The Imperial Way Station
That smell of the sea reminded us of how close we were to the coast. Suddenly, Ptolemais, a glistening white city with sparkling columns of marble, loomed in our vision. Unfortunately, it would be brief glimpse for our band. Time was of the essence for us. We had to reach the way station before nightfall. After several leagues without incident, our fears seemed unjustified. We stopped at the port city just long enough to water our horses, but to most of the men’s disappointment, Decimus forbade them from enjoying the wine and women of the town. According to the optio, we could only get provisions at imperial way stations. Though we no longer feared being ambushed by the shepherd’s relatives, a second reason for not dallying was, in fact, the necessity of arriving at the way station before dark. The specific threat, which we had magnified in our minds, had faded gradually after each mile, but this did not lessen the general danger of riding at night. There were still pitfalls, both man-made and natural lurking in the shadows. Who knows, Aulus pointed out, as the men grumbled, whether or not bandits roamed these parts?
“Take heart men,” he consoled them, “Tyre, our next stop after the way station, is an even bigger town.
“Yes,” Caesarius called out drolly, “with more wine and women.”
“And more whores,” Apollo called lecherously from the rear.
Since our journey began, I had never seen such cooperation. We paused just long enough to allow our horses to drink their fill of water and munch a spell on the grasses growing on the outskirts of town. Then, after snacking on a few morsels of cheese and stale bread, we climbed back onto our mounts. Now that we had begun traveling the coastal route, we once again rode two-by-twos to protect ourselves against being picked off, the three Roman regulars in charge riding up and down the line, precariously close to the edge. The fact that we were close to the Great Sea was a hallow fact now. According to Decimus and Aulus, the worst part of our journey lie ahead. Those silly shepherds weren’t the only ones we had to worry about. We were riding through rough country. We didn’t want to be on this road when it was dark. At points, there’s a sheer drop to the shoreline below. While at other points, the road veered inland, climbing up shadowy canyons carved into the hills. Now that we’re leaving Galilee, we still had to worry about bandits.
For the first miles of this leg of our journey, few words were spoken. All of us seemed wrapped up in our thoughts. According to Decimus, a change of mounts would be necessary at the imperial way station. We must, however, make sure we weren’t being followed. “If they follow us to our camp,” he announced grimly, “they’ll regret it!” As far as the dead Arab was concerned, it was, Ibrim reminded the optio, our word against theirs. No one argued this point, though it seemed like cold-blooded murder to me. For a few moments, Decimus, who must have felt responsible for this lapse, discussed the killing of the shepherd with Ibrim.
“Did you see his wounds?” I heard him ask as Ibrim explained the grisly discovery.
“No, he just looked dead,” Ibrim replied.
“You didn’t see his wounds?” Decimus said in disbelief. “What if he was just unconscious?”
“Oh, he wasn’t unconscious.” Ibrim uttered a nervous laugh. “He was dead!”
“Are you certain we can outrun them?” Aulus asked, looking back from his saddle.
“Yes,” Ibrim reassured him, “they had a few horses but mostly slow-moving donkeys and mules. It’s a matter of honor for the man’s family. They must at least try.”
“Perhaps,” Aulus said, turning his mount and riding carefully back to the Arab, “unless you’re leading us into a trap.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked indignantly. “You think because they’re my people, I would stoop to such treachery.”
“Yes!” Rufus and Enrod chimed.
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” Decimus came to Ibrim’s defense. “He’s been straight forward from the beginning. He might be a money-grubbing Arab, but there’s no profit in such an enterprise. He’d get himself killed.” “Right, Ibrim?” he gave him a studied look.
It was a veiled threat. The Arab scout tossed back his head and laughed. “Yes, my friend,” he looked around with mirth, “I would have to be insane!”
“All right, on the subject of insanity,” Aulus pointed to Apollo and Ajax, “what about them? They’re not right in the head.”
“They’d better behave himself,” Decimus barked. “I don’t need any more trouble. We have to get along!”
After this warning, Decimus rode alongside of me a moment to gauge my frame of mind. I assured him that I was quite fit, which was a lie. I told him that I looked forward to learning the use of the gladius and bow and how to pitch the tent and build a fire as was fitting for a legionnaire (which were also untrue). I was, Jesus had always told me, an unconvincing liar, and yet Decimus, who seemed to accept my subterfuge, nodded curtly and galloped away. I had masked my feelings quite well that moment. I was actually on the verge of bawling and had to bite my fist. The others had fallen silent again, murmuring quietly amongst themselves as we were led further and further north. We could still smell the sea, but the road had curved away from the shoreline. With rows of trees on each side of us, we looked nervously left and ride, fearful of an attack on our flanks. The one improvement in our travel was that the road had widened and we no longer rode next to a cliff.
As Vesto guarded our rear, both Decimus and Aulus took turns galloping up and down the line of riders. On a trip to Sepphoris with my family, our Roman guards assigned to us by Longinus had done the same thing, but with much less enthusiasm. The purpose of this action was to keep an eye on us, check the surrounding terrain, make sure we kept the line tight and rode two-by-two, and herd in stragglers in the group. Ibrim reassured us that the shepherds and magistrates would not catch up with us if we kept a fast pace, but the natural fear of men on the march, Caesarius had told me, was that we might be ambushed by unseen enemies lurking somewhere ahead.
Because of the distance we had to cover, we moved quickly toward our destination, stopping just long enough to let the horses and ourselves rest a spell and drink at a stream along the way. Meanwhile, Ibrim, our self-appointed scout, frequently rode south to check on our pursuers. Each time he returned he would claim that he saw no sign of them. “All is well!” he cried, grinning crookedly. There seemed to be no logical reason for him to be doing this other than for our welfare. Weary from the long, bumpy, dusty ride, we wanted to believe Ibrim’s reassurances, but each time we stopped to rest and eat a hasty meal of stale bread, wild berries or plumbs we expected an attack by the angry Arabs and magistrates. The wily little Arab had appeared devious at times. He talked constantly, using far too many words to answer simple questions, and he smiled far too much, a trait Jesus warned me to watch. His small pupils had a crafty look when he spoke (another indicator of deviousness), his eyebrows moving like bushy caterpillars over his eyes. All those times he galloped south, we wondered why he took this risk—a lone rider in the outland of Galilee. Aulus had offered to act as scout, until Ibrim convinced Decimus he was the man for the job. He would always return in a cloud of dust, jabbering enthusiastically, his smalls hands jerking this way and that as he reported in.
Upon arriving at the provincial milestone, we knew we were close. The imperial way station sat a few leagues inland near the town of Ecdippa. As we rode in single file, we caught sight of what appeared, from a distance, to be soldiers encamped near the station. It would seem that this group of soldiers might provide us with added protection if our pursuers caught up with us, though this seemed unlikely now. Frankly, as I consider this leg of our journey, I believe the threat of an attack had been greatly exaggerated, worsened by Ibrim, himself, whom the Romans suspected of collusion with his Arab countrymen. At this stage of our journey we had, in effect, left Galilee and entered the province of Syria. Both Decimus and Ibrim were doubtful that the shepherds would come this far. Still, at least in my mind, there was that nagging doubt.... Somewhere ahead in our journey had the shifty-eyed Ibrim, in the pay of his countrymen, set a trap? Except for the altercation between Decimus and Ajax, our journey so far had been extraordinarily quiet. Considering the dangers possible for Roman soldiers in this land, it had been too quiet! Not withstanding those silly shepherds, there had been no sighting of bandits or insurrectionists on the road. There had not been so much as one argument in our group after Decimus’ warning to Ajax and Apollo. After leaving Cana, it had become a peaceful and uneventful trip—almost too good to believe. Now, suddenly, we could see Roman eagles flying above the way station’s roof. As we climbed off our mounts and hitched them to various plants growing around the building, four unshaven, unkempt guards swaggered out to inspect our travel worn group. A fifth soldier exited the door and trotted past his men, pointing irritably at the sign.
“Can’t anybody read?” he cried. “The hitching posts are behind the station, in front of the stables. Those other fellows made the same mistake.”
“I’m sorry sir,” Decimus apologized. “I should’ve known better. Most of my men can’t read.”
“That sign is awfully small,” Aulus snapped. “I can barely read it.”
In sloppy Latin, which only the Romans and myself understood, it read when standing up close: Please dismount in back and check in with the duty officer. The crudely written words were also misspelled and faded by sunlight and weather. Decimus handed the officer a small scroll, which Aulus told me later was an imperial requisition, equal to money. We removed our reins from their improvised hitching posts and walked our horses around the station, the officer in charge of the way station running ahead to direct us to the stables.
“Come-come.” He whistled and snapped his fingers. “Wait in line for an attendant. When you receive your new mounts, please walk them into the meadow near the turmae but not too close. That’s a surly bunch out there—all of them are auxilia, not a Roman in the bunch.”
“I’m a Roman,” grumbled Ajax, “what the hell is a Roman, if not soldiers like us.”
“Yeah, it should be automatic,” Fronto growled. “They made those damn people in Antioch and Tarsus Romans—most of them Greeks too. If you join the infantry, you’re a citizen. If you join the cavalry, you’re still an outsider. It doesn’t make sense.”
“What’s a turmae?” I whispered to Aulus.
“Thirty-two men,” he answered, patting his horse, “give or take one or two.”
“That’s much smaller than a cohort,” I prattled light-headedly, “but what does Fronto and Ajax mean that the infantry are all citizens. Does that mean I’ll become a citizen if I join up—”
“Yes-yes,” Aulus waved impatiently, “those other men could’ve been gone regular if they swore in. You’re not like them, Thaddeus. They’re nothing but paid mercenaries. You will, if you join up, be a legionnaire—a regular like Aulus, Vesto, and me. I’ll break down the legion for you later. The important thing is to make camp. Hopefully, we can make friends with those men.”
“Why shouldn’t we?” I replied artlessly. “Aren’t they soldiers like us.”
“Weren’t you listening, Thaddeus,” Aulus clipped under his breath, “The turmae aren’t Romans; they’re auxilia, like our guards. They’re no better than Ajax and his friends. The Roman use those kind’ve men as cavalry, but its citizen army—the legionnaires and real soldiers—move on foot.”
“Oh, my Lord,” I groaned.
This was not good news for me. I had always imagined myself on a horse—a mounted scribe at that, not tramping along in a cohort with a sixty-pound pack on my back. I was too tired to mentally process this information. At that point, I felt Caesarius tap my shoulder.
“What am I doing here?” I muttered, staring into space.
“Getting a new mount,” he said from the corner of his mouth, “a fresh horse to replace that mule. Are you all right Jude?”
“Thaddeus, that’s his new name,” Aulus corrected, looking back at me. “When the attendant writes down your name, you say “Thaddeus Judaius Josephus.” “I’ll make sure they give you a proper horse!”
“I-I’m fine,” I murmured to Caesarius, “just a little tired.”
Remembering Moses words “I’m a stranger in a stranger land,” I had one of those light-headed sensations where everything is brilliant and voices are loud. I knew I was growing faint. This had happened to me in childhood, but it had not happened to me for quite some time.
“You sure they won’t just give him another mule?” asked Geta. “I heard horses are scarce in these parts.”
“I’ll try to get at least get Thaddeus a mare or a larger mule,” Aulus reconsidered. “I hope they give me something better than this sway-backed nag.”
Please God, I thought fearfully, don’t let me pass out in front of these men. As I listened to the men chatter amongst themselves, the loudness and brilliance faded like those first moments after awakening from a dream. My dizziness passed, but in its wake, the dark, heavy reality set in. I felt suddenly sad that I would be losing my faithful mule. Though I had always dreamed of riding a white stallion, I had grown found of this quiet, gentle beast.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, patting his neck, “you’re a fine fellow, but you need rest.”
“Thaddeus,” Decimus called, as he walked past, “are you talking to that mule?
I nodded faintly, grinning foolishly as he stopped.
“You mustn’t get attached like that,” he scolded. “That’s not a pet; it’s a beast of burden. Only officers keep their mounts.”
Alas, I thought, my hand resting on its neck, another revelation—no white stallion, an endless series of horses or, if I am forced to join the infantry, no horse at all. Uncharacteristically it seemed, the optio reached out and patted the mule’s nose before moving to the head of the line.
“Is anyone in there?” he barked, rapping on the stable gate.
There was no response behind the doors.
“They must be having lunch,” suggested Vesto.
“Humph,” Decimus snorted, “or napping.” “Hey,” he shouted, pounding the gate, “we need fresh mounts. We haven’t all day!”
“It’s awfully quiet in there.” Abzug pressed his ear to the wood.
“Hah!” Geta gnashed his teeth. “These damn station guards are always napping or at lunch.
“It’s always the same,” Langullus squinted in pain. “They’re the laziest bunch of misfits in the army. I never met one that wasn’t half drunk!”
While Rufus, Enrod, Caesarius, and I patiently waited our turn, Ajax swore a loud oath, Ibrim angrily socked his little fist, and Apollo made a face and spat—the universal gesture of contempt. Decimus grumbled under his breath, straightened his shoulders and began walking toward the front of the station. “All right,” he called discreetly, “keep it down. Be patient men. We need their help. I’m going back to the office and talk to the optio—if there even is an optio. There’s no excused for this delay, none at all!”
Inexplicably, we had to wait in the hot sun for the stable attendants to arrive. Whether or not they were being deliberately rude or, as Vesto suggested, out to lunch, we might never know. Though some of the men were grumbling about our treatment, the remainder of us were smiling with relief. We were off that bumpy, dusty road. Though we would be getting fresh mounts, I felt suddenly sad, another emotion I failed to keep to myself. My assigned mount had not been the great white horse I had dreamed of in my youth, but I had grown found of him. I had, just for good luck, given him a name: Gladius—the Roman’s most important weapon. I hoped he would be treated well. When the stable doors opened and it was my turn, I also wondered, as I watched an attendant lead him away, how my mule fared back in Sepphoris. The poor beast had obviously been shuffled into a pin with the rest of them. In my state of mind I hadn’t even thought about it until I was on the road. Except for officers, as Decimus pointed out, soldiers were allowed little sentiment for their mounts. This revelation had shaken me greatly. Jesus love of animals had rubbed off on me. He once told me that God loves all living things and keeps his eye on the least of His creation. I recalled the sparrow Jesus had healed when he was a child. My favorite animal, of course was the horse, but the sparrow came to mind when I was handed the reins. It was, in accord with my luck so far, assigned another mule. This was fine with me. Gladius looked back at me, his large, dark moist eyes causing my voice to catch in my throat. I said goodbye and waved foolishly, as he was led into an enclosure with the other horses and mules. I understood that it was necessary to obtain fresh mounts. It was a lifesaver for worn out horses and mules, but it still seemed cruel for Gladius not to have a proper master.
Momentarily, as I led him behind the others, I studied my new mule, reflecting upon my plight. He looked almost the same as the last mule. I decided that moment I would name him Gladius too and, in the future, I decided resolutely, if I was assigned horses or mule, give them all this name. It seemed logical to me, in spite of the odds, that a scribe would ride, not walk, during the march. Where would such a non-combatant fit into the military framework of the army if not in the saddle—surely not on foot! And yet it dawned on me, as I hitched my mount to one of the posts near our new camp, that I had an opportunity my parents, brothers and sisters would never have. I could become a Roman citizen. This, of course, didn’t mean I would ride a horse or, for that matter, become a scribe. After hearing what Aulus said about Roman citizen soldiers fighting on foot that would no longer be my concern, unless I became like them.
My eyes now traveled to the auxilia in our midst. It was true, I thought, feeling that familiar dizziness. The only way I could see myself in armor and helmet and on my great white stead was in the cavalry, which meant I would remain like all auxilia, an outsider. The exception, I had gathered, were the special mounted non-coms, such as Decimus, the officers I knew in Nazareth and elsewhere, men with special assignments like Aulus and Vesto, and, I continued to hope, a Roman scribe. Everyone else it seemed, who comprised the cavalry or delivered correspondence for the empire were a rabble, held in contempt by legionnaires. When I looked out across the meadow and saw that band of bristly-faced, unwashed men next to our camp, I could not imagine them being horsemen, no matter what they were called. I had enough trouble accepting our own cavalrymen as legitimate fighting men.