As the theme tune from “Gladiator” filled the arena, I felt the hairs on my arm stand to attention.
I’d come to watch a spectacle. Jerash’s RACE project had both impressive credentials and great reviews. Ticket clutched in sweaty palm, I hurried into the auditorium, eager to secure a good seat. A Roman soldier adjusted his strap under a stubble-pocked chin, bristle-brush helmet conferring stature, scarlet tunic incongruous under masculine armour. An air of anticipation rippled through the crowd.
A small group of legionaries arrived, interrupting excited chatter, and took their place in the sand of the legendary Hippodrome. Though few in number, they were a formidable sight behind their flag bearer.
Known as the Legion VI Ferrata, “the ironclads”, they treated us to an impressive demonstration of battle tactics and formation marching. As they recreated the classic Roman two-sided shield barrier, it was clear how effective this would have been in war. Not a finger or stray hem was visible outside the shield.
The music played, unashamedly tongue in cheek. A diverse band of gladiators entered the arena ready to fight, clad in robes and armed with assorted weapons: net, shield, trident. All were muscle-bound and postured aggressively. Once they might have been slaves or criminals facing the death penalty, but today they had the best job in Jerash.
“Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!”
“We who are about to die salute you!”
Passive spectating wasn’t allowed; thumbs up or thumbs horizontal – we had to vote. The loser kept his life with thumbs up. Caught up in the moment, I voted thumbs horizontal, before realising, embarrassed, that everyone else had pardoned him. Feeling audience pressure, next time I voted thumbs up.
A Roman general tore into the stadium in a horse-drawn chariot. Two others followed, kicking up clouds of dust. Their wheels angled outwards, giving the impression of imminent collapse every time their horses tackled the tight turns. The centre of the track was marked by a fragile wooden fence which didn’t seem at all like it might withstand a misjudged move.
Leaning forward over the barrier, I urged the racers on ever more enthusiastically, reminiscent of ‘My Fair Lady’ though with slightly more ladylike language. I cheered myself hoarse for a bearded driver clad in an emerald tunic, who threw himself into the job with gusto and wasn’t going to let anyone pass under any circumstances. My favourite strode to a clear win after the regulation seven laps. I whooped unashamedly and thought it was a pity I couldn’t have put a bet on.
As the winner received his prize and our respect, it was time to clamber down to the track for some photos. Not allowed to take a chariot for a spin (clearly my reputation for a lack of hand-eye-wheel coordination had preceded me) my hero had been swallowed up within a crowd of well wishers. I had to settle for a picture with the runner up – same beard, same tunic but, alas, a lot less balls.