“Oxford Gladiator” by Professor Gabriel O. Emerson, Associate Professor of Italian Studies, University of Toronto
I am not a man who makes decisions lightly. But when I want something, I pursue it relentlessly. If a woman catches my eye, I won’t rest until we’ve managed to press our bodies together and she’s panting my name. And I never back down from a challenge.
My interest in these two poets led quite naturally to an interest in the customs of ancient Rome, especially the lives of the gladiators.
Gladiatorial contests straddled the space between public entertainment and religious sacrifice. On the one hand, Romans enjoyed the spectacle staged combat provided. On the other, the contests provided plenty of bloodshed and death to feed the hunger of the city gods. One could view the loser in such a match as providing a human sacrifice to the gods of Rome.
My interest in gladiators took a somewhat unexpected turn one evening when I was accosted by a group of loud, drunken Christ Church students. I was walking from the Bodleian Library to my room at Magdalen, carrying a book on gladiators, when I bumped into someone. He pushed me, cursing loudly. I called him a Neanderthal and shoved him back.
Catching sight of the book I was carrying, the Neanderthal, (who I will now call “Brutus”), challenged me to fight him like a gladiator. I was shocked that such a behemoth was literate, let alone able to string together a complete sentence.
I told him to name the time and place.
That’s how I found myself on the meadow of Christ Church College just after dawn, holding a sword that Brutus and his friends had conveniently “borrowed” from one of the suits of armour owned by the college. They’d also procured a couple of breastplates and two shields. I fastened the breastplate to my chest but spurned the shield. The broadsword weighed at least a kilo and I would need both hands to wield it properly.
Brutus was a mountain of a man, tall and wide. He was easily a head taller than my own six feet, two inches and outweighed me by about a hundred pounds. He also had an overabundance of facial and body hair, which gave him a bear like appearance. He looked like someone who could have fought with the Germanic tribes against the Romans, centuries earlier.
As we prepared to do battle, a rag tag group of students gathered. I was the only sober one among them until a theology student was untimely ripped from his bed and told that he would act as referee. (Poor chap)
“Right,” he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “The warrior who draws first blood wins. Shake hands, gentlemen.”
Brutus crushed my hand with his meaty paw, fixing me with a severe eye. He winked before shoving me backward.
I swore an oath as I stumbled, struggling to regain my footing. With an incoherent cry, he rushed me, swinging his sword at my head. I dodged, then pivoted behind him and struck his kidney with the flat of my sword.
With a roar, he grabbed his back, flailing wildly. I bobbed once again, plowing my foot into his knee.
He threw an elbow, which glanced off my jaw. I ran my tongue over my teeth to make sure they were all intact before spitting out blood.
Brutus grinned treacherously, raising his sword. The blade whistled through the air before the clash of metal against metal rang in my ears. The impact of our swords jarred my arm all the way to my shoulder. I could feel my entire body shudder, rattling my teeth.
I withdrew and swiped at his midsection, scraping across his breastplate. But I was wildly off balance. He swung at my side, striking the place where the breastplate ended, and I fell to my knees. I curled inward in pain.
Brutus stood over me, slightly winded, before lifting his sword.
“Et tu, Brute?” I whispered, before tackling his knees.
The giant fell like a great oak tree, cut down in his prime. I stumbled to my feet, clutching my sword.
As the last pinks and greys of dawn gave way to a pale blue sky, I pressed a knee to his chest and with the tip of my sword drew blood just beneath his left ear.
Breathing heavily and sweating profusely, I removed my breastplate, stabbing my sword into the dewy grass. My opponent groaned and pressed a hand to his neck.
The crowd was silent. They stood aside as I passed through them, walking the slow steps of the victorious but battered warrior.
“Who was that?” Someone asked, pointing at me.
I turned around.
“Gabriel Emerson, president of the fencing club.”
Enjoy your day everyone. Thanks for reading,