Then came team leaders. One woman, Iaz, a teacher, quickly volunteered and was accepted. On the men’s side, Iason saw group indecision and decided to put his hand up.

He seemed highly confident, saying ‘his effortless superiority would pull him through.’ Again there were no objections, but many feared his lack of business sense would make him the first roman candle.”

“Today’s task was to sell a cartload of goods to either the merchants, in one of the front rows, or the citizens. Both teams were supplied with 50 barrels of fresh drinking water, 200 Egyptian grave dolls with a moving arm that gave an imperial salute, 25 leather capes, 15 lyres and 50 drinking mugs with the Emperor’s insignia.

They’d 2 hours to make their sales, and, rather unnervingly, the stake was already being hammered into the ground, and hay and wood stacked ready.”

“The crowds howled with laughter as the goods were pitched at the buyers, and all strained to hear the words as the contestants went quickly and nervously from one merchant to the other, bargaining, pleading - in fact doing everything possible to unload their wares. Those citizens in business loved it.

Through the contestants, they could see all the mistakes they, too, had made at the start of their careers”

“Two hours later sales were halted and a tally made. The result was close, but Conari had outdone Evolvere by 58 sesterces. So a woman would burn, but which one?

There was a hush, then a muddle of screaming, shouting, backbiting and loud accusations rose in the air, as each began to fight viciously and mercilessly to avoid being chosen.”

“Senator Saccharon smiled. There was nothing he liked better than watching people squirm to avoid death. “Ladies,” he purred. “You lost!” The women glared at him.

On the one hand they wanted to scratch his eyes out, on the other they couldn’t. There was no other option but to humiliatingly force fake smiles to their faces. And Saccharon loved it; his antennae could feel their fear and it tickled his innate sadism!”

“Slowly he turned to the team leader with the musical name, Iaz. ‘Choose the two people you feel helped the team least,’ he said. And, despite violent protestations, she quickly chose the Oriental woman and another from beyond the Caucasus mountains.”

“Saccharon let them sweat as he slowly pointed out the errors made, making each one feel they’d be chosen.

Then, in a dramatic movement, he pointed at Iaz. ‘You were brave to propose leadership ... but you didn’t really lead, did you?’ He raised his eyebrows in a dramatic gesture, waited a full five seconds, then pointed a finger and calmly uttered: ‘missos facere.’

“The crowd roared. This was what they had come for; the fun of seeing a beautiful woman struggle and dance in the flames as she slowly died, but others were quiet.

Even in Roman times they were not all without feelings. And from the men’s team rose the sound of a prayer as they called on the gods to lessen her suffering. They were sad, but also relieved it wasn’t one of them.”

“Iaz knew she’d die, but was too shocked to make any reply. She stood motionless and silent, in a world of her own.

But the others, relieved it wasn’t their turn, now clustered round her and showed sympathy. Someone brought a pitcher of strong wine. The more she drank, the drunker she’d be and, hopefully, the less she’d feel the searing heat of the flames before she died.”

“It was another hour before the survivors made their way underground, to the labyrinth of gladiators’ cells. Brought food, few ate with any appetite. Most just drank to forget.

They’d just seen the first instance of the merciless and horrible fate that would happen to fifteen of them over the next few weeks; and the vivid memory of Iaz’s piercing screams coming through the crowd’s approving roar, as the flames reached her, didn’t encourage calm sleep for anyone.”

“And as Iason tried to eat, he couldn’t help remembering the story of Odysseus trapped with his men in the Cyclops cave, knowing that two men - the first two the one-eyed giant would scoop up each morning - would become the monster’s breakfast each day.

But he also remembered that Odysseus had finally escaped by tying his men to the bellies of the sheep that were led out to graze. It was an interesting gem from mythology, he thought, but was there any way it could have a meaning for the Discipuli?”

Vellars stopped and looked up at his silent audience. “Well! Isn’t anyone going to get me a drink?” he muttered, snorting like a disgruntled bull.

And as two good souls rushed to order a couple of pints, a young girl with brown glasses and mousy looking hair, piped up: “what happened next. What did Iason do then?”

“That, my dear young lady, will have to wait till tomorrow, won’t it,” Vellars replied with a smile.


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