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I am heartened by your consideration to an appointment within my administration. This position of Chief Secretary is held by Orion Galerinius Honoratus. Orion is unaware of the precariousness of his employ; he knows only that an old friend is coming to Judaea for a visit. I will appreciate your discretion upon arrival.
You may have heard of the recent event in Jerusalem, the matter of one Jesus of Nazareth, leader of a Jewish sect in my province. It was a distasteful matter, typical to the trials involved in ruling a people as obstinate, rebellious, and seditious as the Jews. I look forward to discussing this event with someone of true Roman sensibility.
Most important to me is your witness to the veracity of my reports of a people as difficult to manage as the Jews. The jeopardy of my secretary's position testifies to this: he is a Jewish sympathizer, a vexatious man bewitched by whatever spell these people hold over the weak-minded and frail.
How fares Sejanus? I hear disturbing reports that he falls from favor with Tiberius. A pity ... he was my sponsor, you know. Bring what news you can.
I anticipate your arrival, and will begin to look for you. May your journey be accompanied by fair winds and good fortune. Long live Tiberius. Pontius Pilate, by my own hand.
Herod may have been Jewish-Jewish enough-but at least he had taste. He had chosen the best place in Caesarea for his palace, right on a dramatic promontory, right in the spray of the Mediterranean. The first story withstood any threats from the sea, and the second story afforded a magnificent view. It was arguable that the mighty harbor to the north was built only to grace the view of the palace.
Pilate leaned on the window and caught the salty tang of the sea in a billowed mist on his face. The glorious harbor, the sumptuous Praetorium Palace, the Temple of Rome and Augustus; the theater and the statuary and the gardens; the Great Stadium with clashing tournaments, its sands dark and foamy with blood ... because of these things, these alone, Pilate could feel at home in a gods-blasted outpost like Judaea.
Because of these alone Pilate could ask his old friend Decimus to come from Rome. On the way, he had surely put in at the decrepit harbor at Phalasarna in Crete, then at Paphos on Cyprus. Either harbor would provide perfect contrast to what Decimus would soon find upon arrival at Caesarea.
If Decimus were at the bow, sea spray on his face, gazing at shining green-blue crests in the perfect weather of early summer, perhaps he would see a white speck upon the horizon. He would squint and ask of a deckhand, and be told, yes, that is Caesarea; the white speck is the Temple of Rome and Augustus. And Decimus would wonder out loud, You can see it so far out? And the deckhand would assure him, Just wait until you come into the harbor.
He would have heard about Herod's harbor, the better between it and the mighty Piraeus in Athens. This sweep of coastland, from Antioch in northern Syria down to the Egyptian border, provided no natural harbor, not for major trade. Herod the "Great" built a harbor so glorious, so sweeping in size it took a Roman to fully appreciate it. Indeed, Caesarea-he had named it for Augustus-became Herod's little Rome. It was Herod who built the pagan temple for Augustus. Herod who built the Roman amphitheatre. Herod the Jew.
Decimus will remember that when he sees the colossal statues at the harbor mouth, and the colonnaded temple on the hill, the majestic centerpiece of the quay. When his ship comes under tow by a smaller vessel, and when he passes, openmouthed, beneath the sculpted stone arch connecting the towers at the harbor entrance, perhaps his skin will rise from a chill not induced by sea spray. He will think, astonished: This, from the hand of a Jew! And in the marveling, his childhood friend will be elevated in his estimation-Pilate is governor here. Pontius Pilate!
Pilate smoothed his hand on the damp stone windowsill. Maybe it was built on the promontory because it was closer to Rome. He pushed off from the window, away from the view, away from the pull of Rome. Orion Galerinius was waiting. Orion was a poor substitute for the view.
When he knew he had the governor's attention, the slightly built man opened and consulted his tablet. "Theron," Orion stated. "He is waiting in the audience hall with a few other candidates. Remember Theron? He repaired the mosaic around the drainage hole in the pool last winter."
Would Decimus trade his freedom for the tablet and stylus? Decimus was free. Free, after twenty years of military service, ready to take a pension and a wife and head for family land. Would he run back to Rome when he realized what sort of smug, cantankerous people he would have to deal with? Or would he see it as a challenge, just the sort he loved?
He would soon see what the Jews had put Pilate through. A mere letter could not convey the vexatiousness of these people. He'd rather face Jupiter in a bad mood than a cohort of these circumcised subjects of Rome....
Orion Galerinius was waiting for an answer.
"Theron does fine work," said Pilate. "Hire him. Have him bring samples of borders, as well as any new patterns from Pompeii."
"You plan for more than a border for the walkway?" Though Orion kept his eyes on his tablet, over which his hand busily worked, his brow came up ever so slightly.
"If it pleases me," Pilate snapped.
"As you wish, Excellency. Theron and his people will be honored to be in the employ of Rome."
"Has the Primipilaris arrived?" Primipilaris, ex-first spear. Decimus had earned that title.
Orion finished pressing a note on the waxed tablet. "Not unless he has come in the last hour. I have a man waiting for him."
"His rooms are ready?"
"Have been for days."
"Good." Pilate would miss Orion's efficiency. He had a way of anticipating the governor that was both pleasing and irritating. "This Theron did fine work. Talkative, if I remember. Went on and on about the barbarian mosaicist who had done the original pool tile."
Orion's mouth twisted wryly. "Opinionated, sir. The good ones always are. His work rivals that of Dioskurides."
Pilate felt himself brighten. Dioskurides of Samos, one of the most brilliant mosaicists ever. So Caesarea had a Dioskurides. Another thing to tell Decimus. "Yes. Theron is an excellent choice. Put him to work right away. As soon as the hole is punched through."
"As you wish, Excellency."
"Next?" Pilate said, and Orion fell into pace beside him.
"Another letter from a place on the Galilee. Magdala. Owners of a dyeworks protesting an import tax on the Phoenician purple."
"Reply standard. Inform me when the letter count reaches five." Pilate trotted down the stone steps and rounded the corner. Orion kept pace, jotting as he went.
Pilate suddenly stopped. "There is a Phoenician-purple dyeworks at Joppa. Since when is the purple imported?"
Orion's lips pursed. "It isn't."
Who had slapped an import tax on the dye? Was Rome getting a cut? He continued down the steps. "Inform me when the count is five. Contact the magistrate who originated the tax and tell him we get 10 percent. Next?"
Orion pressed the notes in the wax, then hesitated as he consulted the other side of his tablet. "Conscription of a Jewish stonemason for the Tiberateum."
Pilate stopped, and Orion continued a step before he stopped as well.
"Well, what is it?" Pilate demanded. "He's purple over the fact that it's in honor of Tiberius ? Tell him his own Herod built the Temple of Rome and Augustus."
"He has agreed to work on the Tiberateum-"
"Generous of him."
"-but will not work on his holy day." Orion's brown eyes met Pilate's briefly, then dropped.
Pilate stared down at the diminutive man, even smaller for standing a step lower. Will not work on his holy day. Will not. Pilate scratched his nose with his fingertip. "Well," he said softly. "Curse me if I cross the creed of the Jew. Of course, reply Jewish standard: give him his way."
Orion began to jot, but fury came. No. Pilate couldn't let this one go, not so soon after Jerusalem. The Jews needed a reminder of who was in charge. Every seventh day is their Sabbath?
"No, Orion. This: let him be scourged with seven times seven every day he does not work his Sabbath. If the others think to get out of work because of his example they will think again." He cut a quick glance at his secretary-yes, Orion was slow to record it on his tablet. Don't think I did not see. "This evening their Sabbath begins. The day after tomorrow I want you to be at the worksite just before the men leave for the day. Assemble them and give the decree. The man will have one week to ponder his indiscretion." Scourge him seven times seven. It was lyrical. He drew a breath and said brightly, "Next?"
They came to the bottom of the stairwell and out into the colonnaded corridor. The columns bordered the swimming pool on all sides. It was a vast area that would be called the atrium back home.
A small room near the stairwell, of what purpose before imperial occupation Pilate was unsure, now served as the palace shrine. In it he could see Janus Bifrons, the palace priest, arranging a grain offering in the corner. Fussy as a prissy grandmother, that was Janus. He positioned the bronze dish, stood back to look, repositioned it. He glanced up as they passed and gave a ridiculous smile, as if pleased to be caught at his duty. Pilate ignored him and looked past the shrine to the triclinium.
A glance told him the dining room was ready, as was Orion's way. The table was set with refreshment, the serving ware polished to impress. Each day for the past week the table had been laid at the ready. Pilate hoped Decimus would prove as efficient. He had known Decimus since childhood; yes, he was a fine soldier, and ever the Roman competitor. But had he the talent for detail? Patience for it? Pilate had his doubts. Orion would have to train him well.
Pilate's fists closed. By the favor of the gods-and Janus Bifrons had taken his vow to the temple-he would secure Decimus. Decimus's father, Vitellus, was instrumental in Pilate's own posting; Vitellus had been friends with Sejanus, and Sejanus had been the confidante of Tiberius. Though scuttlebutt said Sejanus had fallen from favor with the emperor, time was Sejanus had his ear ... and the gods had favored Pilate through suggestions whispered there.
Vitellus had always been good to Pilate. Ever since he was a boy, throwing makeshift javelins with Decimus, he had been treated by Vitellus as another son. It pained him to know that good Vitellus heard the rumors, too.
Why couldn't the Jews act like a subjugated people? Why couldn't Tiberius see their insolence? All the emperor heard were reports. Jewish reports. Whining and griping about the way Pilate ran things. Caesar was deceived into thinking Pilate was the instigator! Caesar should come to Judaea himself. Give him one month here, just one month. He'd kick them out of their own country as he had kicked them out of Rome.
His smirk disappeared. If only Tiberius knew of Pilate's devotion, of his loyalty. If only he knew the inspiration he himself was to a patriotic governor on the outskirts- no-on the expansion of the Empire.
He quelled the growl in the back of his throat. Curse the Jews for turning his devotion into humiliating scandal. Curse them for making his name a mockery! He knew what they thought in Rome. Pilate is weak. He cannot control as simple a folk as the Jews. What makes him think he will ever rise above a provincial governor?
Decimus was the key. Pilate's good name could be restored with the witness of Decimus. They would believe him; his father was Vitellus.
"... a delicate matter. Her name is Rivkah. She is a Jewish prostitute. It appears she has-"
"Do not speak in my presence the name of one so insignificant as a Jewish prostitute!" Tiny missiles of spit landed on the tablet. "If that contains one more Jewish matter, you shall lunch on it."
"As you wish, Excellency." Orion discreetly slid his sleeve over the spit.
Pilate tugged down the sides of his toga. "Next?"
Orion doubtfully studied his tablet. "It appears our business is concluded. I will see to Theron."
"Good. Ready my escort. It is a beautiful day; I will walk to the harbor myself to see if Decimus has arrived."
"Tell me, Orion, what matter involving a Jewish prostitute is so cataclysmic it must be brought to the attention of the governor of Judaea?" Pilate watched Orion color. "What matter could not be solved by a common magistrate? By a harbor sweeper!" Pilate now stood his tallest, gazing down on Orion. "What matter involving a Jewish whore could not be solved by the Chief Secretary to the Governor of the Judaean Imperial Province of Rome?"
Orion had closed his tablet. He kept his eyes appropriately averted and appropriately did not answer. He had been told, after all, that he would eat his tablet if he said one more Jewish word. Orion was smart, if not wise.
Pilate let the moment linger, then said, "State the matter."
Orion opened his tablet. "It involves the granary going up in the southeast quadrant. There is a certain tree planted within the perimeters of the project. Apparently it is a custom of the Jews to plant a tree for a child when it is born. Work has not progressed to the slope, but the woman has"-for an instant, Orion's cadence faltered-"taken up residence in front of the tree. Because she is a prostitute, she has caused a bit of"-again that very interesting hesitation-"a scene. According to the foreman, some of the men have a hard time keeping attention on their work. The woman attends the Praetorium daily to plead for her tree, and the foreman on the project wants to know what is to be done." Orion closed his tablet.
Pilate stared. It was a perfect example of a Jewish matter poisoning the natural reason of man normally talented in his work. Anyone who could not deal with a situation like that deserved to be kicked all the way back to Rome. Any misgivings at losing Orion evaporated once and for all.
He put his palms together and tapped his lips with his forefingers. "The foreman wants to know what is to be done with the tree ... gods, what a perplexing situation. Would that I had Cicero at my aid. Perhaps I should write to Seneca. Shall we appeal to Tiberius?" Orion's face was growing dusky red. Pilate couldn't wait to tell this to Decimus. "Or ..."
Excerpted from Stones of my Accusers by Tracy Groot Copyright © 2004 by Tracy Groot. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 25, 2014
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