Two days later I was dropped off to be the Roman tax collector in the very Jewish town of Capernaum, where the nearest Roman fort was a couple of miles north of town, on the road to Syria. Coming down from the hills to a town or village for the first time, I often see the jumble of the white cubic houses as a scattering of dice, and I wonder what my luck will be.
“Talk to the fort before you open your office, Levi. Buteo and Bibaculus will be there until the next rotation. I’ll have them implement a schedule, so that you can always have a legionary on duty when you’re at work.”
“Thank you, Caninus. But I’ll be safer if I keep some distance between the Legion and myself. I need to try something different from the previous office-holder.”
“Ha!” He thought for a moment, but didn’t argue. “Well, this is your game. Just let them know if you change your mind.” And they marched on up the road.
Though I found a lot of things lacking in Capernaum, the town has a lovely setting on Lake Tiberias. The shore is rocky rather than sandy for the most part, with a dozen fishing boats pulled up on the shore or working out on the lake. The shore slopes up to a height of about ten feet with a scattering of bushes and small trees, then drops down again to where the town is built, nicely protected by this barrier from any storms that come up the lake. Behind the town the land rises again into the Galilee landscape of endless high green hills and densely thicketed gullies, which make it so popular with insurgents.
The terrain on both sides of the lake is difficult, and the roads mere tracks used by goats and robbers. Many more people sail the ten miles across the oval lake than try to walk around.
The only decent road is the Via Maris coming in from Syria – it’s called the Sea Road because, of the two ancient highways linking Egypt to Damascus, this one goes along the coast once it hits Caesarea. The other, the King’s Highway, goes south from Damascus as far as Petra, before turning west. Anyway, that’s why my customs office was where it was, where you had to deal with me before you got into town if you were coming from the north.
It was a one-room building with a desk and a bench and a couple of stools, where I was to sit and interrupt people’s journeys and extract a portion of their wealth – in coins, preferably, but otherwise in goods. There was a small warehouse beside it – empty, but intended to hold those goods, not to mention a quarter of all the local harvests, until Herod’s forces should come and cart them off. Across the road, a grove of date palms stood by the edge of a scrubby meadow.
In the town itself was my house, one of the two or three grandest in Capernaum. It had a tile floor, for one thing, rather than a dirt floor packed hard by crowding a flock of sheep into the house overnight. True, the tiles were mismatched, unevenly laid, and broken in places; but tile, nonetheless. The main room even had a large, well-worn carpet. And the walls were made of stone; not well crafted, but most of the lumps and bumps were disguised by plaster, and most of the plaster was intact. This compared with the average house in Capernaum, whose rough wooden walls were made largely weatherproof by packing the gaps with straw and cow dung.
So when I say I had one of the grandest houses in town, I’m not talking about Roman standards of urbanization. I’m talking about forty or fifty peasant buildings without paved streets. Water was carried from the lake. There was no sewer system like Caesarea had; only a couple of latrine pits outside town. Chickens and goats went loose in the streets. My house was grand because it had three rooms.
Moreover, each room had a window with wooden shutters. The side room had a thinly padded couch for sleeping and a wooden chest, while the main room had another couch, a bench, two low tables and a couple of stools. In the back room there was another chest, and a shelf. Behind the house there was a beehive oven for baking, a fire pit for cooking, and various related work areas for rendering bits of nature edible.
It was depressing. True, I’ve lived in much worse conditions in my time, but I’d had the feeling recently that my fortunes were rising in the world, not sinking. Well, I thought, take it like the legionaries posted out to these areas: I bet they don’t like it either, but there’s a job to be done, and the rewards don’t come until it’s completed, so, Eyes front!, you’re on duty.
But it was a pity all the same – I couldn’t imagine finding an attractive woman in a place like this, and, if I did, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to bring her in here. I was no longer an 18-year-old who can find any bed soft and any room Mount Olympus, and create those illusions in a moon-struck lover.
The town was already in shadow by then, with the last of sunlight still on the Golan Heights across the lake. That first night, I had no food. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring any: I had just thought that I’d go out to eat somewhere, but there wasn’t a ‘where’ anywhere. Every Capernaum family had a man in it who fished, and a woman who made a meal of bread, fish and lentils; then it got dark, and everyone went to sleep.
So I had three reasons to put a lot of care into trying to build trust in the town. One: to not get killed. Two: to get information for my reports to the Governor: I’m not the kind of investigator who tries to force information from people – I would much rather that they choose to tell me. So I needed to make it clear to the locals that my taxation efforts were going to be directed primarily to the goods in transit, and only secondarily to the townspeople when the law required it.
But the third was that I needed their help: I needed someone to cook for me and keep the house clean and wash my clothes.
I started the next day by walking around and talking to people, knowing that if I didn’t give them an immediate opportunity to ask questions of me, they would create whatever answers took their fancy, and share those ideas with each other as fact, leaving impressions that I would never be able to erase.
First I walked through the village to confirm that it had no eating establishments or stores of goods, but only the workshops in the houses of the local potter, carpenter, blacksmith. Then I walked over the rise to the shore and talked with some men standing knee-deep in the lake and with their robes hitched up, throwing their nets into schools of little sardines. Talking was difficult, not because they didn’t have time for me, but because of the peculiar ugliness of their speech – guttural Aramaic, plus the heavy peasant Galilean accent, compounded by unschooled grammatical atrocities.
“A truly beautiful language,” I said, as I always say in such circumstances.
“Yes, yes,” they confirmed, “it’s famous as the most beautiful language in the whole world.”
As we were talking, one of the local fishing boats came in. Boats belong to the richer people in town, who can afford something twenty-five feet long and built out of second-hand timber, so that they can go out after larger fish in the lake. There were half a dozen fishermen on board, including the largest man I have ever seen – larger than any legionary – and another who was still a boy. They skirted the protective submerged groyne running out from shore, reefed the square sail as they grounded on the beach, and jumped out to pull the boat up out of the water.
I tried to help, but the big man scowled at me as though I might steal their fish: in the bottom of the boat, besides some small barbels, were three or four larger fish each over a foot in length which must have weighed a good couple of pounds. Not much of a catch by Mediterranean standards, but not bad for Lake Tiberias.
The big man talked first with the sardine fishermen, and looked even angrier when he heard I was the new tax collector. But as they repeated some of the complimentary things I had said, he seemed to soften, then impulsively placed his hand on my shoulder as though on a child and called out,
“Andrew! Let’s take him to meet Mama!” Then he introduced himself to me as Simon, “but people call me Rock,” he said, and I could see why.
“ Mama” wasn’t actually Rock’s and Andrew’s mother, but the mother-in-law of both of them. She was a wonderful old lady who must have been nearly 60, but was still healthy and active. Her husband was long dead, but she lived with the two daughters who had married Andrew and Simon (she was the only person who never called him “Rock”) and their children. They owned part of a one-story building which, together with other parts that had other families living in them, made a square around a courtyard that was common to all the residents. I carefully touched the mezuzah as I came through the courtyard door from the street.
The courtyard was hard-packed dirt and had a leafy little tree in the middle, as well as the expected three chickens and a goat. A woman was kneeling and grinding flour on a saddle quern, singing quietly as she rhythmically ground the smaller stone over the grain in the larger one. There were a couple of benches, someone inside was laughing, and the whole atmosphere was very sociable. I was treated as an honored guest, and given hot tea made from local leaves that I did not recognize. My Jewish ancestry and upbringing was extracted from me and discussed in great detail; that I was a Levi was deemed very auspicious. I was generally considered a nice gentleman who had fallen into an unfortunate relationship with the Occupation forces, but was not beyond hope of redemption.
On the say-so of Mama, my problems were being solved: a basis of trust was being established, and we came to an arrangement for her family to prepare my meals. Every evening a hot lentil stew, together with a piece of flat bread to eat it with, would be brought to my house. The two girls who would bring the food, aged about six and ten, would also be responsible for going by in the day and making sure that the house was kept clean and tidy. In addition, I could stop by Mama’s house in the morning to pick up a cold lunch.
She cackled like a hen at her good fortune: not only was I a new source of income, but “No one taxes the hands that feed them, or the hands can’t prepare good food!”
A prepayment of a denarius set the deal in place, and I arranged to always bring my payments up to date whenever I had money myself.
So I went to open up my office for the first day, carrying a lunch of bread, cheese and olives.