The Galilean Fort
I raised a trembling hand to shield my eyes from the sun, holding fast on the reigns as I watched Jesus, my father, and their two Roman escorts, Rubrius and Dracho, depart. Doubts crept into my mind as I gave them a final salute. What was I doing? I might not see my family for a long time! Silhouetted in the afternoon light, Jesus, Papa and the two Romans rippled as heat chimeras, vanishing as phantoms in the rising dust. Blowing over me in the warm, Galilean breeze that moment were memories of my family and home: from those important reflections of childhood until this morning when I bid everyone farewell. Foremost in my recollections was Jesus, my oldest brother, the one vote of confidence I took with me now. Jesus had gone on his own journey and understood my desire to see the world. The Roman presence in Nazareth and Jesus’ letters during his trip with Joseph of Arimathea had wetted my appetite for adventure. This was, of course, quite different than Jesus’ trip. He had been on a sightseeing tour with his benefactor and was protected by Joseph’s personal guards. I was enlisting in the army, not boarding a galley for Rome. Though I was recommend by Cornelius, the Commander of the Galilean Cohort, I would make my journey alone. For the first time in my life, I was on my own. I would be, like Moses among the Midianites, a stranger in a strange land. It was both an exhilarating and terrifying experience. I knew I wanted to use my writing and memory skills in the army; I just wasn’t certain how. I couldn’t be a regular soldier, of course. I was, after all, a Jew. My weapon, I promised Papa, would be my pen. But what would I do? Would I write letters for Roman officers, assist in ordering supplies, and be able to use my knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Aramaic as an interpreter as well as a scribe? What if they handed me a shield and sword and ordered me to fight? I had no guarantee in writing for what I was supposed to do. All I had was Cornelius’ high opinion of me, which I hoped preceded me to my new post. Cornelius was certain his friend would jump at the chance to use my talents, but I wasn’t so sure. I was, in addition to being Jew, only eighteen years old. I had no immediate proof of my excellent memory, language ability, and writing skills. Jesus had an advocate in Joseph of Arimathea for his genius. His reputation was well known by soldiers in the Galilean Cohort. All I had was my quick wit and tongue. I would be alone—a Jew among pagan soldiers, with no other sponsor but myself.
“Chin up!” I told myself, blinking away a tear.
Jerking my reigns sharply, I nudged my mule, turned toward the fort, and trotted slowly away from my life. The fort now loomed ominously ahead as an unclean and fearful place. The more I considered what I was doing, in fact, the more this seemed to be a plunge into the unknown. Every member of my family except Jesus thought I was insane. Papa had tried to make a carpenter out of me and Samuel, a close friend of the family, thought I might use my knowledge to become a Pharisee, like himself. Instead of choosing a comfortable and safe path, however, I was abandoning a peaceful life in Nazareth for adventure in the Gentile world.
Jesus had given me his blessing before I set forth. When all else was considered—both good and bad—this should have been enough. Through him I knew that God was on my side. This is what I wanted to believe. So why was I hesitating? Where was my faith?
Pulling back increasingly on the reigns, I slowed my beast to a walk, the slowest motion possible for a mule or horse without standing still. Inching forward imperceptibly, I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and gathered up my resolve. It seemed as if I had turned my back on everything that was right and holy, and yet I felt strength in Jesus words: “Learn the heart of the Gentiles.” It was as if he had given me an important assignment and, as I repeated the words over and over, helped make up my mind.
“Onward Mule!” I kicked him gently, until the he broke into a cantor. The mule bolted forward indecisively, so I kicked him again until he got it right. Soon, I found myself galloping to the fort, my resolve in tact and heart hammering in my chest. With hindsight, I can say that my experience during my journey toughened me up physically and mentally for the real test as a member of the twelve. During these last few moments of freedom I kept telling myself I was doing the right thing. Had not Jesus given me his approval and said this was part of God’s plan? On the other hand, a voice in my head reminded me that I was a Jew and those were Gentiles behind those walls. Between my first day inside the compound and the day I returned home would be a gap that seemed as large as the Great Sea. When I arrived finally at the perimeter, I looked back dejectedly over the stretch covered by my short, dusty ride. The riders had disappeared below a rise, replaced by empty desert. I might as well have been on the other side of the world. I felt abandoned and bereft of logic and reason. Strangely enough I also felt an irrational excitement, not unlike some of my foolish exploits in the past, only magnified a hundredfold. “All right Jude, make up your mind!” I muttered, still tempted to gallop away from the fort. This wasn’t a childish prank or an exercise in youthful daring-do. This was a one-way leap into the unknown. There was no turning back this time when I entered through that great wooden gate.
What had moved me this far were Jesus words. What stopped me cold was the shrill cry of a sentry from the parapet of the wall, the age old: “Who goes there? State your business!” At least he didn’t say, “State you business, Jew!” as I heard the legionnaires challenge the people in my town. Papa once told me that the garrison had been built by the legionnaires themselves, and that the same soldiers who were fierce warriors were fairly good carpenters and road builders during and after the march. I would soon find out if I would even be admitted into this dreadful place.
“Judah bar Joseph,” it spilled out of my mouth. Oh why did I say that? I thought, grabbing my mouth. “Jesus is wrong,” I whispered to myself, “sometimes you must lie.”
The sentry muttered an oath to himself then. By the thud-thud sound I heard as his head disappeared, I knew he was coming down to unlatch the gate. I knew it was coming. “A Jew, are you?” He spat the words. “What brings one of your kind to the garrison? You lost lad?”
“I was sent by the prefect Cornelius at Sepphoris.” I answered in a small voice, indeed feeling lost this hour.
I could see the sentry looking through a peephole in the gate. It reminded me of a jackal peeking through the brush. There was laughter (more jackals) and someone shouting in the distance, “Who is it? What does he want?” My heart beat very loud. What gave me spiritual comfort again, though little physical strength as they conversed in Latin to each other, were Jesus’ cryptic words, “Learn the heart of the Gentiles”—whatever that meant. Surely, knowing my brother’s powers, this had to be some sort of key to my future. During this most trying period, however, when I heard the rusty hinges and saw a crack of daylight increase slowly as several legionnaires opened the great gate, I wondered again if I was making a big mistake. When the gate was open just enough for me to squeeze inside, the sentry snapped “Not quite yet lad. You said you were sent by our commander, but what’s your business in the garrison. I could see that you were alone out there, but, after the last disturbance in Galilee, we don’t trust Jews. Let me ask you—how do I say it? —Ah yes, a test question.”
“Good grief,” I groaned.
“What color are the prefects eyes?” He began. “You must’ve been close enough for that.”
“Brown, like most everyone else,” I grew irritated.
“That was too easy,” a friend interrupted, “give him something hard.”
A muted conversation followed. I took the opportunity in my agitated state of mind to make water on the wall. This would have been considered an insult in their rustic minds, but better the wall than in my pants. A new voice, I had not heard before called out “What are the names of Cornelius’ adjutant and first centurion?”
“Servitus and Longinus.” I heaved a sigh. “Listen,” I announced, out of breath, “I’m suppose to accompany the military courier and three veterans to the imperial cohort in Antioch. We were to leave the following morning. I’m to report for duty with Commander Aurelian, who is a friend of Cornelius. Surely Rubrius or Dracho told you that.”
“Told you so-Told you so,” blared a singsong voice, “it’s that fellow Rubrius told us about—the smart mouth Jew!”
“Castor, go fetch that scurvy courier,” he called to another. “Come inside lad,” he directed as the gate finally opened far enough for me to enter.
Running back to grab my mule’s reigns, I waited, as the porthole grew larger, before leading him in. Surrounding me with smirks on their bristly faces were seven typical Roman soldiers, running the gamut from short to tall, thin to portly, and square jawed to chubby jowled men. In spite of their day-old whiskers, they all wore clean, tidy uniforms, and otherwise had the short cropped hair of the legionnaire. Because our guards back in Nazareth were always on duty, I had never seen the casual side of soldiers. They didn’t look like the fierce warriors who conquered the Carthaginians and Greeks. Of course neither did the guards in Nazareth.
“My name’s Decimus, the optio on watch,” my host reached out to grip my forearm. “Those two guards, Rubrius and Dracho, don’t like you very much, but I trust the commander’s judgment.”
“Thank you sir,” I replied, dizzy with relief. “I don’t think any of these men are going to like me very much.”
“Well,” he said with a shrug, “you’re a Jew,” as if that explained everything. “Your mule will be taken to the stables by Flaccus.” He motioned impatiently to an attendant. “He’ll take you to your quarters with a numbered tag showing where you can find him the next day.”
“My quarters?” I brightened. “I’ll have a quarters?”
Decimus threw his head back and gave me a hearty laugh. I was not sure what this meant until, Castor, who, I noted with surprise, walked with a slight limp, returned with what was one of the dirtiest and smelliest Romans I would ever meet.
“Judah-bar-what’s-it,” Castor made the introductions, “this lowlife Syrian dog is Abzug, who carries our dispatches. Ho-ho, you two’re made for each other!”
Though Decimus frowned, the legionnaires now gathered to see the new recruit, guffawed and made ribald jokes I shall not repeat. What temporarily saved me from the continued heckling was the appearance of the three veterans that would be accompanying Abzug and me to Antioch. Castor didn’t bother giving their names. What I learned had a chilling effect upon me. I was tempted once again to admit this was all a mistake and run for the gate, until Decimus stepped in to say his piece.
Because of their long service, Castor explained discreetly, the veterans were being cashiered from the legion rather than being severely punished for murdering Jewish prisoners that lie wounded on the ground. Their act of vengeance had occurred after a band of Galileans had earlier ambushed and killed some of their friends.
“Now wait a minute men,” Decimus replied half seriously, “you’ve only given the lad half the story about our veterans. The other half is that the men they killed weren’t just any Jews, they were murdering, thieving Jews. Now everyone knows that most Jews are a cowardly, loud-mouthed lot, not really much a threat to Rome.” “Are you a cowardly, loud-mouthed Jew?” He asked, giving me a nudge. “Unless you want trouble with those veterans,” he whispered from the corner of his mouth, “the answer’s ‘yes.’”
“Yes!” I grinned stupidly.
This brought mirth from everyone, including the veterans. Before leading us all back to our ‘quarters,’ Decimus introduced the three veterans as Geta, Langulus, and Caesarius. Geta looked very old. He had a crotchety manner about him and a permanent frown etched into his face. Langulus, however, a younger man, was dark complexioned, with a slight slant to his large black eyes. He didn’t look Roman at all. Nor did Caesarius, who, like my sisters, was fair like a Greek, his gray hairs still sporting many blond curls. Caesarius appeared old in the way his stony face broke into a crooked grin and the way he cackled instead of guffawing like most men. I couldn’t imagine why these men hadn’t been pensioned off long ago. All of them, I imagined, were tough old nuts. When we began walking, after Decimus’ prod, I wondered if Langulus was not being discharged because of his wounds, for, unlike Castor’s minor limp—also probably a war wound, he held a crutch in one hand and used it clumsily for his one bad leg.
“Are you all right sir?” I asked, reaching out to assist.”
Recoiling as if I was an unclean thing, he spat, “Don’t touch me, you stinking Jew! You people are a curse on Rome. You just stay on your side of the tent!”
“A tent?” I replied, shaken by his response. “….We’re quartered in a tent?”
Just as the words left my mouth, we turned a sharp corner around the prefect’s quarters, and lo and behold, I beheld, angling down a slight hill, a sea of goatskin tents, thousands of idling troops, glaring, snickering, or displaying disbelieving frowns at us as we passed. All around this tent city century banners fluttered and sentries glared down from the parapets as we walked through a gauntlet of contempt. It appeared, in fact, that Rubrius and Dracho had poisoned the well, but I was not the only object of their disgust. Decimus told me matter-of-factly, as he glanced back, that the veterans, my tent-mates, were being moved for their own safety. They had proven themselves in the past in many battles as brave men, but they had disgraced the Galilean Cohort by their rash acts. Gratus, the governor, had personally reprimanded the Cohort during the inspection this morning. In a loud, good-natured voice, Decimus confided to me discreetly, Gratus had reminded Cornelius’ men that such lapses of behavior brought shame upon the Emperor and Rome. Geta, Langulus, and Caesarius could have retired here in Galilee in a peaceful plot of land, but instead they were returning to an imperial city where they will be set free to make it on their own. They were too old and, in Langullus case, debilitated, to be gladiators or personal guards. More likely they would join the unemployed dregs in town or wind up begging at the city gate. I shuddered when I recalled the ordeal Michael, my childhood friend, must have gone through as a vagabond in Jerusalem. It appeared as though Abzug, the courier, was also universally disliked. As Decimus explained with a shrug, the Romans also hated Syrian auxilia, especially if they were cheats and thieves.
When we arrived at our destination, the most dilapidated tent in the compound, I slapped my forehead, muttering in disbelief.
“Am I being punished,” I called out to the heavens. “Will I survive tonight?”
“Awe, this is just the beginning.” Geta winked toothlessly. “Wait until they serve dinner. We get the scraps and leavings. I’ve lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks.”
“Don’t listen to that old fool. It’s not that bad,” said Decimus, shoving me gently into the tent. “I won’t let anyone abuse you. Just keep your mouth shut and stay out of sight until tomorrow morning. That shouldn’t be so hard.”
“I wanted to see an army camp,” I muttered unhappily. “Do I have to stay inside this smelly tent?”
“Stay put, you damn fool,” the optio jerked his thumb. “You can check out your next post, not this one. That province hasn’t suffered because of Jewish rebels, like ours. Just to be safe, I’m posting a couple of guards to keep you men from being lynched.”
Without another word, Decimus swaggered off, humming under his breath, leaving me alone in the shadowy tent. Four pairs of hostile eyes glared at me as I set down my pack and attempted to make communication.
“I can see why these fine fellows are mad at me, but not you,” I first addressed the Syrian.
“Grrrrrh!” Abzug made an animal-like sound.
“So,” I turned next to Geta, the oldest, “why do you hate Jews. We’re not all bad. I have many Roman friends. My brother Jesus and my Papa get along with Gentiles too.”
“Don’t label me, you whelp,” Geta fumed. “I’m a Roman, no damn Gentile. Bad enough we’re being cashiered. Now we gotta take a long a wet-behind-the-ears Jew!”
My shoulders slumped. I sat closest to the flaps, looking out of the tent. “I-I’m sorry,” I tried thinking of a clever reply. “…. I had no idea Romans hated us quite so much. I promise to take care of myself. If you wish, I won’t make a peep.”
“Shut up!” Abzug, took a swipe at me.
Suddenly my back stiffened, my nostrils flared, and I jumped to my feet. “What’s wrong with that man?” I asked challengingly. “He’s not in trouble. You veterans are. Why does he hate me so?”
“He’s in charge of us,” Caesarius explained calmly, “which means he’s responsible for your neck.” “Truth is,” he gave Abzug a warning look, “he’s a cowardly snake. They’re giving him the boot, too. If Langullus wasn’t disabled, he’d be leading us. They think Geta and I are addled with age after our exploits, but I’m not afraid of that man.”
“I’m sorry about your wound sir,” I tried to show Langullus great respect. “How did it happen? Was it a sword thrust, spear or maybe an arrow?”
“All of the above.” Caesarius smiled ruefully. “Langullus is lucky to be alive.”
“Can someone shut up that Jew?” Langullus wrung his crutch. “He’s just making matters worse!”
I clamped my mouth with both hands, in a symbolic
gesture, bowed and exited the tent.
At that point, I didn’t care that I was in harm’s way. In so many words, Jesus told me God
would protect me. “All right
Lord,” I cried, searching the cloudless sky, “here I am, Jesus’ brother. How about a helping hand? I need you now Lord. I’m suppose to learn the Gentile’s
“Is that youth mad?” Some in the next tent shouted.
“Get in here boy!” Caesarius demanded hoarsely. “You wanna get lynched?”
With great speed for his advanced age, he scurried out, grabbed my collar, and pulled me back into the tent.
“What’s the matter with you?” He wrung a bony finger at me. “You’re in greater danger out there than in here with us. I won’t let Abzug, Geta, or Langullus harm you. Decimus promised you as much. Be patient. For Zeus sake, be silent. In a little while we’ll get our rations. If you need to use the cloaca, don’t. Go to the side of the tent, near the wall—quickly and without prissiness. I know you Jews have laws about cleanliness. Well, forget it here. Your god doesn’t want you dead, with your throat slit. You’ll have the whole desert on our trip to crap and piss in the proper way.”
I laughed hysterically at this thought. Except for Caesarius tolerant smile, however, there was no mirth in this tent. I knew that he, and perhaps Decimus, were my only advocates. In a few moments two soldiers in light armored uniforms arrived and stuck their heads into our tent—one on each side, two beefy jowled fellows with big hands.
“Humph, is there a problem here?” One of the guards grunted.
“Where were you?” snapped Geta. “You’re supposed to protect us!”
“We wouldn’t have had to if that Jew hadn’t shown
up,” snorted the second guard.
“Well, he’s one of us now,” Caesarius said, motioning for me to sit down. “Come here lad. Lay out your bedroll beside mine. I don’t want one of them soldiers pulling you through the tent flaps or Abzug sticking a dagger between your ribs.”
I didn’t know what to say to all this. I lay on my bedroll awhile, biting my fists, pushing back a scream, listening to Caesarius threaten the other three if they tried to do me harm. I wasn’t worried that much about Geta, except for his foul smell. (I hadn’t learned his true feelings yet.) After watching Langullus, for that matter, I felt mostly pity for this man. His wounds were not completely healed. It was Abzug, the imperial courier, who worried me the most. He was, I began to suspect, on a one-way trip to Antioch, himself. I couldn’t believe this man was in charge of our tent. He was unbalanced. He growled like a beast at me. Silently, I thanked the Lord that at least one of my tent-mates was civil. In spite of the smell of unwashed bodies and garlic, I managed, with a dose of Caesarius resinous Greek wine, to take a short nap.
A short dream soon played in my head. My family and all my friends, the living and the dead, were there. Jesus, my parents, brothers and sisters, Nehemiah, Michael, Uriah, Tabitha, and, of all people, Reuben sat around the table chatting unintelligibly as dream images often do. Also appearing was Samuel and his chamberlain, Mordechai, Ezra, my father’s best friend, and his family, and many of the townsfolk who had shunned us in the past. This was, of course, another dreamscape. None of it was real. It was one of my God-given gifts, a phenomena Jesus called a lucid dream in which the dreamer knew he was asleep. In such a state I could dispel confusing, troubling, and fearful images, and even manipulate the content and direction of the plot. For a while, as I slept in that smelly tent, I played along with my images, even tweaking Mordechai’s beard. As I listened to my images, feeling homesick and filled with doubt, I realized I had failed all of the people I loved—Papa, Mama, Samuel, Tabitha, my brothers, everyone except Jesus who thought I was doing God’s will...What if Jesus was wrong this time? I wondered. What if I was doing a very foolish and dangerous thing? It was a disturbing thought that added to my feeling of gloom. The room in my dreamscape grew dark that moment, the figures around the table becoming shadows against as an eerie transcendent light. Suddenly, as Papa leaned across the table, I heard him say succinctly “wake up you stupid Jew!” For a brief moment, forgetting I was aware of my dream, I wondered why Papa would be calling me that name, until slipping passed the cloak of sleep I opened my eyes to see Geta glaring down at me.
“The two guards are waiting to escort us,” Caesarius called over his shoulder. “Let’s go get some food.”
“I can’t wait to put this nightmare behind me,” I mumbled as Geta and Caesarius yanked me to my feet. Abzug lurched out of the tent first, followed by the hobbling Langullus, who was helped along by the guards. The remaining veterans assisted me as if I was addled in the head, which I partially was, the romantic dream I had of service to Rome dashed to bits by these boorish men.
“There-there old friend,” one of our guards murmured to Langullus, “you shouldn’t be making that trip.”
“Are you serious?” Geta muttered testily. “You think he has a choice?”
“Unhand me, I can walk on my own,” grumbled Langullus.
“Be silent, all of you,” barked the second guard, “let’s not draw attention to ourselves!”
Heads were poking out of tents and voices rang out as the camp was alerted to our presence.
“You men almost got us decimated my the governor!” A voice blared.
“Got them folks in Sepphoris mad at us for killing them Jews, they did,” a conversation started up. “It’s ridiculous! You’d think they killed Romans citizens by all that fuss.”
“Well, I feel sorry for Langullus.” A third man replied. “Look at him! Poor bastard can barely walk. Geta and Caesarius aren’t bad fellahs either. By Zeus they spent their whole lives in the legions and look what it got’em. Next time I kill me a Jew, I’ll make sure it looks like an accident. Maybe they should’ve buried them before fleeing the scene.”
I held my breath, hoping they would pay me no mind. There appeared to be mixed opinions about the veterans. The Jews killed by them, I gathered, belonged to band of insurrectionists—a word used for anyone defying Rome. Fleetingly, I wondered if that included members of Abbas’ old gang, which included his son. That was a long time ago. The last time I saw Adam, the bandit’s son, I was only twelve years old. It seemed more likely that it was a new group of bandits and thieves. While such thoughts played in my mind, we passed through a gauntlet of idle men, whose voices brought me crashing back to earth:
“Geta, Caesarius—tough luck men. I just didn’t get caught…. Poor devils. Lost their pension I hear…. Hah, they’re lucky they didn’t get strung up…. They’re heroes, that’s what they are—killed themselves some murdering Jews…. I don’t feel sorry for them. They got us into a mess of trouble. Thanks to those old fools, the Governor will have his eye on us. We’ll be lucky he doesn’t replace us and send our cohort east.”
“That one there.” An elderly soldier stepped forth and pointed at me. “He’s the Jew they brought in. Let’s string him up.”
“Back off Galleo,” one of our guards said sarcastically. “This man has business with Aurelian. You men—all of you—back off and leave us be. They’re going to get some food and head back to their tent. Make way or so help me you’ll get the flat of my sword!”
With that said, our small group made its way through a mixed gathering of friends and foes for the veterans in our midst. At one point, as we approached the mess table, where the cook and his attendants were bringing out a simmering pot and other victuals that looked suspiciously like unsanctified food, I was certain that they would pull me out of the procession and string me up. When a detail of armored legionnaires galloped suddenly into the fort, however, there was only a smattering of jeers. I couldn’t see who they were, only hear the familiar clatter, but I hoped it was Longinus or Cornelius arriving on the scene. Our guards handed the cook a piece of paper which, Caesarius explained to me under his breath, was an order from the watch to serve us before the others to prevent us from being harassed. The unseen legionnaires, I suspect, had much to do with the silence falling over the troops. I have never seen so many glares focused on so few. One young man walked up to Abzug and pointed accusingly at the courier. Our guards walked over as he shouted and shoved him off the path, but not before he said his piece.
“That man is worse than the old men or Jew. He’s a thief. No one could prove it; he’s too clever for that, but that’s why the commander is sending him off. He’s a damnable auxiliary—not one of us. Those thieving Syrians are worse than Jews!”
“Aye!” Several legionnaires agreed.
“You men better watch you backs and sleep with one eye open,” the cook advised, as he ladled out a strange looking stew.
I was not sure of the meat. With a wicked gleam in his eye, an attendant told me it was a hyena they killed that day, though it looked very much like lamb with pieces of fowl thrown in the pot. When we had our plates and cups (filled with Greek wine) and two loafs of freshly baked bread, which the guards tore chunks from and distributed amongst us, we were led back to our tents. In the spontaneous gesture of kindness I often saw in Roman soldiers, we found seven fold-up stools waiting for us when we returned. There was no explanation given by our guards, though I was sure they had ordered someone to place them in our tent. While the five tent-mates congregated inside the tent, the two guards sat on their stools outside, eating their food.
“I’m Jude,” I said to one of them, through a mouthful of stew, “what’s your name?”
“Aulus, and that fellow’s Vesto,” the guard pointed at his friend.
“We already knew your name,” said Vesto, wolfing down his stew. “Jude’s short for Judah, everyone knows that—a Jew name. You better change it quick lad. Jews aren’t popular in this army. It could get you killed.”
“Now Vesto,” Aulus said good-naturedly, “he’s just a youth, about my age when I joined up. We got all kinds in the auxilia. That’s probably were they’ll put him so he can be with his own kind.”
Own kind? What did that mean, I chewed on his words. Vesto had given me a friendly warning and Aulus had insulted me in a kindly way—personality patterns I was already learning to accept as a member of a despised sect.
“Thank you,” I murmured politely, sipping my wine.
To break the silence that followed, Caesarius explained a few customs to me. The wine we received in our mugs was only served at the evening meal during peacetime, which was normally all the time in this post. Extra wine rations were given to soldiers coming back from a work detail, skirmish, or after some notable act. Secondly, to my relief, pork—the scandal of we Jews—was not readily available in Galilee, so the meat, as I had hoped, was lamb purchased from the shepherds near Nazareth and Nain. What the cohort in Antioch would be serving, he added slyly, was another matter. Pork, of course, was Rome’s favorite meat, but lamb, as well as goat and cattle, were much more common fare in the provinces. I realized, with growing surprise, that Caesarius was a relatively educated man—the cagey sort, not at all like most the boorish soldiers I had met. More importantly, he didn’t treat me with contempt for being a Jew.
“You understand things very well,” I tried to frame the words. “You’re not filled with hate.”
“I don’t hate Jews,” he answered quickly, “but I hate bandits and thieves. It was thieves and cutthroats who killed Lucius and Gravus, my best friends. They just happen to be Jews. If Syrians or Greeks had done it, I’d’ve killed them too.”
“Speak for yourself Caesarius,” Langullus snarled.
“Goes for me too,” spat Geta. “I was there when Judah, the Galilean, his namesake ran amuck in Galilee. Those people will never forgive us for crucifying all them Jews.
“Yeah,” sneered Langullus, “we helped string up Abbas’ band too. He wasn’t a insurrectionist, just a bandit. This last bunch reminded more me of Judah’s men. Unlike Abbas and the other bandit chiefs, they killed Romans for sport, yet those locals were upset when we strung them up.”
“It’s true.” Caesarius looked squarely at me. “Galilee isn’t like the other provinces. We protect your people from their enemies, allow them to have their own priesthood, and magistrates and yet they feel defiled if we enter their homes. They spit on our charity and good faith. Most of them treat us with contempt. They curse us behind our backs.” “And yet,” he added thoughtfully, patting my bowed head. “I’ve met a few good Jews—not all of them are bad.”
“Well, I hate them all,” gnashed Geta, “—their snobbery and high and mighty ways—everything about those stuck-up, prissy Jews.”
“Ho-ho,” snickered Aulus, “don’t hold back Geta, tell us how you feel.”
“You and Caesarius where posted here during the rebellion,” murmured Vesto. “How old are you?”
“That’s not that long ago,” Geta made a face. “Caesarius is older than me. You young whelps don’t know what the real legion was like. I served with Tiberius when he was a great general. Caesarius rode with Germanicus—another great leader!”
“Not all of us think like Geta,” Vesto winked at me. “Rome’s a big empire. There’s room for all sorts of people in it—even Jews.”
“I don’t hate Jews,” Abzug offered matter-of-factly. “The Romans have treated Syrian auxilia like bastard offspring since I was a boy. This assignment, if you want to call it that, is the end of my dealings with Rome. We’re quits, Rome and I. They’re retiring you old men, but they’re cashiering me—all because of a bunch of accusations that can’t be proven, just an excuse to finally give me the boot.” “You wanna know whom I hate,” he looked up at our guards, and then turned to wink at me. “I hate Roman officers, non-coms too, they’re the ones who singled me out. I have nothing against honest Jews. That Cornelius, Longinus, and Decimus never liked me. They wanted a Roman or Greek courier, someone clean shaven, without a funny-sounding name—”
“Watch your mouth Abzug,” Vesto gripped his wrist, “those are good men you’re accusing.”
Closing one eye as he focused on the wizened little man, Aulus added his caution: “Simmer down Abzug. I’m Roman, so is Vesto and the old men. You can’t blame us all for what the officers do.”
“You’re not listening,” Abzug replied in a singsong voice. “I said officers and non-coms, like that bootlicker Decimus. He’d turn on his grandmother to please the prefect.”
“That’s enough, you Syrian dog,” Vesto hissed. “Decimus is my friend. He’s the one sending you off to save your hide. He convinced Longinus to recognize your service. I don’t know why the other men think you’re a thief, but you say one more word about those men and I’ll cut out your lying tongue.”
On that note, Abzug pulled out an extra flask to supplement his ration and quickly got himself drunk. As we finished up our dinners, I exchanged polite conversation with the Romans, as was my custom. I was baffled by the contradictions in these men but didn’t know how to put it into words. My wine was taking effect. Caesarius had spoken in friendship to me. Geta carried the most hatred for my people and me. Perhaps, I thought, sharing some of Abzug’s extra rations, I should distrust Geta the most.
“My father once told me that our people were descendents of Noah’s son Shem,” Abzug murmured wryly. “That makes us related, doesn’t it? Tell me the truth, if you saw a Syrian and Jew walking toward you from the field, could you tell them apart?”
“No, I suppose not,” I scratched my head dreamily, “especially if they’re wearing a uniform and helmet.”
I was very drunk.
“He’s addled in the head,” Aulus explained, rising to his feet. “We shall be replaced by two night guards and so forth—four hour shifts, until morning comes. Get on the road to Antioch as soon as you can.” “Take care of this Jew boy.” He added patting my head. “I don’t think he’s like the rest.”
“Change your name lad,” Vesto bent over and whispered earnestly. “Ol’ Abzug’s right about one thing: you can’t tell a Syrian from a Jew, even a lot of Romans and Greeks. You must blend into the army. Get rid of your food prohibitions. It’ll be a dead give-away.” “Blend in!” he repeated, his fist coming to his chest.”
“Blend in!” Aulus echoed his salute. “Don’t trust Abzug and Geta,” he added in a murmur. “Caesarius and, in spite of his bitterness, Langullus, are honorable men. Make sure you sleep between them and ride with them at your back.”
By now Geta and Abzug had retreated to each side of the tent, too drunk to respond. With Aulus and Vesto’s words swimming in my head, I rolled over on my side and fell asleep. I recalled waking up to make water on the wall, hearing snoring and seeing a guard pop in every once in awhile to make sure we were all right. Once I staggered out to vomit on the ground. Fortunately it was very late and no one caught sight of me. The remainder of the night I lay in a black sleep, awakening in torment the next morning.
“Wake up that Jew,” were the first words I heard, this time from a surly guard, who shook the tent so hard, several stakes popped out and we thought it would cave in. I looked around the tent and saw sluggish movement among my tent-mates. A new pair of guards, quite unlike Aulus and Vesto were rousing us from drunken sleep, waiting impatiently as we gathered our gear, prodding us with their small whips, and herding us like sheep to the mess line before the camp awakened.
“It’s still dark,” I groaned. “What’s the hurry?”
The first guard held a lamp up to my face. “They want you out of here before dawn. Move it or I’ll give you my whip.”
“What happened to the flat of your sword?” grumbled Abzug. “Were not cattle, Roman, we have rights.”
“No, you’re not cattle, your sheep,” he said, brandishing the whip in front of his face. “So help me, you Syrian pig, I’ll use this on your hide.”
“Our night guards called me a dog.” Abzug giggled foolishly. “Now I’m a pig. Which animal is more accursed to the Jews?”
I know he was directing his question to me. As promised, the guard gave him a few light strokes.
“Neither animal is accursed,” Caesarius said with a yawn, “but we are. I hope we don’t hit the trail in the dark.”
“Oh Lord,” I moaned miserably, “this has to be a dream.”
“It’s not a dream, half-wit,” the guard prodded me with his whip. “Keep moving or I’ll cram this up your rear.”
“Shut up Numerius,” a second guard growled. “Talk in whispers if you must. You men don’t talk at all.”
“I heard about you two,” Geta cackled, “Numerius and Sallust. You’re close to getting cashiered yourselves.”
“You filthy old man!” cried Sallust, raising his whip.
Just that moment, however, a shadow lurched out onto our path. When Numerius held up his lamp, I gasped in disbelief. There stood Longinus, hands on hips, his steel jaw set, in full dress, as if he had just climbed off his mount.
“I’ll take over from here men,” he dismissed our guards.
Without argument, against this menacing figure, Numerius and Sallust slipped into the shadows, themselves, leaving our small group in good hands.
“Thank you sir,” the veterans said almost in unison.
Abzug bowed his head as if to a deity, as I tried thinking of something clever to say. I wanted to run to the centurion and fall down at his feet, but I stood my ground, weaving under the effect of wine and lack of sleep.
“Jude,” he called in recognition, “step forth. Let me see what these bastards did to you.”
I stepped forth obediently. Longinus, who was not a man of strong emotion, uttered a faint gasp.
“Have you been drinking lad?” He gave me a sharp appraisal.
“Yes sir,” I answered, dropping my head.
“It’s my fault,” Caesarius spoke up quickly.
“Shut up, you,” Longinus pointed accusingly at the veteran, “he’s responsible for himself. You just worry about yourself.”
“I don’t know how it happened,” I replied lamely. “I lost all my common sense. I-I’ve shamed my parents and lost my self-respect.”
“Well,” Longinus said, placing a heavy hand on my shoulder, “You’ve shamed no one. Who could blame you? Aulus told me that they gave you a rough time. I’m sure these scurvy dogs didn’t help.”
“Caesarius isn’t so bad,” I looked back at my friend. “He’s treated me with respect.”
“With Caesarius as your friend, you don’t need enemies,” Longinus gave me a chilling warning. “He’s a murderer. Those Jews had surrendered. They were unarmed. I don’t care what some of his friends said.”
I wanted to argue with him and tell him what Caesarius had said to me, but all I could muster up was “All right. . . .What shall I do?”
“All of you,” he announced, his arms sweeping wide, “shall grab some bread and cheese from the mess, climb on your mounts, and follow a special detail out of Galilee—out of harm’s way, until your safely on the highway to Antioch.”
“Praise the gods,” Geta wrung his hands joyfully, “we’re delivered from bandits.”
“At least until we reach the sea.” Caesarius nodded quizzically.
“Let’s move on men.” Longinus waved impatiently.
As I waited my turn to grab food and water from the mess table, I felt Longinus presence again. I turned to stare into those predator eyes that belied a noble spirit. I felt strength in them that seemed contagious. Though my goal was to be a scribe and interpreter, I wanted to be like this man. He, more than even the handsome Cornelius, was the kind of soldier I wanted to be.
“The prefect sends his best wishes,” he gripped my forearm. “I’m sorry about the reception you got yesterday. There’s a spy among his staff—the governor’s nephew, that young dandy Clevus you saw at headquarters. In spite of his concern about Rome’s image in Galilee, Governor Gratus thinks Cornelius is too soft on the Jews. The prefect is greatly stressed over this business with Caesarius and the others. So am I. The governor, that two-face hypocrite, wanted them publicly beheaded for the benefit of the magistrates in the surrounding towns, but we couldn’t execute those men when there were so many other bloody swords that day. Their service to Rome had been exemplary until then. They were just too slow. After all, they’re old men, and Langullus almost died. But here you are Jude, a mere stripling, just starting in your service to Rome. Only three other Jews have commanded such respect in Cornelius and my eyes: Jesus, your parents, and you. If all of Galilee had your family’s character, the Romans and Jews might live in peace.”
“Peace be upon you Longinus,” I said in a constricted voice. “I’ll do my best to make you proud.”
“For right now,” the centurion dismissed my heartfelt gesture, “stay alive. Keep your head and practice common sense. These virtues are all you’ll need.”