Greetings from the capital of the Roman Empire. I can scarcely believe I’m in this wondrous place. All of the cities I’ve seen, even Alexandria, pale in comparison to this city. According to Joseph, there are more people in Rome than Alexandria and Jerusalem put together: one million. And this number does not include the many visitors in the city, which included our small group that had trekked through the Via Flaminia, from Rome’s major port into the capital.
Before we were given our grand tour, our entourage went straight to Publius Vasilius estate on the outskirts of Rome. It was almost nightfall before we arrived at our destination. The Via Osteniensis was a well-traveled highway into Rome. Because we were snug inside our vans, only the brightly costumed guards received any scrutiny. A column of Roman legionnaires moved slowly passed us in the opposite direction sitting on their mounts in stony silence. Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho’s fierce appearances must have given even the Romans pause. The rocking motion of the carriage caused me to doze on and off—my mind flickering like a candle as I watched evening descend on the road.
At last, I thought, snuggling into my robe, imperial Rome!
Though excited by the journey, I was worn out by the long voyage. Joseph, his sons, and our steadfast guards were also exhausted. Except for polite amenities between each other, the only conversation I heard was the murmur of Loftus chatting with Strabo. Joseph instructed us to file out quietly so as not to draw attention to ourselves. Publius great house looked like a palace. In the manner of most wealthy Roman villas, the inside of the villa was quite sumptuous but the outside of the house was rather plain. There was, in fact, unflattering writing and drawings on the walls hateful to Jews. I’ve never experienced prejudice for my belief until hearing the good-natured banter on the ship and listening to Publius’ report about Tiberius’ treatment of the Jews.
After a fine dinner, in which we shared our adventures with Publius and his family, we were led by servants to our chambers. I was so tired, I bathed quickly with the basin of hot water provided, and, after pulling on the nightshirt lying on the pallet, tumbled into bed. I remember dreaming, but this time it was those silly kind of dreams that made little sense.
The next day, after a modest breakfast, we set out bright and early with high expectations. Quickly, though, as our host predicted, daylight brought sporadic jeers. Louder more mean-spirited catcalls followed, as we crossed into the Gentile portions of Rome, causing Joseph to smile grimly and the guards to break into laughter. One particular question posed by a passing soldier, “So you’re too good to eat pork, eh?”, epitomized the mood we encountered. I won’t repeat the other catcalls we heard on the way: they were not merely insulting but vulgar and profane.
It was, Joseph admitted to me, because of the way we were all dressed. After deliberating on our dilemma for a while, we returned to Publius’ estate and waited for togas—the correct Roman gentleman’s dress—to be wrapped around us by servants. The guards refused to put on this effeminate dresses, which was all right with Joseph, since the guards were obviously not Jews. According to Publius, who would act as our guide, no one would be the wiser until we returned to the Jewish quarter after our tour. Upon crossing the Tiber back into this region, however, both freedmen and citizen pedestrians would single out the Jews-in-disguise with undisguised hostility and begin insulting us again.
All of the external walls of the wealthy Jews we had passed, many of whom lived in the prosperous portions of the city, were pallets for hate-mongers. According to Publius, Rome had never been intolerant of Jews until recently. The reason for this growing bitterness was the lack of respect we Jews had for their pagan gods but more recently the deferment of Jews from military service following the reverses Rome has had on the Rhine. All this we had already heard from Publius. At times, it seemed as if he was belaboring the issue. We had learned more about current Roman history as we sat at the dinner table last night. It had only been nine years since Varus Quinctilius’ disaster in Germania, Publius explained grimly, a point where resentment for Jewish refusal to fight for Rome was fueled. Before that Augustus, who needed the goodwill of wealthy Jews, had made them a privileged class. Both Pompey and Julius Caesar before him had singled out the Jews for special treatment, too. Publius was unclear as to why this was so but made it very clear that historically the Romans, unlike the Greeks and Syrians, had never been prejudice toward the Jews. Of course, that was before Varus’ disaster.
Publius’ tone, more than his words, indicated his bitterness about the subject. It was, he explained as our carriage moved into the most well-trafficked road in Rome, the soldiers, particularly the Praetorian Guards, more than ordinary citizens who felt resentment toward our people. The imperial guards hurled the worst abuses as they rode through the city, drumming up dissent and accosting the Jews in the Jewish quarter whenever the opportunity arose. I didn’t tell him, of course, that Jude, my youngest brother, wanted to be a soldier. Publius informed us, quite without my prodding, that, because of their refusal to work on the Sabbath and worship Roman gods, Jews would have been refused entry into the army even if they tried to enlist. I wonder, little brother, if Rome will ever be ready for a Jewish soldier. I’ve met many fine young officers during our journey, none so excellent as our friends Cornelius and Longinus. Until we were safely out of our sector of town, however, we received unfriendly looks from passing guards and, an occasional jeer from a soldier or civilian on foot. To our relief our new clothes and Publius coaching helped camouflage our Jewishness as we entered the city proper. Despite the outlandish dress of our guards and outbursts of Levi and Matthias at seeing so much pagan statuary, it seemed that the further we ventured into the city, the less citizens cared about our mannerisms and dress. We were just more noisy, eccentric tourists in the crowded metropolis. Joseph, who had been in Rome before, told me in confidence that the old Roman families were more worried about the corrupting influences of Egypt and Syria than the religion of the Jews. Many Romans were taking up foreign gods, such as Isis and Baal (who demanded sacrifice of children). What harm could an invisible god do, quipped our host? During Joseph’s last visit, in fact, only six years ago, there had been no signs whatsoever of discontent, but Augustus had been the emperor at that time. All of this discontent, I gathered from Publius and Joseph’s discussion, followed Tiberius’ decision to order Jewish men to serve in the army as punishment after Roman matrons were bedeviled into joining our faith. If they wouldn’t abjure their religion, the remainder of the Jews had been ordered by Tiberius to leave Rome at once. These, among his first major decisions of the new emperor, and the attitude of soldiers in the city had caused the ill feeling toward us in the Jewish sector and neighboring areas of Rome. With good counsel by the Senate, the emperor decided against banishment of the remainder of the Jews for not abjuring their religion, but he never forgave the conscripts who refused to fight for Rome. The charges of subversion of a Roman matron and subsequent stolen treasure were very likely trumped up charges so that a force of Jewish soldiers could be sent to Sardinia in order to test our devotion to the Roman state. It was, Publius believed, our peoples’ refusal to fight more than their refusal to worship Roman gods and alleged theft of treasure that rankled military men, such as Tiberius. Unfortunately, in spite of the protection given all residents of Rome against hotheads, many soldiers and sympathetic Roman citizens could not forgive what they saw as lack of patriotism. Moreover, official policy could not change the mood created by Tiberius’ actions. In the words of the Pharisee, “Only time, the balm of memory, could heal this rift.”
In what seemed to be a circuitously planned route, Publius, who had the good sense not to invite his wife and children along, sat amongst us but a safe distance from the window, ordering our driver in his loud womanish voice to stop here and there at various points of interest. I was excited with our new adventure, but I could tell that Matthias and Levi were uncomfortable at times and Joseph was anxious to conduct his business and leave this irreverent city behind. Rome, in fact, had far more statues than either Alexandria or Greece.
Our first stop, the Theatre of Marcellus, wasn’t far from the Jewish quarter. It was, Publius explained to us, the only building we could safely go inside without fear of spiritual contamination. Augustus had built it for his one time heir, Marcellus. Not long after Marcellus’ death, his grandsons Gaius Caesar and then Lucius Caesar died, leaving the emperor’s grim faced and humorless stepson, Tiberius, to take his place. As we were led up to the great edifice, Publius commented that Rome would have been a better place if Marcellus, Gaius or Lucius had replaced old Augustus, instead of that dreadful man.
It dawned on me, however, as their voices echoed in the corridor leading into the theatre, that Rome could have done worse. Though Roman officers in Judea and Galilee had never thought to conscript Jews, our own procurator ordered the crucifixion of Jewish malcontents and now maintains a military presence in many towns. The fact that Tiberius, an obviously stern, uncompromising fellow, would not have punished the Jews more severely for their irreverence and not serving the state, impressed me greatly. When I mentioned this to Joseph he gave me a thoughtful nod. I heard Loftus remark that the penalty for desertion for soldiers, who were citizens, was a gauntlet of clubs or worse. Most of the Jews living in the capital were not even citizens and were eligible for the direst punishment, such as crucifixion, so they were lucky to be exiled instead of being nailed to a cross. Although this train of thought made me cringe, it inspired Matthias and Levi into commenting about Judah’s uprising in which thousands of Galileans were crucified for rebelling against Rome.
“Don’t be fooled,” Matthias looked around defiantly, “it could happen here. I can see it in their faces—everywhere: that look. They hate us for our way of life and religion. It just takes something like Judah’s rebellion or this incident in Rome” “and blap,” he demonstrated, socking his palm, “more dead Jews!”
“Nonsense,” cried Joseph, “it’s not that bad!”
“Yes, it’s true,” agreed Levi fearfully. “They’re just biding their time, especially the soldiers. We don’t want to run afoul of them!”
The Spirit moved me that moment.
“Levi,” I said softly, “your father’s right. You’re exaggerating—both of you. We’re going to be all right. I know this as a fact.”
“Oh, how do you know that?” Matthias snarled. “Did God tell you this? Is this another one of your miracles?”
“Stop it Matthias!” Joseph wrung his finger. “You’re scaring your younger brother. Don’t taunt Jesus. We’re not in any more danger here than we were in Alexandria or Athens. Tiberius is bad, but Herod, our king, was much worse.”
Though bitter, himself, about the graffiti in his quarter of the city and the abuse of Jews in the recent past, Publius had become self-conscious of our discussion. He kept mopping his brow and looking around for possible eavesdroppers. The building we entered had been a great echo chamber, amplifying our voices tenfold. Yet, for several moments, it seemed as if our small group were the only ones in the theatre.
Playfully, just to hear his own voice, Loftus called out through cupped hands “Hel-ohh! Who goes there?”
“Tra-la-la-la-la!” Tycho’s sang in a sonorous voice.
Joseph held his finger up to his lips yet laughed softly to himself. It was so spontaneous, I suppressed a smile. Matthias and Levi, who had taken an immediate dislike to the merchant, had smirks on their faces as Publius squirmed. Encouraged by our reactions, Strabo and Glychon emitted loud well-timed belches. I’ve heard Simon belch loudly, but this sounded like the croaking of two giant frogs. As we approached the awesome statue of Marcellus, several tourists appeared in the interior of the building, hopefully not drawn by the noise. Matthias and Levi’s seditious grumbling had begun to worry Publius, as did the boisterous voices of the guards.
“This is Rome, not Galilee.” He wrung his hands. “We’re not the majority; we’re but a tiny few. Stop acting like a bunch of rustic provincials! We must hold our tongues, until this crisis passes, and it will if you don’t give them cause.”
“The little merchant doesn’t like your singing,” Glychon murmured to Tycho.
“He better watch his tongue,” Strabo growled.
Joseph took Publius aside in order to calm him down. Publius was agitated by the guards’ energy and the bad attitude of Joseph’s sons, but it was much more. This was not a good time for a guided tour, at least not in the merchant’s mind. Joseph was used to Matthias and Levi’s behavior and the antics of his carefree guards. I enjoyed their banter and could hold my own against his sons. Under the circumstances, however, the freedom we had in Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Athens was unacceptable here. I felt sorry for Publius. He was an insecure and frightened little man. Perhaps at Joseph’s coaxing, he apologized for his outburst, comported himself, and presented his first observations during our tour.
Obviously well-versed in history as well as architecture, he gave us, in a nutshell, a list of the finest features of the amphitheatre, but only after a sketch of Augustus son-in-law Marcellus: from his marriage to Augustus’ daughter Julia, through the emperor’s illness in which it was expected that Marcellus would succeed him, to Marcellus sudden death, which is still a mystery in Rome. It was rumored, Publius said from the corner of his mouth, that Augustus’ wife Livia, and Tiberius mother, poisoned Marcellus in order to remove him from the path to the throne. Be that as it may, the Theatre of Marcellus, he explained, twittering his fingers, was Augustus’ memorial to his heir: Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Like many Roman buildings, it copied the architecture of Greece, but the seating area in the theatre is semicircular as it faces the stage—a distinctly Roman convention. Augustus made sure that Marcellus’ theatre gave only respectable plays and recitals, although the performances might still be considered too profane for Jewish eyes. Stacked up around the building, he noted hastily as we exited the theatre, are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns—the three major column styles used in Rome.
Publius was in a great hurry to get us out of the theatre, obviously worried that we had been overheard. As we made our get-away, the four guards took their time swaggering down the steps. Joseph asked him why he was hurrying but Publius shrugged his shoulders helplessly as he scurried into the carriage.
I pricked up my ears as the guards approached and we climbed one-by-one into the carriage. The big, fierce-looking men mounted their horses and, gripping their reins, positioned themselves at one of the four security zones around the coach. They were not happy with Publius’ attitude. Though they tried, it was difficult for these gruff men to be discreet.
“What’s the matter with him?” Loftus grumbled. “I thought he was Joseph’s friend.”
“He’s afraid of the Romans,” Tycho snickered. “That’s one scared Jew!”
“This is off the beaten path.” observed Glychon, “yet it’s too close to home. Over there, across the Tiber, is the Jewish quarters. It’ll get better when we head downtown.”
As the coachmen cracked his whip, however, Loftus disagreed. “There’s something else bothering him. He’s embarrassed with us. He called us rustic provincials. He included Joseph when he said that. I never heard Joseph called that.”
“Something’s not right.” Strabo voice faded as the carriage lurched forward. “He practically dove into the coach. You’d think he saw a ghost.”
“I don’t trust him!” I could hear Loftus mutter as the carriage rumbled down the cobbled street. “He’s no proper Jew. He sweats like a pig, talks like a woman, and has shifty, little eyes.”
The four men laughed aloud, perhaps unkindly, at Loftus’ words. It struck me as significant, if not coencidental, that their conclusions matched mine. At this point, as we joined the traffic of carriages, divans, horsemen, and pedestrians, Joseph shushed his guards. Because my ear was next to the window, I heard their muted conversation, but inside the coach no one seemed the wiser. Once again, I thought, the Lord worked in mysterious ways. It was obvious, at least to me, that our host and tour guide was greatly intimidated by something and therefore uncomfortable with our presence in Rome. If I hadn’t known better, I might think that we came at a bad time. Fear not family, the worst is yet to come, but in Publius’ house, not in Rome. Rest assured, through it all, in spite of the mood in Rome and Publius’ deceit, the Lord is with me. He will be with Joseph, his sons, and his guards too.
Though we couldn’t enter the theatre of Pompey, it was, Publius declared, even more grand than the Theatre of Marcellus, but we would have to take his word for it. This earlier theatre was designed for the populace, rather than being a show place like the Theatre of Marcellus. It’s covered porticos protected visitors from the rain or sunlight and provided viewers with statues of great actors and artists. Long arcades exhibited collections of paintings and sculptures, some unfortunately quite profane and unacceptable to our eyes. A large space was provided for public gatherings and meetings. The highest point of the structure was the temple of Venus Victrix, Pompey’s personal deity, a naked statue of the goddess adorning the shrine.
On the way to the center of Rome we passed the Forum Borium, which was also a great defilement to Joseph’s sons. It was, Publius said with disgust, a smelly meat market, supplying the citizenry with pork as well as beef and fowl. Flies, rats, and feral dogs roamed the meat market, which also provided sacrificial animals to the various temples in town. It was, I must confess, much worse than the sacrifices at the temple of Jerusalem, which, for our people, was the only repository for this filthy custom. Not far from this unsightly area was, Publius pointed out, the Temple of Hercules Victor, a small, round temple with twenty tall Corinthian columns, which was the oldest marble building in Rome, and then nearby, the Temple of Portunas, a larger, rectangular building, whose inner sanctum is reached after a long flight of steps. Surrounding this temple on all sides are Ionic columns, intricate carvings above them, with profane statues on its roof.
After continually stepping out of our coach to view the lesser-known monuments of the city, we all took a short break to use a public urinal and cloaca. Loftus allowed his great black horse to slurp water from the communal fountain, as a group of tourists waited their turn to slack their thirsts. The other guards followed Loftus’ example, which included climbing off their horses, removing their helmets and dunking their heads in the basin. Joseph scolded them gently, but Publius broke into hysterical laughter as a pair of legionnaires passed by. Publius confessed later as the horsemen frowned at our guards, that he hadn’t been certain about the city’s ordinances until now. The legionnaire’s silence settled the matter when they allowed their own horses to drink from the basin.
When we returned to the coach, Publius sat by the window now that we were safely in cosmopolitan Rome. No one cared who we were now. He wouldn’t confess his fears that day, but Joseph told me later that Publius once admitted to being pelted with rotten food and even stones during his trips into Rome. He was never sure what he had done to anger the people near his quarter, but it couldn’t simply be his religion since many of his antagonists were also Jews.
As we reached the center of the city, my anticipation soared. Because I had taken the opposite window, I was able to look out and see the Roman Forum below the Palatine Hill almost as soon as our guards caught sight of it. Loftus called out loudly through cupped hands “Roman Forum! Roman Forum!”
As we stepped out of the coach, Publius pointed excitedly at the sparkling white marbled edifices with their endless colonnades, proclaiming this spot as the heart of Rome. The Roman Forum sat below the Palatine Hill, with the Capitoline Hill sweeping up magnificently on its far side. I wish I could paint a picture for my family. You would not believe this awesome sight. We had arrived at the highest point of our tour.
“We must go on foot now,” Publius declared, waddling ahead.
“Loftus,” Joseph said hurriedly, “decide which two of you will guard the coach. The other two will accompany us into the forum.”
During our walk, with our host chattering and Joseph’s sons grumbling amongst themselves, Loftus and Strabo provided all the security we would need. Matthias and Levi promised to keep their peace. As always in a crowd, the big Nubians comported themselves quite well. There were all manner of people from the four corners of the empire: dark and fair skinned folk, with different physical features, and dissimilar attire. Who would notice a small band of Jews, dressed in proper attire, except for our big black guards? My head swam with the diversity and grandeur of Rome. Publius’ historical background for each building was interrupted frequently by my questions as well as elucidations by Joseph and polite observations by our guards. As I write down what I saw and heard, I pray that the order given is correct. I can’t record everything I saw. Publius said it would be impossible to point out every nook and cranny that we passed. Nevertheless, I will do the best I can.
According to Publius, as we made our first stop on foot, the Temple of Castor and Pollux was built during the early Republic in honor of the twin sons of Zeus—the chief god of the Greeks. It was used as a meeting place of the Senate during the Republic and later as a depository of imperial treasure. The temple, which was rebuilt after a fire during the rein of Augustus, had tall intricately carved Corinthian columns. Pagan imagery, noted by Matthias and Levi, was intertwined with the capitals and entablature (among the many terms I learned during our trips.) Unfortunately, the steps leading up to the columns of the temple were the boundary, which we could not cross. The pagan statues on its roof, though offensive up close, were permissible from afar, for they were not yet discernible. The interior of the temple, which Publius himself had not seen, however, would be filled with Castor and Pollux’s profane images and the Lord knows what else—a pattern we would encounter throughout our tour.
In addition to giving us some of the history of what we saw, Publius explained the nature of the various gods. The Temple of Saturn, the Roman god of planting and sowing, was even older than Castor and Pollux, having been built by Tarquinus, an Etruscan king. This many columned temple, similar in many ways to the others, contained a wooden god, rather primitive, who carried a scythe. Many citizens store their valuables inside the temple, though Publius’ own fortune was kept in the care of a rich Jewish banker in Rome.
As we shielded our eyes from the sun, Publius pointed out various other sites in the forum. The pagan shrines and temples were so similar to each other, Matthias, Levi, and the guards began showing signs of boredom. One small, circular edifice, the Temple of Vesta, was singled out as both a religious shrine and vault of important documents submitted by magistrates as well as citizens. Located between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Julius Caesar, this marble columned temple was modeled after the ancient Roman mud and straw huts. This was because Vesta was the goddess of the family hearth. There was no statue of the goddess inside the shrine, Publius reassured us, only a sacred fire, yet—a fact confusing to me—there was a statue of Athena (the Greek equivalent to Minerva), the goddess of wisdom, inside the shrine. It was obvious to Joseph and me, as we whispered amongst ourselves, that the Romans are essentially confused about what they believe.
All of these fine temples with their myriad of deities and they still have one empty pedestal, as do the Greeks, for the unknown god. This remarkable object sat by the roadside, as we approached another historic shrine. We stood for several moments gaping at the pedestal. Publius agreed with Joseph and his sons that it only served to underscore the Roman’s confusion, but I’m not so sure. I immediately compared this small shrine to the one we found in Greece. Ironically, it was Loftus, a pagan, who nodded in agreement when I blurted this out. “The pedestal is perfect for an invisible god, whom no one can see,” he announced, patting the empty space.
The Temple of Julius Caesar, who was deified by the Romans after his assassination, was built by emperor Augustus over the spot where Caesar was cremated. Like most of the temples of Rome it was rectangular in shape, but with gold plated capitals on its Ionic columns. The front of this remarkable building was the rostra Julia or speaker’s podium, decorated with the prows of the conquered ships of Antony and Cleopatra. From this recent addition to the forum, we then encountered the Temple of Concordia, the goddess of agreement and harmony, which, like Castor and Pollux, dated back to a time when Romans had kings instead of emperors. Restored by Tiberius, before his elevation, it was furnished with opulent marble and richly ornamented columns and entablature, and yet, instead of naughty statures on its roof, there were leaping and frolicking rams. When I asked Publius what the rams stood for, he shrugged his shoulders, emitting a tired yawn.
“Who knows the minds of pagans?” He spoke discreetly. “All this beauty and genius and they rely on the entrails of sheep and cattle to foretell their future. There is no moral ethic in any of their gods and goddesses. The best of the lot is Vesta, a goddess for the family. Most of the rest of them are a pack of buggers and voluptuaries no different than mortal men.”
Loftus stopped to admire a naked statue that loomed out suddenly on our path. “What kind of afterlife are we talking about?” He asked, rubbing his jaw.
“Oh that’s Venus, goddess of love,” Publius shuddered, “the Roman man’s idea of heaven.” “The truth is,” he said motioning all of us to move on, “in spite of their poetry and philosophy, most Romans accept the fact that there is no afterlife or believe they we will fly around for eternity as shades. There is neither heaven nor hell.”
“What about the Elysian fields and Tartaros.” I asked, recalling a conversation Joseph and I had in Greece.
“We were talking about two different things,” he answered dismissively. “The Greek’s notion of paradise and the Roman’s concept of hell, both of which are poetic and philosophical conventions, have nothing to do with what Greeks and Romans really believe.”
“What do they believe then?” Joseph cocked an eyebrow.
“I can’t speak for all the Romans,” sighed Publius, “but you’d be surprised what my Gentile friends admit to me. You’re Pharisaic brand of religion with its conception of heaven is quite attractive to old men and women. I’ve taken a fancy to it myself.”
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” Joseph studied his friend.
“My parents were Sadducees.” He made a face. “I’ve been greatly blessed in this life. The Sadducees, as you know, don’t believe in heaven or hell, but if I was a poor man or a smart man, I suppose I’d be wearing phylacteries, myself.”
“Phylacteries have nothing to do with belief in the afterlife,” I blurted. “Rituals, ceremonies, and what men wear are outward signs of an inward grace—nothing more.”
Once again I must have offended Joseph’s tradition, yet Publius, who interpreted our faith so liberally, laughed, as did Loftus and Strabo, whereas Matthias and Levi were so horrified by the latest statue they didn’t hear my offense. In spite of this, I quickly apologized when the moment seemed right. Joseph chuckled and patted my head. “Your heart is pure Jesus,” he insisted as we climbed into the coach.
As the coachmen called to the horses, I heard Joseph tell the Syrian guards to join us on the next tour. I was certain that Loftus and Strabo had wearied of our pompous host. The Syrians, though familiar with Publius personality, agreed amiably. I could, however, smell wine radiating from Tycho’s breath when he came close. Throughout the remainder of our sightseeing, the Syrians cast unfriendly eyes at onlookers, looking at Rome’s grandeur indifferently—another stopover for their benevolent master.
When we reached the Capitoline Hill, Publius advised us not to venture too close to the Temple of Jupiter, the chief god, for this was the most profane of all the temples of Rome. The massive edifice was surrounded by Doric columns, which was not as impressive as the fancier Corinthian columns, while the roof was covered with wreathing and frolicking statuary, Jupiter’s court of lesser gods. From the exterior, I could see nothing really different about this particular temple except that it was much bigger than the others. Except for its size, I found it to be less impressive than the Temple of Julius Caesar, with its magnificent entrance nor as beautiful as Castor and Pollux, with its splendid Corinthian colonnade. There was, as I scanned the panorama around me, much more for us to see. Unfortunately, though, Publius was wearing down, which might explain his hesitation to negotiate the path leading up to this latest site. His voice was hoarse and he was sweating profusely as he led us further up the hill. Today’s activities had obviously been too much for him. It took the gentle coaxing of the Pharisee to make him finish our tour.
Skipping over several lesser monuments and temples, which suited Matthias and Levi just fine, but disappointed me very much, Joseph’s driver found a place to park the carriage and horses and with no grand introduction this time, we followed our host to a remarkable set of buildings even Joseph had not yet seen. Having rested up in the coach for a short while, Publius took it slow and patiently at first, until we arrived at the entryway.
Raising his arms up at the building, he appeared to have memorized information about this special place. “This my friends,” he exhaled his words, “is Augustus’ Forum, which he built to honor Mars and for use as a meeting place of magistrates. Young men even receive their toga virilis in the temple Senators meet at the Temple of Mars to discuss war. Generals, embarking upon campaigns, now visit the temple after their battle ovations. When they return victoriously, they dedicate some their plunder on the altar of Mars. Their stolen goods, as well enemy arms, and other booty are stored in the forum as well.” “And, oh yes,” he added as an afterthought, “that tall plain-looking wall behind the grounds was built by Augustus to hide the tourist’s eyes from Rome’s poorest district: the Suburra.”
“How devious,” Matthias replied.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, Joseph muttered, “I never notice that before. It’s as if there’s two Romes: rich and poor.”
“The Suburra’s an unsightly place,” explained Publius, “wooden, ramshackle apartments and narrow, filthy roads.”
“I want to see this place,” I cried excitedly. “I must see how the common Roman lives.”
“You would!” Levi snarled.
“What?” Publius mouth dropped. “Is he joking?” He turned to Joseph.
“No,” Joseph laughed, giving my head a pat, “he’s very serious. Jesus wanted to see the poor districts of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Athens too. I put my foot down of course. Such a place is not safe”
“A pity.” Tycho winked mischievously. “There are excellent taverns in the Suburra.”
“This is nonsense,” Publius dismissed me irritably. “Why would anyone want to visit that sector? Joseph is right, the Suburra’s no place for rich Jews.”
“I’m not rich,” I mumbled under my breath. “I’m a carpenter’s son.”
Publius pivoted on his sandal and motioned us back down the main path. Joseph placed his arm on my sagging shoulders, giving me good counsel as he guided me along.
“Jesus,” he murmured firmly, “you’ve heard this before: ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...Well, my son, Rome’s Suburra is worse than the dark districts of Athens and Alexandria. I know you have a curious mind and compassionate heart, but I promised your father I would take good care of you. Publius must think you’re addled in the head!”
“I’m sorry,” I heaved a broken sigh, “but charity is an unwritten commandment. I see none of this in the great cities, especially Rome. It barely seems as if Publius is even a Jew.”
“It’s true,” Joseph whispered in my ear, “ he barely is. But I’m a businessman as well as a Pharisee, and I’m about to make a great deal of money doing business with that man.”
Publius glance back a us that moment but said nothing.
Joseph reminded added from the corner of his mouth, “You must watch what you say.”
I nodded obediently, bowing slightly in assent, yet I remained confirmed in my desire to know the common people. So far in my life I have known rustic townsmen, rich men, and rubbed shoulders on my path with all manner of folk, but I have never seen up close the grinding poverty of both Gentile and Jew. The old emperor hid these unfortunates behind a rude wall, his taxes from all over the empire not enough it seemed to feed the poor but enough to build many fine temples in Rome. Had I not considered the importance of my education in the great cities of the empire, this disparity would have spoiled my adventure in Rome. The same feeling I had in the great library of Alexandria and hearing the wise men of Athens expound their pagan philosophies overwhelmed me. To know the greatness of God and understand pure light, it seems as though we must acknowledge (though not accept) the devil and utter darkness. Somewhere between the two points sits Rome.
On the way back to Publius’ estate, I had wanted to see the mausoleum built by Augustus and the emperor’s famed sundial, Joseph had told me about, but our host was too exhausted to visit these sights. We did stop a few times, to allow Publius to elucidate from the shadow of the coach on famous mansions of rich Romans, including the imperial palace, which was surprisingly simple compared to the other great villas in the city. The only other significant landmark pointed out to us before we returned home was the pantheon, built by Agrippa, Augustus senior counselor and best friend, a round brick and marble edifice with a domed roof and modest colonnades of Doric columns in front. Because of our faith’s prohibition against entering a pagan shrine—this one housing all of Rome’s deities, I could only imagine what this hall of gods looked like inside.
When our coach returned to the Jewish quarter, we were reminded of the hecklers encountered earlier—this time by one old man carrying a long, crooked staff. The man was making such a fuss, Joseph called out a simple order to Loftus “Clear our path!” Our guards galloped over to sweep the sage from the street but the man held his ground, calling out in a loud, clarion voice, “A light will shine in this wicked city. Great temples and mansions rise up while rich men ignore the poor. A wall—physical and spiritual—prevents you from seeing the misery of your neighbors. Woe unto you hypocrites who have not charity. A curse upon the rich for the blind eye they turn. Though the empire crumples, the light will burn, but Rome, because of its iniquities, will become a footstool of the barbarian—the righteous sword of the Lord.”
“What light does he speak of?” I asked, shaken by his words. “The Lord shining on both Gentile and Jew?”
“Just another deranged beggar,” snarled Publius. “We have so many in Rome.”
“That man wasn’t a beggar,” I cried, looking out of the window. “He didn’t want alms. He spoke like a prophet, shouting the words of God.”
“Jesus,” Joseph shook his head wearily. “That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve read in the scriptures. Publius is right. The man’s touched in the head.”
“Thus spoke the Psalmist: the Lord is my light,” I began to quote from memory.
“Jesus,” Joseph groaned, holding up his hand, “enough with the Unknown God.”
When I tried bolting from the cabin, Joseph restrained me. Matthias and Levi were snickering at my folly. Publius clapped a hand over my mouth, horrified that I was legitimizing the old man’s rebuke of a rich Jew. As the coach arrived at our host’s stables and we begin filing out, Loftus gave Joseph his report: the old man’s disappeared, without a trace, into the darkness whence he came.
“I didn’t want you to capture him,” Joseph said irritably. “I just wanted you to scare him away.”
“He’ll be back.” Loftus stated firmly. “I’ve seen these wild men on the desert and in the hills. Some of them are mad, but some of them are holy—touched by the gods.”
“Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah.” I enumerated, giving Loftus a nod.
“You see my brother,” Levi whispered to Matthias. “Loftus said ‘gods, not God.’ After all of father’s effort, he’s still a pagan. He’ll never learn!”
“There are pagans, and there are hypocrites . . . .Which is worse?” I remember saying to myself as we entered Publius house.
Publius scurried ahead of us to summon his servants. Matthias and Levi trudged ahead of us, while I lagged behind with Joseph, who seemed to be deep in thought. The voices of our guards faded as the great wooden door shut behind us. This was unjust, I thought, keeping my counsel. These men had protected us throughout our journey and yet their services ended at entrance of the merchant’s house. Publius admitted to entertaining all manner of clients, Jew and Gentile alike, but not our guards. Like all well-meaning Jews, he would claim that the guards weren’t allowed in the house because they were Gentiles, but the real reason he didn’t want them in his house, I believe, was that universal dividing line between the upper and lower classes of men, which should exclude me more than those fine warriors since I was merely a carpenter’s son. Of course, I am quite proud of Papa’s work. I simply couldn’t believe that Joseph could separate himself between business and ethics. “How can you serve God and Mammon?” the words spilled out of my mouth. Joseph, who knew I was referring to Publius, was amused this time. Instead of scolding me this time, he laughed at my impertinence. Frankly, I’m sometimes surprised, myself, at what come out of my mouth. Unbidden, words pour into my head. The old man in the street had affected me deeply. I had a great desire to seek him out, yet something told me that I wouldn’t see him again. Though Publius was Jew, the prophet was speaking to the merchant, who represented rich Romans. What am I doing cavorting around like a prince while others suffer? I asked myself then. Who am I, a carpenter’s apprentice, to take on such airs?”
Papa stopped at this point. It seemed as if he had been reading for
hours. Justin, who had
mail to deliver in town, quietly excused himself, fearful that he would be returning to Sepphoris in the dark. Mama packed him a meal and gave him a flask of water to take with him. For the remainder of the reading, we retired to the house. The reason we congregated in the backyard in the first place was so that Justin, a Gentile, could hear Jesus’ letter. It was an accommodation to James and Joseph’s sensitivities more than family policy. After hearing what Jesus said about well-meaning Jews, I wonder if my parents had made the right decision. I now wish Justin had been able to hear this portion of the scroll. On a vastly larger scale it was that rift between Jew and Gentile that Jesus worried about so much. On that most pleasant day, however, which was another reason why we were outside, such thoughts were the furthest thing from my mind.
Jesus’ narration was astounding in its scope and depth of understanding if you consider that he was still fifteen years old, but I was disappointed that he had once again fallen into one of his moods. I wanted to hear about his adventures, not his views. So far, in his tour he had given us his account of the great Lighthouse of Egypt and that wondrous building filled with all manner or beast. His second letter from Greece dealt lightly with the grandeur of Athens, yet the highlight of his tour of this city was an empty pedestal to the Unknown God. In both his first and second letters, he managed to ignore details of Alexandria and Athens because of spiritual issues, including the guards’ lack of faith. Egypt, if not Greece, had nevertheless wetted our appetite for the outside world. We—Simon, Nehemiah and I—wanted more. Too often Jesus would give us fascinating accounts of exotic beasts and places, only to lapse once again into sermons on his view of our religion and the universal God. His description of the storm encountered during his sea voyage to Rome was likewise played down for the sake of a long-winded discussion on the power of prayer. During his description of the great buildings of Rome, he had again wetted our appetites yet, during the last leg of the tour, spent too much time talking about the poverty of the city and the ranting of a deranged old man.
I hoped, when Papa continued reading the letter, that there would be more information about the temples and people of Rome. Why hadn’t Jesus asked more questions? I didn’t want to hear religious and social observations. I’d heard enough of that kind of stuff when he was home. Would he continue to interrupt his sightseeing tours with comments on faith, prayer, and the universal God? As I expected, however, my parents were deeply moved by the issues Jesus had brought forth this time. As we waited for lunch, Simon was once again falling asleep. I’m not sure how Nehemiah felt—he seemed to be in a daze, but Joseph, as usual, had a perturbed look on his face. The twins, of course, had run off to play, and James sat staring off into space. While Mama stood near the table, her hands folded on her bosom, a dreamy look on her child-like face, Papa had his own special expression that said, “I need a cup of wine!” Clearly, as I look back, I know that Jesus trip with Joseph of Arimathea had helped shape his views. The old man in the Jewish quarter was one more factor reminding my oldest brother of his divinity, and yet, because I was a child, I was more interested in the glories of Rome.
After we ate our afternoon meal, we stretched our legs one more time, each of us wrapped in our thoughts. All of us, except Martha and Abigail, quickly regrouped around the table. Papa returned from a suspiciously long trip to the cloaca in a light-hearted mood. I realize now, though he would have denied it, that he had a drink from a flask of wine (probably hidden in his shop). I couldn’t blame him. In his letter, Jesus had insulted Joseph’s client Publius by his views, and he hinted once again at his own divinity. It was apparent to all of us that Jesus was trying his benefactor’s patience very much. We wished he would keep his opinions to himself. It was, I observed reading my notes, as if his vast knowledge warred with his parochial Nazarene view of faith. Though offended by the world, Jesus knew he had to embrace the world. To understand evil, he told his guards in the library of Alexandria, you had to understand it, which had seemed like heresy even to me. The words he spoke in his letter about Rome actually seemed tame compared to all the things he said before. What troubled my parents, other than the inevitable path he seemed to be walking toward his destiny, was the trouble Jesus might get himself into on his trip. Just how much more of Jesus’ airs was Joseph of Arimathea going to take?
In mute conversation, as my brothers sat grumbling amongst themselves, my parents discussed these issues. Nehemiah had fallen asleep as had Simon. I could hear Martha and Abigail cavorting in the front yard. James seemed deeply troubled, while Joseph was mostly perturbed. This was, as I reflect, the difference in their attitudes toward the oldest son: Joseph seemed unmovable in his convictions, while James, as many of us, was simply in denial. Slowly the second oldest son, conservative until the last, ebbed and flowed toward the light. Knowing him as a disciple as well as a youth in Nazareth, I believe he was a stubborn and often unreasonable person. James thought things out carefully. He was the most meticulous person I’ve ever known. That day, however, though I couldn’t put into words, I saw illumination in James’ light brown eyes.
Drifting into my boredom, as it so often did, were the memories of Jesus’ words, some of which would haunt me all my life. This time I remembered his comments about my dreams about Mama and Cornelius—how he marveled at my gift, and I felt a twinge of shame for my impatience. Much of what I write, especially the words which I learned as a scribe, color the accounts of my youth, but I remember the conflict in my own mind, similar in many ways to Jesus, of this world and that shadowy other world of our faith, whence came my dreams. I wanted to be apart of the Roman world, and yet I had been deeply affected by my experiences and dreams. Clearly, as Jesus once taunted me, I kicked against the goad, for, like it or not, my path would intertwine with his. I wasted many good years before I accepted this fact. So it was with James, who could not separate the prodigy from the carpenter’s son. When Papa picked up the scroll, emitted a yawn, and resumed the narration, I decided I would try to be patient. Elbowing Nehemiah and Simon on each side of me into wakefulness, I frowned severely at my brothers. Joseph was whispering again to James. I thought they were complaining about the letter, until I noticed that Joseph was doing all the talking. James looked expectantly at Papa as he cleared his throat and looked forlornly at his empty cup. As Mama gave him a worried look, I folded my hands in a posture of attentiveness and inclined my head as he finished reading Jesus’ letter from Rome.
Again Jesus drifted from he subject. Simon groaned. I heaved a sigh. Nehemiah looked unwell as he tried to stay awake.
“Thoughts fill my head,” he wrote reflectively, “what I see and hear mingled with what I feel. If someone were to ask me what I thought of Rome now, I would have misgivings. On the one hand, I couldn’t deny its grandeur, yet on the other hand it had the same problems of all big cities, magnified by the greater disparity between rich and poor. I was greatly impressed by the sights and sounds of the capital, but I was dismayed to see a large, dark stain of poverty so close to its gleaming, white columns and eye-straining splendor. Publius, a Jew, himself, though offended by Rome’s pagan statuary, seemed more offended by the inhabitants on the other side of the wall. The commandment that we tend to the poor and downtrodden had been ignored by our host. There were many things not right about his household. He had many servants, and he treated them all with undisguised contempt. After we refreshed ourselves from silver basins brought to us by servants, some of whom I found out later were Greek slaves, we mulled around an ornate fountain scandalously sporting two carved water nymphs given to him by the poet Ovid, himself. Ovid had written racy poetry, which Emperor Augustus found offensive, and was exiled from Rome. This information was supplied to us by Publius himself last night during our first day in Rome. In Publius’ way of thinking the fountain didn’t sit in the house, itself; it sat apart in an open-air portion of the estate, which the Romans call an atrium. The little frolicking children were not lewd or even naked; they wore modest tunics and were carved in innocent attitudes of play. Because of this same liberal logic, one would think that our Gentile guards would be allowed into this free zone, but not so! Loftus and the others were forced to sleep in the servants’ quarters with all the other menial “lower class” folk. Drawn to the fountain, perhaps as Eve was drawn to forbidden fruit, I reached out unthinkingly to stroke an elfin face, then quickly drew my hand back as if it might be defiled.
Matthias nodded with approval. “Can you believe that, Jesus? Right in the middle of his property!”
“Oh, but its not in his house,” I said, laughing softly to myself.
“Humph,” grumbled Levi, “who does that pompous little man think we are? He expects us to believe those statues aren’t profane.”
“It’s not stone nor wood which is profane,” I replied, watching the water play on the stone. “It’s the hand that carves, hews or fashions the stone or block of wood into an idol or obscene work of art. This little fountain is of no consequence. It’s a symptom of a greater condition of the spirit and mind. The Romans, in their own way, are searching for peace of mind and the hope that the grave is not the end but the beginning of eternal life.”
Levi grunted with scorn.
“What Rome’s eternal life might be,” Matthias replied, after some thought, “is another matter.”
“There is no paradise for the unbeliever—period!” Levi folded his arms.
“Do you include children and the righteous?” I asked, shaking my head.
“Maybe not children,” Matthias qualified, “but adults. You can’t be righteous if you worship pagan gods.”
“No pagans—period!” insisted Levi. “The scriptures are quite plain on this.”
I was torn by what I felt God wanted and our tradition. I knew very well that we, not the Gentiles, were the Chosen People. Heaven appeared to be a Jewish haven. And yet I remembered again that Isaiah preached a universal God, who included Gentiles in the ultimate covenant.
Joseph showed up to steer us into the main hall just as I began quoting Isaiah’s famous passage:
“Now it will come about in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of mountains, and will be raised above the hill, so that all nations will stream to it, and He will judge between nations and render decisions for many peoples—”
“Ah, one of my favorites.” Joseph sounded as if he was in a jovial mood, as he motioned us to follow. “No, more of that young man,” he said, cuffing me playfully. “I think our host is comfortable in his Sadducee beliefs.”
“But there’s no moral imperative in them,” I murmured. “One can’t be guided simply by religious ritual and tradition. Faith and illumination are more important. The Prophets must be our guide.”
Matthias gave me a begrudging smile. “Finally, we are in total agreement.”
“Jesus is becoming a good Pharisee,” teased Levi. “He wishes to give the Gentile salvation from his sins.”
“All fine and dandy,” Joseph replied, his voice dropping low, “but keep silent on these matters as we enter the house.”
Though in jest, Levi’s words had jolted me. That banter about me being a Pharisee was nonsense, but Levi had stirred—nay ignited—a truth in me. Salvation from their sins—what novel way to put it? How had that notion appeared in Levi’s mind. For some reason, I felt God’s presence again. I had guessed that Levi, as well his father and Matthias, had similar beliefs than me. Now I was certain. Their Pharisaical details merely got in the way. It occurred to me, as we entered the sumptuous dining hall that it was these many details that would be a stumbling block to Gentiles and also, in Galilee, for simple rustic Jews. How many times have I heard Judeans and Helene Jews complain about Galilean ignorance of the law? What could the learned expect of uneducated folk? I could imagine that most of the inhabitants of Nazareth didn’t know the fine point of the Torah, but they had all heard about the deliverer foretold by the prophets. The rustic townsmen followed the law when possible and tried to live righteous lives. I think, despite their greater ignorance, that most Gentiles tried to live decent lives too. It was the hope of an afterlife, not cold reality of the law, that enticed Gentile converts and comforted the uneducated Jew.
I was convinced here in pagan Rome, after seeing the myriad of false gods and recalling the pedestals in this city and in Athens of the unknown god, that the Messiah must come for all peoples. Therefore God’s promise, in preparation for his coming, should go out to them. In this latter conviction Joseph and his sons might balk if the word used was covenant, for God made his covenant with the Chosen People, who were Israelites. Yet that didn’t mean that Gentiles couldn’t earn salvation, if they joined our faith. I’ve heard of many converted Gentiles. What stopped them cold was not our dietary rules or laws. It was simply that one requirement that pagans saw as mutilation. What troubled me was not single individuals, who might be cajoled into accepting circumcision, but whole nations prevented from worshiping because they refuse this rite. Would I saw off a little finger if a Pharisee or Sadducee priest said I must in order to be called a Jew? I think not! Would Abraham have attempted to sacrifice Isaac if God hadn’t given the order? I think not! Only God can command us to go against our nature. The requirement for circumcision is probably the greatest stumbling block for a pagan joining our faith. These thoughts receded into my mind, as the tide from the shore as I heard the raucous voices of Publius guests, ready to roll back any moment as I found myself in the company of some of Rome’s Gentile elite.
I don’t know what Publius was thinking when he invited those dreadful men to his house. The contents of the dining hall—both guests and food—were unclean. His lax observance for our dietary laws—serving the finest lamb and foul alongside of more exotic dishes, such as lobster and snails, just to please his Gentile guests was doubly insulting to my benefactor. The men were loud, rude, and irreverent as they entered the main hall. Our host was obviously showing off his popularity by having such notables mingling among us. I admit it was a learning period for me, but it upset Joseph and his sons very much. For once, Matthias, Levi and I were in total agreement, but Joseph, for the sake of business, was forced to go along with this affront. I understood this. Papa is sometimes forced to deal with unsavory clients. These fellows, however, were especially uncouth during the feast.
Though we seemed already contaminated just being near the exotic foods, Joseph had forbidden us to eat anything but the lamb, lentils, and fowl. We had to recline in the Roman manner, rather than sit at a table as we do in Nazareth. Joseph whispered his fear to me that dancing girls would come gyrating into the center of the room at any moment. Publius introduced all of the men quickly, with obvious hesitation, as if he knew his Jewish client and entourage would be offended. I will introduce them now as they speak.
“Ah hah,” Marcian, the banker’s voice slurred, “the little miracle worker shows up with Joseph’s fine sons.” “Here,” he said, raising a mug, “turn my wine into Falernian vintage instead of this Greek piss.”
“It’s Campanian, Marcian,” Publius replied in disbelief. “It’s much more expensive than Falernian wine.”
“My good fellow,” Marcian said with cutting joviality, “it’s not Roman; its Greek and tastes like piss.”
“Now, now, Marcian,” Primo guffawed, “it’s expensive piss. In an unwatered state, it won’t matter after a few cups of wine.”
I was angry at their rudeness, as was Matthias and Levi, but Joseph just sat there in apparent shock as Publius rose from his pillows, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. Primo, as Publius introduced, was a fabric merchant, smelling, in Matthias’ crude words, like a Syrian whore. I found his manners repulsive, but it was what came out of Marcian’s mouth that was most offensive. A third and fourth client, Clevus and Numerian, both rich businessmen, themselves, didn’t say much at all, providing us with annoying laughter as a backdrop irritation for Marcian’s continued abuse. They became unruly as they continued to drink unwatered wine during the meal. Publius must have being drinking a lot, himself. He seemed to be disoriented as he stood there, as if asking himself “do I censor these uncouth men and lose my first client or ignore their behavior in order to make a few deals?”
It seemed like such a simple answer to me. Apparently the merchant class of Rome, at least for Publius guests, had none of polish of other Gentiles I had met. They must already have been tipsy before they arrived. I couldn’t imagine them getting this drunk so soon. Publius, Joseph would later tell me, thought of himself as a good businessman, but unfortunately, he had no scruples when dealing with friends. For just himself and his family, the attitude of his new friends would not have mattered very much, but, with orthodox Jews from the homeland looking on, it was a serious affront. After being protected by Joseph from Gentile defilement for so long, I felt more insulted in this room than standing before the idol-ridden temples of Rome. At least the stone statues were silent and didn’t offend our sensibilities as well as our eyes. Yet Joseph, to my disappointment, kept his counsel, as his sons sat stewing in rage. Publius, due to his nature, chose the safest course, and sat down forlornly as Marcian told us all a bawdy tale.
I relate the merchant’s tale in my own words. It serves as an example of what I’ve thought all along about Rome’s general indifference to religion but with a surprise meaning at the end:
“A Roman, a Greek, a Syrian, and a Jew meet the Ferryman before crossing Styx. The Ferryman asks the four men why they feel they deserved to be ferried to the Elysian Fields. The Jew very self-righteously explains that he is among the Chosen People and has been circumcised—a mutilation that all other men abhor, so the Ferrymen shudders with pity and takes him across. The Roman exclaims that he has been an obedient subject to the emperor and never beat his slaves, which seems reasonable to the Ferryman but nevertheless earns him passage to Tartaros, Rome’s version of the Jewish Gahenna and Greek hell. Since nothing good could come out of his people, the Syrian’s plea is ignored and he’s automatically ferried to the same place, but the Greek just stood there, a grin on his greasy face, as the Ferryman waited for his response. ‘Do not try my patience,” he snarled at the Greek. “Tartaros isn’t a nice place. It’s a place of punishment. Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t ferry you there. “Ah but I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else,” cackled the Greek. “All my friends are there. By Zeus, in fact, all the great men, including Alexander and Julius Caesar are there. Name me one important man or woman in the Elysian Fields worthy of note!’ The Ferryman thought long and hard, annoyed by the Greek’s arrogance. “I can’t think of a single soul,” he confessed, a crafty look appearing on his face, “but I’ll not do the likes of you a favor. You asked to be ferried to Tartaros, so Elysian Fields it shall be!” “The Jew deserved the Ferryman’s pity,” Marcian added, after taking a long draught of wine. “Because of his mutilation demanded by his god, he’s guaranteed heaven, but the clever Greek—the least worthy of the men, tricked the Ferryman into entering paradise.”
Primo, Clevus, and Numerian roared with laughter. Joseph’s expression darkened progressively as Matthias and Levi took long abandoned swigs of juice, wishing it was unwatered wine. Yet Publius forced a wan smile as his drunken guests carried on. I sat just there, in the midst of this mixed reaction, impressed by Marcian unintentional respect for our faith. On the surface he had little respect for Jews, and it sounded like an insult to Joseph and his sons, but he admitted that at least the Jew deserved salvation. Through the guise of pity, which is equal to God’s compassion for His creation, the Ferryman takes the Jew across to the Elysian Fields, the Roman and Greek equivalent of heaven. Like the Unknown (invisible) God on his pedestal, the Ferryman serves the need of the searcher like the angel of the Lord. Even wine and the words of a drunken merchant couldn’t hide this possibility from me.
“Why are you smiling?” Levi demanded in a shrill whisper.
“What do you expect from a blasphemer?” Matthias grumbled.
I ignored their grumbling. Because of their predisposed attitude, they would jump at the chance to attack me, even for a smile. Gathering my thoughts, I took a sip of fruit juice.
“All men seek God and eternal life in their own way,” I murmured, almost to myself. “I may not like the way he said it, but the merchant admitted, and you heard him, that we are the Chosen People. Begrudgingly though it might be, I hear envy in his voice. He acknowledges our goodness. Despite the Ferryman’s sarcasm, he had, like our Lord during adversity, taken pity upon the Jew, giving him eternal life.”
“Silence!” Joseph shushed us from the corner of his mouth. “We’ll have none of that!”
“How do you explain the Greek?” Levi sputtered into my ear. “He should be in Gahenna, not paradise!”
“He is after all,” I whispered back, “a wily Greek.” “The point is,” I said, laughing softly to myself, “there’s truth in Marcian’s joke. He revealed the same deep seated desire in himself that many Romans do with their stone idols of which they included the pedestal to an Unknown God, as if to hedge their bets.”
“You would say such a thing!” Matthias slammed down his mug.
“Shut up—all of you!” Joseph’s voice reached above the audible level.
The other men stopped laughing a moment to look down the table. Publius was, at this moment, listening to Marcian explain what he believed was really in the Elysian Field. Strangely enough, Marcian, despite being in his cups, did not slur his words, as uncle Ahab and other drunks I’ve known.
“It’s like this my friend,” his voice blared, droplets of wine flecking Publius face, “There’s many sober people in the Field who can’t eat fine food, drink wine or know each other.” “He-he, you know what I mean,” he elbowed his host. “On the other hand,” he added, gnawing off a piece of foul, “I doubt very much if Tartaros or the Jewish Gehenna burn us everlasting. Most of mankind is filled with sinners. Would the gods roast that many souls? I prefer the Greek’s Hades, which is ruled by Pluto, a much more enlightened fellow than those Christian or Roman gods. Hades is where my friends are. It’s filled with merrymakers and interesting folk with stories to tell.” “That’s where I want to be!” He belched happily, as he ripped off large chunk of pheasant with his teeth.
At this point, he became especially crude. His explanation of the many pleasures in Hades would have been offensive if they had not been so absurd. Nevertheless, I wanted to stick my fingers into my ears, as Jude often does to blank out unpleasantness, and hum loudly to myself. He and the other businessmen were very drunk, but at least the others were falling asleep. Matthias and Levi tried to communicate with me those moments, but Marcian’s raucous laughter drowned them out. A warning look from Joseph told Matthias, Levi, and me to endure this offense and stop whispering amongst ourselves. I smiled in accord and, uttering a prayer for direction, finished the next course in my meal. Once again the Lord seemed to speaking to me: wordless bursts of approval or disapproval. At this point, I knew I had had gone too far by comparing the Ferryman to God, yet I had spoken from the Spirit. By allowing this Gentile to carry on, Publius was failing his other guests. This wasn’t the way I wanted to remember our host. Papa would have thrown these vile men out of our house. Publius, however, was also a Roman businessman, as were his guests, and evidently relied on their goodwill more than Joseph’s. And yet, I knew the Pharisee would endure the Gentile’s behavior for the sake of the business deal he hoped to make with Publius before leaving Rome.
That evening, after our dinner, which had excluded members of Publius’ family, Joseph took Matthias, Levi, and myself into the garden. According to Joseph, Publius wife was a much better Jew than her husband and disapproved of many of his vulgar friends. So to prevent her children from such contamination and abuse, confessed Publius, his wife and the children ate somewhere else in the house. As we prepared ourselves for another lecture, we met Diana by herself, sitting forlornly by a small pagan fountain that had been a gift from a grateful client. To ingratiate himself with aristocrats and rich men, Joseph would explain later, Publius would give them special treatment, sometimes outright bribes or gifts, depending on whether he wanted more business or simply to change policies in the Roman Senate. There were numerous vases, commemorative plates, and other objects of art in Publius’ house obtained from grateful clients. Statuary, which invariably had a pagan theme, was confined to the garden area, conforming to Publius view that this location could not defile his home. As I looked around the large garden in the center of Publius’ villa, I spotted many statues, almost all small replicas of Roman deities, but I said nothing more.
Discreetly avoiding the mistress of the house, who appeared to be lost in her thoughts, Joseph motioned for us to skirt the perimeter garden until reaching the arch that lead into the stables. Our carriage, minus the driver and horses, had been parked near the stables. It sat there invitingly, as if waiting for us to jump in and flee this awful place.
“Are we going back to the ship now?” Levi blurted, as he caught sight of the coach.
“Well,” he answered, heaving a sigh, “I dunno. . . . Nothing went right tonight.”
“I’m sorry father.” Levi dropped his head. “I shouldn’t have been talking at the dinner table.”
Matthias and I also apologized for whispering amongst themselves, but Joseph shook his head impatiently, exclaiming, “I know very well how you three think, especially you Jesus. It’s almost impossible for you not to state your mind.”
I leaned forward to steady his walk. “What is it Joseph, my benefactor and friend?”
Matthias asked with concern, “what troubles you if it’s not our indiscretion?”
“Oh, your indiscretions haven’t helped anything.” He shirked off his arm. “Tonight, unfortunately, went badly from the beginning. For Jesus’ benefit, I’ll summarize the problem we have if Publius doe business with Marcian. First I’ll explain to you how my business works.”
“Thank you.” I beamed.
“As my sons have learned, a merchant such as myself, trades one type of goods for another that will, with the right contact, bring a higher return. As a Pharisee, adhering to fair business practices, I prefer to make contracts with my client. That is why I avoid the market place, a place filled with all manner of disreputable caravan merchants and local peddlers. Unless I act as a middleman selling goods for other merchants, which I seldom do, the coins I carry with me are for special purchases or business costs. That’s why we need four guards to protect us. Each succeeding trade I make must be bartered for other goods at a progressively higher level of profit. With the exception of Jerusalem, where I bought with coins a small chest of rare emeralds for my Greek client, the exchange cycle began for us in Alexandria, where I traded this chest for a shipload of Egyptian luxury items and furniture for my client in Greece. For these commodities, my Athenian client gave me a shipload of textiles, fine pottery, and precious spices (more valuable than the Egyptian acquisitions) to trade with my Roman client, who, if all went well, would be exchanged for Falernian wine, spices, herbs, and Roman paper to trade with my client in Gaul for a wide variety of goods. Unfortunately, Marcian and his friends arrived on the scene. Now there’s a snag. I had expected to make a large profit with this next exchange, since the more valuable items shipped from Gaul will bring gold coins in Cyrene, where my trading was supposed to end. If my suspicions are correct, however, Publius will make his exchange with Marcian and his cohorts, which leaves me with a warehouse full of Greek goods I must load back on the ship. The problem is, Jesus, these are not items my client in Gaul wants. The Gauls love wine and Roman delicacies and prefer Roman paper over Egyptian papyrus. The textiles, pottery, and spices were not requested by him, and without the specific goods required in my Cyrenaican contract, I will not be paid in coin, and go home with a shipload of Greek goods that have no other destination than my warehouse back home.”
“You understand the problem now?” he asked, glancing at me and than at his sons.
“Yes, perfectly,” I said, my head swimming with facts.
“Of course we understand.” Matthias gave him a puzzled look. “Marcian’s an uncouth pig, so our his friends. The question is, ‘will Publius do business with them?’ Did he tell you that?”
Joseph shrugged, his palms raised upward to signify despair. A revelation filled my head: this good man had been deceived. Already, I knew Publius’ heart; now I was certain, but I held my tongue.
Understanding his father’s gesture, Matthias eyes widened with alarm. “Tell us father,” he said with forced calm, “what is Publius up to? He acted suspicious in there, yet said nothing about the deal. We were in such a hurry to leave, we didn’t wait to find out.”
This time Joseph exhaled and drew in a long breath. “Publius didn’t tell me,” he answered, sinking onto the bench near the stable. “It just makes sense. In my business, I’ve learned to read people. That man is greedy and has no backbone.”
“Those Roman pigs!” Levi’s voice trembled. “They’ve ruined everything!”
“Quite possibly.” Joseph frowned at his son.
“But how can you know for certain?” persisted Matthias. “You don’t know what he said. He was caught off guard by those men.”
“Aristotle called it deduction.” Joseph looked around solemnly. “Marcian is a rich banker. The other three men are businessman, too. Why would they arrive suddenly in Publius’ house? Shouldn’t he have warned me they were coming? The fact is, I saw Marcian slip our host a piece of parchment. That wily merchant raised his eyebrows, read the parchment, and shook his head, avoiding eye contact with us, as if we were suddenly, as the Romans say, personae non-grata. It’s obvious what happened. They might be giving Publius a better deal, which might be too lucrative for him to refuse. On the other hand, because Publius is a Jew, he’s in a dilemma: does he do business with Jews or Gentiles? The mood has changed for our people in the capital; Publius said so himself. Tiberius has already expelled our people once. Those Roman clients might make things very hard on him.”
“I’m sorry Joseph.” I murmured, looking down at him with concern.
“Which one do you think it is,” Matthias asked thoughtfully, “greed or fear?”
“I think Publius is intimidated.” He shrugged his shoulders. “The Gentiles, as always, have the upper hand. I remember hearing about Marcian, at least someone with that same name. He was a friend of Tiberius during his exile in Rhodes. That Marcian was a banker too. If I remember correctly, he loaned Tiberius a tidy sum. One well-placed word from that fellow could also mean trouble for us, too.”
“How could he do such a thing?” Levi plopped down dejectedly next to his father. “It’s not right. Publius is a back-stabber and fraud!”
“He just told you.” Matthias raised an eyebrow. “It could be both!”
“That’s quite possible,” Joseph uttered a bitter laugh. “There’s nothing respectable about that man. I thought he was acting strangely when he greeted us at the dock: jumpy, squeamish—you all saw it. I figured he was just nervous about the mood in his district, but I was just fooling myself. In his correspondence, he agreed to all my terms. He should have warned me then, or at least while were at the wharf before I unloaded all my goods, that there might be a problem. It’s obvious that he’s just another self-serving Roman. I’ll have to find a different client to make the same exchange, so I can make a profit or at least give my next client the right goods.
“That’s not likely,” Matthias said grimly.
Levi’s gave his father a hopeful look. “Maybe Publius will still buy them!”
“He might,” Joseph exhaled deeply, “otherwise, I’ll need a miracle. More important than anything, is the fact this will hurt my reputation as a merchant. Though they’re writing, my business contracts are sealed with my good name.”
I began to pray silently, my eyes open so as not bring attention upon myself.
“Rome is such a big city.” Levi glanced desperately around. “Is it possible that we can find a client this late?”
“No!” Matthias snapped
“I work through established contacts.” Joseph explained, shaking his head. “Publius is my contact in Rome. I was suppose to drop off goods to him from Greece and pick up his merchandise to trade in Gaul. That merchandise was requested by my next client. I must remind you, I deal in contracts, as well as contacts. Publius appears to be doing business with Marcian and his crowd on the side. I will soon learn whether or not this is a fact. The problem is those Romans will probably want to make the same or similar exchange as me—through barter or, in their case, coin. That’s how it works. Honest exchange of goods, as always, had been the plan, until those men showed up. One of my important clients is in Gaul. As I said, I have my reputation to uphold. If I don’t succeed in this trade, even if I have to beg him to keep his end of the bargain, our journey has been a waste.”
“No, absolutely not, we have our pride!” Matthias’ eyes stormed.
“Yes, father.” Levi gripped his father’s sleeve. “Rome’s an unfriendly place for Jews. Let’s cut our losses and leave this awful place!”
I stopped praying that instant. “You’re not serious?” I looked at Levi in disbelief.
“Joseph,” I spoke impulsively, “I understand you need contacts and contracts, but there must be other sources in Rome. If Publius won’t honor his contract, we can stay a few more days until you find another client.”
“It’s not that simple.” Joseph waved irritably. “A client is a contact. I’m not a traveling tinkerer selling my goods. Understand—all of you boys, I rely on contacts. My business is an exchange of goods that runs on a schedule. There’s a ship waiting in the wharf that’s empty. I must find new cargo for it or load it with the merchandise I obtained in Greece instead of the goods planned for exchange in Gaul. Unfortunately, the goods my client in Gaul wants are in Publius’ warehouse.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Matthias pointed to Publius house. “It’s his fault—that Roman pig. I agree with Levi. Let’s cut our losses, put Rome behind us, and move on to Gaul!”
“It’s so simple. ” Levi stomped his foot. “Load the ship and just leave!”
I could scarcely believe what they were saying.
“Without an exchange of goods?” I looked at them in disbelief. “You’re father will you lose money? His clients in Gaul and Cyrene won’t get their goods.” “Can’t you can find anyone?” I looked pleadingly at Joseph. “Is Publius the only source in Rome?”
My words now angered Matthias, Joseph’s oldest son.
“What do you know of these matters?” He spat angrily. “You, a carpenter’s son, know nothing of our father’s business. You’ve been nothing but trouble during our journey. All those silly comments you make about religion. Now you’re giving our father advice on his business. These are things you know nothing about!”
Joseph sprang to his feet to restrain his son. “That’s quite enough!” He held up his hand and gripped his arm. “Apologize to Jesus. This isn’t his fault. You can’t blame him for having an inquisitive mind or having opinions. Jesus came along to learn about the world, both its good and evil. Now I’d hardly call Publius evil, but he has a weak will. Unless, he changes his mind, I won’t be able to make the exchange. I’ll have to find a new contact in Rome. I don’t want to let down my client in Gaul, but it seems impossible.”
Joseph’s sons were beside themselves, Matthias angry because of our predicament and Levi worried that matters would only get worse. Clearly, the two young men had different reasons for getting out of Rome: pride and fear. What they failed to accept was the almost impossible situation Joseph was placed in by Marcian and his friends. These men showed up, I was led to believe, without Joseph’s knowledge, and the deal he had made with Publius had evaporated in the drunken revelry of the other men.
“The question is,” I murmured to Joseph, “will Publius change his mind?”
“I’ve made an effort to communicate.” Joseph sighed wearily. “He was still sitting at the table with those vile men when I slipped the servant a note I jotted down during the feasts. I asked him if he was going to keep his bargain . . . . It’s up to him!”
“So we wait until he sobers up?” Levi gave him a miserable look.
“Unacceptable,” Matthias’ voice constricted, “those Roman pigs!”
“We’ll wait until tomorrow,” Joseph decided, giving me a kindly smile.
I was his only advocate, but my opinion had added further distance between myself and his sons. Joseph couldn’t leave Rome without knowing the mind of his client and onetime friend. He had a noble reason, above profit. Since he was already a rich man, he was worried only about his reputation. In this respect, considering his father’s standing, Matthias anger seemed justified. Why should he plead to Publius? For that matter, I couldn’t blame Levi for being fearful, after our treatment in Publius’ sector of town. In both cases, however, their ill feelings seemed shortsighted and ill conceived. In Rome, itself, where a multitude of visitors from all over the Empire streamed in and out of the city, I felt no hostility nor prejudices. We were no longer, during our visit, dressed like Jews. Unless we spoke Aramaic or entered a synagogue no one would be the wiser. Unfortunately, in Publius house, Marcian and his friends knew we were Jews. They were taking advantage of this fact and the current mood among Romans. Unless he could find other clients in Rome with the goods his next contact required, and in a manner unknown to Marcian and his friends, Joseph would have to go elsewhere. That had nothing to do with pride or fear. It was just common sense. And this was, unless God stepped in, impossible.
As we returned to our quarters, I decided to make peace with Matthias and Levi and apologize to Joseph for speaking my mind.
“I’m sorry I misspoke,” I addressed them as a group. “It wasn’t my place to offer advice. I’m but a Carpenter’s son. There’s much I must learn.”
“You spoke from the heart,” Joseph said, giving my head a pat. “Your father’s occupation is honorable. It was Matthias, not you, who misspoke. The fact that you apologized to my sons, who’ve treated you abominably, tells me much about your character.”
He said nothing to Matthias and Levi, but his expression said much as he glanced back at them. I’ll never forget the reaction on their faces: hatred, resentment, and envy. My effort to make peace had only made matters worse. Joseph whispered his blessing to me, shuffled down the hall, his sons turning back as they followed, hissing and making the sign to ward off evil eye, as if I was an unclean thing. After retiring to my quarters that night I prayed very hard. It wasn’t the same prayer I had been making inside my head after Joseph confessed his despair. This prayer was for peace between Joseph’s sons and myself. A vision came to me in my sleep that seemed to be an unfavorable answer to my request. I had asked God to soften Matthias and Levi’s heart and reassure them that I was no threat. In my vision, however, I awakened inside my dream with Joseph’s sons looking angrily down at me.
“Our father favors a stranger over his own sons!” Matthias cried accusingly.
“Were we the chosen until he came along?” asked Levi, wringing his fist.
“And now he wants to replace us,” Matthias gnashed his teeth, “and steal our birthright!”
“We won’t let him do it.” Levi grew agitated. “He’s an outsider. He’s stolen our peace and beguiled our father. He wants to give our faith to the Gentiles and pollutes our faith with nonsense about an unknown god. There is but one god, one set of laws, and one faith. Our Lord, though inscrutable, is not unknown. We, not the Greeks, Roman, Egyptians, or Syrians are the chosen. We Jews, and no one else, have a covenant with God.”
When I awakened, I could hear voices somewhere in the house. It could very well have been Publius arguing with his guests. The small lamp I had lit to remind me of home still burned brightly. There were footsteps in the hall, perhaps servants or members of the household passing by my door. I wondered, after a short prayer, if those dreadful men had gone home. It was obvious to me that I had slept for only a short period of time. Yet the Lord had spoken to me plainly through the mouths of Joseph’s sons. I knew, in spite of my good intentions, that illumination was no excuse for challenging tradition. It didn’t matter what I actually meant; all my fine words, even my efforts to make peace, provoked them. With Matthias and Levi’s minds so set, I wouldn’t win them over. Despite Joseph’s effort at trying to seem enlightened, he had raised his sons to be conservative Pharisees. For them there was no room for compromise. Greece and Rome’s pedestal to an unknown god was seen by Joseph as a form equivocation. They were simply hedging their bets. Nevertheless, Joseph could see much good in Greek medicine and philosophy and Roman architecture and law, while his sons had closed their minds tightly to the outer world. I thought of Jude those moments and his desire for distant places. I don’t believe that it’s wrong to be in the world, so long as you’re not a part of it. To be a sightseer but not reveler in foreign lands is acceptable, as long as you remember what is right, what you believe, and who you are. Tradition is important, so my traditional half, which you, Papa, taught me, can sympathize with Joseph’s sons. On the other hand, Matthias and Levi’s hearts appear to be closed to illumination. In this respect the Pharisees, who can’t see beyond the law, are no better than the priests. Unlike the pagans whose deities are carved in stone, our God is a living God. His revelations, written in our minds, are living scriptures, equal to the scrolls of the Prophets and the Law. That part of me illuminated by the Lord has been deeply effected by Isaiah, who paints a picture of a universal God whose covenant includes all men, Gentile and Jew alike, seeking everlasting life and a redemptive faith. What I’ve seen in the world has taught me about human nature. What I’ve read in the sacred scrolls is tempered by the Living Word. Everything I’ve seen firsthand and the scriptures I’ve read, and what the Lord whispers in my mind are incompatible at times, yet no more so than my experiences traveling with Joseph and his self-righteous sons. In the final analysis, however, I listen first to God before considering the advice of men or heeding the written word. The Lord’s silent counsel directs my thoughts and, even when I’m not aware of it, guides my steps.
At first, I felt comforted by this thought, and yet I felt uneasy about my dream. I began to realize that there might be two interpretations for this nightmare. In the first interpretation, it seemed like an immediate issue. I had overstepped my status as a guest on Joseph’s business trips. It was as if the Lord was telling me to be patient and hold my tongue around his sons. Alas, in the second interpretation, that came more slowly, there seemed to be another deeper and more mysterious meaning than my quarrel with them. Seen in this light, the faces and words of Matthias and Levi, flashing in my mind like lightning before a storm, were disturbing but no worse than many of my dreams. Perhaps, our experiences in Rome and treatment at Publius table were making me nervous like Joseph and his sons. This would make it an ordinary nightmare, caused by fear, not visions of things to come. Should I take the vision in my head seriously? Had the Lord, Himself, really put it into my mind? If so, was it a scolding for my treatment of Matthias and Levi or a warning intended for my relationship with all Jews? I never was the one to hold my peace. My words and actions have caused hardship for our family in our town. You’ve all been so patient with me over the years. That must be the message. I must try to keep my counsel during my journey with Joseph of Arimathea. Perhaps, when I return to Nazareth, I’ll do as Papa often says, and get my head out of the clouds!
The letter from Rome, read so eloquently by Papa, stopped abruptly to let Jesus’ words sink in. Clearly, even in my less tutored mind, Jesus had said many heretical things. Most of them, James and I would point out to the other disciples, were merely a restating of previous statements in his letters—a continuing stream of illumination following his spiritual awakening after the healing of the sparrow. Clearly, however, I know now that Jesus’ dream about Matthias and Levi was, in microcosm, a glimpse of the reception he would receive from most of our people. The James who heard Jesus letter from Rome, however, was not so understanding about his views, for in this correspondence Jesus had gone much further than before.
“What is this nonsense about the Living Word?” His voice broke the silence. “What was he trying to say just then? Does anyone have a clue? Why does Jesus feel as if he has to preach to us? No wonder he gets on Joseph sons’ nerves!”
James had spoken all of our minds. Nehemiah, I noted with amusement, had fallen asleep in a sitting position, his little head wobbling on his thin neck.
“He’s speaking in riddles again,” Mama tried to make light of Jesus words.
“No,” Joseph said, shaking his head, “he summed it up very plainly. I don’t care about his silly dream. From the very beginning—in his first letter, even as they toured Rome, his notion of the unknown god and concern for the Gentiles have made him question our holy scrolls. Now this idea about the Word, as if it has a life of its own, is more important to him than the law and the prophets.”
“Except Isaiah.” James smiled wryly.
Simon, for once wide-awake, asked, “What’s rev-el-ation? What’s Il-lumin-ation?”
“I think I know what he’s talking about,” Papa said thoughtfully. “Jesus isn’t the first Jew to talk about illumination: that moment when your spirit, without words, not your mind, is moved. What the Lord once said to Mama and me is not written on any scroll. When you feel the Lord’s presence there are no earthly words.” “Revelation and illumination are just that Simon.” He reached down fondly to pat his head. “. . . . Sometimes God moves us, without beckoning. When God tells you something that no one, even Moses and the prophets didn’t know, in a vision or sound asleep, it’s a revelation.” “Sometimes,” he added with a sigh, “they don’t make sense at first . . . .The truth seeps in gradually in symbols and bursts of light. . .”
“All right,” Joseph replied with a sigh, “but what about this notion of the unknown god. I don’t believe Isaiah really included the Gentiles nor did he mean a universal god. He could’ve been talking about the Jews spread across the empire, from Egypt to Gaul. God created the heavens and earth, but he’s the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Israelites, not all of the pagan, idol worshipping Gentiles on the earth.”
“That’s your opinion.” Papa motioned impatiently. “I’m thirsty. Let’s all have some of Mama’s juice.”
I was curious about the last of Jesus’ sentences read by Papa. “What did Jesus mean by another meaning in his dream, deeper and more mysterious?” I looked up at him.
“More illumination, I suppose.” He gave me a tired grin. “That ones too deep for me!”
Though I never told Papa my own revelations, his words explained many of my dreams. Most of them didn’t make sense at all, and yet I knew, as Papa defined the word, my spirit had been illuminated. As Papa stepped out, ostensibly to use the cloaca, I saw that same worried look on Mama’s face, but I no longer worried. I didn’t believe Papa would become a drunk like uncle Ahab, though he occasionally snuck a mug or two of wine. After Mama fixed us all a snack of cheese and grapes and poured us all cups of juice, she checked on the twins frolicking in the front yard. What struck us all as suspicious was the fact that Papa returned to the kitchen from the back door, a grin buried in his bearded face. While we munched on our grapes and cheese and sipped our juice, Papa took a swig from the mug sitting by the scroll, brought the letter up to the sunlight streaming through window and continued reading Jesus’ letter. I uttered a silent prayer that the remainder of the scroll would be devoted to Jesus’ adventures, not more religious matters. Previously in the journey, Joseph of Arimathea’s troubles brought forth a new heresy from Jesus: the Living Word. This strange idea was interesting. What a perfectly novel idea? I must admit that Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile also intrigued me. What I really wanted to hear about in Jesus’ letters, however, was his exploits in different lands—those kinds of adventures I planned on having myself.
As it turned out, Joseph’s business was cut short the next day. Jesus’ Roman adventure would, at the end of the letter, run its course. Papa was invigorated by his shot of wine, so it was difficult to gauge his mood, but everyone else, even Mama, were growing weary with Jesus controversies.
“This sounds serious.” Papa chortled, sipping his juice. “Hold on to your seats.”
It struck me humorous that Papa had drunk the wine portion of the punch first. For a moment, as he glanced ahead in the scroll, I heard him mutter under his breath with surprise and alarm. In his booming voice, our expectations rose as he resumed the reading Jesus’ letter from Rome:
I awakened, after a fitful night, to a loud clamor outside the house. I soon learned, as I quickly dressed and scrambled into the hall, that there was a riot in the Jewish quarter. In a way, God had answered my prayers, for the crisis brought all of us together into a conference in Publius’ garden. Neither Matthias or Levi gave me evil looks. The subject of business was the furthest thing from Publius and Joseph’s mind. According to Loftus and Strabo, a self-styled courier, who didn’t even bother to deliver their message to the master of the house, gave a servant a scroll with the message scrawled in red ink “Jews get out of Rome!”
With the crude note in his hand, our host gave us the grave news. Almost immediately, however, Loftus himself downplayed the crisis. “I’ve learned from this servant,” he muttered to Joseph, “that it’s Praetorian Guards doing this, not the rank and file Roman citizen or soldier.”
“Really?” Joseph gave the Nubian a thoughtful look.
“That might be true,” Publius replied, heaving a sigh, “but it’s happening in my neighborhood. You’re not safe here, my friends. It would be better to get out while you can. I might take my family to Pompeii to wait this out.”
“Now we’re his friends,” Matthias whispered to Levi. “This is a ploy to get us out of Rome.”
“You were telling us about this earlier.” Joseph frowned. “. . . . Something about Tiberius being angry with Jews, forcing thousands of them to leave Rome. There didn’t seem to be any hostility toward us in Ostia or in Rome, itself. It’s just the Jewish quarter and a bunch of hotheads angry about Jewish attitudes toward serving in the army.”
“Yes,” Publius pressed his point, “but four thousand of them were forced to fight outlaws in Sardinia. Many thousands were expelled from Rome. Tiberius, unlike Augustus, is no lover of Jews. He sees us as hard-headed and untrustworthy.”
As I listened to Publius expound upon the growing rift between Jew and Gentile, I felt pity toward him. He was a creature of his times. Loftus and Joseph were right in downplaying the incident. Our host’s eyes were darting around nervously and he smelled of last night’s wine. This was a good way to get us out of his hair. The threat, however, was personal, between Marcian’s circle. He wanted us to convince that there was a more general threat. Seeing the forlorn outlines of his wife and children in the shadows, I knew that he was under great stress to comply with the Roman merchants. This was not simply greed as Joseph and his sons first suspected. The noise had already abated in the street. The servants were preparing the morning meal routinely, which implied that there really wasn’t any state of emergency. Before our arrival in Ostia, I overheard Joseph discussing Rome’s attitude toward the Jews. Julius Caesar, Pompeii, and Emperor Augustus had been disposed kindly toward our people. Suddenly, as our host poured himself a cup of wine, Joseph elaborated upon this subject for Publius’ benefit. We were all hungry, especially since our dinners last night had been cut short, but refrained from sitting at Publius’ table.
Joseph gave him a withering look. “I remember the history of our people’s suffering at the hands of Gentiles: Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. But the Romans, even under its new emperor, Tiberius, have been, at worst, indifferent conquerors. Their main concern is keeping the peace. Even now, as I understand it from you, the emperor’s under pressure to call back the exiled Jews, perhaps because of their financial skill. I pray that he will also bring our youths conscripted into the army back to Rome.”
“Yes, on the surface,” Publius said, wiping his mouth, “but Roman merchants are forcing many of us into financial ruin, and Tiberius doesn’t care. The emperor pretends to be tolerant like his stepfather yet turns a blind eye to the actions of hot-heads running amuck.”
“I heard them.” Joseph nodded grimly. “But I’ve seen worse in Galilee and Judea. Why haven’t they set the homes ablaze in the Jewish quarter or stoned you in the streets?”
“Maybe they’re just waiting for their chance,” offered Levi. “That old man last night gave us a clear warning. Why did he appear at just that moment in the Jewish quarter? It was a sign, I tell you. Publius is right; we should leave Rome.”
“Now, Levi,” Joseph replied, gripping his shoulders, “that fellow was talking about Rome’s fate against the barbarians. I could’ve told you that!” “Sooner or later,” he added, snapping his fingers, “our conquerors, the Romans, will go the way of the Persians and Greeks—pffft! Let’s not worry about a handful of troublemakers roaming he streets. Our host is exaggerating the problem because of his dealings with Marcian and his friends.”
“It’s not so simple,” groaned Publius. “In veiled language, I was warned by Marcian that Sejanus, Tiberius’ Praetorian Prefect, wants to replace the Jewish merchant class with his own network of sellers and buyers.”
“Why would he do that?” Matthias gave him a contemptuous look. “Our people have brought great prosperity to Rome.”
It sounded rather pompous to me, yet my pride swelled with Matthias words. I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how important Jewish artisans and merchants were in the cities of the empire. Yet Publius argued this matter several moments, as our stomachs growled with hunger, pointing out the method of an unscrupulous man like Sejanus, who cornered, even controlled, various markets, at the very least pressuring Jewish merchants, such as himself, to sell their wares for less or, as middlemen, receive a decreasing rate of commission.
“So it’s true,” Joseph concluded, shaking his head in dismay, “those men are pressuring you to do business only with them.”
Publius nodded his head miserably. Joseph motioned to us with a cutting motion, by raising a palm and bringing it down crashing onto his wrist, as if saying “that’s it. I’ve had it. Let’s leave!”
“Surely, you must sup with us first,” Publius appeared to equivocate. “Let’s discuss this matter over food and drink. I’ll try to help you find another client in Rome.”
“No, Publius.” Joseph shook his head emphatically, “you should’ve sent me a warning long ago before I wasted all this time.”
“It was too late.” Publius held out his pudgy hands. “I was approached only last week by Sejanus’ henchmen, Leo. Marcian arrived unannounced last night, but I knew he was Leo’s agent.” “Sejanus is not the typical pragmatic Roman,” he explained hoarsely. “He secretly hates the Jews and whispers like the devil into Tiberius’ ear.”
In a rare act of indiscretion, Joseph whispered a command to Loftus and Strabo. First removing the jugs from the breakfast table and handing them to the Syrian guards, each of the Nubians took the ends of the cloth and brought them forward, wrapping the sides carefully to contain the food. Removing a pouch, Joseph left a generous pile of coins to cover the theft and, pointing in the direction of the stables, led us out the back entrance of Publius’ house.
This time there was not so much as a murmur of argument. The four guards were greatly amused by this demonstration. Trusting Josephs’ judgment even more now, I offered a prayer of thanksgiving that we would soon have our morning meal. Matthias and Levi ran ahead to the servants’ quarters to find the coachmen we had hired. While the guards carried out our food, Joseph paid a pair of servants to assist us with our luggage. In less than an hour, we had climbed aboard the carriage, and, as we sat eating our bread, cheese, and fruit, were being transported back to Ostia to wait for Joseph’s cargo to be reloaded back onto his ship. The guards, though on horseback, shared in our meal and had managed to find a large flask of wine, which they passed back and forth merrily on the way. Joseph had already decided what to do with the warehouse filled with Rome’s intended goods. He would sell it to the harbormaster at a loss, rather than bring it back to Judea. Joseph and his sons were resolved to this disaster, yet I continued to pray. It appeared, after visiting Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Athens, we were finally going home. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a man ran up to our coach, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Stop, stop, my master sends you a message!”
“What is it now,” Matthias grumbled, “another apology?”
“Driver, halt!” Joseph barked. “Here let me see that,” he said, reaching out the window.
Gasping and drenched with sweat, the servant had run all the way from Publius’ estate. Joseph read the parchment quickly, whistling under his breath.
“Abraham’s ghost!” he laughed, slapping his knees. “It appears as if Publius recalled a Greek merchant, married to a rich Roman matron in the city, who might be interested in exchanging my goods for a storehouse of Falernian wine. The paper is a trifling matter. To fulfill the contract, I’ll send wagon out to purchase that in Rome.”
Levi shook his head in wonder. I could scarcely believe my ears.
Matthias cried out excitedly, “Will that cover all of the order? How long will all this take? Are you going to lose money in the deal?”
“One question at a time,” Joseph held up his hand. “It might not cover everything, but my reputation will be intact. Hopefully, this won’t take long.” “Here my good fellow, he said, reaching out to present him with a handful of coins. “Loftus will ride back with you to give you’re your master my reply.” “Driver,” he called, rapping on the door, “we’ll wait for the merchant on the dock.”
With a nervous look on his perspiring face, the servant climbed onto the saddle in back of the big Nubian and held on fore dear life as Loftus gave his stallion a kick.
“By the furies—on Zeus!” Loftus shouted to his horse, galloping swiftly back up the road.
Not ready to believe his good fortune, Joseph paced nervously up and down the dock as our coachmen waited for the news. As soon as the Greek appeared and the two merchants met to discuss terms, he would ride off, leaving us stranded if a deal wasn’t made. During the hour, Loftus galloped up on his big back stallion, calling out through cupped hands the good tidings: Publius got the message. The Greek merchant will be arriving soon. Nevertheless, just to make sure, I continued to pray. As Matthias and Levi waited anxiously on the wharf, the four guards told bawdy tale, munching on the store of sweetmeats snatched from Publius table, which they washed down with Campanian wine. Just as I emerged from the public urinal, shocked by the graffiti on the its walls, a second carriage pulled into the wharf area with a small, wizened, dark little man aboard. Hopping out of the coach, he scurried up to Joseph waving a contract in his hand.
“You have Greek merchandise,” he cried, “I have Falernian wine.
“Joseph bar Ibrim.” The Pharisee introduced himself
“Menander of Corinth,” The Greek shook his hand. “
Without a table for signing and sealing the document, the two men were forced to conduct business inside Menander’s coach. Each man carried a contract. In a rare moment of amiability, Matthias explained to me how this worked. Without a notarized parchment, as is the custom in the marketplace, this type of agreement depended solely upon the merchandise on hand. Since each merchant would see what the other was getting in the bargain, a magistrate or public notary wasn’t needed to witness the exchange. It all happened quickly.
“Glychon,” Joseph clapped his hands, as he trotted after the Greek, “find me a wagon and team. I’ll jot down directions to the mill. Tycho, go find the harbormaster. I also need a team of men.”
It took only a short while until Menander and Joseph emerged from the carriage beaming with their parchments in hand. I would learn later that Menander had been jilted by a contact in Rome too, just like Joseph. I was overjoyed that the Lord answered my prayers. I dare not share this with the others; that would be one miracle too many for Joseph’s sons. It was satisfying enough to see the expressions on everyone’s faces. Matthias had kept his pride, Levi’s fears were allayed, and Joseph could now spend his time showing Menander his warehouse of his bartered goods, supervise the unloading of Falernian wine and Roman paper onto the ship. The only loss, which was significant, was the coin paid to the paper mill, but we were all quite happy as we boarded our ship. Joseph’s guards had to rouse our drunken captain in his cabin and harbor attendants had to be sent into Ostia to round up the crewmen of our ship. Even with everything finally in order, it was evening before the ship was ready to travel. We would have to wait until early morning before leaving Ostia, which meant we would sleep onboard with a shipload of irritable, half sober men.
The next morning, the captain shouted for the crewman to castoff. The moorings were pulled in over the rails, the banner of Neptune rose high on the mast, and our ship set sail for Gaul. As Joseph, Matthias, Levi, and I prayed for a safe voyage, our guards pretended to join in, as did a few of the crewmen impressed by my prayer during our last voyage. I didn’t realize that I had become such a legend on the ship. My reputation, of course, irritated Joseph’s sons. Some of the crewmen called me little Neptune, in honor of the sea god that protected Roman ships. Loftus counseled me not to argue since we needed their goodwill. We were, in fact, treated well on the Trident, which just happened to be the name of our ship. This goodwill helped support Joseph’s optimism about Rome’s tolerance toward Jews. And yet it seemed obvious to me that the new emperor, Tiberius, is a capricious ruler, especially after hearing about what his friend Sejanus had up his sleeve. Now that he had given Joseph his contract, I asked the Lord to provide us with good weather and give my benefactor a prosperous venture in Gaul, free from the troubles encountered in Rome.
When we reach our next destination, Gaul, I shall write you a new letter. Joseph is confident he will recoup his losses in this outpost, but I sense apprehension in his two sons. Loftus told me, I’m certain untruthfully, that a wild headless people live here who have eyes in their chests and hairy arms, much longer than their legs. This myth, Joseph told us later, comes from Herodotus, a Greek historian, who also wrote about a race of giant blond haired women he called Amazons, fearless in battle, ruling over their husbands as the Romans rule us now. These are legends, of course. Except that they once practiced a more barbarous religion than Rome, Joseph reassured me that the Gauls are a more trustworthy folk, not so different from ourselves. Out of boredom, our Nubian guards sometimes like to frighten us with fantastic tales. Levi is especially susceptible to their stories, as are the Syrians who are a superstitious lot. Rest assured that I am safe and well on my odyssey. The Lord watches over me and, in so doing, also watches over Joseph and his sons. I look forward to seeing my family again. I shall pray for your good health and continued happiness.
I miss you, my parents, brothers, and sisters. Until I reach Gaul, peace, good health, and the grace of our Lord be with you, — Jesus bar Joseph.