I sat down expecting the marble to feel cool beneath me but it wasn’t. My legs were tired after hours of walking around. The sun blared overhead. Rome is beautiful at any time of the year but the beginning of August was exhausting. The heat mixed with the endless crowds was suffocating. I ran my hands over the smooth warm stone, taking in the sights and sounds around me; tourists snapping selfies, children racing each other up and down the steps, a young couple embracing in the shadows. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, imagining a time thousands of years ago when this was the hub of the city. Before it became a World Heritage site. Before cameras were invented. When it was a place to meet, socialise and be entertained. The bustling hub of the ancient Roman city.
I felt a bump on my arm as someone brushed past, spilling sticky red wine on my dress and legs. A group of men behind me were shouting loudly over a game of knucklebones. A small fight broke out as they spilled the bones on the floor. In the next row down, teenagers were scratching graffiti into the stone steps as their parents were preparing lunch. Their younger siblings sat close by playing with clay dolls. A small girl looked up at me and very carefully handed me her doll, a figure of a small gladiator, complete with clay helmet and shield. I took the warm figure in my hand, turning it over, looking at every detail. All around me, men and women, young and old were talking, laughing, arguing. The smell of anticipation hung in the air when the stadium suddenly grew still. Starting from the front passing like a wave towards the very top, silence travelled through the rows as people directed their eyes to the centre ring. The children in the rows below could barely contain their excitement, hopping from one foot to the other, eagerly awaiting the show.
Just as the expectation reached its peak, a young man stepped into the ring and the entire stadium erupted with thunderous applause. The young children jumped up and down, shouting and squealing with delight. The men behind me whistled and whooped their praise, the game of knucklebones lying forgotten on the floor. More wine showered down as the fans started to chant as one. The young man in question, the focus of their adoration, walked slowly and purposefully into the ring before stopping. Another hush fell on the stadium. He stared straight ahead and bowed low before standing up and thrusting his sword high into the air. The cheer this time was even louder than before. The entire crowd was on their feet. The gladiator turned slowly, taking in the scene around him as his armour glinted in the sun. A gate opened at the opposite side of the arena. The mood among the spectators shifted. They started to boo and hiss as the opponent walked out calmly into the ring, seemingly undeterred as the booing became louder and louder. The young gladiator waited for him, preparing himself for the battle of a lifetime.
The opponent was strong and desperate to prove himself. He had trained for this moment for years, beating himself every day, never allowing his focus to fade; concentrating all his energy on winning the battle and realising his dream. However, the gladiator had experience on his side; he had fought off many newcomers who had wished to steal his title. It wouldn’t be an easy battle but it was one he would surely win. The two men faced each other on the sand, their swords gripped by their sides, shields held in front of them. They crouched their legs slightly, taking their position. They waited for the signal to start. The crowd fell silent once again. A moment’s pause before the two men launched at each other, clanging their shields together. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the violence, as a hand grippped my shoulder and shook me.
“Come on! We have to hurry if we want to get to the restaurant on time!”
I opened my eyes, back in the present day. One of the children was being comforted by his mother having fallen over and cut his knee. The young couple from the shadows had gone. My eyes focussed on my sister, who was looking more than a little bemused.
“Were you asleep?” she asked incredulously.
“No, no. I was just resting my eyes,” I replied.
“Did you go to the gift shop without me? You could have said! Now let’s go. The girls are hungry,” she called walking towards the exit.
I looked down to find the small clay figure of the gladiator still clutched in my fist, a triumphant look upon his face.