The First Camp
When we were less than a day’s ride from Ptolemais, we were forced to stop near a small village not on Decimus’ map. No one even knew its name. It was, the optio confessed, not Jotapata, which was supposed to be our next stop. The map he used made it seem as if Jotapata sat on the main highway, when in fact, upon closer inspection, it was located off a small side road, winding through the hills. Because it was unthinkable to travel at night, especially in Galilee, it was time to set up camp. The collapse of night came so quickly, in fact, we barely had time to set up our four tents. Already, we could smell the sea, which brought more protests from Geta that we were not taking a ship to Antioch instead of this road. The rocky, northern highway, we were told, was even worse, and yet I looked forward to this phase. Beyond the distant hills, sat Mare Nostrum—the Great Sea! Two of the ships in which Jesus had sailed were struck by storms and nearly sank, and yet he loved the sea. For Papa, who visited Joppa as a young man, the memory of Galilee’s seacoast always brought a smile to his face. My fellow travelers, however, were filled with misgivings—not for the sea, itself, but the route. On the one hand, they looked forward to stopping at seaside towns such as Ptolemais for the food, wine, and women (or so they thought). On the other hand, the northern road was not merely a bumpy ride, Decimus confided in me, but bandits might lurk in the nearby hills. Later I would learn that it was, indeed, a bumpy ride but far safer than the desert route we would eventually take. Because we had to rely on imperial stores and stables, the imperial way station, not Ptolemais, would be our third stop. Considering the concern Decimus had to get us to Antioch in a timely manner, we would probably not stop at the port city for very long.
Though night was falling fast, Decimus sent Aulus and Vesto into the village to alert the town magistrate or headman of our presence, which was required during the march. If we had been a full cohort or a century at the very least, we might have required them to provide us with food and wine and even quarters, but we were greatly outnumbered and depended upon the good will of the townsfolk. Of course, if we had been a hundred or more in number we would have gone the extra distance to Ptolemais, in the first place, and not worried about traveling in the dark. As it was, because of the recent unrest in Galilee, which included even Ptolemais, one fourth of us would stand guard and patrol the perimeter while the remainder slept. To my shame, I was ordered straightaway into a tent—the exception to the plan.
“Look, Judah, this is the way it’s going to be.” Aulus wagged a finger. “Right now you wouldn’t know what end of the sword to hold. Tomorrow, when we’re out of harm’s way, Vesto and I will begin showing you a few tricks, maybe even give you some practice with the bow.”
“All right.” I nodded indecisively. “I’d like that. . . . Do I have to sleep in the same tent with Geta and Abzug?”
“No,” he said from the corner of his mouth, “we’re keeping the exiles in one tent until we reach Antioch. They had a choice back there: leave Galilee” “or else,” he made a cutting motion at his throat. “All their friends, their women too, were in Sepphoris. With the exception of the courier, there’s no future for the veterans up ahead. I suspect Abzug will try to join up with the Antioch Cohort. For your sake I hope he doesn’t. He’s no damn good.” “For now,” he said, pointing to the tent, “get your pallet ready. Vesto and me are going into town to scrounge up some more food. Those bastards didn’t give us very many provisions.”
As Aulus gave me a shove, the words spilled out of my mouth “Why did Cornelius do this? He was my family’s friend. He sends me off into the unknown with a handful of guards, some of whom might hate me. I wanted to be in the Galilean Cohort. I barely even heard of that place were going to. What if they don’t like me either?”
“Don’t judge the rest of us because of that Syrian dog and those broken down old men.” Aulus looked unwaveringly into my eyes. “I think some of these men like you. I know Decimus, Vesto, and I do.” “One thing you must learn in this life, Jude,” he said in a muted voice, “you may or may not know whom your friends and enemies are all the time. When in doubt, always watch your back. Tonight and during our trip north Decimus, Vesto, and I will watch your back, At each stage in your life you must learn to pick friends you can trust, who will watch your back. Be alert, not just in enemy territory but everywhere, especially in the saddle. You saw how Vesto and I kept riding up and down the line. Enemies are all around, be they armies or cutthroat bandits like the ones we crucified not far from your town. ” “Trust no one but your closest friends,” he added, as I laid out my bedroll. “An enemy is better than a fair-weather friend.”
“Are you my friend?” I looked from the shadows at his shadowy frame.
“Yes, of course,” he said, uttering a weary laugh.
The silhouetted outline of the Roman, with the sun setting behind him, added a sinister note to what he had just said. Decimus, Aulus, and possibly Vesto I could count on as allies, if not friends. In spite of the fact that Longinus and Decimus distrusted him, Caesarius had been the first to befriend me. I didn’t trust any of the auxilia yet, but I saw something in Rufus’ eyes, I would one day recognize as a “seed.” Though blank-faced at times, the Gaul had listened the most intently and had even defended me against the Egyptian’s criticism. I had made a good effort today in the discussion of my beliefs without moralizing, and shown them I had an open mind, but now I must prove myself to them. Whether this would be as a soldier or just a campmate, I wasn’t sure. After all, despite Aulus desire to teach me to fight like a Roman, my goal was to be a scribe. I was glad I had people I could trust, who would watch my back. Because of my excellent memory, I would remember Aulus’ words, but it seemed premature for him to be giving me advice on survival when I had not yet learned to use the gladius, pylon or bow. I wanted to be a scribe, but a nagging fear was taking a hold of me that I would soon appreciate Aulus guidance. As Decimus, himself, had said earlier, “no one marches without a sword,” which implied to me that everyone who serves must be prepared to fight. It made sense to me. On the march, when the enemy attacked, there could be no cowards. My quill wouldn’t save me from an arrow shaft or cold iron. With these thoughts in my mind, I shared a few swigs of wine with Rufus as we sat around the bonfire and finished up the gruel and cold lamb foraged by Aulus and Vesto in place of the dried beef and biscuits provided by the fort. Rufus wanted to talk more about my strange god. One day, after serving as a disciple for Paul, he would return to his native land and preach to the Gauls. I couldn’t have believed that my casual conversation had planted the seed, but that night he remained politely skeptical as I explained to him a passage I remember Isaiah saying. The other listeners were not quite so polite.
“So,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “this prophet believed that your Jew savior was also meant for Romans and Gauls. How come the rest of your holy scrolls don’t? Some of it’s farfetched but very entertaining. I admire that Joshua for his fighting skills, but like most of your warriors he spent a lot of time killing pagans like me.”
“Yes, Jude,” sneered Geta, “your god is bloodthirsty. I remember listening to one of those men we crucified. He claimed your deliverer was going to destroy all Gentiles and will burn up the Roman conquerors in a special fire.”
“The man was obviously deranged.” I bristled at the thought. “The Prophet Isaiah says no such thing.”
“But you can’t argue with your entire history,” Langullus suddenly found his voice. “All your fine words can’t hide the fact that your god tried to wipe us out!”
“Now, Langullus, my friend,” Caesarius said in a kindly voice, “I know that leg’s hurting you, but you’re not listening. You’re not either Geta. Neither of you like Judah. Not one person among you has understood this youth. Why even an old atheist like me knows he’s talking about a brand new god. I heard one of those poor devils we hung up call upon him. . . . They call him the Messiah.”
A prickling at the back of my neck followed what I now know was a premonition of things to come. At the time, though, my mind associated Caesarius’ incredible insight to current scripture. Rabbi Aaron had talked about the warrior Messiah while Jesus had once talked about a spiritual, suffering Messiah. The notion was not new to me, but coming from the old veteran’s cracked lips it seemed delightfully novel. My fondness for the old man swelled greatly that moment.
“I thought the Jews had only one god.” Rufus frowned thoughtfully. “Our people have many hundreds of gods, some good and some bad. Perhaps this Messiah is coming, as you say, for all peoples?”
A light I had not seen before shined from his blue eyes. Without thinking twice, I replied in a constricted voice, “You have said it”—Jesus special words. I could see Jesus in my mind’s eye sitting in the kitchen as he always did staring out the window at the night. I almost felt his presence then as the words escaped my lips, “My oldest brother believes the Deliverer will come to save men’s souls, not change the physical world.”
“Ah but will he save your people from the Roman yoke,” Abzug asked, staring into the fire. “What good is a savior if he doesn’t make things right here on earth. Who knows what the soul is? Can you see it? Can you feel it? Does it even exist?”
“I know what a soul is,” Apollo looked at the Syrian in disbelief. “All men have souls, as do all beasts. Any fool knows that. ”
“Your people wrap cats and crocodiles up in linen and build temples to them.” Caesarius shook his head and offered me his flask.
This was a heady conversation for pagans. I took a long swallow, wiped my mouth on my sleeve, and said something that sounded like pure heresy but endeared me to my friends.
“Men wrote the history of my people. The Lord interprets it in their hearts. My brother believes that the Deliverer comes on behalf of the universal God—for all men throughout all the ages. I don’t believe mutilation of the privates or food laws are as important as faith. I pray that someday those pigheaded Pharisees and rabbis will drop those restrictions and embrace the Gentiles as I plan to do.”
“Will you eat pork?” Abzug snarled.
“If I’m starving,” I confessed light-headedly.
“What about snails.” Geta giggled stupidly. “They’re delicious if properly spiced. I bet you won’t eat those.”
“If properly spiced.” I said, feeling the effects of the wine.
“I think Judah’s becoming drunk.” Rufus laughed, slapping my back so hard I almost fell off the log.
Several us were, in fact, getting tipsy on the wine smuggled out of the fort, and yet most of these men, even the standoffish Ajax, Ibrim, and Fronto, nodded with approval at my short speech. The subjects of the Deliverer, souls, and the universal god seemed too fantastic for their rustic minds. Looking back upon these special moments, however, I know I had planted a few more seeds. From this day forward, through the many trials of travel, I would hear mocking referral to the invisible and universal god and occasionally a question such as the one that Rufus posed, but nothing more significant than Caesarius perception of the Messiah.
As I lay between two of my Roman protectors, I wished Caesarius had been assigned to my tent. Since he befriended me at the fort, I had never felt intimidated in his presence. Though they were pleasant enough fellows, themselves, Aulus and Vesto immediately fell asleep, as did Fronto, whose massive frame seemed to take up half of the tent. I had never minded sharing my sleeping quarters with my brothers and my friend Uriah, but these were big smelly, noisy men, who snored, thrashed about restlessly, and occasionally made wind. Next time I turn in, I promised myself, I would get properly drunk. After attempting the mental exercise Jesus had taught me after saying my prayer—clear my head of worries, place myself in my favorite place and think of happy thoughts, I found my body rising weightlessly up as it had so often in the past. I had been envisioning myself in the hills in back of my house, riding a big white horse, but then I found myself looking down at my tent-mates, floating out the tent flap over the smoldering fire and over the head of Ajax, one of the guards who volunteered for the first watch. Though I knew I was dreaming, I saw Ajax look up and wave at me. Through the forest of oak and olive trees I continued to float, until I reached a town I didn’t recognize at first, yet looked suspiciously familiar to Nazareth’s peaceful layout. It was, I understood by now, a lucid dream in which I knew I was asleep and had some control of my actions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t control the snatches of revelation drifting into my dream. In the past I had experienced dreadful imagery—dark, demon-like forms amongst shadowy scenery mixed in with familiar people and places. This time, after recognizing my hometown of Nazareth, I was dismayed to find myself drifting on and on, over the mountains and deserts, heading southwards to another familiar place: Jerusalem. I looked down, exhilarated at the experience, but worried about the substance of my dream. Below me, riding on a white donkey, was none other than my brother Jesus, sitting sidesaddle and looking uncomfortable at the adulation of the crowd. Behind him, followed a ragtag assortment of men I had never seen before. Though all of the men were unshaven and wearing similar Galilean cloth, I discerned, in utter amazement, the face of my brother James… and me!
Why would this wondrous scene fill me with dread? I had this gnawing feeling that something dark and terrible was at the end of this parade. What could it possibly mean? The parade, itself, made absolutely no sense to me, and yet I knew somehow that there was a greater meaning in this scene. When I tried to soar down like a bird to get closer to Jesus, the crowd, and my brother’s twelve friends, I found my body moving higher and higher, until I was far above Jerusalem and could barely make out the tiny ant-sized people moving through the gate. Night fell, as it had in nightmares before. As I descended closer and closer to the darkened city, I could see the silhouettes of three crosses on a distant hill. I remembered dreaming of the crosses three times before and, filled with the greatest foreboding, found myself screaming “No, no, no, no!”
A face loomed in my dream. Behind the face a lamp appeared to float in the dark. Voices intruded “Shut him up!” “What’s the matter with that lad?” I awakened with Aulus and Vesto looking down at me, hearing the grumbling of several irritated men. As the scales of sleep fell from my eyes, I felt Aulus raising me up gently into a sitting position, and then plying me with wine.
“There-there,” he said, patting my head, “you just had a nightmare. No wonder after what you went through in the fort.”
“Whew!” Vesto grinned down at me. “You woke up the entire camp!”
The lamp, which Decimus held overhead, cast an eerie light on their faces. Also crowding into the tent were Caesarius and Fronto. As the veteran looked in with quiet concern, the big, odorous Thracian stood there cursing me under his breath. I politely declined another mouthful of wine, this being the cure-all for a soldier’s ills. By now the four sentries had arrived on the scene. Ajax, like Fronto, was quite agitated.
“Hey, what’s going on?” He called in a muted voice.
“It’s that damned Jew,” Apollo grumbled outside the tent. “Can you believe it? He had a bad dream!”
“Well,” growled Ibrim in high pitched voice, “I thought someone was getting knifed!”
“Let’s keep it down!” Decimus barked. “Back to bed—all you. Sentries back on watch!”
Abzug, Geta, and Langullus took this opportunity to mock and reprimand me.
“Stupid Jew,” Langullus hissed in the background, “scared me to death.”
“Poor little Jude,” Abzug taunted from the entrance. “He misses his mother’s teat.”
“He-he-he.” Geta stuck his head through the flap. “I heard his Mama’s a real looker. Those Jew winches have really big teats.”
“I said get back in your tent,” Decimus ordered through clinched teeth, “now!”
Caesarius looked in the tent one more time with Rufus and his brother Enrod standing motionlessly in the background before Aulus and Vesto shooed them away.
“You gotta control that kind’ve thing,” snorted Decimus. “We clear on this Judah?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” I mumbled, shuddering at my experience.
Decimus disappeared with his lamp. The tent was plunged into darkness again, except for the Thracians cold, hazel eyes.
“Ibrim’s right,” he murmured faintly, “your possessed with a Jinn.”
“Shut up!” snapped Aulus, his shadowy head plunging through the flaps. “You all right lad?” He called back to me.
“I’m all right,” I replied huskily. “I haven’t had a dream like that for a long time.”
“Tell me about it tomorrow,” he tried to sound cheerful. “If that stinking Thracian lays a hand on you, he’ll answer to me!”
I said nothing more that night as I tried following Jesus’ advice. This time, as he suggested, I would place myself in a pleasant place but this time it would be in the company of soldiers as I sat around a fire. I had made a complete fool of myself tonight, and yet I had been reminded who my potential friends might be. I had not completely earned their friendship, but I had three soldiers and one veteran, who would protect me from the others. Already, though it mystified me greatly, I had gained Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto’s favor. For some reason, Caesarius had taken me under his wing. Rufus, and to my surprise, his look-alike brother Enrod had been concerned about my welfare, which I tallied, as I drifted back to sleep, included all of the army regulars, two of the auxilia, and the most important of the exiles. I had no illusions about Geta and Langullus. I almost didn’t count Abzug. He had no friends among any of the groups, and, seemed to be, even more than me, a marked man. The remaining auxilia, however, worried me very much, especially the Thracian. I understood Decimus practical plan of distributing the men in the four different tents, but why did he have to put Fronto in mine?
That night, though I tried to have pleasant thoughts, I fell asleep once again with dark thoughts swirling in my head. What did that strange scene in my last dream mean? Why would Jesus be in the company of twelve other men? . . . And what did those awful crosses have to do with the first scene?
After being rudely awakened, I looked around the empty tent, wondering where I was. I had just had another nightmare that was so nonsensical all I could remember were patches of the dream—angry faces and violent motions in which veterans and auxilia cursed and threatened me, but nothing like the clear-cut visions I had before.
Suddenly Decimus poked his head through the tent flap and barked testily “Jude, I told you to get up. It’s time to muster!” I sprang up, rubbed my eyes, and staggered out of the tent. My head was hammering as it had the previous morning, but this time I had more time to gain my bearings. The entire company of men gathered around the smoldering fire pit as Decimus explained the next phase of our journey. It was quite simple: after a hearty breakfast, we would pass through Ptolemais and head north on the road to Antioch. Nothing was said about actually stopping at Ptolemais, which sat overlooking the Great Sea. Though we understood Decimus’ caution, grunts of disapproval followed his announcement. We knew it was important to reach the imperial station at Ecdippa for supplies and fresh mounts and there was unrest even in that remote corner of Galilee, but we hoped to visit the seaside town. For different reasons, of course, since I had no desire to “go whoring” as Ajax and Apollo wanted, I prayed that we might stop. Jesus had mentioned the city of Ptolemais during one of our walks in the hills of Nazareth. Older than Jerusalem and the Hebrew towns of Judea and Galilee, it had originally been a Canaanite port, spared by Joshua’s army, and then given to the tribe of Zedekiah, before becoming a Greek city and being renamed during the reign of Ptolemy II. Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ benefactor, must have told him about Ptolemais, because Jesus had never mentioned it in his letters. My desire to begin seeing the world and its history was further stimulated by my memory of Jesus’ words. And yet I trusted the old soldier’s instincts. My main concern was to get to our destination and resolve the issue of my future. With the exception of my Roman protectors, Caesarius, and the two Gauls, I felt uncomfortable among these men.
We were a rag-tag, motley bunch of travelers I noted fleetingly as I glanced around the group. Though Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto wore the cuirass and greaves of the legionnaire, all the other men, including myself, wore an assortment of dress, in every color of the spectrum, including a strange looking red cap that Apollo wore to hide his bald head. Had it not been for the Roman escorts in our midst, we might have been mistaken for a band of cutthroats and thieves. Giving weight to my impression was an event occurring before our morning meal. The veterans, who wore dirty tunics and torn pants, were ordered to prepare our meal, which included a lamb the auxilia had poached from a nearby herd. I found this act distasteful, especially after hearing from Caesarius that an Arab shepherd had been roughed up by Ajax and his men. The auxilia, of course, denied this claim, and the regulars with the veterans’ approval appeared to have let the matter drop. I showed the only sign of dissension, which I prudently kept to myself, in spite of the expression on my face. I couldn’t control my plunging eyebrows and curl of my lip. Caesarius, who was assigned the task of stirring a gruel Geta and Langullus had dreamed up, picked up on my facial expression, studying me a moment as I stood there gazing into the pot.
“Don’t worry lad,” he cackled, raising up the ladle, “it’s not pork. It’s not that lamb either. They’re still skinning and gutting that poor beast. This is just dried beef, lentils, a sprinkle of spices—a good Roman stew!”
With a frown playing on his face, Decimus placed a hand on my shoulder and studied me a moment. Aulus, who appeared, on my other side gave me a crooked smile. At Decimus insistence now, he and Aulus, led me into the woods for a friendly chat. At first we talked about last night’s dream as Aulus had promised last night. When I began recounting my dream to them—drifting out of the tent, flying over the land until I reached Jerusalem, however, Decimus shook his head in disbelief and Aulus began chuckling to himself, until I came to the point where I saw Jesus riding on a white donkey and then the three crosses, and Aulus stopped laughing and the expression of Decimus’ face changed from curious to grave.
“I heard about your brother at the fort,” Aulus said thoughtfully. “Some of the men think he’s a magician or sorcerer. Others think he’s a demigod, like Hercules, a man touched by the gods. Your dream of him riding on a donkey and those crosses doesn’t make sense. Nailed to a cross is a criminal’s death, like those Jews we strung up in Galilee. These events must be unrelated. Surely, your brother is intended for great things.”
Though Aulus had spoken heresy, I nodded indecisively, “Yes, of course. I know he’ll be a great teacher or leader. I just don’t understand why I have these dreams. It started when I was just a child.”
“No offense, Judah,” Decimus replied, shaking his head, “I can’t explain your dream, but you’re still a child. You’ve been sheltered in a small town all your life. Until you march with the legions awhile or draw blood, you’ll remain a lamb among wolves. Because of the latest incident in Galilee, being a Jewish soldier is the last thing you want to be. Your people have been protected and pampered by Augustus and Tiberius and we’re aware of this—all Roman soldiers in the empire, not just the cohort in Galilee where the latest insurrection occurred. Except for you, Judah, you’re the only Jew I know who wanted to join up. Your people are exempt from serving in the legions, unlike other provinces when levies are raised. You don’t eat our foods or pay homage to our gods. You’re defiled if we enter your homes. Even in Antioch, where the Jews behave themselves, your still going to find soldiers who hate Jews. I heard that the Jews of Antioch are Roman citizens because it’s an imperial province, but do you think they’d invite even the prefect into their homes?”
“My parents invited Cornelius into our house,” I piped. “They’ve never been prejudiced against anyone, be they Gentile or Jew.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about their hospitality,” Decimus pursed his lips, “but they’re an exception. You’re an exception. After listening to you to talk to my men, I’ve grown to like you, Judah—”
“Jude,” I corrected gently. “Judah rebelled against Rome. I don’t go by that name.”
“All right, very well,” he cocked an eyebrow, “Jude, but it still sounds Jewish.”
“Say!” Aulus snapped a finger. “If I was you, the first thing I’d do before I arrived at my post would be to change my name.”
“That’s fine, indeed,” Decimus waved irritably, “but he has to fit in. How do I say it, Jude? You have to talk their talk and walk their walk. You can’t act prissy about foods and contamination, like Jews. I saw that look on your face after they roughed up that Arab. It wasn’t right, a lot of things aren’t right, but you mustn’t show it. You’re gonna see a lot of things that’ll make you wanna puke. You gotta toughen up and look the part. We gotta find you some non-Jewish clothes and get you a proper name.”
“What do you suggest?” I asked, light-headedly. “I can make myself look like a soldier. If I practice, I can learn to talk and walk and even fight like a Roman, but isn’t it illegal to change my name?”
“No, it’s not illegal, if no one knows what your name was in the first place.”
“What do you suggest?” I frowned.
“How about Julius, that has a good sound to it?”
“Gaius. That’s a good name.”
“You don’t have to pick one at once. Do Roman names offend you?”
“I need an acceptable name. Those names sound silly when attached to me.”
“How about a Greek name. I know some Greeks.”
“I dunno,” I shrugged, “it has to feel right. Something that goes with Jude, which by the way is a Romanized name.”
“Sound it out. The very name sounds Jewish. One of our auxiliaries back at the fort, a nice fellow, is Greek. What’s his name, Aulus?”
“Let’s see, he goes by Tadio or is it Taddius...No, I got it, his names Thaddeus Marcellus. He was once a slave, that’s where the Marcellus comes from. It was his master’s name.”
As if Jesus, himself, had prodded me then, the words rolled off my tongue. “Taddai is a Jewish name. Thaddeus might be the Gentile form of the word.” “The Lord must have spoken to you, Aulus,” I exclaimed. “I would accept such a name.”
“But you need at least two names,” Decimus eyebrows knit. “I know how your people’s names go. You can’t be called Thaddeus bar Joseph, though Joseph is your father’s name. Even those scurvy auxilia have two Roman sounding names.”
“How about Thaddeus Julius,” suggested Aulus. “That’s close.”
“Well, I was hoping to keep at least a piece of my name.”
“I’ve got it. If I had a name like Jude and Judah, I’d add a Roman ending to it, like Decimus and my name—an ‘us’ at the end.”
“You mean like Judius. That sounds like Judea.”
“Your making this more difficult than it should be.” Aulus frowned. “Add something to it—anything. We must have us a Roman by the time we reach the fort in Antioch.”
“All you have to do is add ‘aius’ to it.” Decimus dark eyes twinkled. “It’s so simple, lad. Thaddeus Judaius. You can even add your fathers name in there if you wish: Thaddeus Judaius Josephus” “We’ll still call you Jude,” he added with a wink. “That makes good sense.”
“All right,” I said with resignation. “I think Jesus would approve of that name.”
“And why not,” Aulus pursed his lips, “Jes-us—that sounds like a Gentile name too.”
“It’s really Yeshua, like my names is really Judah.”
“You see how it works, lad?” Decimus ruffled my hair. “Jesus doesn’t sound anything like Yeshua, but your name—Jude or Judah—is almost unchanged.”
I had underestimated these rude fellows completely. Unlike some of the guards I knew in Nazareth, they weren’t stupid. Perhaps they were selected purposely for this assignment, and it wasn’t a punishment as I originally thought.
“All right, Thaddeus,” Decimus pointed in the direction of the camp. “That settled, let’s head back to camp. When we arrive at headquarters in Antioch, we’ll introduce you as Thaddeus Judaicus Josephus, and leave it at that. Later, if need be, you might explain to the prefect that you were forced, because of circumstances, to change your name. If it doesn’t come up, mums the word. You’re not lying that way. Liars are punished severely in the legions. Many people with funny names change them. Abzug’s an exception. Most of us have good, solid names. You can go back to Judah bar Joseph when you retire one day.” “Frankly, Jude—I mean Thaddeus,” he added thoughtfully, “I think you’re a brave young man, but you’re going to have to change a lot more than your name. There may come a time when your friends will discover your secret.” “You know what I mean.” He pointed to my crotch. “By then I hope you’ll have proven yourself. Remember: you must walk like us and talk like us. Even though auxilia are a motley lot, you must try to look like a soldier, and you must eat our food and not be squeamish about what you see. If you try your best to fit in, chances are you’ll succeed. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to act the part—feel it, not just look the part. Learn to swear properly and tell a dirty joke once in awhile, and remember your new name. If you slip, when asked by a sentry “who goes there?” and say Jude instead of Thaddeus it’ll be hard to explain. We’ll practice on our march, all right?”
“All right.” I blinked, in a daze over what I had just agreed to. “...I want to do this right. It won’t be easy, but you’ve made it seem so logical. It’s really a matter of common sense.”
“Right, that’s the spirit.” The optio slapped my back.
“You keep in step with ol’ Decimus and me.” Aulus tweaked my cheek. “And you won’t go wrong.”
“You both sound so educated,” I commented as we walked back to camp. “I’m very impressed.”
“I read a lot, when I can,” Decimus replied. “Because of my father’s republican sentiments, Augustus had him cashiered. Our family fled to Syria, where I ended up joining the legions. The shadow of my father’s deeds has been dogging me ever sense.”
“Did you go to school?” I asked artlessly.
“Of course lad, not all us are uneducated bumpkins. I can read Greek as well as Latin. My father sent me to the collegia in Alexandria” “Tell’em your story Aulus,” he jerked his thumb. “It’s better than mine.”
“Well, it’s a long story,” Aulus shrugged. “I’m what Decimus calls an under-achiever. The truth is, I ran away to join the legions. It was either that or be sold into slavery for my family’s debts.”
“That’s terrible!” I shook my head.
“No, it was good for me.” He replied thoughtfully. “I started a new life. Unfortunately, I made a lot of mistakes. I was once an optio, myself, like Decimus, until I was busted down a notch. Ho-ho, I won’t go into that. I will say, thanks to Longinus, I didn’t lose my head. He keeps me on for special assignments like this because I speak your people’s language and can read maps. Now Vesto, my partner, is dumb as an ox. He tags along because of his ability as a scout. Some folks have a natural talent for such things. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s the sort of talent a wolf or jackal has. It’s nice finding someone with your smarts. Those stories you told were interesting. And they call us Romans bloodthirsty! Your god reminds me of some of those Syrian deities. Please explain to me why your god would make his warriors kill innocent children and wipe out every living thing. Even during our worst campaigns we at least gave them the option of being slaves.”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I don’t know why I recited those passages. I never liked them. I guess I was just showing off.”
“You admit he’s a devil god?” Aulus frowned in disbelief.
“No, he’s not a devil.” I explained carefully. “Our holy books were written by mortal men. Hopefully, they exaggerated.... Another thought just came to me, too: what if God didn’t tell Joshua or Gideon to slaughter the innocents. What if they just thought he did? After all, we can’t blame God for everything.”
“Humph, I remember a word you people use.” Decimus pursed his lips. “That sounds like heresy, Thaddeus. Good. All soldiers are heretics. I’m proud of you. Not only do you question your cruel god, but we Romans do to. It’s all right to kill barbarians and sometimes put innocent children to the sword, but when god tells us to do it, that makes it perverse. It’s no longer merely cruel; it’s evil. We Romans warriors are not evil, but we’re occasionally cruel, and we’re frequently irreverent. Few sensible soldiers take the old gods seriously. Oh, they’re a superstitious lot and wear amulets around their necks and sometime listen to an augury or two, but that’s the end of it. In order to fit in with a bunch of uncouth, foul-mouthed soldiers, you must put aside your religion or at least pretend to do so and never preach to or scold them like your religious leaders often do.”
I had just received through the mouth of this hardnosed Rome important instructions that I tucked away safely in my mind. Not for a moment did I doubt that he spoke for most if not all soldiers I would meet, and yet I was somewhat saddened by the truth in his words. I must, I decided those moments, fit in quickly. In Decimus’ words “I must talk the talk and walk the walk.” When I arrived in Antioch, I would hide my Jewish background by keeping my mouth shut. Perhaps, in Antioch, if I kept my “secret” from my tent-mates, I might be able to hide this fact altogether. My biggest hope, of course, was that I would be able to use my wits and ability with languages, which would give me a special status at the fort. I didn’t fancy sleeping in a tent with smelly, uncouth men. Decimus and Aulus implied that I would be just another soldier, but I joined up to be a scribe. The pen must be my weapon, not the sword!