Light at the end of the arched tunnel. Blood on the stone wall. Rust on the cell’s bars. The glance of a gladiator sitting in his cell. The soldier’s sandals stepping in front of her. Amora grasped every detail as her world moved in slow motion, drawing her closer to her fate. The stench of death permeated the suffocating darkness, making a mockery of the heightened vitality within her. Time began to transition to match the sound of the soldier’s steps. Her chains rattled, gears ground, animals roared, and people cheered. She gave them no heed.
Amora, in an elegant white gown, moved with natural grace in front of a cell of prisoners. Her sixteen-year-old chained slave, Maria, followed behind wearing a simple tunic; a second soldier brought up the rear. One of the prisoners, an old man, stood up and walked to the cell’s gate. He grabbed the bars and looked intently at Amora and Maria as they walked by. Amora maintained her focus on the light ahead. Maria glanced over and offered him a hint of a smile. He nodded.
Amora stepped out of the dark tunnel into the entrance corridor between the raised seating on both sides. The blinding light and ruthless roar of the crowd welcomed her. She ignored the garbage thrown by the heckling horde above. A ripe tomato hit Amora and splattered. Unfazed, she continued. An apple core bounced off Maria. She looked up toward the spectator who threw it and spotted Antonio among the mob, waving his arms and calling down to her.
“Antonio!” she yelled as she slowed down and tried to raise her chained hands to motion to him. The soldier behind Maria shoved her, nearly knocking her over. Enraged, Antonio tried to jump into the passageway but was restrained on the edge of the Colosseum by two soldiers.
“Oh God! Help him,” Maria prayed.
The guards marched the prisoners to the front of the raised imperial box above the arena. Amora looked up at Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Various officials accompanied him while several soldiers stood guard. Amora stood erect in front of Caesar, awaiting her fate, unafraid, while Maria glanced around at the jeering crowd. Marcus gazed at Amora staring at him and turned aside. He rose to the roar of the crowd and raised both hands high to acknowledge their adulation.
The soldiers unchained their prisoners and exited the arena. Amora noticed her husband, Leo, sitting close by the imperial box. Tears welled up in her eyes as they met his gaze. She sensed Leo’s loneliness and desired to share the peace, vitality, and freedom she had discovered in her Lord. She offered Leo a quivering smile as tears streamed down her cheeks. Leo’s stone face melted as he watched Amora enunciating her words clearly so that he could read her lips.
“I love you,” she said.
Tears began to form involuntarily in Leo’s eyes. As they flowed down his cheeks, they began to dissolve the icy walls of his heart’s prison, allowing emotions to invade his private world. His eyes darted from side to side as he struggled to make sense of the renaissance of long-forgotten feelings and the scene in front of him.
After basking in his subjects’ praise, Caesar motioned to the crowd for silence. Once the thunder of the horde subsided, he stretched out his arm with his thumb sideways. The mob began to chant, “Death. Death. Death.”
The gravity of Leo’s actions pressed heavily upon his conscience. He grimaced, slightly shook his head, and jumped up, determined to gain Caesar’s attention. Waving his arms wildly, he yelled, “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!”
Leo caught the emperor’s eye.
“For the sake of Jupiter, Caesar, show her mercy!” Leo bellowed.
Marcus stared at his friend for a few moments, analyzing his options before he again surveyed the crowd, which was chanting “Death” more loudly. Caesar glanced over at Senator Quintus and Prefect Rusticus, who were sitting next to him, and then back at Leo pleading for mercy. Marcus turned to face the crowd beyond his outstretched arm, waiting, as a hush began to fall over the Colosseum. All eyes were glued to Caesar.
EIGHTEEN YEARS EARLIER
The large atrium of Amora’s parents’ ornate villa was decorated with flowers and tapestries for the wedding ceremony. The atrium opened to a manicured courtyard garden containing a flowing fountain and marble statues surrounded by porticos.
Leo stood erect on the right side of the altar at the end of the atrium across from Amora’s parents, Amado and Livia. A sudden hush fell over the throng as the Salii priest and the matron of honor stepped in front of the altar. Leo was pleased that he had ascended so far that he was able to marry into such an influential family. He was proud that his strategy to wait and not settle for a less prestigious alliance earlier in his career was now paying off. Most of his peers had sought to benefit from the connections created through marriage when they were in their early twenties, but Leo was glad he had chosen the long game, giving himself time to prove his competence and build influential friendships so he could marry at the highest level of society.
The assembly turned to watch the arched doorways on either side of the foyer. Everyone stared in anticipatory silence when two bridesmaids burst the tension as they simultaneously entered the hall through the two facing doors, followed by a stream of bridesmaids entering from each side. The bridesmaids formed two rows facing one another with a walkway between them leading to the main entrance. The company, transfixed, waited while the intensity of their vigilance grew.
Suddenly the front double doors flew open, flooding the vestibulum with sunlight. Several of the guests caught their breath at the sight of Amora radiating this celestial light as it shone through her traditional bright-orange veil, which flowed over her white tunic. The flower garland that crowned her head proclaimed her royalty. Amora’s bright veil parted at her forehead to reveal a glimpse of her fine features and her dark reddish-brown hair arranged in the tutulus style with tendrils framing her exquisite face. Amora beamed. She shone like the sun breaching the crimson dawn of a new day as she approached the commencement of marital life. Leo smiled approvingly. “How beautiful! And what staging,” he thought.
The assembly parted, opening an aisle to the altar as Amora floated gracefully between the bridesmaids, who fell in line two by two behind her. Amora paused a few feet from the altar, glanced over at Leo and grinned. Turning toward her parents, she removed the bulla from around her neck and handed her childhood locket to her father. Tears formed in Amado’s eyes as he looked at his daughter’s glowing face. He grasped her hands, pressing them tightly. Amora smiled reassuringly, her eyes reflecting confidence in her future. He reluctantly released her. Amora turned to face Leo and smiled. He could not have been more pleased. He was more confident than ever that this marriage would provide him with more than just a powerful strategic alliance. His wife was already making him look good. “Yes, I can go far with this young woman as my wife,” he said to himself. “I am glad I was wise enough to choose her.”
The matron of honor stepped between the couple. She took each of their hands, joined them together in front of her, raised them high for the crowd to see, and then retreated. Amora grinned again as she faced Leo and declared the bride’s traditional wedding vow: “Wherever you go, there will I be.”
Leo parted Amora’s veil and ardently kissed his bride while the crowd hooted and hollered their approval. Still holding hands, they turned to face the altar and knelt in front of the priest, who raised a small loaf of bread high above his head.
“I offer this cake to the great god Jupiter so that he will bless those who partake of it with strength and fertility.”
The priest dutifully broke the loaf in half, placed one portion on the altar, and offered the rest to Amora, who broke off a piece and delicately fed it to Leo. Leo tenderly repeated the ritual. Once the morsel was in her mouth, Amora grabbed the rest of the loaf from Leo and jumped up. She proceeded to break off pieces of the bread and throw them into the crowd as she twirled and laughed. The guests cheered. The bridesmaids and other women leaped and scrambled for the pieces of broken bread as Leo rose and embraced his bride. Leo adored her vivaciousness.
“Come, everyone!” Amado shouted out with joy, inviting his guests to join him in the peristyle for the wedding banquet. “We have a great feast planned for you. Come!”
Leo could tell Amora was thrilled that her father had spared no expense for her wedding feast. It truly was a banquet fit for a princess, but she relished even more all the attention she received. Her father allowed her and her mother to sit at the head table in the triclinium, which was traditionally reserved for the host, the groom, and the most important male guests. These notable figures of society seemed to enjoy vying for her attention, and she loved it. She didn’t even object when they tried to see who would be the first one to make her blush.
It all started innocently enough when a slave brought a stuffed peacock on a platter adorned with its vibrant feathers, and Marcus Aurelius mentioned how pretty the bird looked. Leo then said it seemed a shame to eat such a beautiful creature, but he would venture. Senator Quintus immediately chimed in that Amora was even more beautiful as he glanced over at Leo and winked, drawing chuckles from the men. Noting that Amora smiled, the men then began a series of crude jokes that climaxed when a slave brought a roasted sow’s udder stuffed with cheese and sausage to the table. Amora seemed to enjoy the vulgar wit of their guests, possibly because it made her feel more grown up. Leo sensed that she was excited to enter the adult world and run her own household. He was sure she looked forward to participating in the adult activities of theater, dinner parties, and other social gatherings where she would be admired as a beautiful sophisticated woman instead of a precocious child. Yes, she was ready to represent him well and share with him the full benefits of privilege that she was born to enjoy. Leo was pleasantly surprised at how much he actually enjoyed Amora’s company and looked forward to sharing all these events with her. He had never counted on this political alliance being so personally satisfying.
Leo glanced over at their guests, who were reclined on couches surrounding low tables set on the peristyle’s broad porticos. They gorged themselves on the endless stream of exotic foods and especially seemed to enjoy the dormice sautéed in a sauce of figs, nuts, and honey, a delicacy that was technically forbidden, which may have enhanced its appeal. Slaves attended to the guests’ every need, bringing food, drink, basins of water, towels, and even an occasional song when requested.
A continual stream of beautiful dancers, musicians, acrobats, and contortionists performed for the crowd’s admiration in the center of the courtyard by the fountain and then flowed around the peristyle, entertaining guests at their individual tables as new entertainers took their place on center stage. Amora leaned over to Leo and observed that she had never seen such adroit acrobats before, then jumped with a start when a large black leopard raced past them and leaped up on top of the fountain in the center of the peristyle’s manicured garden. The guests were thrilled as the beast obediently responded to its trainer’s every command.
Suddenly, without warning, the ferocious beast stopped, turned, and glared at the wedding party sitting in the triclinium halfway down the side of the peristyle. The frozen assembly gasped and watched breathlessly as the fierce hunter moved stealthily stalking its prey―its body, low to the ground, its tail outstretched and twitching near the tip. The beast slowly placed one paw in front of the other, approaching the hosts. Amora’s heart raced as her mother scrambled behind Amado. The cat sprang, Amora’s heart stopped and the crowd screamed as the creature landed in front of Amora, where it laid down and rolled over on its back. Amora sighed in relief, reached down and rubbed the feline’s belly. The assembly broke into laughter and cheered as the cat’s trainer took a bow. Leo smiled proudly at Amora and nodded in adoration.
The visitors relished these demonstrations of man’s dominion over nature, whether they displayed human talent or control over the ferocity of wild beasts. Even the symmetry of the peristyle, with its garden and art pieces, reflected their aspiration for order and control over the environment. Man’s rational mind was the source of civilization and was its highest achievement as well. The elite especially delighted in witnessing evidence of human superiority, with its implication of their own enhanced, elevated status in the world.
People were enjoying the wedding banquet so much that they hardly noticed when the sun set, and the lamps and chandeliers were lit. Leo saw Amora scanning the gathering. Even though the sumptuous feast showed no signs of tapering off, the novelty of the entertainment had begun to wane as the company settled into the routine of an ordinary dinner party. The bones and scraps that littered the floor around each table were piling up, and some guests were exiting to relieve themselves or vomit to make room for more sumptuous cuisine. Amora rose and began to circulate among her guests. She was the perfect hostess, knowing instinctively that the festivities needed an injection of zest to liven up the evening. Her timing was impeccable. Each group she visited came alive with laughter. Leo could not have been more pleased. His new wife was the life of her own party.
The festivities illuminated Amado’s estate as darkness enveloped the countryside. Even though the stuffed revelers had abandoned their tables, they still filled the air with boisterous chatter as they congregated in small groups and continued to consume the ever-present wine offered by the slaves circulating among the guests. The intoxicating conversation and drink seemed to insulate them from the bite of the crisp night air, except for a few older women sitting in the corner with their shawls wrapped tightly around them as they quietly shared juicy gossip.
Leo and Marcus stood conversing with Gaius, Titus, and Quintus when Rusticus, Marcus’s philosophy tutor, approached and introduced Crescens to the group.
“Marcus, I’d like to introduce you to Crescens. He’s a young man studying philosophy.”
“Excellent. What school of thought appeals to you?” Marcus asked.
“I’m more of a hedonistic skeptic,” he answered. “I don’t believe anyone can prove that metaphysical ideas are true.”
“No. They are too abstract,” he said as he lifted a cup of wine. “I believe Dionysus is right. This is real. Drink and enjoy life. That’s what it’s all about.”
“Well, Rusticus.” Marcus laughed. “I see that you may have an even harder time turning him into a Stoic than you did me.”
Amado approached and politely said, “Leo, it is about time for the procession to leave.” Turning to Marcus, Amado said, “Caesar, I was hoping that you would say a few words.”
Marcus smiled, glanced at the young philosophy student, and said, “Well, Crescens, it’s time for you to grab some walnuts.”
The guests were gathering around Leo, Amora, and her mother near the atrium as Marcus and Amado approached the newlyweds.
“I understand that the newlyweds are anxious to leave,” Marcus declared loudly. “I certainly can understand Leo’s eagerness, considering how long he has waited for this night. When I first met this surly old warrior, I joked that he had more wounds from unrequited love than battle scars,” he continued to the laughter of the crowd. “But now I see the wisdom of age has its benefits. Leo has waited to marry the most beautiful, gracious, and charming young woman I have ever met.” The throng nodded in agreement. Marcus raised his cup and proclaimed, “We all wish this new couple a long life of love and happiness.” The guests cheered their approval of this benediction. Leo was pleased to realize that his feelings for Amora rivaled the temporal benefits this planned marriage offered him.
Silence fell over the congregation as the crowd spread out around the newlywed couple and the bride’s parents. On cue, in an unspoken tradition, Amora stepped close to her mother, who embraced her daughter in a pretended protective grip. Leo approached and extended his hand, inviting Amora to join him. Amora’s mother retreated with her daughter in a staged ritualistic show of protection. Leo advanced, grabbed Amora’s hand, and in a pretended show of force, ripped Amora from her mother’s arms. Amora embraced Leo as they spun around laughing and ran and skipped to the villa’s entrance underneath a shower of walnuts. The guests followed closely in a light-hearted procession with flutes playing and people singing, laughing, and dancing. Leo could not recall a time he was happier as he led Amora away, holding her hand.
Mr. Hallstrom is the author of the book, Emotional Black Holes, and several articles regarding the application of theology in one’s personal life.
He is also the founder and managing partner of the full-service business law firm, Hallstrom Klein & Ward LLP, located in Irvine, California. He is married to his sweetheart, Jean, and they have six children and eleven grandchildren.