Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Entry #24

July 20th, 2009 by Wordsman


“And,” Jack continued, ignoring both Matthew’s sudden pause and the statement that surrounded it, “what better place to look for the restless spirits of the past than in the dark depths of the ancient crypt?”  He pointed down below.  “That horrible pit of death, the final resting place of all the mighty warriors who fell victim to the Romans’ legendary bloodlust, where they now spend their days pacing, regretting, wishing for revenge on the spectators who had them put to death with a simple flip of the thumb.  For centuries it was hidden beneath the floor of the arena, but now that barrier is no more, and the ghosts of the gladiators are free to come up into the world of the living and walk among us once again!  Doesn’t the thought chill you to the very bone?”

“It’s not a crypt,” Matthew informed him, finally pulling his eyes away from the spot where he very much hoped he had not just seen someone pretending to be a ghost.

Jack was stunned.  “But . . . it’s underground,” he protested.  “Directly under the sandy floor where millions of men lost their lives.  Surely it must be—”

“It’s called the hypogeum,” Matthew explained, shaking his head.  “It means ‘underground,’” he added, though he was pretty sure that even Jack would be able to use context clues and figure out that this did not refer to a “high podium.”  “And of course they didn’t use it for burying the dead.  Would you want to go to a stadium that had the corpses of all the deceased former players under it?”

“So what did they use it for?” Jack asked, looking disappointed.

“I believe it was primarily used for storing the gladiators and animals prior to their appearance in the main arena.  They kept cages down there for that purpose.”  He saw the eager light rekindle in his friend’s eyes for some reason, so he quickly tried to make the hypogeum sound as boring as possible.  “There was also a lot of machinery down there that was used for lifting things, and . . .”

His friend, however, was clearly no longer listening.  “Cages, huh?  So what you’re saying is this place was basically an ancient underground prison?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all—”

“Just as much an abode of the damned as a crypt would be!  A pit where doomed men lay with nothing to do but ponder their inevitable death, without even the sight of the world above ground to relieve them.  Like an ancient death row, except that these gladiators did not even get the certainty of knowing when they would die.  They might survive the next day’s battle, or they might fall; all they knew for certain was that death would come for them eventually.  It’s like the ancient saying goes: ‘Death is certain, its time uncertain.’  And, of course, the end that was awaiting them had very little in common with a relatively painless lethal injection or gassing.”

Matthew could not think of anything to say to that.  “We need to get a closer look at this,” Jack decided, moving swiftly down the stairs.

“Careful,” Matthew said as he followed his friend, though he had little hope of stopping him if he determined to do something foolish.  “I don’t think we’re supposed to get too close.”

Jack’s legs stopped before the railing, but his torso carried a few inches beyond.  “Oh, you wouldn’t want to get too close,” he agreed, grinning at his friend.  “Those who fail to respect the boundary this railing represents could end up plunging into the depths of the . . . high-pojeeum.  And once they’re in, they’re at the mercy of the dead gladiators.  Those who go in never come back.”

Probably true, Matthew thought, but most likely because those that failed to respect the railing received lifetime bans from the officials that curated the Colosseum.  “You know there aren’t really any dead gladiators, right?” he asked, only mildly concerned for the moment.

“What are you talking about?” Jack asked back, perplexed.  “You think that the millions of gladiators who entered this arena through the centuries all came out alive?  You expect me to believe that these desperate warriors participated in nothing more dangerous than a series of slap fights, where the loser was let off with a mild reprimand?”

“No, I mean . . . you know there aren’t really any dead gladiators here, right?”

“Where else could they be but here?” Jack said grandly, spreading his arms wide.  “In this place they fought and died.  Sure, they may have been forced into it, but this was still the place that gave their lives meaning.  Here in the Colosseum they expended the full extent of their life force.  Why shouldn’t their spirits follow suit?”

“Yes, that makes sense, I guess,” Matthew said.  “I’m just checking to make sure that you don’t actually believe in ghosts.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Matthew,” he said with a patronizing grin.  “What sane person could seriously believe in ghosts in this modern age?  I’m just saying that if they did, this high-pojeeum would be the perfect place for them.”

“Right,” Matthew said, looking down into the hypogeum and trying to imagine how the ancient mechanisms worked.

“I would like to go down there to get a better look at it, though,” Jack noted wistfully.

“Oh no,” Matthew said fervently.  “Can you imagine the trouble we’d get into for doing that?”

“Sometimes a little trouble is a good thing,” Jack said with a roguish grin.

“No thank you.”

Later on, Matthew would insist that Jack had pushed him over the railing, a point the two of them disputed for many years to come.  He could not imagine that he jumped in himself, whatever his friend might say.  The only thing Matthew remembered for sure was that just before he entered the underground area he saw a mysterious figure dressed all in gray lurking down there.

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