3. INTO GALILEE WITH THE ROMANS
The next morning saw me with that bittersweet feeling you get when you’re going to leave a place or a lover that you’re fond of. When you just want to re-experience everything one last time, and you see everything fresh, whole, as charming as the very first time.
I took my reflective mood to the city center, where everything is dominated by the Temple to Augustus on its artificial hill – hill, courtyard and fifty-foot high Temple all built by Herod the Great when Augustus was still alive. Romans weren’t allowed to worship the Emperor then, but many Greeks did. Even though everyone’s encouraged to worship him now that he’s a god, the idea doesn’t enthuse me. The Romans have this lukewarm concept of worship that is really no more than an expression of ritualized respect. I find it meaningless, so it makes me uncomfortable.
Mind you, the vastly greater Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, spectacularly renovated by Herod, makes me far more uncomfortable because of the fanaticism of the worship that attends it. Maybe I’m just not the religious type.
I climbed the stairs of the Temple’s hill, crossed its courtyard and leaned on the wall overlooking the harbor. I counted over a hundred ships in it, coming, going, anchored, docked – and yet the harbor was less than half full. The activity began right at my feet, for there were docks immediately below the Temple, and huge warehouses, fifty feet high, constituted the artificial hill that the Temple and I stood on. To my left, starting with the lighthouse, a wall ran out into the sea for hundreds of yards, and then curved around to the north for another quarter of a mile, where an opening for even the largest warship was left, before the last part of the wall reached back to shore.
On top of this wall was the promenade, a hundred feet wide, with rows of warehouses, and mules walking in circles to operate the wheels of the towering wooden cranes that were loading and offloading a couple of dozen merchant ships. It bustled with sailors, shipping and warehousing agents, revenue officers and soldiers; with ship provisioners, day laborers, owners of stalls for food and drink, water carriers, and presumably thieves and prostitutes.
“Nice view,” said a man coming up to the railing beside me. He was dressed in a clean tunic, but I’d seen him sitting with the beggars on the steps to the Temple doors.
“Yes. But I don’t have any money. Nothing. Sorry.” He left, and I turned back to the nice view.
When I was in other places – Athens, for example, or Alexandria – and people asked me about Palestine, I’d always find myself starting, not with Jerusalem, but Caesarea. Herod the Great built the city and the harbor fifty years ago to serve the needs of the Empire, as he owed his kingship solely to the loyalty of his service and friendship with whoever ruled Rome. His history is the history of modern Palestine.
First, as a young Governor of Galilee, he had clamped down on insurrections and banditry there, capturing and immediately executing the Jewish leader Hezekiah. He kept switching sides during Rome’s civil wars, from Pompey to Julius Caesar to the conspirators to Mark Antony, who personally led Herod into the Roman Senate and had him made King of Judea. When Antony was defeated, Herod switched sides yet again and Augustus confirmed and added to Herod’s kingdom until he controlled the whole province of Palestine, from Gaza almost as far north as Damascus. And in return Herod’s greatest gift to Rome was this city, his creation and his capital, the new and best anchorage on the Mediterranean’s east coast, and the anchor of Rome’s power in a province that was still in a state of simmering insurrection a hundred years after Rome took over.
Throughout the kingdom Herod built other Roman cities, and let them fill up with Greek-speakers from around the Mediterranean, and he built temples to their gods from all over the Empire. As a result, despite having rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to be more magnificent than even Solomon’s ever was, Herod died hated by most Jews.
And after he died the Romans split Palestine up between his sons, Herod Antipas and the others. The one who got the central part with Jerusalem and Caesarea was a murderous incompetent who caused years of province-wide uprisings. The Romans got rid of him and began direct rule, Pilate being the current Governor.
I took advantage of this empty day in Caesarea to wander, to reminisce, to enjoy the shops and fountains and Roman city life.
At last I came back to my boarding house, which constituted the top floor of an apartment building near the city center. The small annoyance of walking up three flights of stairs was easily offset by the view. My little room looked over the marketplace to the aqueduct on one side, and to the theater rising over the rooftops on the other.
As I entered the boarding house I met Anna, my landlady, and told her of my good fortune in getting an appointment from the Governor. “I’ll be here tonight, then I’m off to one of those little Galilean towns.”
“The Governor,” she said. “A government job. A salary. Running a warehouse? Tax collecting?”
“Very small town. Maybe all those things.”
“Why people want to live out in the country like that, I don’t know,” Anna said. “It’s all robbers and wild animals.”
“It’s not that bad,” I replied. “It’s also ripe fruit fresh off the tree, and the full moon shining on a lake.” She always made such negative comments about everything that I felt challenged to try to make her see the brighter side of life; but I found her a very reliable person. She was somewhat older than me, very private, and tight with money.
“The people are different, Matthew.”
“You mean because everyone knows everybody and everything.”
“It’s more than that. I know, I’m from a village. Come here.” She walked across the room to the front door and opened it. “Do you know what that is?”
She pointed at a nondescript object the size of my thumb, fixed shoulder-height on the door post. I had only half-noticed it before.
“It’s a mezuzah,” I said.
“And what’s in it?”
“A piece of paper with the Shema – ‘Hear, O Israel,’ and so on. Come on, Anna, I’ve been in Jewish households before.”
“I was raised in one.”
“You’re saying the people there are going to be more religious, more conservative, than they are here. I know all that, I’ve been through Galilee before.”
“Yes, but this time you’re going to live there. And you act like you don’t even know you’re in Israel. I’ve never even seen you touch the mezuzah, let alone kiss it. If you want to get on with the local people, you’re going to have to show a lot more respect than you do here. Touch it.”
I reached out slowly and touched it, childhood washing through my mind, my parents’ house, visiting friends, mentally separating those families that were religious, those families that weren’t.
“Kiss it,” she said.
Reluctantly, I did. Metal, warm on my lips in the summer sunset.
“You’ll thank me,” she said. “Now you’ve done it, it won’t feel so strange the next time you have to.”
“I’ll see you whenever I get back. I’ll miss my room here.”
“I can hold it for you, if you want to give me the rent.”
I just laughed.
The next day I went to the Legion’s fort just outside the city. It was a whole town in its own right, the permanent home of six thousand men, and it had everything from workshops to sports facilities, surrounded by a twenty-foot stone wall.
I flashed Pilate’s seal to get in through a couple of layers of security to Longus’ office, where I raised a hand. “Ave, Commander. Thank you for a delightful evening.”
His answering salute was crisper than mine. “Ave. Yes. You’ll travel with Centurion Caninus to Caesarea. Find him so he can brief you.” And that was it. Longus turned back to the scroll he’d been reading.
Caninus was checking the supply wagons being loaded for his Century’s tour of duty in the interior of Palestine. He stepped away to talk to me: “Longus briefed me about your position. What do you know about the Governor’s concerns? You’ve heard of some of the incidents he’s had to deal with?”
“Well, I’ve heard of some of the incidents he’s caused,” I said rashly – but after all, my outspokenness often played well with Romans. “Just because he had a detachment stationed in the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem, he thought he could slip the standards in with all their animal emblems and set them up in the city. But you can’t bring graven images of wild boars and the Emperor Tiberius into the Jewish Temple!”
“Yes, it was a problem. PP had been trying to strengthen the authority of Rome in Jerusalem, create a popular recognition of Roman supremacy. He was prepared for trouble there, but instead – Do you know what happened?”
“People came here,” I said.
“Thousands of them. They walked here from Jerusalem, picking up thousands more from towns and villages as they came. And they camped out in the market square in the city center and demanded that PP remove the standards from Jerusalem altogether. After a couple of days he sent us to surround them and threaten them with death … but all they did was lie down in front of us, screaming that we should just go ahead and kill them because their god was stronger than Rome and nothing would make them break their laws.”
“That seems a risky strategy on their part!”
“Believe me, PP was ready to wipe out the whole lot… but the reports would have gone back to Rome, and Tiberius would have hauled him back for trial, and he’d have been blamed for the whole situation.”
“And been executed,” I said.
“Or exiled, with all his wealth confiscated, which he’d find even worse. So after a few minutes he told them he was pulling the standards out of Jerusalem. Not a glorious episode. But not as bad as it could have been.”
I said, “But I heard that there was a riot, in Jerusalem, and a lot of people got killed by the Legion.”
“Different event,” he replied. “That was when PP started to build an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem, and they found out he was doing it with funds from the Temple treasury. They wanted Rome to pay for it instead. PP sent us into the crowd in civvies, just carrying staves, and we beat up whichever people near us looked like troublemakers or were shouting the loudest. Some people got beaten to death, and some got trampled in the stampede to run away. Again, not glorious; but it restored some respect for us.”
“Like I said last night,” I smirked, “no one knows how to deal with the Jews.”
Caninus snorted. “But he’s learning. We all are. You’ll see, there won’t be any more major blunders. There may still be bandits in the hills and assassinations in the cities, but there hasn’t been a full-scale uprising since Judas of Galilee, and we all want to keep it that way.”
“What happened to Judas?” I knew he was the son of that Hezekiah who Old Herod had killed when he was a young governor, but all this had been before I started coming to Palestine.
“The Prefect in Syria sent in three Legions; they suppressed the revolt, but they didn’t catch Judas. Ten years later, he led another uprising; we got him that time, and drowned him.”
“You were there?”
“No, it was before my time. But I’m proud to say it was the Tenth Fretensis that caught him.” He smiled and made a gesture in the air, as though making a chalk mark to register a point scored.
“Looking forward to the next one?”
He turned his face towards me, leaned in: “Your job… is to provide so much information… that we catch ‘the next one’ so early… that we only have to kill a couple of Jews, instead of a couple of thousand.”
“Which reminds me,” I said. “On the way to Capernaum, I’d be happy to keep an eye on your supply wagons, make sure nothing gets pilfered.”
He snorted. “You mean you want to ride while we march?”
“Never learned to march,” I shook my head regretfully.
“I don’t have the authority –”
“Sure you do, Centurion! Besides, I have this,” and I pulled out Pilate’s seal again.
So I got to ride instead of walk, for a change: I had a seat on a supply wagon, while Caninus marched his troops north and east into Galilee to rotate into some of the smaller military posts. Purpureo led, carrying the Eagle standard, with this Century’s standard-bearer marching beside him carrying the Boar.
Out through the gates of the city while the guards saluted. Along the solid Roman road in the morning sun, with the aqueduct with the sea behind it on one side, and fields on the other. A man harvesting grapes glanced at the standards, and spat. Just what Jews love – occupying troops marching around the Promised Land behind the graven image of a pig.
The legionaries carried not just their weapons, clothes and food for two weeks, but also spade, pickaxe, saw and basket for moving earth – well over sixty pounds – on their backs. They could manage that weight for a day’s march from one small fort to the next along the road – fifteen or twenty miles – and sing while they were marching. Rather them than me.
I leaned back in my seat on the wagon, wondering how I would transport my hoped-for talent of silver around the Empire – a talent was almost half my weight. Find some large, trustworthy, retired legionary? Someone slightly more intelligent and considerably better armed than an oxcart… Of course, the real answer would be to take it as five pounds of gold coins, not sixty pounds of silver. But if I was going to indulge in an idle daydream, it might as well be as fun as possible.
Theoretically Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, didn’t need the presence of Roman troops; he had his own small army, made up mostly of Celts, Germans and Thracians, though officered by Romans. But whenever there was serious trouble this force wasn’t enough, and a Legion or two would be sent in from Judea or Syria.
When Herod the Great had died, for example, there had been immediate uprisings throughout Palestine. That would-be Messiah, Judas of Galilee, captured one of Herod’s new cities, Zippori, and looted the armory for weapons and the rest of the town for riches. In response, the Romans burned the city down.
When Herod Antipas inherited Galilee as his share of his father’s kingdom, he rebuilt Zippori as his capital. It would be one of the stops on our way.
It is slow and circuitous, traveling with the military. We marched north along the coast for two days, then turned inland. Once we stopped for a rest at midday, right beside a field of grapes. They were ripe, and we stripped a couple of hundred bunches. If anyone was watching the field, they stayed out of sight. I felt guilty, but when in Rome… And the grapes were large, full, and squirted sweetness through your mouth when you bit into them! Roadside fruit, on a hot day, is always best… and all the sweeter for being stolen.
Two days later we left Pilate’s territory of Judea and entered Herod Antipas’ Galilee, going up over the rolling hills of olive groves, vineyards, pastures, and fields of grain. Late in the day we climbed up to his capital Zippori, spread over the top of a hill four hundred feet above the countryside. When Herod the Great built it he called it ‘Zippori’, ‘my little bird’, because of its views in all directions – farms and orchards, plains, lakes and hills and, four miles south, the town of Nazareth. You’d think it could have been defended successfully against Judas of Galilee, if the inhabitants had really wanted to. Romans call Zippori ‘Sepphoris’.
As we had done every afternoon on the trip, we marched in through the gates of the local fort outside town, unloaded supplies in a corner of the parade ground, and set up tents while Caninus reviewed the current situation with the local Decurion. Then we made a meal, and the ten of our men who were to stay here got shown around by the ten they were replacing.
“How long are they here for?” I asked Caninus, as we sat on campstools to eat our stew.
“A couple of months; not long. You don’t want them to get too soft on the locals.”
“Some of them must start to form attachments in that time.”
“Right. Now’s the time for those who are leaving to deal with that. Try to talk the girls into moving to Caesarea if they want them, try to talk them out of it if they’ve already got wives there.”
“Wives. I thought legionaries couldn’t marry. Longus talked about wives, too.”
“Wives, women… no, they can’t marry them, and they can’t bring them into the fort; but we don’t prevent relationships. All the kids are illegitimate, and not Roman citizens, either. If they want citizenship, the obvious thing for them to do is join the army when they grow up, and earn it on retirement.”
I thought about it, and smiled. “And then…”
“Then while they’re enlisted, they create the next generation of little bastards without citizenship. Good recruiting system.”
Citizenship, I thought. Status. The toga. If accused, the right to a trial; if found guilty, the right not to be scourged or crucified. The toga gives automatic respect in the street, and help from local administrators, and, anywhere, a chance at a piece of the action. The Empire runs on the control of citizenship.
The next morning Caninus escorted me up through the Roman and commercial part of town to the Jewish area crowning the hilltop. We went to Herod Antipas’ palace so that I could deal with the formalities of my appointment as Herod’s tax collector in Capernaum.
The palace was a large two-story building round a central courtyard, and very unimpressive after the gold-roofed palace in Caesarea. It was largely deserted. Apparently the Tetrarch now spent most of his time at the newer city of Tiberias, which he had built on the Sea of Galilee and named for the Emperor. That Sea had therefore been officially renamed Lake Tiberias. Tiberias had no religious Jews in its population, because it had been deliberately built over an area of old graveyards; so it was a comfortably Roman-style city, close to some hot sulfur springs, and to the Hellenized cities of the Decapolis to the south and east. The whole court had moved there from Zippori.
But a clerk was on duty in a large dusty room. It had an excellent mosaic floor, showing a Nilometer with the annual flood registering 27 feet on the pillar, and horsemen galloping out of Egypt in all directions to spread the news throughout the Empire, and a variety of gods looking down approvingly. All very Roman. And somewhere in this town, quite likely in this building, John the Baptist was sitting locked up. I didn’t want to see or be seen by him.
The clerk dealt with my appointment without any delay – whether because of Pilate’s seal, or the presence of Caninus, I can’t say – and I officially became an employee of Herod Antipas. I was given documents, another seal, and large keys to a house and the customs office and warehouse. I felt pleasantly important and, even more surprisingly, respectable. I walked back down the cypress-shaded street to the Roman part of town with Caninus, feeling that I shared his aura of responsibility.
Zippori has a pleasant, spacious main street which is colonnaded, and the ground floors of most of the buildings have their street frontage rented out as shops. This allows local merchants to operate securely and in all weathers, and lets local farmers sell or trade their wine, cheese, wool and so on. Some stalls were open, but most of the shops were shuttered.
“It’s quiet,” I remarked.
“Especially considering it’s market day,” said Caninus.
“Ah,” I said. “Then it must be the Sabbath this time.” Another one of those areas in which the Jews, alone of all the Empire’s subjects, have refused to adopt Roman ways and insist on holding to their traditions.
Romans give the days of the month numbers, and consider some numbers and their days powerful and some weak, some lucky and some unlucky, in much the same way they view the gods. But Jews give days numbers on a rigid seven-day cycle, and consider them all the same except for the seventh day, the only one to have a special name, the Sabbath; and they consider it alone special, and absolutely sacrosanct. This, too, reflects the way they see their one god; and they won’t do any work on that day.
Unfortunately for the Jews, the entire Roman Empire has a legal requirement to work on an eight-day cycle – a public market must by law be held every eight days, and new statutes can’t come into effect until they’ve been posted for three consecutive markets, and so on. But that means that once every seven markets, when the Sabbath falls on a market day, no religious Jew will show up: farmers won’t sell food, craftsmen can’t buy supplies and won’t sell products, Romans can’t buy anything, and Jews refuse to shop for the next week. Then they each blame the other for being inflexible!
Any Jews who won’t acknowledge a Sabbath Market-day are suspected by the security forces of being terrorists, or at least sympathizers.
Any Jews who do choose to attend Market on the Sabbath are seen by religious Jews as renouncing their religion and becoming traitors to both their people and their god – and the Zealots have no more qualms about killing them than about killing Romans.
Caninus hammered a fist on the nearest shuttered stall. “Market day! Open your stall!”
A voice inside said in Aramaic, “I don’t speak Latin.”
I repeated Caninus’ words in translation, and an irritated face appeared as the shutter was raised and propped open.
“What do you sell?” we asked. There was nothing in the stall except a pallet where the man had slept on the floor. Stale air wafted out.
“Farm produce. But the farmers haven’t come today.” He looked at me carefully, bitterly, as though to remember my face so that some day he could, what? Denounce me? Kill me? I was aware of my Romanized appearance: bare-headed, short-haired, no beard, though I’d switched from tunic to robe.
“Too bad,” I said. “You have to stay open anyway. It’s the law.” I was a mere mouthpiece for the foreigner towering beside me, muscled, armored, helmeted, weaponed, and unable to speak the language.
“And what about our law, that says we can’t work on the Sabbath?”
“Stay open, don’t sell anything, and everyone’s happy,” I said.
He spat out of the stall near my feet.
I wandered along the sidewalk, enjoying its mosaic patterns, idly looking in on a baker here, a leather-worker there, reflecting on the mediocre quality of the products for sale, not needing anything. Occasionally I would translate for Caninus, but very few pretended they didn’t know any Latin. Everyone looked sour, and well they might: no trade from religious Jews because it was the Sabbath, and very little from anyone else, because the court had moved to Tiberias. I imagined that, with no profit to be had from working with the Romans, some of these tradesmen would be waking up with a severe case of Jewish religion again, soon.
To me a sudden change of heart (or mind, or religion), one that just happens to coincide with one’s best interests, is normal and perfectly sincere. Sincere, at least in the waking mind; so it is dangerous to challenge people on this point. Yet a cynical recalculation of one’s moral position has clearly been done. I believe it is usually done most effectively by the other mind, the mind that thinks while you sleep.
Is that mind part of your own mind? If so, why don’t you know everything it thinks? But does a toe know what a finger does?
Or is that mind not part of yourself at all, but Other, god, angel? It is certainly in the place where dreams are, anyway. It works, not in open view of the street, but hidden away in rooms at the back, a private place. It is the hidden woman, not the storefront man, but it runs the house.
And as for myself, did the back rooms of my mind make cynical calculations that the front offices professed to know nothing about? I hoped not; I have always tried to keep fully aware of my interests. The only situation in which I could imagine the other mind taking over was one where, because of either threats or opportunities, my self-interest would be most strongly served by becoming some True Believer, some Zealot maybe, or Mithraist, or follower of Isis. I trusted that would never happen, but you never know: the more you watch how your mind works, the trickier it seems.
Anyhow, the market day conflict reminded me that I had managed to live for quite a while without having to worry about the restrictions of either the day of the Roman month, or the day of the Jewish week. But now I would have to be constantly aware of both, always thinking how to avoid danger.
Caninus spoke along the same lines as we returned to camp. “Listen, Levi, if you get close to any of the insurgents, let me warn you: if you’re sending PP intelligence, and we act on it, your new friends will realize that someone is tipping us off. And you’re going to be the obvious suspect. By definition, the tax collector in Capernaum is a Roman agent.”
“Well, what’s the worst that can happen? If some John the Baptist look-alike plans an uprising, I’m not going to stay around after I’ve told His Excellency.”
“It’s not that easy. You didn’t ask why there’s a vacancy in Capernaum, did you?” He looked at me. “I’ll tell you: the last tax collector was found floating in the Sea of Galilee, with his throat cut.”
That was a disturbing image, but I said “I make friends with everyone, I always have done. No one finds me a threat.”
“Brave words. But religious fanatics think everyone’s a threat.”
“If anyone claims to be the Messiah who can throw out the Romans,” I said, “there’s going to be so much chaos that I’ll just disappear.”
“If anyone does that, and you’ve done your job, we’ll be waiting for him and his Zealots, and we’ll catch and crucify the lot of them.”
“Well that’s all right, then!”
“And then the remainder of his followers will hunt you down and kill you.”
“I’ll have a toga, and a new life in another province.”
“Still, they’ll find you. They’re fanatics. Kill or be killed.” He was silent for a moment. “Have you ever killed a man, Levi?”
I laughed, and my mood lightened. “That’s like asking me if I’ve got any children! Let’s just say I’ve been in situations whose outcome I never learned.”
“Killed any large animals?”
“Pigs, sheep, cattle. It’s a part of farm work, and I’ve done my share.”
“Intentionally killing a man’s different, at least the first time. Be prepared for it, coming into Galilee as a Roman agent. You’re playing a very high-stakes game.”
“But Centurion,” I smiled, “think of it this way: I’ve never diced for a toga before!”
It was mid-morning, and I helped break camp, pack tents and reload the wagons, and the convoy moved on.