In the Path of the Juggernaut
“When, in all the years I’ve been stationed in this hideous desert province, when have you known me to actually hear one of these cases?”
“Yes, I know, my Lord, but the local dignitaries are in quite an uproar…”
“What local dignitaries?”
“The Priests, of course.”
“I buy the Priests, you idiot. They can’t be in an uproar against me.”
I indicate to my slave the three bags I’m taking back home with me. To another, I point out the wrapped package on the bed. A gift for my wife. Silk scarves with elaborate embroidery and beading. From some far-off land by way of the Parthians, the vendor told me. My wife will be pleased.
“The Priests did get into an uproar about those Standards. Got nearly half the city’s population into an uproar about it…”
“Do you want to be whipped?” I say.
“I’m… I’m your aide, sir.”
“Do you think that means I can’t have you whipped?”
“I’m not a slave, my Lord. I’m a citizen.”
“Weren’t you a slave at one time?” I say, rubbing my chin slowly and narrowing my eyes.
“Your lordship gave me my freedom.”
“How long ago?”
“Ten years, sir.”
“Very well, then, I suppose I won’t have you whipped.”
“Gratitude, my Lord.”
One of the slaves ties my sandals while another adjusts my traveling cloak. As I glance around the room to see if I’ve forgotten anything, I hold out my wrists and hands so that the female slaves may put my bracelets and rings in place. When they’re finished, they bow before slowly walking backward from my bedroom. The large Carthaginian who adjusted my cloak picks up my golden necklace which holds my great seal of office, lifts it over my head, puts it around my neck, and settles it against my chest. He’s the only one tall enough to do it so that I don’t have to bend my head. I give him his daily coin. As always, he closes his eyes as he slightly bows his head and leaves the room.
“The Priests are quite insistent that you hear these charges…”
“Which means the charges demand the death penalty?”
“And the only death penalty the Priests can issue is ‘death by stoning’ for religious and moral issues such as blasphemy and adultery.”
“That means this is a case dealing with insurrection or rebellion against the Roman Empire?”
“It concerns a disturbance at the Temple… They say he disrupted the entire monetary system and made threats.”
“I’m not quite sure, my Lord.”
“Why aren’t you quite sure, Lucius?”
“He’s one of the silent ones.”
“One of the suicides, you mean.”
“I don’t see any reason to stay in the city for that,” I say. “I have to get back to Caesarea Maritima and the Mediterranean. You know I simply can’t breathe here.”
“The Priests know you haven’t left the city yet…”
“Guilty as charged. Crucify him.”
“They say he’s scheming to set himself up as the new head of state…”
I laugh aloud.
“…that he commands thousands, tens of thousands — all willing to martyr themselves to his fanatical cause. They say if you don’t destroy him now, chaos and rebellion…”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“The Priests. Caiphas, most particularly.”
“Where is he?”
“Caiphas or the prisoner?”
“I’m going to exile you to Germania when this is all over, Lucius.”
“They’re downstairs, my Lord. Both of them. All the others are with them.”
All the Priests bow, as do the guards, when I sweep into the Great Hall. Immediately I notice that despite their reputed terror of the man, he’s not bound in any way. He’s no Rebel, at least not the kind they’re accusing him of being. All the Priests want to speak. And they don’t even shut up despite the fact that there’s no translator present.
I send for one of the guards who speaks koinē, the common Greek language left by Alexander’s soldiers that the soldiers and the shopkeepers still use to communicate. None of the Priests speak it. One of the shopkeepers does, though, and he begs my permission to come forward and translate with the guard.
At once the Priests start babbling that the prisoner is a healer, a magician, an exorcist, while some of the others present insist he’s only a teacher, until finally the two translators can’t keep up, and they both look at me, shrugging. The Priests say the prisoner caused a disturbance in the Temple, calling them traitors and collaborators — which, of course, they are — claiming they had desecrated the “house of The Lord God, his Father,” whatever that means.
I gaze at the prisoner. I can see his anger about the High Priests, but they’re useful to us. He must actually believe they should be devoted solely to the service of their god. A fanatic, then, but not of the sort they claim. I can see from where I sit that his own hands haven’t labored over weapons or munitions. His long, slender fingers and alabaster skin are more like a woman’s; his hands are more suitable for holding pen and ink — though I doubt he can read and write — than for assembling the swords, shields, and spears necessary for an army. He doesn’t look like a warrior or Rebel or Zealot or a Freedom-Fighter. No, he looks like the teacher his followers and some of the others claim him to be.
A teacher, trying to return his people to their god.
But those eyes of his — oh, yes, I do see the spark that frightens them, the smoldering passion that makes them tremble.
That passion burning in his eyes is a fire for his god.
Yes, he burns, but not against the Roman Empire.
Perhaps he did attack some vendors in the Temple and claim the Priests have desecrated the “house of his Father.” And so they have, with Roman collaboration.
All he did was speak the truth.
With one look he reduces them to a quivering mass because he forces them to see themselves. With one look from him, they fall against each other, their limbs jerking and twitching, their eyes rolling back, their lips frothing. Even my own legionnaires turn pale and tremble though he says not a word.
Should I execute a man because he frightens others by making them see the truth about themselves?
If I look at him, will he make me see some truth about myself?
I wave the guard and the shopkeeper over to me.
“Ask him if he’s plotting rebellion against the government?” I say to the guard in Roman, who asks the shopkeeper in koinē, who repeats the question to the prisoner in his own tongue.
He says nothing as his eyes continue to burn with that fire. But he does look up at me. It feels as if his hand is clenched around my heart. I glance down at the charges until I can catch my breath.
Rebellion, Treason, Tax Evasion, Terrorism, Inciting Riots.
“Have they so angered you by violating your god’s temple that you would allow them to charge you with treason against the Roman Empire, though you’ve committed no such crime?”
That look comes back to his face, that pressure to my chest, and while the shopkeeper and the guard wait for his answer, which I know will never come, I realize that he’s committed to throw himself under the hooves, to be crushed under the wheels, as if that will somehow stop the desecration, as if somehow he’s been born to it, as if somehow his death will change things, and that — above all — what I do matters little to him.
It’s a pity. But what can I do to stop him? We cannot even speak to each other. He wants me to sign. His eyes tell me that. I sign the death warrant.
So. There it is.
When I push aside the document, I see that there is a mark, a stain of some sort on my palm, and I rub my hand against my robe as they lead him away to the same end as all the others. I send one of the boys for water and towels. When he returns, I wash my hands. The water is cool and clear.
After I leave the palace and board my litter, I notice that my hand is still stained. I rub it against my robe, over and over. Lucius has left documents for me. I’ll whip him when I see him next. I kick the documents out of my way, each headed with the traditional and usual notation: To Our Most Honorable and Noble Prefect, Pontius Pilatus.
Just as his was before I signed it.
His eyes are there when I close mine in the litter, leaving the city. His silence is heavy on my skin. A savage cry rips at me from the place they call Golgotha — Hill of Skulls — outside the city walls. Chosen by us long ago so every one of them can see the consequences of resisting us. A hill covered with crosses. Covered with the bones of their leaders. I let the litter-curtain fall into place.
A cloud passes, for a moment, in front of the sun.
The mark in my hand burns and burns.
Excerpts from Naked, with Glasses
Naked, with Glasses
© 1993, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
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Painting: Pontius Pilate Washing His Hands, by Jan Wouters