1. JOB INTERVIEW WITH PILATE
A slave came out to say that the Governor was ready for us. The guards moved aside, and Decius Longus and I stepped from Caesarea’s burning, dazzling Mediterranean midday into a room so large, high, silent and cool that it truly belonged to another world – to Rome, not Palestine. Pontius Pilate sat at the far end, writing. The metal studs in Longus’ sandals clacked on the marble floor as he led me across. He saluted: “You asked me to bring you that Jewish friend I was telling you about, Your Excellency, regarding the Galilee position.”
“Thank you, First File.” Pilate was thin-faced, with a receding hairline, and that high-bridged nose of the aristocratic Roman. He did not stop dipping his pen and scribbling away, but looked up and down, up and down, as he talked. “So this is the… candidate. Not very prepossessing; a good thing, I suppose.”
I reflected on what I must have looked like, standing beside the Legion’s most senior Centurion, its First File. I’m medium height, but Roman soldiers tend to be an inch or two taller; and Longus was taller than their average. Add to that the way they carry themselves with their shoulders back, compared to my comfortable slouch, and there’s another inch. And by the time you’ve given Longus his helmet, padded inside and topped with that raised fringe of horsehair, you’ve got a total of a foot and a half in height difference. Further, he was wearing his polished brass breastplate with the exaggerated muscles, while I wore the common tunic of the non-Roman. I must have looked like a prisoner.
Pilate glanced at my tunic. “No robes, no religious fringes. But you are Jewish?”
“By parentage, Your Excellency, not faith.”
“Matthew Levi, Your Excellency.”
“And you’ve had that little operation?” he asked dryly, slicing the air with a knifelike finger.
I nodded, tragicomic, looking to see how much sense of humor he had.
“And do you speak both Aramaic and Hebrew?”
“My first tongue, from my childhood in Damascus.”
“If it please Your Excellency, adequately.” We were speaking Latin, after all.
“And discreetly, modestly, too; a pleasant change from the exaggeration and self-aggrandizement that I find so common in this part of the world.” He paused to review something he had just written, corrected a word. I didn’t feel slighted that he divided his attention between interview and letter-writing; it was Julius Caesar, after all, who had made the practice acceptable two generations ago, so that now it’s considered an aristocratic skill. When someone does it in front of you, you feel in the presence of the power of Rome, in a continuity that stretches back from ruler to ruler.
“I strive to follow the Roman virtues,” I answered.
Pilate glanced at my tunic, back to his writing. “So perhaps the toga would be of interest to you.”
Citizenship! This was more than I had hoped. It must be a noteworthy position! “Naturally, my lord.”
“Well, I can’t offer that yet. I need a probationary period for you, to see how well you perform. I’m looking for a tax collector, with additional duties. I understand you’ve worked as a tax gatherer before? Where?”
Pilate looked at Longus for confirmation, who nodded: “That’s where I first met him, sir.”
Pilate turned back to me. “Ah yes; but Palestine might be more difficult. What do you do when confronted with a householder who you don’t feel is being perfectly forthcoming?” He looked me up and down, obviously doubting my capacity to provide a physical threat.
“I explain my assessment quietly, reasonably and inflexibly. I’m accustomed to talk softly, and to be accompanied by a large legionary.”
“Yes, well, you won’t always have someone like Decius Longus around. And here there are Jews who kill other Jews for paying taxes, let alone collecting them.”
“Jews don’t like me for being friends with Romans, Romans don’t like me for being friends with Jews.” I shrugged. “I live with it.”
“Hmm. Specifically, I want you in Capernaum. As it is in Galilee, it’s under Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction, not mine; but we have an understanding, young Herod and I, and he will position you on my recommendation. He, and not I, will pay you; therefore you need to do a good enough job that he doesn’t dismiss you. You don’t need to deal with local tax collection, only with taxes on the traffic coming in from Syria. Small town, Capernaum. Our nearest fort is a couple of miles away. You will have an office outside town on the main road, and a house, and a salary; Herod will provide that. Are you prepared to take a position in such a place?”
I nodded, wondering why Pilate, not Herod, was interviewing me.
“As for your duties to me, they are separate. Galilee is like a smoldering fire, always ready to burst into flames; and when it does, it immediately spreads into my areas of responsibility, Samaria as well as Judea. I may not be able to command or improve upon Herod; but there’s no reason I shouldn’t know what’s going on up there. Do you understand?”
He looked up, poured fine sand across the fresh ink of his parchment, poured the sand off into a bowl, put the parchment to one side.
“Certainly, my lord.” It was unnerving to have his gaze now fully focused on me, but I trust I looked calm.
“It’s said this province goes into revolt once a generation. Well, it’s been twenty five years since Judas of Galilee led his uprising, captured towns, looted palaces. Once we could get all the insurgents in one place, of course, we crushed them. The Legion crucified two thousand in a single day. I’m sure you heard of it, even in Syria. I don’t want that kind of trouble during my time here. I want peace, quiet and prosperity, and I want to take my money with me when I leave, and not be forced to spend it rebuilding a shattered economy.”
“We bring in Roman government and stability, we quarter a Legion here at enormous expense, we improve the roads, markets, water supply, sanitation, navigation, agriculture; and what do we get for it? Religious fanatics inciting riots!” He was staring at me, obviously assessing my reaction. “Backwater fundamentalist followers of a tribal religion who then lead insurrections!” He was raising the level of insults. Was it safer to react, or not react, I wondered. “Murderous, mentally deranged rag-heads!”
I had to smile at that. “I tend to express myself somewhat less forcefully, Excellency, but I agree with the underlying sentiment.”
“What do you think of this John the Baptist?”
“One of those barefoot hair-shirt preachers calling for repentance.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Well… minimal taxation potential…”
His mouth smiled, but not the eyes. “Personally, not professionally. Do you like him?”
“I don’t know anything about him.” I felt my nostrils twitch inadvertently. “I don’t have much interest in that type.”
“Then cultivate some. I want to know what his followers are up to, now Herod’s got him in prison. Did you know he was in prison?”
“No, my lord.”
“Only just happened. Because the moron was preaching against Herod, because Herod married his own brother’s wife. John’ll be lucky if prison is all he gets. What do you think of that?”
“Only a Zealot puts such extreme restrictions on marriage.”
“Only a Zealot tries to foment uprisings. Let me be clear about my attitude toward Jews. I have no difficulty with the Sadducees – they’re tolerant, civilized, open-minded, easy to work with – run the Temple in Jerusalem, run the Jewish courts, keep order – they’re good people. The Pharisees are a little too populist for my taste – too argumentative – but they’re acceptable. The Essenes – well, they’re genuine mystics, I’ve seen that type before, I don’t care what they think of me so long as they don’t get in my way. But the Zealots! They’re the troublemakers. I’d drown the lot of them, if I could.”
“I entirely understand you, my lord.”
“Good. Then you understand what I want you to report on: who they are, what they’re up to, and any hint of trouble brewing. Your official position – and therefore your power and duty to tax – is only for Capernaum, but your investigative powers will give you every reason you could want to go into any house, talk to any person, ask any questions.”
“You want a spy, then, not a tax collector.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Is that a problem?”
“But those people are murderers, terrorists!” Always play up the difficulties, before negotiating the salary.
“Precisely why I want to keep an eye on them.”
“I’m not sure I want this, Your Excellency. With all due respect, I value my life more than a job.”
“I thought I was doing you a favor. I understood from First File Longus that you didn’t have a life – no job, no family, no roots in Palestine at all. That’s why I’m prepared to offer you the toga. Because if you work for me, no matter how careful you are, the time will inevitably come when you will need to relocate out of Palestine. Then you can take your citizenship, and your earnings as a tax collector, and you’ll be able to create a safe life for yourself.” It wasn’t a bad offer. I swear he could see through my eyes into my very thoughts.
I said nothing.
He nodded. “So. I want a report sent to me through the fort at Capernaum once a week. I’m particularly interested in anything you can find out about the military aspects of the insurgency; but I also want to know who’s going to be its mouthpiece, now John’s in prison. The military wing always raises its funds by having some fanatic running around spouting their holy book, telling the people their god wants the rest of us out of the province.
“And let me be clear: your duties to me supersede those to Herod. If you see an opportunity to find out more about these preachers, rabble-rousers and insurgents, then take it. I don’t care if you have to close the tax office, whether it’s for a day or a month, if it will make your reports more valuable. My secretary Ligurianus will give you the seal for my correspondence.”
The man in question got up from his desk in a corner of the room, and gave me a seal. It was about an inch across, inscribed with an image of the bare-breasted goddess of Caesarea and Pilate’s initials in reverse, and with a knob on the back to hold it by when pressing it onto molten wax. This could have been the end of the interview. But I waited.
“Well?” Pilate asked. “Do you have a question?”
“I was wondering, if citizenship is a consideration for after my service, how long that service will be, and what pay I can expect from you directly. This is going to be not just time-consuming, but dangerous, life-threatening, if I am to monitor these people properly.”
“You bargain with money and ideas like a Jew and a Greek.” He sounded irritated, but I hoped he recognized I had the qualities he wanted.
I shrugged, palms up: “That’s my Damascus background, Excellency.”
“Soldier’s pay, then – two-thirds of a denarius per day – for the time, reports and danger, payable on leaving my service.”
“And what if I find the situation that you fear? Uncover some plot? Hear rumors of an uprising? Prevent an ambush or a massacre?”
“Plots and rumors! Ha, man, the Empire is built on them! I expect a lot of them in your reports. But if you find someone claiming to be the Jewish Messiah, and trying to raise the province against us? If you infiltrate a movement like that, and it allows me to catch and kill the ringleaders before there’s a genuine uprising, I’ll give you a talent! A talent of silver!”
I looked from him to the secretary, and back. The secretary looked at him. Pilate looked suddenly irritated. “Write him a contract,” he snapped, ending discussion by reaching for a scroll.
“Well, I got you in to see PP,” Longus said, as the guards were signing us out. “Now you owe me, Levi. And don’t screw up, or it’ll make me look bad.”
“I’m truly grateful, Longus; I appreciate your risk,” I smiled, thinking of the risks to me. “But what about all the times I covered for you? When you were too hung over for work in Damascus?”
“Oh come on, Levi; once or twice maybe; twenty years ago.”
“And that time I paid your gambling debt?”
“A couple of coins.”
“It was a lot of money to us at the time.”
He grunted like a farm animal being scratched. People like to be teased, if you’re not too harsh. It builds friendship and memories. “You’ll make it back, and more, as a tax collector.”
We went through the final palace gate and into the street. Passers-by stepped off the sidewalk to make way for Longus, something no one ever did for me. “True,” I said. The Governor’s pay wasn’t much, but how much you raise in taxes, and how much of that you keep, depends entirely on your skills. “But the big prize is that reward. With citizenship and a talent of silver, I’d be able to settle down comfortably anywhere in the Empire.”
“Well, not in Rome itself,” he said. “It would be worth a visit, but even that much silver won’t go far.”
“Spain, then, or Africa; on a small estate with a few slaves, on the coast, on the outskirts of a city where I can stay in touch with the politics and literature of the wider world…. Somewhere a friend like you can find me, join me when your own service is up, and share my good fortune. Then we can drink and dice as we did in the old days!”
“That sounds wonderful, Levi.”
“Is that smile in your voice because I’ll find it hard to squeeze so much cash out of His Excellency?”
“That’s part of it. But you’re always such an optimist. Will it work out this time?”
“Of course! I’ll just need to keep my eyes open.”
“You will that.”
We rounded a corner into a square in Caesarea’s Jewish Quarter, and before I was even aware of anything, Longus was calling out:
“Men! Stop that! Centurion!”
A Centurion stepped up, expressionless, and saluted. “Sir!”
“What are your men kicking around?”
“A head, sir.”
“Line them up.”
“All right, everybody! On parade for First File! Fall in!” he bellowed. Three eight-man squads formed up rapidly, shuffled in seconds into perfectly spaced formation. I can never believe the speed and precision, or the way that they follow orders immediately, without a thought. There is something inhuman about it – certainly something unJewish.
“Centurion, get the head here.”
“Sir, yes sir!” He about-faced. “Squad leader, bring the head!”
“Sir, yes sir!” The nearest squad leader marched out smartly and carried the head over by its span-long black hair. The neck had been unevenly hacked through, as in the aftermath of a fight, rather than cleanly as by an execution. The face was ripped and battered and covered with dust from being kicked around in the street. Of course you always wonder if it is anyone you know – I didn’t recognize it, though.
Longus looked around, presumably for the corpse. “Whose head?”
“An insurgent, sir. He ran from a patrol, sir, and when we caught him he pulled a sica on us from under his robes. He stabbed Vitulus with it – doctor’s stitching him up now.”
The sica is such a large dagger, so commonly used in Palestinian murder and mayhem, that the Romans treat as interchangeable the terms ‘robber’, ‘insurgent’, ‘Zealot’ and ‘sicariot’, dagger-carrier.
Longus turned to the ranks and raised his voice. “Men! You’re not in the Danube forests any more. These people, lawless and aggressive though they may be, are not barbarians, and you are not to sink to the level of northern barbarians yourselves when an incident occurs. The enemy is dead. The matter ends there!” Then words on his responsibilities for the native population and their own security, and the pointlessness of unnecessarily antagonizing an already hostile populace. Then:
“Why do we carry a standard of the Trireme, as one of our emblems? Because our Legion fought heroically, hand to hand against great odds, from ship to grappled ship as on a field of battle across the Bay at Actium to defeat Mark Antony, and elevate Octavian into the Emperor Augustus! We have an honorable place in the history of the noble Roman Empire! I – will – not – allow – any of you to desecrate that honor! If any of you become a stain on the honor of the Tenth Legion Fretensis, I will expunge that stain! Is that clear?”
He left them with orders to place the head with its body, and in a reasonably respectful position.
“And what do you think of their treatment of that sicariot, Levi?” he asked me as we walked.
I shrugged. “He didn’t need his head any longer.”
“Ha! Then you’re not one of those Jews who believe in some eventual resurrection of the dead.”
“I’m a Syrian, First File; there’s too much of the Greek in me. Jewish descent doesn’t mean Jewish belief.”
“I know, I know. But do you realize how much responsibility I carry these days?”
“Well… yes, you’ve got six thousand men in the Legion.”
“And another few thousand camp followers, cooks, women, children… and the security of Pilate’s palace, and Caesarea, and the whole of Palestine.”
“Or of course the philosophers would say you’ve got no responsibility for anyone but yourself.”
“Philosophers are all Greeks and idlers. I’m a Roman. My Legion is my business, my farm. The estate manager can’t just say the animals are responsible for milking themselves, and the crops for getting themselves into the barn.”
“So if you’re nurturing all the inhabitants here – what about that sicariot?”
“I’ve got no sympathy for the insurgents, but I can’t have my men acting like a bunch of thugs and stirring up further trouble for no reason. Then we all suffer.”
For me, Longus represented much of what is best about the Empire. True, he could inflict death without a second thought, but he never did it gratuitously. After all, law can only be maintained through the credible threat of violence; and without law, you have unrestrained violence of every kind. He was the First File, the most senior Centurion in the entire Legion, whose position in battle was in the front of the squad of soldiers on the furthest right. A most dangerous position to hold, and attained only through years of bravery, intelligence and ruthless command.
He had been my drinking and dicing companion in Damascus many years ago, when he was a foot-soldier and I was a clerk in a Roman warehouse, but we had lost touch. He had moved when the Legion was posted to the north, and I too had moved on. For twenty years I had followed my curiosity about a girl or a religion or a chance of getting rich, from Athens to Jerusalem to Alexandria and back, a couple of years here, a couple of years there.
Recently I had been making my way across Palestine, half-curious, half-aimless, watching my savings dwindle away to nothing as I looked for meaning in my life or, if not meaning, at least for friends to share the meaninglessness with. It came as an unexpected delight to find my old acquaintance as First File of the Legion in Caesarea.
We reached the city center, and stopped. “Thank you, Decius Longus, old friend,” I said. “Despite my teasing, I know I’m in your debt.”
“You’ll more than repay it for me and my men, if you do a good job in Galilee.” We clasped arms. “Remember, dinner tonight at my house. Meet others of the Legion.”