Authors: John Jakes
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Fiction, #Rome, #Suspense, #Historical, #Animal trainers, #Nero; 54-68, #History
An [e - reads ] Book
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, scanning or any information storage retrieval system, without explicit permission in writing from the Author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1963 Ace Books Inc.
Renewal Copyright © 1991 John Jakes.
New Introduction © 2001 John Jakes
First e-reads publication 1999
John Jakes is the acknowledged contemporary master of the family saga. He is the creator of theKent Family Chronicles, The North and South Trilogy, andHomeland . His latest novel,On Secret Service , marks his return to the American Civil War. His devotion to strong storytelling, impeccable research and historical accuracy has won him a worldwide audience, as well praise for being “the godfather of the historical novel” and “America’s history teacher.”
Born in Chicago in 1932, Jakes began writing professionally during his freshman year at Northwestern University, where he was studying acting. He made the trade from the stage to the typewriter at age 18 when he sold his first story for $25. He enrolled in the creative writing program at DePauw University, graduated in 1953 and a year later, earned an M.A. degree in American literature from Ohio State University. In March of 1973, Jakes began work on the first of eight volumes of theKent Familt Chronicles , a series depicting American history through the lives of a fictional family. The series quickly went on to become a bestseller, and in 1975, Jakes became the first author ever to have three books on theNew York Times Best-seller list in a single year, thanks to the success of all eight volumes of hisChronicles .
Jakes holds honorary doctorates from five universities, and in 1995 he received the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Western Heritage Literary Award, as well as a dual Celebrity and Citizen’s Award from the White House Conference on Libraries and Information. In 1996, he became the tenth living inductee to the South Carolina Academy of Authors and the following year, he received the Professional Achievement Award of the Ohio Stae University Alumni Association. In 1998, the South Carolina Humanities Association awarded him its highest honor for Career Achievement and support of the humanities. From 1989 to 1996, Jakes was a Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina.
Despite his decision to write rather than act, Jakes is still an active member of the theater, having performed, directed, and written original plays and musicals. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Authors Guild, American P.E.N., and Western Writers of America. He also serves on the baoard of the Authors Guild Foundation.
Jakes and his wife Rachel have four children and eleven grandchildren. They divide their time between homes in South Carolina and Connecticut.
Further information about John Jakes can be found at his website, www.johnjakes.com.
Author’s Introduction to the new e-reads Edition
In the 1960’s, the pseudonymous Jay Scotland wrote six mass market paperback historical novels, four for Ace Books, two for Avon. These represent my first ventures in a field that had provided me with enthralling reading for years. At the time, I never imagined the success that would come to me when I returned to historicals withThe Bastard , the first ofThe Kent Family Chronicles, in the 1970’s.
Of the six novels that preceded my later work,Arena, the fifth, remains my favorite. Ancient Rome was always a subject that fascinated me. Consequently much more research went intoArena than went into the other novels of the 60’s. The first one, a pirate novel commissioned by the late Don Wollheim of Ace Books, contained almost none, I am chagrined to say. I wroteStrike the Black Flag much as the old pulp magazine hacks churned out their monthly novels: in a hurry, for money, with precious little concern about the accuracy of the content.
Arenawas different; I worked to unearth and include authentic background and detail. That may be why I like the book more than the others, even though I see plenty of passages that make me wince after nearly four decades. I was tempted to revise the text but did not; I hope you’ll enjoy the novel but judge it gently, as early work.
The author of the published novel was “Jay Scotland” because, for the pirate novel, Don Wollheim had asked for a pseudonym. He didn’t think my name sufficiently romantic for historicals. Never one to stint on acerbic observations about his writers, Don wrote that, to him, John Jakes sounded like “faulty plumbing.”
In less than an hour I came up with an alternate. I recalled that the great crime writer Cornell Woolrich, asked to supply a pseudonym, invented “William Irish” out of a family name and the first country that came to mind. I took Jay from my initials, opened the atlas, found Scotland near Ireland, and there you are.
I’m delighted to see this favorite of mine return in the new formats of this startling new age of electronic publishing. I thank Richard Curtis and his colleagues at e-reads for making it possible.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
This novel deals with Imperial Rome under the last of the Julian Caesars, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero. His world has been rightly described by the scholar Grant as “unique, terrible, and rich in allurements and astonishments.” Even so, the author feels obliged to point out that certain elements in the story are not wild imagination but historical reality.
First the characters. Some of the following are well known, others not. All were real people: the blond courtesan Poppaea; Agrippina and Octavia, Nero’s mother and wife, respectively; Serenus, the commander of the night watch; Burrus, Prefect of the Praetorians; the scheming Sicilian horse breeder Tigellinus; the evil sailor Anicetus; the two men whose philosophies were so different, yet so strikingly alike — the millionaire savant Seneca and the apostle Paul; and the young prostitute Acte and the beautiful poisoner Locusta.
The other characters, including the beast-man Cassius whose chronicle this is, are fictitious. The Bestiarii School, however, was an actual training ground for animal handlers and hunters. The erotic cult of Cybele was widespread in Rome. The great fire of 64 did begin in the Circus Maximus (though nobody today knows how). The method of “manufacturing” unicorns, Agrippina’s death, and the fear of the Vestal Virgins are all matters of record.
Lastly, a word about proper names. Those of citizens were in three parts, full of confusing duplication. Both Seneca and Serenus, for example, carried the same nomen, or second name, Annaeus. Because this is a tale of adventure, not an instructional tome, the author has simplified many triple names to a double or even a single one.
Table of Contents
The Beast Men of Nero Imperator
The Beast Men of Nero Imperator
NOT FORseveral moments did we guess we had been tricked into dying.
The lanista’s helpers grunted and hauled ropes. The trainer himself, scarred and white-locked Fabius, threw a whip to me and one to the Egyptian. I caught the butt and waited, wondering why Fabius retired so quickly to the stands. He sat among the students who had been allowed to watch. Strangely, he neither met my stare nor issued any last words of instruction.
Ropes squealed on pulleys. In the niches around the wall of the little amphitheater the fronts of the log cages slid up out of sight. The Egyptian Horus, an arrogant coppery giant, tested his lash. He snapped it so hard the three leaden balls at the ends of the triple thong sang and whistled. I scuffed a sandal in the imported sand. This sparkling Egyptian stuff was not ordinarily laid down in the school arena. Usually the yellow clay was flooring enough for our lessons. I began then to suspect.
The first leopard padded from its cage. It sniffed the morning air. It was soon joined by the second, longer, leaner, hissing gently over wet fangs.
Horus never lifted his eyes from them, saying in a whisper so as not to arouse the animals,
“Cassius, we must help each other. They’re man-eaters.”
“Help yourself,” I said. “You’ve never acted so comradely before.”
He cursed in his own tongue. With careful steps he walked to the shadows on the amphitheater’s far side. A cloud skated across the sun. Above the stands rose the jumble of golden houses on the Palatine where the Emperor lived out his days. Over the walls drifted the shrilling of fruit hawkers in the arches beneath the Circus Maximus. A chill seized me even though the hot sun of Latium warmed all my body. In the manner of a student, I was naked except for a codpiece.
The leopards sniffed the wind. A hush gripped the stands. I picked out faces from my eye’s
corner: Fabius, staring into space as though overcome with guilt; the foxy new student Syrax with the gold hoop in his ear; the thick-nosed and powerful Xenophon. Well, none of them would mourn my death. I had no friends among the slaves and the criminals and the auctorati who were pupils here.
A few nobles were present too, including a Sicilian with a long jaw who wore the toga of an eques, or knight. Beside him sat a Praetorian in glittering armor. This pair seemed to enjoy the spectacle of two victims waiting in the muggy Tiber breeze for the leopards to cease their padding back and forth, their hissing and purring, and rip us.
The whip was almost useless. I thought of my father’s trick. Would it help me? I had never tried it before. The Sicilian in the stands called; “Stay alive, there, Horus, and we’ll recommend you to the Emperor!”
“Don’t forget we’ve placed side bets,” added the Praetorian. “I’d hate to lose my sesterces because Fabius trained you poorly.”
“A little action, a little action!” The Sicilian pounded his knee.
From somewhere the soldier produced a pebble and flung it at the nearer leopard. Stung on the flank, the beast uncoiled and leaped, flying across the sun with its claws after my throat.
I cracked the whip as I’d been taught, striking the leopard in the snout. Twisting and spitting in mid-air, the beast came down with claws raking my shoulder. One of the lead-tipped thongs wound around its foreleg.
I tried to free the lash with savage jerks. The leopard snapped. I tore the whip loose, retreated three paces and sucked air. The leopard crouched again, not yet fully provoked.
In the year and a half I had been bound to the Bestiarii School I had never faced a man-eater.
Now I understood why old hands like Xenophon said they must be trained to strike a human being, and why, once trained, a lioness was soft and kittenish compared to them. Tame leopards I had killed in plenty at small circuses in outlying districts, but never one that had been coached to savor human blood by devouring crippled slaves with chunks of meat tied to their broken arms and legs. I knew the reason for the special sand, too. The animals had been taught that when there was sand underfoot, they were expected to claim a life.
Fabius had said nothing of this. He was offering Horus and me as dumb sacrifices, for what reason I didn’t know. I waited for the first leopard’s next lunge, watching the second one, too. I was standing in full sunlight, my scent blowing down the wind. Horus was still as a statue in the purple shadow beneath the amphitheater wall.
The first leopard licked his foreleg, turned baleful eyes upward to me and gathered his muscles for the spring. The second hovered close behind. Instantly I knew the Egyptian’s game. Let one leopard, or both, turn on me, and he had the better chance to live. Well, I’d lived only twenty-one years and I had too many more waiting ahead to surrender to such treachery.
The smell of my own sweat was sour. I rubbed the blade of my right hand against my left palm, testing its horniness. Horus grinned, safe in the shadows. I threw away the whip.
Fabius leaped up. “Cassius, have you lost your wits? Pick it up before —”
Both leopards sprang at once.
Too eager, the first jumped wide of the mark and skidded around on the sand. The second struck my chest. Its stinking weight carried me down with a crash. Great yellow eyes loomed and my cheeks ran with the slime of its fangs. I dug my fingers into the neck to hold off the powerful jaws an instant longer. The bloodied claw marks on my left shoulder maddened the beast even more. Behind me I heard the second leopard growl. Rolling under the cat’s weight, I thrust my right hand between its fore and back legs and cracked hard across its loins.