Romans Versus Auxilia
When we emerged from the woods, breakfast was ready and the camp had been struck. We would, Decimus announced unceremoniously, be marching after our morning meal. There was only so much daylight and he wanted to reach the imperial way station before we had to forage for more supplies. That it was all done so automatically when the optio was not around was an example of military discipline, and yet, if time was of the essence as Decimus stated, our pending feast was a waste of time. The lamb illegally slaughtered by his men, was being cooked over a roaring fire instead of being slowly cooked as was proper with spices and herbs. Many of us saw the folly in this enterprise. Not only had they roughed up a shepherd and stolen his property, we must wait until it was cooked while he ran to report us to magistrates in town. Perhaps, I reasoned, that was why we must leave so soon. The truth was it was more serious than what I suspected.
Casually, as the moment of our feast approached and we listened nervously for the approach of magistrates, I shared my thoughts with Caesarius. It was as if I had forgotten everything Decimus and Aulus had told me. While I talked discreetly with him, the auxilia and other veterans eyed me suspiciously. Abzug was being scolded for some infraction by Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto, which drew the others attention away from him.
“So, Caesarius,” I began after he stoked the fire, “the stolen lamb is about ready?”
“I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “It was foolish of those men. Decimus appointed me to this task. I know how to cook gruel and make stew, but there’s not enough time to do this right.”
“Will it even be done?” I wrinkled my nose.
“Scorched meat is better than no meat,” he answered in a singsong voice.
“Caesarius,” the words blurted out of my mouth, “Decimus is worried that we might have to forage for food. Does that mean we’ll hunt and fish or, like the theft of the lamb, plunder local villagers of their food?”
Caesarius’ eyebrows shot up, he laughed, and slapped his knee. Decimus had just scolded me for this. Here I was showing off my squeamishness again, not once but twice—first with my concern for the pilfered lamb and then when I questioned Decimus motives. Fortunately, no one else heard me. Caesarius didn’t even respond to my question, so I let it drop and changed the subject entirely. The smirk he gave me instead of a smile was difficult for me to define, so I talked about something else, hoping he wouldn’t bring it up.
“What will you do when we reach Antioch?” I asked nervously. “Do you have a place to live? Are there relatives there?”
“I will be forced into banditry or have to beg for alms.” He frowned severely. “What do you care, Jude, you’re going to be a scribe?”
“Thaddeus,” I corrected impishly. “Decimus and Aulus suggested that I change my name.”
“Oh, they did, did they?” Caesarius grumbled. “Can you re-grow your foreskin and learn to eat pork? What will you do when they put a sword in your hand and tell you to fight?”
“I plan on using my skills,” I explained matter-of-factly. “I won’t kill another man unless it’s self-defense.”
“Listen lad,” he took a fatherly tone, “those are fine words, but they’re nonsense. You can’t control what you know nothing about. You only know Cornelius, Longinus, and those three regulars, which are not representative of the rank and file men. You’re lucky that we’re taking you away from Galilee. Those other men would never accept you as one of them. They know who you are. When you go to your new post, I hope you get what you want, but the prefect there doesn’t know you. His men don’t know you. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, with a new identity you can learn to adapt. On the other hand, what you adapt to might not be what you want. What if the new commander is not as impressed with your talents as were Cornelius and the first centurion? What if, after you swear in, they give you weapons and assign you to a century?” “My advice to you,” he said raising a finger, “is tell him exactly what Cornelius told you.” “By the way,” he interrupted himself, “what did he tell you? Is it in writing that you’re going to be a scribe or interpreter?”
“No, not exactly,” I answered, my heart sinking into my chest. “The letter is kind of vague. He recommended me to Aurelian. It’s up to me to present my case.”
“So,” Caesarius frowned, “he didn’t actually write, ‘Aurelian make my friend Jude a scribe?’”
“Uh-uh.” I sighed, shaking my head. “I thought when I visited him at his headquarters he might give me the job, but when Jesus, my father, and I talked to him in Sepphoris he told us he already had a scribe. That’s why he’s sending me to the imperial cohort in Antioch. He believes that when I arrive there Aurelian might put me to work.”
“In deed,” Caesarius snorted, “digging latrines, working on roads or carrying a sword like everyone else. You’re quite naive if you’re depending on a lame-brain bargain like that!”
“Oh merciful Lord,” I groaned.
“Not so loud,” he shushed. “I know Decimus and Aulus gave you a lecture. You stand out like a peacock, lad. I figured that’s why they took you into the woods. No more outbursts like that. Those words, ‘Oh merciful Lord,’ don’t mean anything here. You’re a Roman soldier now,” “that is,” he leaned forward to whisper, “when you swear in at the fort. Do you want that?”
“No.” I shook my head sadly. “I want to see the world and use my skills—not this. Frankly, I’m beginning to think I made a big mistake.”
“Did Decimus or Aulus discuss this with you?” he asked thoughtfully.
“Uh huh.” I nodded. “I don’t think they believed I’ll be a scribe either.” “I’m such a fool.” My face dropped into my hands. “Everyone tried to stop me, but I wouldn’t listen.”
“There, none of that,” he growled, pulling away my hand. “Take it like a man. In the dead of night, slip away if you must. Right now it’s legal; you haven’t sworn in. Don’t let those jackals see you cry. Better yet, wait until you reach Antioch and find a rich merchant who needs your skills. You won’t have to go home.”
“You’re a good friend.” My eyes brightened. “You’re not judgmental like most of the men.”
As Ajax, Apollo, Fronto, Ibrim, and the two Gauls swaggered up to the fire, Caesarius and I moved aside. We watched, in quiet disgust, as the impatient auxilia helped themselves to the half cooked meat. Abzug stood by the fire, sword in hand sawing off chunks of flesh. Caesarius shook his head, as did the regulars and veterans in our group. The auxilia were, after all, in the minds of both Roman and Jew alike, barbarians. With child-like greediness, as I reflect upon it, Rufus and his brother Enrod, were the biggest pigs of them all. Ajax and Ibrim took their fair share, as did Apollo, the Egyptian, who managed to find the bloodiest piece, which he ate with gusto.
“Is it permitted for a Jew to eat blood?” He displayed his yellow teeth. “How about pig guts. I lo-o-ove that!”
“Pay him no mind.” Caesarius muttered, rising up to expect the lamb. “This is still raw,” he called out for my benefit, “you men are going to get sick. I told you we didn’t have enough time.”
“He’s right.” Decimus looked at the auxilia in disbelief. “I would’ve waited awhile for it to be cooked properly.
“Begging your pardon sir,” Ajax said, looking menacingly over his chunk of meat, “we best be on the road soon.”
“Yes.” Apollo nodded. “That shepherd was roughed up pretty good.”
“What do you mean?” Aulus sprang to his feet. “I thought you just wrestled the lamb out of his hands. What did you do to him?”
“We did it,” Ajax motioned to all of the auxilia. “It was an accident. He shouldn’t have pulled a sword. I ran him through after he drew his knife.”
“You murdering scum!” Decimus flew into a rage.
Quickly restraining him was Vesto and the veterans nearby. Caesarius joined ranks with them, while I hung timidly on the sidelines as an invisible line, roughly dividing in my mind Romans from barbarians, was drawn in the camp. Clearly, when considering the age and infirmity of the veterans and Abzug’s untrustworthiness, Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto might not stand a chance against the fierce-looking Ajax, Apollo, Rufus, and Enrod. Ibrim, the Arab, with his trusty bow and arsenal of knives, acting as their spokesman, walked up to Decimus, bowed politely, and gave a short speech.
“If anyone, I, not you, should resent the murder of one of my people. After all we offered to pay for the lamb.” “Here is the pouch of coins,” he added jingling the bag, “—my own money. That foolish man would have hacked me to death if Ajax hadn’t stuck him. We’re sorry, Decimus, but it was self-defense. What else could we do?”
“Oh, you crafty, silky-tongued Arab,” Caesarius spat angrily. “You almost had me believing your lie. It’s a good thing we’re not near Sepphoris or Damascus or there might be magistrates here. You could get us all into a whole lot of trouble.”
This was probably an exaggeration. I doubted very much that magistrates would make a fuss over a shepherd. They were, because of their heathen manners, a despised group, whether they were Edomites, Syrians, or Arabs. I remembered those moments how the Romans in Nazareth roughed up our own shepherds. I was certain that Regulus, the optio of our sector in Nazareth, would have dealt with them the same way. An argument followed between Decimus and Apollo, who, charging forward wildly, elbowed Caesarius out of the way, to confront the leader of our group.
The optio stepped forward, his arms folded and jaw set.
“You let that bloodthirsty fellow speak for you?” Apollo snarled. “He points the finger of guilt at us? That’s laughable. Why, if it hadn’t been for he and his cohorts, we wouldn’t be guarding that Jew!”
“Do you want to draw you sword?” Decimus murmured through clinched teeth. “If not, stand back, or so help me defend yourself!”
Ajax stepped forward now, sword drawn, as Apollo shrank away in fear. Decimus meant business. The Greek was a head taller than the aging Roman, heavily muscled, with the most fierce-looking face of the auxilia. The only one bigger than Ajax was the Thracian, who looked upon the confrontation with mirth. I feared for Decimus greatly. Vesto placed an arm in front of Aulus and Langullus, who wanted to assist their outmatched leader. There was, I sensed, a code of honor here. Caesarius ran over to me and pulled me aside. I was, after all, partially at the center of this feud. It seemed as if all my wild fancies had been reduced to utter folly this moment. Almost at the outset of my adventure, my Galilean background had drawn criticism and resentment from members of our group. Now there was a good chance that Decimus our leader would be killed by the big Greek. It was a lucky thing for us that the Thracian was not involved in this. At least the largest, if not the most fearsome of the auxilia, he would have made short work of the optio, and yet he stood by, grinning like an ape at the potential encounter.
“Come with me, lad,” Caesarius said from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t gawk. If their side wins this argument, it might go hard on you and me too. What was Longinus thinking sending that pack of cutthroats along as protection?”
Geta was right behind us, his eyes wide with fear, muttering. “This is not good, not good at all!”
“Better Ajax than that elephant, Fronto.” Abzug suddenly appeared. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the whole bunch attacked us if Decimus gets the best of him. We can’t win!”
“I thought you’d turn on us.” Geta patted his shoulder. “Where’s your bow. I heard you’re an excellent marksman. You shot three men, in three draws.”
“Hah, another camp legend.” Abzug replied irritably. “Until that trumped up charge, I was a courier. I learned a few tricks once, but I was never a marksman, and, contrary to what those lying bastards said at the fort, I’m not a thief.”
A troop of unlikely allies ran into the woods, Caesarius suggesting that we keep on running if the auxilia overpowered our men. I wondered if I had been wrong about Abzug. Though not a brave men, he had remained loyal to the regulars. Of course, he had no choice. He had been cashiered from the legion. Geta and Caesarius also had no choice. We had been thrown together by diverse circumstance, but now we were united by our fear for a common enemy. It seemed as though Geta’s prejudice toward me had evaporated in reality. Though Longinus had warned me about Caesarius, this old veteran was the first in our group to befriend me. I was surprised to discover that Geta and Caesarius were as big of cowards as me. I couldn’t blame Abzug; he was, by his own account, a courier, not a soldier, but Geta and Caesarius were soldiers. This action said little for their character. Of course, I was no one to talk.
I kept looking back as we scurried up the trail, wondering what was going to happen to Decimus, Aulus, Vesto, and Langullus. Caesarius led us to a rock he had spied from camp. Jutting up above the treetops, it provided the four of us a perfect vantage point of the action below. Decimus and Ajax stood facing each other. In back of him stood Aulus and Vesto, with Langullus nearby, while the other five auxilia stood at the Greek’s back. The regulars were outnumbered because of our retreat. Caesarius drew a deep breath and exhaled in despair. Geta must have made the same silent decision. Both men looked at each other a moment then began trotting down the trail. Abzug followed at a distance, as I stood watching them depart, and then I, too, retraced my steps back to the camp.
“Are we insane?” Abzug muttered aloud.
“There’s nowhere else to go.” Caesarius announced. “We must standby Decimus, even if we stand on the other side of the camp. Even if we escape into the hills, those other men will track us down. You, Jude,” he added looking back at me, “don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with that man.”
Caesarius, Geta, and Abzug drew their gladiuses. Abzug handed me a long curved knife he had tucked in his belt, as I if knew what to do with it.
“I left my bow in my saddle,” he groaned. “What a fool!”
“Pshaw!” Geta shook his head. “Even if you picked Ajax off, it wouldn’t help the others. Yet if we don’t stand by them, our lives in the legions means nothing.”
“Let’s hurry,” Caesarius motioned impatiently, “before he looks back and sees us gone.”
“Yea thou I walk through the shadow of death the Lord is with me...” I prayed, as I fell back further and further on the trail.
When they reached the camp, I broke into a trot to catch up. We stood behind the fire as we had before, and, through the flames and smoke, witnessed a remarkable thing. For a few moments, it appeared as if Ajax was ignoring the counsel of Rufus, Enrod, and Fronto. It seemed, by his facial expression and posture, as if he was ready to attack. Before he could finally pull his sword out and do battle with the optio, however, Fronto tossed his cup aside, moved forward and placed his monstrous hulk between the two men.
“Decimus,” he spoke to the optio first, “your words that Ajax killed the shepherd moved us very much, but being right isn’t worth losing your life. I was there, it made me sick, but the shepherd did go for his knife, which was an excuse for the Greek to run him through.” “And you, Ajax,” he turned to his friend, “might not fair well either. If he doesn’t kill you, his friend will, and then the rest of us will end up murdering the regulars and veterans to cover up the deed. It won’t be just a dead Roman optio and shepherd. We’ll be wanted men.” “That’s not going to happen,” He jammed a huge finger into Ajax’s chest. “I won’t let you make me a criminal. This isn’t worth being hunted down and nailed to a cross!” “What say you men?” He looked back at the others. “We’re in the pay of Rome. Shall we break camp and get back on the road?”
“That’s a great idea.” Caesarius clapped his hands.
“I second it,” Geta cried.
“Well, I have no argument with Decimus,” Rufus said, looking across the fire. “It’s our duty to protect Jude and that Syrian cheat, even those criminals who murdered the Jews. I say let’s move on—the sooner we arrive in Antioch, the sooner we get paid!”
Caesarius, Geta, and Abzug bristled at his words, but heaved sighs of relief.
“Oh, thank you God!” I whispered to myself.
The Gaul and his brother Enrod, who supported Fronto’s statement, were without guile. Apollo, who had slinked away from violence as we had, glared with hatred at me, as did Langullus, who, I would learn later, spotted us fleeing through the trees. Decimus and the other two regulars had been too absorbed with the confrontation, but Ibrim, the Arab, looked at us slyly, as did Fronto, who, looking past me at the other three, cast them a disgusted look.
“I can live with that,” Caesarius whispered to me. “They don’t like us anyhow.”
“I’m not worried about Fronto, Ajax, or Ibrim.” I said from the corner of my mouth. “It’s that Egyptian I’m afraid of. He seems addled in the head.”
“I’ve yet met one who wasn’t,” Caesarius snarled.
“I don’t trust any of them,” agreed Geta. “They’re a dirty, despicable lot.”
“Jesus met some good Egyptians,” I replied. “He believes that all men in all lands are equal in the eyes of God.”
“Nonsense,” grumbled Abzug. “Good Egyptians? Where?”
“He met them in the Great Museum in Alexandria.” I drew from my memory. “They treated Jesus and his friends with great courtesy.”
I felt light-headed with relief, as I chatted with Abzug and the two veterans. I can recall this sensation many times in my life when I had just escaped danger or unpleasantness. My heart was beating so loudly I could scarcely hear my own voice, as I told them about Jesus’ travels to Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, and Cyrene. It didn’t matter what I was saying. It was a flurry of words that, as always, calmed my feelings of hysteria and panic. Ajax and Apollo stood with their arms folded glaring at us. Decimus walked slowly toward us, hands on hips, frowning severely and shaking his head.
“You, you, and you!” he jabbed his finger in the air. “Get over here!” “I don’t blame Jude. He doesn’t know any better. But you three,” he growled, pointing at Caesarius, Geta, and Abzug as they stood before him, “are cowards. I can maybe understand Abzug—he’s not a soldier, but I’ve seen you in battle Caesarius and Geta. Why did you run like frightened lambs?”
“I wanted to get Jude out of harm’s way,” Caesarius replied promptly.
“Were you trying to get Jude out of harm’s way too?” Decimus turned his gaze to Geta.
“Yes, of course,” Geta answered, nodding vigorously.
“I know what you’ll say,” he snarled at Abzug, “but not you Jude Thaddeus,” he uttered my future name. “You seem unhappy with this lie. Why do you hang your head? Are you ashamed that you ran?”
“No!” My head jerked up. “I didn’t know what else to do. I haven’t learned to fight.” “You’ll note sir,” I quickly pointed out, “we came back. These men were concerned for my welfare. We’re sorry we ran. I assure you Decimus, it won’t happen again!”
I had spoken for the others. They agreed wholeheartedly by nodding their heads, yet remained silent as Decimus thought about what I said. The auxilia, as Caesarius claimed, didn’t like them anyhow, so it didn’t matter when they retreated to one end of the camp, grumbling under their breaths. What did seem to matter to them was the expression on the regulars’ faces. Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto were disgusted by their behavior. Langullus now looked at them with utter contempt. Caesarius and Geta were visibly shaken by this, and even Abzug hung his head in shame. To our great surprise, however, Decimus let the matter drop. Placing one palm on his fingertips to signal “that’s enough!” he motioned to our horses and mules, as if to say, “Let’s get going!” Within the hour, we had loaded the pack mules, saddled up, and were sitting on our mounts. No one dared to speak aloud. All I heard were grumbles and whispers, mostly from the auxilia. As I reflect upon these moments, I remember that Ajax, Fronto, Ibrim, Apollo, Rufus, and Enrod were a mixed bag of emotions. Ibrim and Fronto seemed amused with our discomfort. Apollo’s eyes smoldered with resentment, while Ajax’s quiet gaze was filled with hate—after today’s encounter clearly the most dangerous member of the group. I don’t know how Rufus and his brother Enrod felt about the others, but they smiled favorably at me. Later Decimus might have said something more about the subject to Caesarius, Geta, and Abzug, but I never caught wind of it. He had never liked any of these men, especially Abzug, but, as circumstances unfolded, they would give me begrudging respect for my quick response. My defense that we quickly returned to the scene, were sorry, and would not repeat our mistake apparently diffused the optio’s wrath. For his part, Caesarius excuse that he wanted to get me out of harm’s way had been quick thinking. Though it might have been self-serving, I believe his concern was genuine. Geta and Abzug had no love for me, so they had no such excuse. Perhaps, the optio expected nothing more from the disgraced soldiers and crafty courier, but I was afraid, as we rode away, that I had lost his respect.
“Uh,...Decimus!” I called nervously through cupped hands.
“Yes, Thaddeus,” he responded wearily, “do you wish to confess your sins?”
It seemed as if the optio was being sarcastic. I would never take him for a religious man. I don’t remember anyone confessing to a priest or rabbi, and yet the thought shook me, as Decimus turned his horse and trotted back to me.
“Please sir,” the words poured from my mouth, “I’m young and inexperienced. It won’t happen again. Give me a sword, and I’ll be prepared next time. I had no weapon, only my wits—”
“Calm down, Thaddeus.” He raised a hand. “I was joking. You’re young.” “I didn’t expect much from those rascals either.” He jerked his thumb. “They’ve been cashiered out of the legions.” “You, however,” he murmured, bending forth in the saddle, “are going to be a fine soldier. Aulus and I will see to that!”
“In all do respects,” I responded politely, “what does that mean? I’m going to be a scribe and interpreter, am I not?”
I expected Decimus to be angry, but instead he broke into laughter. After he shared my response to Aulus, Aulus begin laughing too, and then, hearing their exchange, several of the others chuckled to themselves. I wondered those moments how serious the optio and his friend had been about my transformation in the army if they could mock me in such a way, but I kept it to myself, displaying a cheerful grin.
“You know something lad,” Ajax called back in mirth, “the day they make you a scribe, it’ll snow in Egypt, and the Jews in Antioch will build a temple to Zeus.” “It’s not going to happen.” He looked back, curling his lip. “You, a wet-behind-the-ears Jew, who doesn’t know one end of the sword from the other, think Aurelian is going to promote you on the spot above everyone else?”
“That’s enough Ajax,” barked Aulus. “You watch your tongue!”
“What does he mean?” I muttered to Decimus when he appeared alongside of me. “Cornelius told me—”
“Enough with what Cornelius said,” he whispered discreetly. “Aulus and I will do our best to train you with the sword and bow. We’re your friends. I’ve even begun calling you by your new name. But you must decide before we reach Antioch what you’re going to do. Are you going to trust our prefect’s word or the whim of a prefect who knows nothing about you except that you’re a Jew? Do you want to throw away your life to join the legions, or would you like to return to Galilee with Aulus, Vesto, and I when we complete our mission? No one will blame you for that.”
“Could I wait and see what Aurelian’s response will be when I’m introduced to him?” I posed the question.
Decimus gave me a searching look. “Thaddeus, you seem to think the prefect will even see you. You have no idea how a cohort is run? A centurion will swear you in, unless you back down. That’ll be the end of it until your training begins. You tell them your ambition to be a scribe and he’ll show you the gate. There’s no privilege characters in the legion, not on hearsay from a previous commander no matter who he is.”
“Really?” I cocked an eyebrow. “What if I show them the letter he sent my father? Cornelius wrote it, himself.”
“Humph, lemme see that.” Decimus reached out impatiently.
“All right,” I said, after fumbling in my saddlebag, “I have it here.”
After studying it a moment, he thrust it back to me, snorting, “He said that you would make a fine scribe and interpreter, that’s all. He recommended you to join the Antioch cohort, but he made you no offer of a job.” “To make matters worse, Thaddeus,” he added, rubbing his jaw, “the governor’s attitude made that letter null and void. Gratus hates Jews. He stationed his nephew in our cohort to spy on Cornelius. The prefect’s hands were tied. The truth is, of course, we already have a scribe. Regardless of this fact, you had no future there. You really think there’s going to be a vacancy in the next fort?”
“Well,” I said, hopefully, “If not a scribe, I can be an interpreter.”
“Thaddeus,” Decimus looked at me in disbelief, “what in Jupiter’s name is that?”
“Someone who can speak different languages,” I answered pertly.
“Yes-yes, I know that,” he waved irritably, “but do they? There are many men who speak different languages. When a commander needs such a fellow, he reaches down into the ranks, usually from auxilia who speak the enemy’s tongue. This is true for scribes, who are often selected from Alexandrian Greeks. Ajax, a Greek, himself, was correct there, a prefect doesn’t promote one on the spot—that wouldn’t be fair.”
“But I know several languages.” I explained shortly. “I have a quick wit and can memorize anything—words, directions, facts—in a flash.
“Humph, that’s very impressive, Thaddeus,” the optio pursed his lips, “but there’s no such job as an interpreter in the legions. We hire locals for that. The first person we’ll run into in Antioch will be a centurion, who, when Aulus, Veto, and I leave, will try to swear you in.”
“All right,” I responded in desperation, “I understand the dangers. I’ll try to explain my talents to Aurelian. He might find a position for me if I state my case.”
“If he sees you at all.” Decimus exhaled thoughtfully. “That’ll be your moment of truth. I’m impressed with you lad, I really am, and he might be impressed to, if you are allowed to see him.”
“Yes,” I said obligingly, “if he won’t see me, I’ll take that as a sign, and go home, but I must try!”
“Fair enough.” Decimus set his jaw. “Aulus and I will wait until you make up your mind.” “Give me your word,” he added reaching out to grip my forearm, “that if the prefect refuses to see you or laughs at your offer, you’ll return with us to Galilee.”
“I promise,” I swore, moved by his gesture. “Until then you and Aulus can teach me how to defend myself with a sword.”
“Indeed,” he replied, giving my shoulder a pat, “no matter what, Thaddeus, we’ll make a fine soldier out of you yet!”
With the same reservations that I had for myself, Decimus and Aulus would attempt to make me fit for the army. I wondered if the optio expected too much of me. It was true that I loved adventure. I had many dreams in which I rode on a fine white horse, clad in armor with a gladius clutched in my fist. For my brothers, friends, and myself, the hills of Nazareth had been one great playground in which we brandished crude weapons and played war-like games. In spite of my roughneck games and marksmanship with make-believe swords and spears, however, I wasn’t a warrior. My dreams were flights of pure fantasy. I was meant to be a man of words, not weapons. I wanted to travel the world, not fight barbarians or mingle with these unwashed, uncouth men. So far on our journey I hadn’t shown the mettle required for the army. Normally, I had an excellent memory, learned quickly, and displayed a clever tongue. Yet I trembled like a child around this group. At times, after the confrontation between Decimus and Ajax, I grew mute and lost my nerve. I knew that Rufus and Enrod favored me, but Langullus didn’t, and Ajax and Apollo hated my guts. I could not be certain of the mysterious Ibrim or lumbering Fronto. I had a hunch that these men, like most of the auxilia, had dark, unsavory pasts. Except for Decimus, Aulus, and Caesarius who were worried about my survival, the other members of our group, who didn’t despise me, treated me like an oddity. Geta and Abzug thought I was addled in the head. A Jew, who wanted to join the legions—how strange was that? I was, if nothing else, good for a few laughs.
I hadn’t lived up to my dreams. At the first sign of danger, in bad company, I made a cowardly exit, which said much for my resolve, yet I had no other choice. Had I stayed put and not followed those men into the woods, I would have deprived them of their excuse for cowardice and been left with no friends at all. Most of them—regular and auxilia alike, with the qualified exceptions of Decimus, Aulus, and Caesarius (a Jew-killer), were uncouth, foul-mouthed men and pagans to boot. Try as I may, when I joined in, I found their crude humor toward me and general actions repulsive. If a mere two days of travel with this bunch irked me this much, I shuddered at what lie ahead when I was surrounded by hundreds of like-minded men. Perhaps, I told myself, as the optio rode away, his fears were justified. I just wasn’t suited for army life. When I had the chance at the fort, I should have turned around and gone home.
These thoughts I carried with me on the road to Antioch, not knowing that God and dumb luck would change my fate. I wouldn’t have imagined such a possibility. Not long after leaving our camp, Caesarius, Geta, Abzug, and I were assailed by jeers and jibes from our fellow travelers. It didn’t bother me at first, since we were mocked as a group. It almost didn’t seem personal. My cohorts knew better. I was, after all, only a Jew. What did bother me, after listening to them berate us awhile was, in fact, how little they expected of me. I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter. I was not cut out for this. If Aurelian wouldn’t hire me as a scribe, I would join Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto and return home. I tried to shut out their mutterings. The confrontation following the killing of the shepherd had shaken all of us. Unfortunately, unlike many crises, it didn’t unite our group; it seemed to polarize us: the regulars versus the auxilia. I couldn’t even be certain about Rufus and Enrod after today.
Not far from Ptolemais, as we reached a likely spot to rest, Decimus galloped toward me, whistling through two fingers. “Thaddeus,” he barked sternly, “come!” I followed him a ways as the auxiliaries rode into a clearing. Aulus, followed by Caesarius and Geta, trotted up to us with expectant looks on their faces. Aulus was only irritated, but the veterans were visibly frightened. Racing up in a cloud of dust, Abzug reported what was on all of our minds.
“Apollo and Ajax are getting those men riled up. I don’t like what he’s saying to that big dumb Thracian and those Gauls.”
“I caught wind of it,” Aulus snorted. “They didn’t like this assignment—none of them did. It’s that Egyptian dog and Greek pig I’m worried about.”
Pulling off his helmet and running his hand through his graying hair, Decimus studied the men in the clearing. Inexplicably, Langullus sat moodily on his horse several cubits away from us, as if he wasn’t sure which side to pick.
“I think Ajax wanted to challenge me,” Decimus said grimly. “If it wasn’t for Fronto and those two Gauls, I think he would’ve attacked me. You gotta give Fronto credit for standing between us. I think I’ll have a little talk with him and those Gauls, Ibrim too.” “You go chat with Langullus,” he motioned to Aulus. “The rest of you stay together. Be friendly.” “Geta and Abzug stop frowning at those men. We’re outnumbered. You veterans are obviously not spoiling for a fight, so the only sword arms we got are Aulus, Vesto, and me.”
The prospects for a peaceful trip had grown dim these hours. As Caesarius, Geta, Abzug, and I—the four outcasts—dismounted a safe distance from the auxilia, we tied our reins to overhanging branches and drank from a bubbling brook. The Jordan, I recalled, was a muddy river. There were few fast-running streams in Galilee except after rain or during the cold season. Forgetting my plight a few moments, I followed the others, scooped water up in my hands, slurped it with delight, and then splashed it over my face. Together, in the shadow of the trees, we watched the optio and Fronto, arms folded, in quiet conversation. Aulus, Vesto, and Langullus sat in heated debate still on their mounts. Ibrim was nowhere in sight. Rufus and Enrod, after listening a few moments, dashed like children into the water. Ajax and Apollo, further down the winding stream, took advantage of the creek themselves. As Aulus, Vesto, and Langullus rode over, dismounted, and joined Decimus and Fronto’s discussion, Rufus and Enrod were called politely by the optio. In the distance, the Greek and Egyptian emerged as two menacing shadows in the morning shade.
“What do you suppose they’re talking about?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun.
Abzug appraised them a few more seconds. “Decimus is talking sense to Fronto and those Gauls. It looks peaceable enough. Look at the way they’re carrying on.”
Geta heaved a sigh of relief. “Yeah, laughing like hyenas—probably at us.”
“More importantly,” Caesarius remarked, pointing to the clearing, “are the thoughts of those men.”
A collective gasp rose from our group as Ajax and Apollo swaggered toward the others. Though unlikely allies, both men had been forced by the optio to back down. They had no use for the veterans or myself nor did they like Roman regulars, in general. Because they were forced against their will into this special mission, they blamed the four outcasts, especially me for the assignment. Despite their frowns, snarls, and unfriendly words, however, it was, as Jesus pointed out, the eyes that gave men away. If a gaze reflected emotion, Ajax and Apollo shared one thing in common: they had cold, cruel eyes. Apollo’s eyes smoldered with hatred. Ajax gaze was more difficult to gauge. He was ill tempered and quarrelsome, clearly the most fearsome man I had ever seen, and yet I was more afraid of the Egyptian than the Greek. Jesus also said that a coward was more dangerous than a brave man. During his confrontation with Decimus, Apollo had slinked away like a jackal. He had been no match for the optio, but I was certain that Ajax would have cut the optio down. Whereas the Greek fought bravely face to face, the Egyptian was more likely to knife him in the back. For this reason, he was a greater threat.
Moving from the opposite side of the clearing, even more slowly than Ajax and Apollo, Caesarius, Geta, Abzug, and I cupped our ears to hear the discussion. Had the optio made peace with Fronto and the others? Would he be able to win Ajax and Apollo over too? Where was Ibrim now? Perhaps he had abandoned the mission. Hopefully, Ajax and Apollo would make such a decision. We didn’t need any more trouble before reaching Antioch, especially me. We could no longer trust them, not after this morning. As it was, I would have to be guarded night and day against the Egyptian’s wiles. If Ajax killed Decimus and Aulus, I would have to flee for my life. The Roman guards were my protectors, and it was, for a young man alone in Northern Galilee, a long way home. I was trapped. Doubt filled me as I watched Ajax and Apollo approach. What was I thinking? I asked myself. What was I doing with this mismatched team?
The Greek had that look in his eyes as Apollo walked behind him. “What is this?” He snarled at Decimus. “Have you turned them on us? Is that what you did to save your skin?” “Why don’t you and I settle this right now?” He placed a hand on his gladius. “If it hadn’t of been for my friends—”
“You shut up! There’ll be none of that,” Fronto held out a hand, “You’ve been listening to that scurvy rat.” He jerked his thumb at Apollo. “You’re good with the sword, Ajax, but you’ve always been weak-brained. You kill an imperial officer, you’ll be hunted down like a dog.” “You listen to me, you reckless fool,” he said, shaking a fist, “I’m not afraid of you, if the others are. The rest of us here, don’t want any part of this, so settle down” “—both of you,” he added, glaring at Apollo.
“I say we send the Egyptian packing,” Vesto stepped forth. “He vowed to Ibrim that’ll he kill Thaddeus, the first chance he gets. I heard him say it last night. He’s no good. Let’s give him the boot!”
“Aye!” Rufus cried
“The boot!” Enrod echoed his sentiment.
“Yes-yes,” I said, wringing my hands, “the boot, the boot!”
“Is that true?” Decimus gave Apollo a fierce look. “Did you threaten to kill that lad?”
Apollo blanched, yet managed a crooked smile. “I was joking.” “I thought your name was Jude,” he gave me a curious look.
“He’s one of us now!” Aulus said challengingly.
Suddenly, the mood changed from confrontation to alarm as Ibrim galloped up on his black stead.
“It’s the Arab,” cried Vesto, “riding like the Furies!”
“Where have you been?” Decimus asked accusingly.
“We got company,” Ibrim he shouted, out of breath, “.... It’s the kinsmen of that Arab we killed. I saw one of them at their camp.”
“How far away?” Decimus expression changed to fear.
“Several leagues,” Ibrim called back, as he ran to drink from the stream. “I was scouting back a ways and spotted them from a rise, riding on donkeys and mules. They won’t catch up to us on those mounts, but we better make dust!”
“How many of them?” Decimus asked, climbing onto his horse.
“Quite a few. I think the man we killed was a chief or notable of some kind. Riding with them are men in armor. They might be magistrates.”
“We can take them easily,” Langullus protested. “Those fools will be riding into an ambush.”
“No, no more killing, unless we have to,” Aulus barked. “If those other men are, in fact, local magistrates, that could get messy. We’ve had enough trouble with Jews.”
“This argument will have to wait,” Decimus cried, raising his hand and pointing to the road. “Everyone mount and ride like the Furies. We’ll not stop, until we have the high ground. They want to follow us to Ptolemais, then we’ve got cause.”
“Aye!” we cried unanimously.