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Now, on to the story! This excerpt is from Chapter 11, in which Pilate has just arrived at his new posting in Judea, mourning the loss of his daughter and his fall from political power in Rome. But, dutiful and competent, he is ready to begin whipping the place into shape.
Prefect Valerius Gratus was overjoyed at his unexpected relief from duty as Governor when Pilate landed in Caesarea. Gratus was a chubby, middle-aged Roman of mediocre talent and limited intelligence, whose rise to prefect had been largely achieved through family connections. He had repeatedly pestered Tiberius and the Senate for an appointment as a provincial governor, hoping to restore the family fortune he had squandered on expensive artworks and prostitutes. Tiberius had appointed him as Prefect over Judea as a grim joke – it was a poor province, having been squeezed of its gold by a succession of corrupt client kings, priests, and conquering empires for almost a thousand years. Valerius had still tried to line his pockets through aggressive tax farming and an excessive entanglement in local religious politics, but had only succeeded in making himself despised among the Jews.
“They are an impossible people, Pontius Pilate!” he said after welcoming Pilate to the governor’s palace. “Illogical, irrational, and altogether too devoted to their religion! Won’t work on Saturday, won’t go near certain animals, and they seem to take off work for religious festivals on a near-constant basis!”
“We do have religious festivals in Rome, too,” said Pilate, sipping a glass of wine to wash the dust of the town’s busy streets from his throat.
“But our festivals are joyous!” said Valerius. “A time to drink and sing and fornicate to our heart’s content, all to the honor of our gods! They come together and mourn and wail for the forgiveness of their sins, and pray for their god to send the Messiah to restore their fortunes!”
“What on earth is a Messiah?” asked Pilate.
“A huge part of their religious mythology,” said Valerius. “Supposedly he will be a human descendant of their great warrior-king David, but also will be an incarnation of their invisible God – who, incidentally, does not have a proper name. At least, not one that they are allowed to say. They use substitute names like ‘Elohim’ or ‘Adonai’ instead. At any rate, this Messiah-King is supposed to be from David’s line and will drive away the evil Gentiles – that’s their term for us, and for all foreigners – and then restore the Kingdom to its former glory, and bring about the rule of their God on earth.”
Pilate nodded. “What kind of shape is your legion in?” he said.
“Bored, lazy, and corrupt,” said Valerius. “I parcel them out into the countryside, a few dozen to a hundred in all the major villages and towns, and keep a cohort or two here in Caesarea in case of trouble. Half of them are criminals from the worst stews of Rome who live to make trouble with the locals; the other half are decent soldiers. Some of them have gone native and married Jewish girls; a few even worship Adonai or whatever his name is.”
“Why do you tolerate laziness and corruption among your soldiers?” Pilate asked rather sharply.
“I am not much of a military man, I’m afraid,” said Valerius. “I can see the problems, but I have no idea how to fix them. I hope you will have better fortune than I have had!”
“It seems to me, Gratus, that the majority of your problems are self-inflicted!” said Pilate. “Tell me, who is your senior Legate?”
“Don’t have one at the moment. Titus Vorenus was the last one I had, and he got his throat cut by a Zealot over a year ago. Rome has not seen fit to send a replacement,” said Valerius.
Pilate snorted. He wondered if Valerius Gratus had even bothered to ask. “So is your primus pilus centurion worth his salt?” he asked.
“Cassius Longinus?” he said. “A decent fellow, but he is one of those who have gone native since he has been here. He lives in a village called Capernaum with a Jewish wife, and even owns a copy of their Scriptures and reads them to his children from time to time. But he is a first-rate soldier, and seems to understand the local culture as well as anyone.”
This means, thought Pilate, that he would probably be a better governor than you! But he held his silence.
This means, thought Pilate, that he would probably be a better governor than you! But he held his silence.
“Do you suppose that I could use the ship that brought you here to return to Rome?” asked Gratus.
“Of course,” said Pilate. “But the captain wants to put out to sea within the week. Will you have your effects gathered and your report to the Senate ready by then?”
“I can and I will,” said Gratus. “I am more ready to be out of this place than you can possibly imagine! Let’s see, what else do I need to tell you – oh, yes! Festivals! Jewish religion demands that all the faithful who can must gather in Jerusalem at their great temple to celebrate their high holy days. It is always good to have a strong presence in the city at that time – it seems to be the moment that trouble is most likely to flare up. Now, they do not like having Gentiles in their holy city during festivals, so I usually keep most of my troops inside the fortress of Antonia except for the necessary patrols. That way, if trouble breaks out, I can respond quickly and forcefully.”
Pilate nodded. That was the first piece of useful advice the toad had given him. After a few more minutes of discussion, he asked to be shown the governor’s personal quarters. The chambers were luxurious enough, but Valerius Gratus seemed to have the personal hygiene of a pig, and not a very neat one at that. The bedclothes were stained and stale-smelling, there were scrolls and official reports scattered haphazardly about the room, along with the governor’s personal reading material – which, from the quick glimpse that Pilate got before Valerius rolled the scrolls up and stuffed them into his trunk, seemed to be primarily erotic poetry and stories.
To give the man his due, however, he did vacate the chamber quickly. Two trunks held all his personal effects, and a large, locked strongbox in the corner contained his valuables. Within a half-hour, Valerius told Pilate he was done.
“What about the furniture and bedding?” Pilate asked.
“Do what you will with it,” said Gratus. “I have far nicer furnishings at my villa in Rome.”
Pilate looked around the room in disgust. The furniture was old and battered, and he would never ask his wife to sleep in that bed. Perhaps some shopping would be good for her, he thought. He told Democles to bring her from the ship and have their effects delivered. While his servant was gone, he called in a couple of legionaries from the governor’s personal detail.
They were unshaven and hung over, their uniforms wrinkled and stained. Time to start work, thought Pilate as he looked at his men.
“Are you two what passes for soldiers around here?” he snapped angrily.
“Who wants to know?” grumbled the older one. Pilate slapped him, snapping his head halfway round.
“Your new prefect, that’s who!” he snapped. “You call yourselves Romans? Look at you! Slovenly, lazy, unshaven, uniforms a disgrace! Your governor was a pig, so you thought you could get away with being pigs too, is that it? Well, things are changing, starting NOW!”
“Yes, sir!” said the two legionaries. He had their full attention now.
“First of all, I want you to haul all this furniture and the curtains and bedding out of here and burn them. Then I want both of you to go down to the barracks and shave, then bathe, and wash your uniforms. Tell all the legionaries that I will be inspecting the ranks tomorrow, and I had better find them well-turned out, or there will be hell to pay! Make sure they know that there is a new prefect in town!” he said. They got to work very quickly as he sat in the windowsill and watched. At least, he mused, he had not lost his talent for commanding troops. It was something he had worked hard to develop, and he hoped it would help turn the province around.
The soldiers were just hauling out the last of the previous occupant’s soiled personal effects when Procula Porcia came in with her maid, Stephenia, and Democles in tow, carrying one of the trunks. She cast a wary eye around the chamber.
“I see our predecessor favored a rather Spartan lifestyle,” she finally said.
“More a bacchanalian one,” he replied. “I had his furniture burned – it looked as if you might get the pox just touching it! There are some large markets between here and the harbor, though. Could I prevail upon you to purchase us some furnishings and bedding, my dear?”
Porcia looked at him. Her grief for their daughter was enormous and still overwhelming at times, but their loss had driven them closer together rather than further apart, and Pilate was very grateful for that. Life could be short and hard in the Roman Empire, but the loss of a child who had survived all the dangers of infancy was still heartbreaking. Many marriages would not have survived such a loss. Porcia finally nodded.
“I suppose it would do me some good to be busy,” she said finally.
He tossed her a purse full of sesterces. “Be frugal, my dear,” he said. “This is not Spain. We shall make no fortune here, I fear.”
“Have I ever wasted your money?” she asked, and left the room before he could answer.
After she left, Pilate walked down the corridor and outside. He spotted a couple of servants and ordered them to wash and scrub out the governor’s chambers, then strode over towards the barracks. The two soldiers were still burning Valerius’ old furniture, and several of their comrades were watching, laughing and poking fun at them as they worked. Pilate decided to see what they found so funny.
“Legionaries!” he said. The two men who were burning the furniture and bedding snapped to attention. The others slouched to a semi-erect posture. He looked at the men he had disciplined earlier, and nodded. These men were soldiers at heart, he thought. They had just been stuck with a governor who had allowed them to forget their training. He walked up to the biggest of the five spectators and looked him up and down. The man was a head taller than Pilate, and muscular enough, but there was a sheath of fat over his belly and an air of indolence which told Pilate he had traded on his size alone for too long. But the others were watching him with an air of respect and awe, so it was clear that he was the top dog in the barracks. Good, Pilate thought. Breaking him would bring the others into line quickly enough.
“So, are you a soldier of Rome, big man, or are you just a circus freak who stole a legionary’s uniform?” he asked with a sneer.
The burly soldier glared at him and spat on the ground. “I am three times more a soldier than any rump-kissing Roman Senator!” he said with a laugh.
“If I were a rump-kisser, as you so eloquently put it, I would not have been sent to this particular posting, now would I?” Pilate asked in a deceptively soft voice.
The big man looked at him contemptuously. “Maybe you just weren’t doing it right,” he said, and then after a long pause, added: “Sir!”
“Very amusing,” said Pilate, turning his back on the man. Then he drove his elbow backwards and up as hard and fast as he could, catching the unsuspecting behemoth square under the chin and snapping his head back hard. His arms flailed out to grab Pilate, who had already spun out of his reach.
“Mentula!!!” snapped the legionary. “I’ll send you back to Rome in pieces!” With that he lunged forward, and Pilate snapped his foot up in a straight-toed kick to the man’s solar plexus, knocking his wind out. As he doubled over, Pilate grabbed his greasy locks of hair and yanked the man’s head forward and down, where it collided with Pilate’s knee, which he was bringing up as hard and fast as he could. The soldier’s nose crunched audibly, and blood gushed from his face as he crumpled to the ground, holding onto his middle and groaning. The other four soldiers looked at Pilate with shock and fear – this was not the outcome they had expected! Pilate gave them a wolfish grin.
“Anyone else want to try their luck?” he said.
“Not on your life!” said one of them. “If you can take down Brutus Appius that quickly, I doubt any of us would stand much chance.”
“Brutus Appius, eh?” Pilate asked, nudging the doubled up giant at his feet. The big man gave a groan and nodded.
“Well, my name is Lucius Pontius Pilate, and I am the new prefect of Judea,” he said. “I have commanded legions against Germans, Celts, and pirates in my time, and I’ve probably seen more combat than any of you. You men have been allowed to forget that you are legionaries in the service of the Roman Empire. Trust me, you will not be allowed to forget it again! Tomorrow morning there will be an inspection of all the troops here in Caesarea. Your faces will be shaven, your uniforms will be clean, and you will carry yourselves like soldiers! Is that clear?”
“Yes sir!” said five terrified voices at once. Pilate smiled inwardly. Legionaries were much like children, he thought. They will push their boundaries as far as they are allowed to, but once they are reined in, they become as docile as sheep.
“Dismissed!” he shouted, and they scurried into the barracks.
Brutus Appius slowly climbed to his feet and surveyed his new commander. “I suppose you will want to have me flogged?” he said in a rather tired voice.
Pilate looked the big man in the eye and saw resignation there. “No,” he said. “You were acting as your previous commander allowed you to act, and in a manner I am sure you have gotten away with for some time. Are you going to be insolent and disrespectful to me in the future?”
“No, sir!” said Appius.
“Then I see no need for further punishment,” said Pilate. “Do you know why I singled you out?” he asked.
“Because I am biggest and strongest,” replied the legionary without hesitation. “If you can take me down, the others will fear you and obey you.”
Pilate nodded in appreciation. “So there is a brain inside that large and thick calvarium of yours!” he said. “Excellent. Tell me, Brutus Appius, how is this army supplied with centurions?”
“Poorly, sir,” said the big man. “Our primus pilus, Longinus, is a good man and a good soldier, but he could not stand Prefect Gratus, and so was given permission to live in a village not far from here, on the north shore of Lake Tiberius. Other than him, we have about twenty other centurions, some of middling quality, many poor, and two who are decent besides Longinus – Titus Ambrosius here in Caesarea, and Marcus Quirinius in Jerusalem.”
“How strong is the legion then?” he said. “That is not nearly enough centurions for six thousand men!”
“We are severely understrength, sir,” said Appius. “Last full count was taken two years ago, and at that time we were three centuries over four thousand. We’ve lost dozens of men since then. I’d be surprised if we even number four thousand now.”
Pilate was appalled. Four thousand men to control one of Rome’s most rebellious provinces! This place needed some serious shaking up, he decided. Best to get the men into shape first, though, and then see how many reinforcements were needed. He looked at Brutus Appius again. The big man was watching him with curiosity, but without hostility – a sign of intelligence, Pilate decided.
“Brutus Appius, I am going to need good soldiers who are looked up to by their fellow legionaries if I am going to whip this army and this province into shape,” he said. “And I am going to need some centurions who are known and feared by the rank and file. As of now, I am appointing you to Centurion’s rank on a provisional basis. Your first job is to make sure that the men are ready for inspection tomorrow morning. And one more thing – send a fast rider and fetch me this Cassius Longinus. I need to take his measure quickly.”
The tall legionary looked at Pilate in wonder. “Yes, SIR!!” he said, saluting neatly. “I’ll get right on it!” He turned on his heel to go, and then looked back at Pilate. “You know, Prefect, that I probably could have taken you in a fair fight!” he said.
Pilate laughed. “That is exactly why I did not fight fair!” he replied.
The Roman army’s newest centurion grinned at him. “You’re all right, sir!” he said. “For a politician!”
“You’re not bad yourself, Brutus Appius – for an inbred idiot!” The big man guffawed at that and sauntered off towards the barracks. Pilate nodded to himself as he returned to the governor’s quarters. Not a bad start, he thought.