5. THE FORT OUTSIDE CAPERNAUM
My work was easy. There was little traffic on the road, and I could go a couple of days without business. I took to locking the office when I felt like it, and wandering into town to talk, or to the nearby farms to see how their olive and grape harvests were doing. I normally negotiated a vastly discounted cash payment instead of the produce I was due – I far preferred a few coins in my bag, instead of a warehouse full of oil or wine, let alone spoiling fruit.
Two weeks after I arrived in Capernaum, with my office closed for the Sabbath and no prospect of commercial traffic coming along the road, I wrote my first report. I rolled up the papyrus – no fine parchment for me! – sealed it, impressing the seal of Pilate, not Herod, in the hot wax; tucked it inside my robe; and walked the couple of miles north along the lake to the fort.
The fort was a large rectangular area covering a few acres, surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. It was designed to hold a hundred men comfortably, but only had ten at present. I recognized the gate sentry from our journey, but didn’t know his name. I greeted him, and he saluted me.
“I have a report for the Governor,” I said.
“Leave it with me; the dispatch rider comes through every few days.”
“I haven’t seen one yet.”
“They only go fort to fort, not through the towns; slows them down too much. You’re best dropping things off here.”
I nodded. “Who is the Decurion in charge here?”
“Buteo. Caninus promoted him when we arrived.”
That surprised me. “I’m not surprised,” I said. “He’s a fine man. Where do I find him?”
“He’s been holding ballista practice behind the fort since this morning. They’re still all there. Or else at the lake.”
Even this brief exchange in Latin felt like fresh air, after a couple of weeks of unbroken Aramaic. I set off round the fort, invigorated.
Their ballista was a huge wooden crossbow that you could fire horizontally, or winch up to a 45° angle so that it stood eight feet high, and could send a rock or a javelin a thousand yards. And that’s what they were doing: they’d set up various posts and logs in a line running away from the ballista at hundred yard intervals, and had been spending the morning trying to demolish them. The last one standing was six hundred yards away, and they cranked up their ballista, loaded it with a large metal-tipped bolt, and hit it dead on as I approached.
“Ave, Decurion,” I said.
Buteo grinned at me. “You showed up like a good omen,” he said. “Right, men, collect up the missiles and take the ballista back to the fort, then form up outside the gate.”
The fort’s rear gate was open. The eight men – Bibaculus raised a hand to me – gathered up the equipment and rolled the ballista into the fort, then came back out and locked the gate behind them by letting a bar fall on the inside. They lined up and marched across an open field down to the lake. I don’t exactly march, but I can keep step.
Buteo said slyly, “I was wondering when we’d see you – camp folklore says that the tax collector always shows up when it’s that day of theirs, in town.”
“The Sabbath, you mean. Yes, my office is closed.”
“Camp folklore says the tax collector shows up then, because no cooking is done in town that day, and the food may be better at the fort.”
“I can’t deny it. So, are we going fishing?”
“In full armor?”
“Damn right; all legionaries have to. We’re not doing it for fun. We’re doing it in case we need to in battle, have to cross a river or something.”
We came to the beach and I stopped, but he kept going with his men, only turning his head to ask “Not coming in?”
It was amazing. They just marched into the lake, in sandals, tunics, that 30 pound chain mail, their metal helmets, and with their swords in the scabbards on their belts. I imagined them marching across the bottom of the lake for ten miles, but as the water came up to their faces they started to swim, some like dogs, some trying to part the water in front of them, but all clearly out of their depth. Buteo led them slowly out a further twenty or thirty yards, then he turned around and they all struggled back. And a struggle it was, especially for the younger men who didn’t look as practiced; I wasn’t sure they were all going to make it, and they themselves looked relieved as they collapsed panting and laughing on the rocks.
“OK, men: form up! When you return to camp, change, put your wet clothes to dry, dry your armor and gear and put it on again, there’ll be an inspection before we eat. Tax Collector Matthew Levi will be our guest. Dismiss!”
We walked back up to the fort, and I chatted with the gate sentry while the others were changing. The sentry’s name was Rufus, and he had the reddish hair that his name suggested. I found out he was from Italy, and asked him what it was like being stationed in Palestine, and then posted out to Galilee.
He was a real talker: “Gods, how I hate this place! You just don’t know what you’re getting into, when you sign up. It seems like a good idea, and the girls think it’s brave and romantic. Before you know it, everyone has heard you’re going into the army, and you can’t back out without looking like a coward and a fool. I signed up to protect Rome, of course; and to see a bit of the world, the mountains, the forests, the elephants and giraffes and things they bring for the fights in the amphitheatres; and what do I get? The stupidest, dirtiest, most argumentative corner of the whole Empire….”
Buteo, Bibaculus and the others came over with bread, cheese, sausage and some thin wine, and we all sat in the shade of the walls and ate. There was always at least one person on duty at the gate, but Buteo allowed it to be informal a lot of the time – they rarely saw any local people here except for a couple of farmers who were prepared to sell to the Romans, and a couple of girls who came to the fort as surreptitiously as they could; but none of them would be coming on the Sabbath, anyway.
“Whining about Palestine again, Rufus?” Buteo asked.
Bibaculus chimed in immediately: “Hot, dusty little…”
“Shit-smelling,” Buteo carried it on.
“What did they tell us?”
“As if these Jewish assholes could ever agree on anything.”
“Let alone attack anyone.”
“What were we promised?”
“Crock of shit!”
“We never should have come here in the first place.”
“All I can say is,”
and they spoke the chorus together “Somebody in Rome’s getting rich off this!”
“Drink!” said Buteo.
“Your health!” said Bibaculus.
We all laughed, except Rufus. I decided to bring him back into the group. “None of these points are wrong,” I said, being older and wiser. “Yes, you were misled; yes, it’s a dirty, ungrateful place; yes, someone in Rome’s getting rich; and, yes, it’s essential for the defense of the Empire.”
“That’s bullshit,” said one of the others. “Palestine’s no threat to anyone.”
“No, but it’s strategically important. If you want to hold off the Persians, you have to have a couple of legions in Syria. If you want to safeguard Rome’s wheat supply, you have to control Egypt. So you need to shut down piracy in the Mediterranean, which means controlling the whole coast. And if you want to be able to buy pepper and spices from India, you have to have a port on the Red Sea. For any one of these reasons, you ought to control Palestine. Add them all together, it’s inescapable.”
“You sound like you’ve traveled a lot.”
“A certain amount,” I agreed, wondering what deep philosophical question might come next.
“Have you seen the new uniforms we’ve been hearing about? Are they any good?”
I told them that I thought that replacing the chain mail tunic with the half-dozen overlapping bands of metal across the chest seemed to give better protection, looked very smart, and was popular with those who were using it. The new iron helmets also seemed an improvement over the bronze ones in design as well as strength, and the leather cap inside was pretty well unchanged.
“They’re making the damn javelin heavier, too,” Rufus complained.
“Because the extra weight at the top of the shaft improves penetration,” Buteo said. “But they’re shortening and lightening the swords, which is a plus in its own right. Overall, we won’t be carrying any extra weight.”
“Besides,” I added, “the changeover is focused on Germany, because that’s where the fighting is. From what I hear, there’s no big hurry to bring the new gear in here.”
“Good, because if they issue us with new gear they’ll make us pay for it all. What am I supposed to do with the old stuff? Sell it to the ragheads?”
“No, but they’ll probably find a way for you to sell it to the local auxiliaries. You know the legionaries always have better stuff than anyone else.” Grudgingly, even Rufus acknowledged that things weren’t too bad.
We finished eating; the scraps got fed to the couple of pigs they kept penned up. It was mid afternoon, and I prepared to return to town.
“Volunteering to accompany the tax collector to his office, sir,” Bibaculus saluted Buteo.
“Volunteering, sir,” Rufus added.
“Who’s on duty now?”
“I am, sir,” said another of the legionaries who had already installed himself at the gate.
“OK, men. No fighting.” Whether with the locals or with each other was left unclarified. I thanked Buteo for his hospitality, and we set off.
Like I say, I don’t march, but I can keep step; and when you’re walking a couple of miles with a pair of legionaries, it’s virtually impossible not to be in step with them. And on top of it they’re full of the idea of going into town, and the Sabbath will be ending at sunset, and they’ve got an idea of where they’ll find a house that will be open to them, with some wine and a pretty girl, and the two of them start singing of the hardships of army life and the joys of farming, and
“The mothers are wide and deep,
The daughters are narrow and shallow;
And if you want to have crops to reap
You can’t leave the furrows fallow.”
We stopped at my Customs Office; I asked them if they knew enough Aramaic to communicate in town, as I doubted anyone spoke either Latin or Greek.
“ Oh, you don’t need much to get by,” Bibaculus said. “I learned it all in Caesarea. You want to hear? ‘Hello. Drink. How much. No. Yes. Ficky-fick. Thank you. Goodbye!’ What else would I need?” He laughed, and they went on into town.
I decided I should stay in the office and prepare a report for Herod as well, to justify my existence. If I complained about the lack of commercial traffic (which was true) and asked for an advance, I might be able to set low expectations of the taxes I could generate here, and make life more pleasant for myself.
Besides, I didn’t want to be associated with Romans; let them go into town on their own. There wouldn’t be a hot meal waiting for me this afternoon anyway. And I’d eaten a good late lunch.
I settled in to think about what to put into my report to Herod, and how much revenue to show in the accounts. And then I put my head down on my arms on the desk to have a little nap.
When I woke up it was completely dark, and for a few seconds I had that strange sensation when you don’t know who or what you are, let alone where. I kept still, waiting for the slow understanding that I was a person, then that I was Matthew, then that I was not in my bedroom, finally that I had been sleeping at my desk in the Customs Office. But I hate that feeling. Is that what it’s like when you die, and you’re not attached to a body? Do you just become something that doesn’t know what it is? Is that what a ghost is? But no, this sensation was more of being just the body, not inhabited by the ghost. But then what is it that is aware that it doesn’t know what it is?
The world is strange. My creed is ‘Nescio, et tu quoque: I don’t know, and neither do you.’
I sat with my head still on my arms for another minute while I listened to the silent office. Nothing. No one. It was hard even to make out the shape of the door, although I knew where it was. I liked the absoluteness of the night, and didn’t want to disturb it.
Silently, I got up from my chair. I walked to the door, pushed it open a few inches: nothing creaked. There was a little more light outside, but not much; the moon, in its last quarter, wasn’t up yet, and the road into town was starlit. It wasn’t too late, because the faint light of tiny pottery oil lamps still lit up two or three windows of the houses a hundred yards away. I breathed the cool air.
A figure came along the street from the center of town, walking unsteadily, helmeted; one of the legionaries, drunk. I decided to wait and see which one it was. He paused, swaying in the middle of the road as he reached the last house.
Suddenly a shadow came out of the shadows behind him, silently and immediately attached itself to him and he fell forward. It was over before I registered what was happening.
The shadow raised its foot and wiped its knife against the edge of its sandal without looking at it, the head turning left and right instead, as if glancing about from habit. Then it hid its curved blade in its robes and returned to the shadows.
I cursed myself for not having gone out to greet the legionary – it would likely have prevented the attack. But there was nothing to do now. I stayed right where I was. I’m no coward, but I’m no idiot either. I would wait half an hour before even pulling the door closed. I could bar it on the inside, and sleep on the floor.
I didn’t want the fort sending for reinforcements, and then storming in for a reprisal and killing some locals – because when the locals retaliated in turn, I would be a prime target. I would have to find a way to deflect the Romans.
I hoped that it wasn’t Bibaculus who had been killed. But I didn’t intend to find out at that moment. I closed the door again, and sat half awake in my chair all night.