Spies need pockets

When you’re writing something like “The Gospel According to the Romans” with its cloaks and daggers, your hero is bound to have the need to hide various items on himself, and his adversaries are going to have weapons stashed on themselves. This would be very easy in cyberpunk, the outfits are so elaborate, with belts and buttons and flaps and pockets all over the place. But what about Ancient Rome and Israel when your clothes were a simple toga, or a basic robe, or possibly a short tunic with a belt?

Robes can certainly have pockets

And then I noticed – being in Saudi Arabia these days – that all the robes have pockets, both men’s thobes and women’s abayas. Where else can people keep their keys and cash and cell phones? How long has this been going on? What is the history of the pocket?

The most succinct yet engaging history of the pocket – though with a very European bias – comes from columnist Jeff Elder, writing in 2004:

In Europe, common people began to exchange coins for goods and services toward the end of the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, many kings, princes, dukes, bishops and free cities minted their own coins.

So people needed someplace to carry their coins. The first pockets were small purses hung on one’s belt. You might’ve seen these in Robin Hood books and movies or Renaissance costumes.

But pockets on the outside of one’s clothes were easy to pick, or swipe altogether. One slice with a knife could cut the drawstrings and your money was gone.

So people started hanging their pocket-purses inside their pants. This made it tough for criminals to get at their money. It also made it difficult for the rightful owners to get at the money. To buy something you’d virtually have to drop your trousers and moon the entire marketplace.

So many people made a simple slit that enabled them to reach through their clothes and into their purses, which were still pouches hung around their waists.

But saddling yourself up with the purse before you put on your clothes was a hassle. And in the late 1700s, tailors and family seamstresses began to sew pockets right into trousers and dresses.

In  other words, it seems unlikely that you can use pockets for hiding anything in a Roman era novel. Yes, coins were common then; but the most you can assume is that a few people kept precious things in a bag round their neck or on a belt round their waist (under their clothes), just as backpackers do today when in unsafe lands.

Oh well, no pockets anyway. So unless anyone can tell me better, it’s back to the vague claim that “he hid it in his robes”…

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The premise of the novel

The man we call Saint Matthew, being the tax collector “sitting at the receipt of custom” in Capernaum, is by definition a Roman agent appointed by Pontius Pilate. As such, he has the additional function of keeping an eye on the Zealots and other religious fanatics who head the insurgency against the Roman occupation. ‘Ragheads’, the Romans call them. After Jesus recruits Matthew to help purify Israel and overthrow the Romans – ‘Pigs’, the Jews call them –  Matthew continues to feed information to Pilate.

The local tax collector in Capernaum was - by definition - a Roman agent

Matthew himself tells the story. He is a Greek-speaking Jew, born and educated in Damascus, with a skeptical fascination for religion and politics. He is an irreligious opportunist and has friends on both sides in the conflict. He dines with the Roman military, spies for them, and wants Roman citizenship. But he also lives with Jesus, preaches for him, and falls in love with Mary of Bethany. Whichever way he turns he will cause the death of people he likes, and, in either camp, whoever suspects him will kill him.

By contextualizing the words and actions of Jesus within the Roman Occupation of Palestine and the repeated Jewish insurrections, a strangely modern picture emerges in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’: a charismatic religious fundamentalist, opposing an occupying superpower.