What a poor excuse for a gymnasium. An open square surrounded by naked walls scrawled with curses; sweaty rags and a pitiful punching bags had been carelessly laid around. She did not mind the poor conditions of the building; being in the periphery of the Urbe, it had the real estate to develop an impressive palaestra. Piles of rock and wooden beams supported temporary hallways that protected spectators from the elements and created private training spaces. It was not impressive, but it was a safe space where the young and poor could mingle and study, improving themselves and recover from the savagery of the world.
She still could not call Rome her home; yet, she was happy to call these her hunting grounds.
Lidia pushed the gates of the gymnasium, approaching the center of the palaestra. Her golden hair was covered by a wig and a kerchief, her light exercise tunic revealing muscles that were usually disguised by padding, olive oil shining over her artificially bronzed skin. She saluted the youths in the central halls, busy with their training and reading material - but most just goofing around. Her fellow athletes waved at her, Lidia advancing to meet them. Happy, she rose her hands high, clapping as she described a wide circle, kicking into the air a cloud of dust and dead leaves.
She had their full attention.
“What day is today?”
“Bellum! Challenge! Challenge!” The younger members started to howl.
Lidia lowered a hand to her ear, as if she had not heard the crowd.
“I do not hear anything. What day is today?”
“Challenge! Challenge! Bellum!”
Two servants entered the field, carrying a black tablet between them. They told Lidia the name at the top: Kleitomachos. Accepting a piece of chalk, she lifted the tablet towards the sky.
“What happened to Acastus?”
Lidia scratched a mark in the tablet.
“Myron of Siracusa? Kurodon the Cynic?”
Another two marks.
“What about Kleitomachos?”
The public started to boo, increasing in intensity as Lidia repeated the question, over and over.
“Where is the prodigy of Hellas? Where is the master of a hundred modalities? The Greatest of the Olympians?”
A cascade of insults.
“Who is your champion?”
“Who represents you?”
“Who Kleitomachos refuses to face, week after week?”
“Lidia! Lidia! LIDIA!”
The pugilist threw the tablet to the ground.
“It seems he is not just afraid of sex and copulating dogs. It seems the best of Greece still refuses to meet mu challenge .” Lidia cracked her knuckles. “Anyone here is brave enough to compete for my title?”
A fulminant confrontation followed up, a row of athletes challenging Lidia as spectators gambled and celebrated the sport. Sliding under the uppercut of a pugilist of similar height and skill, Lidia finished the encounter with a circular arc and dropping her momentum with her swinging fist. A new challenger approached, Lidia working her feet and never lowering her guard. Punches connected against his arms like waves against cliffs, his defeat crashing down with a feint and a jab. Another man was introduced to the ground by an arm that bent and leaned in a dangerous hook.
Excitement gave way to boredom, new challengers providing only sweat and humiliation; nothing kills the interest in bets more than a clean string of victories.
As spectators abandoned the palaestra, Lidia asked for a towel and surrendered the field. Two pugilists replaced her at the center, as she drifted to wax her cestus in one corner.
“Salve, Lidia.” She was greeted by a stubby and bald middle-aged man. His large torso, covered in scars, and muscled arms marked him as a classic gladiator. “I see you are just as stubborn now as you were as a kid. Look at these empty halls; if you want to put asses in the seats, you must listen to your seniors.”
“This is no amphitheater and I am not a gladiator, Calpurnius.” Lidia smiled, washing her brow. “What was good for you is unlikely to work for me.”
“Fair.” Calpurnius admitted. “But can you entertain the request of an old man with too much free time? One last affectionate act for someone with one feet in the Underworld?”
Her smile turned into laughter.
“The combat in which Caeso Calpurnius will perish still has to be added to the program, you still have fire within you.” Lidia pointed with her chin towards two empty spots. “But you are right: I should lend my ear to a friend and club-mate.”
“For whom do you fight, Lidia?” Calpurnius enunciated as he sat down. “You very rarely face an opponent that lets you let it all out, so I assume you do not do it only out of respect for your opponent and in name of good sport. For the public? You are doing a miserable job if that is the case; you are so distant, you concentrate so much in the fight that the rest of the world seems to disappear. That makes you brutal, but you forget that you have to sell that fight, share with the audience the impact of each blow.”
Lidia crossed her fingers, thoughtful. The gladiator’s words were not without merit.
“You already know why. I fight because it makes me feel strong and confident, it let’s me communicate to others my skill and determination. I do not want to be seen as a simpleton brute or bully. But for someone like me, radiating strength and competency is the best way to inspire people. Hopefully I will inspire the eloquent and wise to speak for me.”
“Ah! You have been spending too much time in the Palatinate. Strength and competency are the most inspiring traits… ridiculous! One day, you will lose. It might not be due to no fault of your own; you can give it all, but it is simply not your day. And then what? Do you intend to win every single match until you defeat and lose all supporters? You are damn good, but being skilled is not everything. There will be encounters that you cannot win no matter what; there will be times when the price that victory demands is not one that you are willing to pay. Everyone wins, everyone loses, even children know that. Why do you subject such important matters to the whims of Fortuna? If you want to inspire the public, you need to focus in the way that you deal with successes and failures. You have to rely on your supporters, so show them how reliable and constant you are.”
Lidia forced a smile as her mind turned to the battles she had faced during her exile; how often defeat or retreat were not an option. Challenges she failed outside of the palaestra, dooming her friends and their peoples.
“I suppose I do not think much about such things.” She shared a genuine smile. “Or at least, not as much as you do. What am I doing that annoys the very people that I seek to inspire?”
“You do not share the moment. As I mentioned, you’re really bad at pitching the fight. You need to get the audience involved, make them feel your effort as their own, show vulnerability and hesitation. And when someone manages to plant a fist in your face, they will know how much you are struggling, how much it hurts. Convince them that it is your worst moment and yet, you are making your stand and you will not move one step back.”
“This is pugilism, Calpurnius, not the games. It is not even my main job, it is essentially my otium. Exercise and relaxation.” Lidia stretched lazily. “I get to release all the pent-up frustration in a rewarding way.”
The intense stare of the old gladiator made her twist her face in a grimace.
“Gods. You are terribly concerned about me. Is this because of the club? I will pay my share and I will not renegade my responsibilities.”
“You managed to secure your freedom, the last thing I want to see is your raising debts landing you under the mancipatio of someone.”
“You heard about those, hum?” Lidia murmured. “It could not be helped; I had to do so in order to protect someone else’s liberty.”
Her trademark cocky smile.
“You know what? I miss Adara. What do you say we gather the club for a feast, honor and share some happiness with her? There is someone special that I want to introduce to you guys.”
Caeso Calpurnius gave her a friendly slap in the back, jesting as he approved of the idea. He did not notice that he had lost Lidia, the eyes of the woman scrutinizing the heavens.
Catching a glance of a black armor hovering over the city.
“I have to go.” Lidia removed Calpurnius’ hand, forcing her expression stark. “I will not forget your advice, old friend.”