High Noon

Part II of III of "Lidia's Day" 

It was a poor excuse for a gymnasium, a square of breaks loose walls was covered in scrawling and curses and hid sweat, rags and a shameful collection of punching bags. She did not mind the poor conditions of the building; being in the periphery of the Urbe, it had the opportunity to grow into an impressive palaestra. Piles of rock and wooden beams supported temporary hallways that protected spectators from the elements and created private training spaces. In this safe site, the youth and the less well-off could mingle and study, improving themselves in order to face the savagery of the world.

Rome might not be her house, but these were her hunting grounds.

Lidia pushed the gates of the gymnasium, approaching the center of the palaestra. Her golden hair was covered by the combined effort of a wig and a kerchief, her light exercise tunic revealing muscles that were normally kept very discreet, olive oil shining over her deceptively darker skin. Saluting the youths in the central halls, busy with their training or reading material, and waving at her fellow athletes, Lidia advanced forward. Happy, she rose her hands high and started clapping as she described a wide circle, kicking into the air a cloud of dust and dead leaves.

She had quickly ensnared the attention of those present.

“What day is today?”

Bellum! Challenge! Challenge!” The younger members started to howl.

Lidia lowered a hand to her ear, as if she had been unable to properly listen.

“I do not hear anything. What day is today?”

“Challenge! Challenge! Bellum!”

Two servants appeared, carrying a board between them. They told Lidia that at the top it was written the name of Kleitomachos and she believed. Accepting a piece of chalk, she lifted the tablet towards the sky.

“What happened to Acastus?”

“Defeated!”

Lidia scratched a mark in the tablet.

“Myron of Siracusa? Kurodon the Cynic?”

“Defeated! Defeated!”

Another two marks.

“What about Kleitomachos?”

The public started to boo him, increasing in intensity as Lidia kept repeating the question.

“Where is the prodigy of Hellas? Where is the master of a hundred modalities?

A cascade of insults.

“Who is your champion?”

“Lidia! Lidia!”

“Who represents you?”

“Lidia! Lidia!”

“Who it is that Kleitomachos refuses to face, week after week?”

“Lidia! Lidia! LIDIA!”

The pugilist threw the tablet into the ground.

“It seems he fears more than just copulating dogs. Since the best that Greece has to offer is not willing to accept my invitation to a duel.” Lidia cracked her knuckles. “Is someone here willing to compete for my title?”

A fulminant confrontation followed up, a row of athletes challenging Lidia as spectators gambled and celebrated the simple pleasures of the sport. Sliding under the uppercut of a rare pugilist that was able to compete with her eye-to-eye, Lidia finished the encounter by describing a circular arc and putting of her momentum in her swinging fist. A new challenger approached, Lidia working her foot work and never lowering her guard. Punches connected against his arms like waves against cliffs, defeat falling down with a single jab. The next one was quickly presented to the ground by an arm that bent and leaned in a dangerous hook. Soon excitement gave way to boredom, each new challenger failing in providing more than sweat and humiliation; nothing kills in the interest in bets than a string of victories.

As more and more spectators abandoned the palaestra, Lidia resigned herself and asked for the towel. Two pugilists replaced her at the center, the gasping woman drifting towards a corner to wax her cestus.

“Salve, Lidia.” She was greeted by a stubby and bald middle-aged man, his large torso covered in scars and muscled arms betraying the constitution and craft of a classic gladiator. “I see you continue to be just stubborn. Look at these empty halls; if you want to put asses in the seats, you must accept the advice that I can offer you.”

“This is no amphitheater and I am not a gladiator, Calpurnius.” Lidia smiled as she washed her brow. “What was good for you probably does not apply to me.”

“Fair.” Calpurnius admitted. “But is that hard for you to entertain the request of an old man with too much free time? Think that you are offering one last grace to someone half-past-dead with one feet in the Underworld.”

Smiled turned into laughter.

“The fight where Caeso Calpurnius will fall has still not been scheduled, you still have much fire inside you.” Lidia pointed with her chin towards two empty places. “You are right, it takes no effort to lend my ear to a friend of the club.”

“For whom do you fight, Lidia?” Was the rethoric question enunciated by Calpurnius as he sat down. “It is a rare event for you to face an opponent that forces you to give it all, so surely you do not do it for respect for your opponent and in name of good sport. For the public? Then you are doing a miserable job, so distant and so concentrate in the fight that you do not worry in selling your fight and sharing with the audience the impact of each blow.”

Lidia crossed her fingers, thoughtful. The gladiator’s words were not without worth, despise it not being immediately apparent what she could distill from this conversation.

“You know why I fight. I do it to feel strong and to communicate to the others my confidence in my skills. I do not want to be seen as something as low as a simpleton brute, however, radiating strength and competency is the best way to inspire the populace.”

Calpurnius chuckled.

“Ah! Clearly you have been spending too much time in the Palatinate, that sounds like talk from boring people thinking about their next step in the Race of Honours. Strength and competency are the most inspiring things… ridiculous! One day, you will lose. Might not be due to no fault of your own, you can give it all, but it is simple not your day. And then what? Do you intend to win every single match until you have your first and last defeat? You are good, but being good is not enough and there will be encounters that you cannot win no matter what, or are you not willing to pay the price that victory demands. Everyone wins, everyone loses, even a child knows that. Why do you place so much emphasis in something that is irrelevant and subject to the whims of Fortuna? If you want to inspire the public, you need to focus in the way that you lead with success and failure.

Lidia forced a neutral smile as her mind turned to the battles she faced in which defeat or running away were not an option. Challenges she had failed outside of the palaestra.

“I suppose I do not think much about those factors when my life is not in the line.” She shared a genuine smile. “Or at least, not as much as you put yours. What am I doing so wrong that might inspire the wrong emotion?”

“You do not share the moment, as I told you before, you’re awful selling the action. You need to get the audience involved, make them feel your effort as their own, show vulnerability and hesitation. And if one day someone manages to plant a fist in your face, you must show how much you are struggling to keep fighting on, how much it hurts. Convincing them that yes, it is your worst moment but making your stance crystal clear, that you will not move one step back.

“This is pugilism, Calpurnius. Not to mention this is not even my main job, it is essentially a focus for my otium. Exercise, and when I finally allow myself to relax.” Lidia stretched herself, lazily. “Release all the pent-up frustration in a way that rewards me for doing so.”

The intense stare of the old gladiator made her twist her face in a grimace.

“Gods. You are really concerned about me. Is this because of the club? I pay my share and I will not renegade my responsibilities in the future.”

“You finally managed to secure your freedom, the last thing I want to see is your debts leading to you being under the mancipatio of someone.”

“You heard about that, hum?” Lídia murmured. “It could not be helped, I had to do so in order to protect someone else’s liberty.”

Cocky smile.

“You know what? I miss Adara. What do you say about us gathering the club for a feast, honoring and sharing some happiness with her? There is someone special that I have to introduce to you guys.”

Caeso Calpurnius gave her a friendly slap in the back, going on and on with jest and provocations mixed with repeated confirmations that he shared the same desire. Did not even notice that he had lost Lidia, the eyes of the woman scrutinizing the heavens.

Catching a glance of a black armor.

“I have to go.” Lidia removed Calpurnius’ hand, forcing her expression into one of confidence. “I did not forget your advice nor will I forget our plans.”