The date is April 7, AD 30. Centurion Cornelius is crucifying a little-known religious leader and two thieves. Suddenly an earthquake occurs, and Cornelius is thrown to the ground and hits his head. When he arises, he proclaims, "Truly, this man was the Son of God." What if you could interview Centurion Cornelius and record his story? Lucinius, a slave, is assigned this task. What Lucinius learns will forever change him and alter the course of history of Rome ... and of the world.
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By William D. McEachern
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 William D. McEachern
All rights reserved.
The Sum of All Things
The sum of all things is ever being replenished, and mortals live one and all by give and take. Some races wax and others wane, and in a short space the tribes of living are changed, and like runners hand on the torch of life.
—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
April 7, AD 54
"Light duty. Ah, my good my luck continues! An easy assignment," said Cornelius. He needed an easy assignment. The march from Caesarea Maritima, some sixty-five milia passuum to the northwest, had been hot, dusty, and insufferable.
Cornelius had come to enjoy very much the sea breezes off the Mediterranean that made Caesarea Maritima so enjoyable, so comfortable, and so civilized. He loved the transparent blue of the water and knew that he could not live out of sight of such beauty. Who would have thought that the son and grandson of legionaries, a man whose family had moved from Spain to Cisalpine Gaul, in the red clay hills of Rusellae in Tuscania, could love the shimmering waves of the ocean so much? Why, it was un-Roman! But as much as Cornelius loved the straight sleekness of the cypress trees on the sides of the hills, the rosebush-draped trellises of hilltop homes, and the fine wine of Tuscania, the smell of salt called him back time and time again.
He knew that he should fear the sea: no Roman trusted the sea. It was dangerous, uncertain, and capricious, always ready to rob a man of his life. But Cornelius loved the sea—although not enough, he reminded himself, to make it his livelihood and take the pay cut that went with being a centurion of marines.
But here he was, stuck in Jerusalem, nowhere near the sea. Built with confined little streets and twisting alleyways, the city teemed with hot, sweaty life; there was not a cooling breeze to be found. Who would build a city in the middle of a desert? he thought. Jerusalem was almost boiling over with rebellion, which seemed to grow as the temperature rose. His century was here in this city of heat, sweat, and rebellion to keep it all from erupting in open revolt against Rome.
What could be easier, he thought, than to lead a criminal to his execution through the fetid streets of a city that has called for his blood? "Giving the rabble what it wants can't be that hard," he said aloud.
His left foot felt awkward. He bent down to rearrange his caligae and retie the laces.
The execution order had interrupted his reverie of Caesarea Maritama. Who wants to be in Jerusalem? Yet here I am. Jerusalem is everything that Caesarea Maritama is not. No fun, no games, no sea to watch, no taverns, no brothels, no amphitheater, and, worst of all, no Mithraeum! In short, there was nothing to entertain a man.
Cornelius longed to stand again overlooking the awesome harbor more than twenty fathoms deep, with its great breakwater and strong seawall that was a marvel to all. Somehow Roman engineers had made a kind of cement that hardened beneath the waves. But as marvelous as this was, the sluicing system that carried away harbor-filling sediment was even more miraculous. Even the facing of the harbor was ingenious: Roman engineers had directed the man-made harbor toward the light wind of the north so ships could enter with ease. Seeing these things thrilled Cornelius like nothing else. But this was a fact that he kept to himself.
He could almost taste the water that the two aqueducts brought from the springs of Mount Carmel, some eight milia passuum to the northeast of Caesarea Maritama.
Each Passover the legion had to march from Caesarea Maritima, the provincial capital, to Jerusalem, to make sure that there was no uprising by the Judeans. It was boring duty. Who cares if some barbarians want to kill each other? Cornelius thought. But Rome did not want a rebellion in Jerusalem, and so he and his century had come here. He sighed.
He called to his optio, Varrus, to gather seven men for the duty. He stood against a wall of what the locals still called the Baris, but which the Romans called the Fortress of Antonia, the name Herod the Great had given his newly rebuilt fortress. Cornelius scanned the structure. Look what Marc Antony's friendship with Herod got him! But it was still impressive—it stood some 115 pedes high and was partially surrounded by a deep ravine some 165 pedes wide. It served as a palace, a barracks, and the headquarters for the Roman soldiers. Here Rome also housed the high priest's ceremonial robes in an effort to control the priest and thereby the people; in his paranoid wisdom, Herod had constructed a secret passage from the fortress to the Temple. Now, as Cornelius waited, he looked through the Sheep Gate framing the Temple.
Optio Varrus marched through the Sheep Gate with seven legionaries arrayed in a line behind him. The sun was hot, and the men sweated in their armor. Varrus' lorica hamate armor was polished as well as rings of iron could be polished. It appeared to have come directly from Hispania, and it shone brilliantly in the sunlight, contrasting with the dull hue of the legionaries' armor. Varrus' most distinctive feature was his nose, which had been squashed flat in a fight. Like those of most optios, his face and arms bore numerous scars, giving him a rugged, hewn-from-rock appearance.
He brought his men to a halt and then to attention by a stamping his hastile upon the ground. The hastile was the mark of his authority, one of the few things that distinguished an optio from the ordinary legionary. This staff, as tall as Varrus himself, was used in battle to keep the legionaries in line and prevent them from fleeing. The only other mark of his rank was his helmet, which bore a horsehair crest from brow to crown, flanked on either side by plumes of feathers. Varrus discreetly adjusted his gladius, which, unlike his centurion's, was on the right side; on his left hip swung clay tablets with the orders of the day. He was the model of a Roman optio.
"Optio Marcus Varrus, ready with seven men, sir!"
Cornelius turned to his optio and returned his salute. "Okay, ladies, we've got to march to the Praetorium, pick up three prisoners, and crucify them. Short and sweet. I want you to march with style and cadence—let the locals know that we are legionaries and men of Rome. Any questions?" Before anyone could answer, he barked, "No? Good."
Centurion Cornelius waved his vine-stick and the troop fell into step. From the pool of Bethesda, where the offerings from the Temple originated, they began their march through the Sheep Gate. Cornelius looked up at the parapet's crenellation atop the shining white wall. He could imagine some archers firing from the crenels while others reloaded their bows, protected by the merlons.
Cornelius stumbled and came back to the moment. He forced himself to focus because they had to make their way through the jumble of the sheep market. The bleating of goats, lambs, and sheep being prepared for sacrifice almost drowned out the cadence of the soldiers' hobnails hitting the cobblestones. The legionaries' noses stung from the animal smell mixed with the pungent odors of urine and dung. It was apparent why the Jews called this entrance into Jerusalem the Sheep Gate: it was through this gate, made of stone blocks and set into a high block wall, that the sacrificial animals were led to the Temple. Carved into the gate was a large flower flanked by two smaller flowers. Those who were not Jewish called it the Floral Gate.
Once the legionaries passed through the gate, they saw the Temple of Herod looming above them. Its massive size awed even the most jaded Roman; it was larger by far than the Temple of Juppiter Optimus Maximus, atop the Capitoline Hill. This Temple had been built upon a rectangular, man-made hill which was well deserving of its name, the Temple Mount. The Jews called the Temple "God's footstool"—a name that only served to underscore how mighty and awesome they thought their God was.
The soldiers' route took them through the Huldah Gates, through the southern wall of the Temple Mount. To the east was a triple- arched gate, and to the west was a double-arched gate, the one through which they had to pass. "It doesn't look like any mouse tunnel I've ever seen," Optio Varrus remarked to no one in particular—a pun on the gates' Jewish name. Beyond the Huldah Gates they caught a glimpse of Herod Antipater's palace. While Herod was a staunch ally of Rome, he had muddled things badly. First he divorced his first wife, a Nabataean, which had threatened the fragile treaty he had brokered with the strong bordering nation of the Nabataeans. Then he impetuously married his brother's wife after forcing his brother to divorce her. This had appalled and disgusted his Jewish subjects, stirred rebellion and strife within his kingdom, and alienated his brother, who was now his rival.
The Romans marched in silence, their only accompaniment the sound of their hobnails striking the stones of the narrow, winding streets of the Upper City. Even though it was still early in the day, and still early in April, Jerusalem's spring—which usually lasted two or three weeks—was already past, replaced by the heat of summer. The almond trees, which bloomed pink only yesterday, it seemed, were now almost devoid of flowers. Cornelius wished yesterday's chill was still in the air today.
The shadow of the Tower of Mariamne gave the men a brief respite from the sun. (The shortest of the three towers in this part of Jerusalem, it was the one that showed a somewhat softer side of Herod the Great, who had erected it in memory of his beloved second wife.) Finally they turned into the Praetorium, the military headquarters of the Tenth Legion in Jerusalem. It housed the legion's sacred Eagle and also served as Pilate's palace.
Cornelius waved his vine-stick and the troops fell in step, the nails of their caligae echoing against the stone. The cadence was sharp and loud, and Cornelius smiled.
"Centurion Gaius Cornelius Balbus reporting to take custody of three prisoners scheduled for crucifixion, sir!"
The prefect produced the prisoners and Cornelius signed the necessary documents, dating them Friday, April 7, AD 30. "Where would Rome be if its records weren't properly kept?" he muttered.
"Centurion, less commentary and more respect!" the prefect ordered.
Along the north wall they marched, three prisoners in hand. A crowd had formed, and most of the onlookers began jeering the prisoners. The usual crucifixion circus, Cornelius thought. Some of the Judeans in the crowd looked appalled, but the Romans and the Greeks, the Nabataeans with their heads wrapped in turbans, and the Syrians and other foreigners who lined the road seemed to enjoy the spectacle. A juggler began making his way through the crowd. An acrobat turned a cartwheel. Some laughed at their tricks; others threw coins. Some simply stood watching, their mouths agape.
Most of the Jews, garbed in their halugs, gave the appearance of a people who were not prosperous. The coarse flax garments dyed with vegetable colors—blue from wood, yellow from pomegranate, lilac from myrtle, and so on—barely retained their hue. The finer linen and wool held the color far better, and the richest people were arrayed like rainbows. The halug itself was but two rectangular pieces of cloth sewn at the shoulders, with a hole left for the head, and sewn down the sides, with holes for the arms. All but the very poorest people had a belt around the waist to gather in the tunic. And again, all but the poorest wore a cloak around the shoulders and usually pulled over the head to protect the wearer from the sun. The richer the person, the finer the linen, but there was no match for Egyptian linen. So the Egyptians stood apart.
One prisoner had been flogged and could barely walk. Having to navigate the uneven street and the numerous steps, rough-hewn from rock, had robbed him of his strength. His head was bleeding from the thorns that encircled it like a diadem. His bare back was a saltire of bloody wheals and strips of hanging skin: he had been savagely whipped. His face was bruised, his left eye swollen shut. His legs could barely carry him; he stumbled and fell time and time again. Each time he fell to the cobblestones, the crowd roared with laughter.
"How long do you think he'll hold out?"
"I've got five sestertii that says he'll make it. Who'll take my bet?"
"I've got ten that says he'll die in an hour upon the cross."
Cornelius noticed one man walking through the crowds who never took his eyes off the thorn-crowned prisoner. This one might be a rebel, waiting for his chance to free the prisoner, he thought.
The flogged man fell to the cobblestones again. Again the crowd roared with laughter, and the betting resumed with even greater enthusiasm.
"You there, carry his cross!" Cornelius pointed his stick at a strong- looking man standing in the crowd that lined the streets.
"Me?" The man looked around and behind him in disbelief.
"Yes, you! Do you want to be crucified too? If not, then be quick about it!"
"I am a merchant from Cyrene," the man said. "My name is Simon. I sell laspericium." He stared blankly at Cornelius, as if the mention of the spice alone would convince the centurion to rescind his order. "I am a Cyrenaic," he said meekly.
"So? Yeah, well that and five sestertii will get you a goblet of cheap wine!" The Cyrenaic backed down under the centurion's glare.
Cornelius saw now that while Simon was tall and swarthy, he was not powerfully built. It occurred to him that a merchant might not be his best choice of man power, but having selected Simon, he knew that he could not reverse course before the crowd. Cornelius summoned Simon with his most authoritative voice: "Help him—now!"
Simon strained and grunted as he hefted the crossbeam upon his shoulders. He looked at the prisoner, their eyes locking for a brief moment. "May my Father give you strength, now and always." The prisoner's voice was barely audible, but suddenly the crossbeam seemed to rest easier on Simon's shoulders.
As Simon and the prisoner walked together, many women followed them, crying and wailing. While the onlookers made it difficult for the legionaries to march, they made it far more difficult for the prisoners to carry their crosses. Some from the crowd threw rocks, refuse, and feces at them. A herd of goats obstructed the street until they could be brushed aside. Taunts filled the air.
"King of the Jews, my ass!"
"You would tear our Temple down?" an old man cried out, leaning on his crutch.
A woman rushed out of the crowd. Her face was streaked with dirt. She wagged a finger in his face. "Does your Father hear you now?"
"King of the Jews! Blasphemer!" cried a scribe, who having said his piece pulled back into the crowd. Others took up the chant and the scribe smiled broadly, pleased with himself that he could incite them.
"You would tear our Temple down?" an old man growled, pulling his prayer shawl closer to his shoulders as if to ward off the nightmare of the destruction of Yahweh's home on earth. He shook his fist as the prisoner stumbled on the cobblestones. The crowd laughed at the prisoner's plight.
A young woman with her child clinging to her breast yelled, "Does your Father hear you now?" Her wool robe was frayed but brightly colored. A little boy clung to her leg, afraid of the mob that was growing around and above him, but excited by the carnival atmosphere.
One man darted through the crowd, peering from behind one person after another, trying to catch a glimpse of the flogged prisoner. He made sure that no one saw him, for he was afraid to be denounced as a follower. Why didn't I speak up before the rooster crowed? he thought.
A wine merchant held up goblets: "Wine! Wine for sale!" His young son stood next to him, holding extra skins. The older man bent down and whispered in his son's ear, "Mark this, boy: business is always good during an execution."
Suddenly a man ran out of the crowd, grabbed the prisoner's hair, and wrenched his head backward. Looking at him eye-to-eye, he yelled, "Still going to pull the Temple down? Can you do it in three days? Do you have three days?"
Excerpted from Casting Lots by William D. McEachern. Copyright © 2014 William D. McEachern. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED—LOVED—LOVED IT!!! I sooo totally got engrossed in it and would be startled when my husband called to pick me up frm work! It was absolutely fantastic….. :-) Soooo??—when’s your next book coming out?
Excellent!!! I've read a lot of books about Ancient Rome and this is one of the best. I'm about half way through it and can't wait every night to get back to it. I hope the author has plans for more books.
A fascinating tale of how an ordinary man -- a slave -- evolves into one of the most influential religious and literary figures of the First Century A.D. His spiritual awakening is prompted by a most unlikely mentor, and the story of how this bond develops is at once engrossing and inspiring. The author displays an amazing knowledge of the details of the Roman culture that dominated the early days of Christianity, underscoring the incredible challenges Christians faced in simply surviving in the world of Imperial Rome.
Greatest story ever told!