From Rome's palaces and villas
Gaily issued forth a throng;
From her humbler habitations
Moved a human tide along.
Haughty dames and blooming maidens,
Men who knew not mercy's sway,
Thronged into the Coliseum
On that Roman holiday.
From the lonely wilds of Asia,
From her jungles far away,
From the distant torrid regions,
Rome had gathered beasts of prey.
Lions restless, roaring, rampant,
Tigers with their stealthy tread,
Leopards bright, and fierce, and fiery,
Met in conflict wild and dread.
Fierce and fearful was the carnage
Of the maddened beasts of prey,
As they fought and rent each other
Urged by men more fierce than they.
Till like muffled thunders breaking
On a vast and distant shore,
Fainter grew the yells of tigers,
And the lions' dreadful roar.
On the crimson-stained arena
Lay the victims of the fight;
Eyes which once had glared with anguish,
Lost in death their baleful light.
Then uprose the gladiators
Armed for conflict unto death,
Waiting for the prefect's signal,
Cold and stern with bated breath.
"Ave Caesar, morituri,
Te, salutant," rose the cry
From the lips of men ill-fated,
Doomed to suffer and to die.
Then began the dreadful contest,
Lives like chaff were thrown away,
Rome with all her pride and power
Butchered for a holiday.
Eagerly the crowd were waiting,
Loud the clashing sabres rang;
When between the gladiators
All unarmed a hermit sprang.
"Cease your bloodshed," cried the hermit,
"On this carnage place your ban;"
But with flashing swords they answered,
"Back unto your place, old man."
From their path the gladiators
Thrust the strange intruder back,
Who between their hosts advancing
Calmly parried their attack.
All undaunted by their weapons,
Stood the old heroic man;
While a maddened cry of anger
Through the vast assembly ran.
"Down with him," cried out the people,
As with thumbs unbent they glared,
Till the prefect gave the signal
That his life should not be spared.
Men grew wild with wrathful passion,
When his fearless words were said
Cruelly they fiercely showered
Stones on his devoted head.
Bruised and bleeding fell the hermit,
Victor in that hour of strife;
Gaining in his death a triumph
That he could not win in life.
Had he uttered on the forum
Struggling thoughts within him born,
Men had jeered his words as madness,
But his deed they could not scorn.
Not in vain had been his courage,
Nor for naught his daring deed;
From his grave his mangled body
Did for wretched captives plead.
From that hour Rome, grown more thoughtful,
Ceased her sport in human gore;
And into her Coliseum
Gladiators came no more.
More verses by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
- Sir, We Would See Jesus
- Moses: A Story Of The Nile (Extract)
- The Dying Bondman
- The Building
- The Dying Queen