Stopover In Tyre
It was a long, dusty ride. To our disappointment, much of the highway had been cut by the Roman engineers purposely through the flat farmlands to avoid the range of hills skirting the shore. This made the highway several leagues from the sea and it still turned out to be a bumpy, unfriendly trip. After a relatively fast pace, our mounts were slowed by an increasing rise in the terrain. When we reached the hills of Lebanon, there were cedars and pines, interspersed with olive and oak trees. Both the Romans and the auxilia were on guard for local bandits, who might be lurking in the groves. At least in Galilee, where the land was flat and open we could see the terrain around us, but the dark patchwork of trees allowed for little visibility. It made everyone jumpy and irritable. After an hour of riding through the forest, however, the hills grew barren of trees, which, Caesarius explained to me, had been deforested since ancient times. I remember Jesus telling me about Hiram, a pagan ally of King David, who ruled Tyre. It was essentially, with the exception of a few stone buildings, a city of wood. The Tyrhenian economy was bolstered by the need for lumber to build the first temple in Jerusalem. Now the hills surrounding this ancient kingdom were almost barren of trees. In an effort to bolster my spirits, I shared the story of King David with Caesarius and Rufus who broke ranks a few times to ride next to us. I sensed the other men were listening to me chatter. With the gradual disappearance of the trees, the spirit of the men rose. Though it seemed stupid to me to sacrifice the beauty of the land, I agreed with Decimus and Aulus that a desert was much safer than a forest to travel through. In a relatively short period of time I was able to tell them all I knew about David, my people’s great king, including his seduction of Bathsheba, which interested Apollo and Ajax very much, embellishing the tale to maintain their interest. Caesarius, Rufus, and Vesto asked me many questions. The issue of my miraculous feat, my cowardly follow-up later, and my falling sickness were not brought up. Decimus was in no mood for more dissention, and everyone was travel-weary and eager to make camp at our next stop.
“Tell me,” piped Apollo, “how different is King David from other bad rulers?”
“He wasn’t a bad ruler,” I bristled, “he was a great king, but he was just weak at times.
“Weak, he calls it?” Ajax laughed mockingly. “You told us that he sent his loyal subject to his death to steal his wife.”
“Many men have done the same,” Apollo seemed to defend David at first, “that’s not weakness. Though evil, it takes great courage to kill a man. I think it’s impressive the way he rose up from a shepherd to become King of the Jews. The way he slew that big fellow with a sling and saved the day is incredible. But he caused the deaths of many men who got in his way afterwards, and yet that other king, Saul, whom he turned against, lost his throne for showing mercy to his enemies. Instead of punishing David for his crimes, your god killed his newborn son!”
“Yes, indeed,” agreed Vesto, “David reminds me of that Herod, a dreadful fellow. I like your stories Thaddeus; they’re entertaining, but your god is mean-spirited. Those tales I heard you telling the men after we left Sepphoris—how your god tested poor Job and that murderous Joshua are worse than anything Jupiter or Zeus did on earth.”
“Aye,” Aulus snorted, looked back with a frown, “your god is no better than that baby-killing Baal.”
Such candor was typical of pagans, especially Romans, but I was unprepared for this feedback. How could I defend men like Joshua or explain why God allowed Satan to muddle in our affairs. Quoting a later friend, I had opened a Pandora’s box. Soon, as Aulus expanded upon his insult, Langullus jumped into the discussion, followed by Geta, and Ibrim.
“That story you told us about Joshua slaughtering children and women,” Langullus began thoughtfully, after breaking ranks and trotting up to my place in line. “What was that, Thaddeus? It was all because they worshipped different gods. And what about that flood, huh? You’re telling us, he destroyed the whole world because of one city of wicked men and woman? What about the victims in other places, the children, and all those innocent animals?” “That’s just plane awful!” he spat.
“Hey,” Caesarius said, snapping his fingers, “that sounded like a story a Babylonian merchant told me, only it was about a fellow named Gilgamesh. In this case, their gods sent a flood to drown the world, because it was too noisy and kept them awake at night.”
Everyone broke into laughter at this nonsense. Later, of course, I would hear the story of Gilgamesh, myself, from a sage and use it to show how capricious were the old gods. Right now, I’m recording what other men thought of the Jewish god. I don’t defend His methods in this volume nor do I condemn them. After all, the Lord was dealing with a stiff-necked people. Nevertheless, this is hindsight. As we approached Tyre, I found myself at a loss for words in my effort to defend my god. Just that moment, Ibrim was telling everything that he was more like demon, if he killed innocent people, and they were all agreeing with him, even Caesarius. It made me feel bad, but how could I explain the nature of God when I scarcely understood him myself?
“Listen men,” Geta, who rode next to Rufus, called out, clapping his hands, “all this rubbish about a flood and Thaddeus’ god is no different than the devil-gods of Syria and Egypt. I don’t believe a real god would do such things. Of course, I don’t believe in the gods, so it doesn’t matter to me. They’re nothing but stone or wood. It’s rubbish. Leave poor Thaddeus alone!”
“You don’t understand,” I blurted to Geta, turning around in my saddle. “All of this that I told you is His effort to forge our people into a nation. Now, I truly believe, like my brother Jesus, that He’s a different deity—universal, the one and only god—”
“Thaddeus,” Decimus voice rang out, galloping back and shaking his fist, “I thought we talked about this. Enough already!” Raising his hand for silence then pointing north and south, he called out in a hoarse voice. “Everyone get back into formation. Ride two-by-two. Keep the noise down!”
“He’s right,” Caesarius murmured to me, “you should’ve kept that to yourself.”
It seemed fitting that Apollo, my greatest critic, a man I had been most afraid of because of his devious personality, had spoken his mind first. Perhaps, I thought, his recent praise of my prowess as a killer of men was a form of mockery, like the compliments of most of my newfound friends. Now, with my religion to use against me, it seems as if they were all showing their true feelings. Decimus had warned me about talking about my religion. Why had I opened my big mouth? Fortunately, my last outburst about the universal god had gone over their heads, but damage was still done. Because of my lapse, I found myself defending my god, in fact preaching to them, something the optio had expressly forbidden. I was troubled by all this conversation, especially since I had brought it upon myself. Mostly, I regretted making the optio angry. Now even Caesarius was mocking me, and Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto looked at me with contempt.
In muted conversation, as the Decimus led our procession, the men chatted back and forth still animated by the topic stifled by the optio. Portions of this discourse drifted back to me. I heard my name slandered at times and occasionally a blasphemous reference to my god by Apollo, Ajax, Langullus, and Ibrim. Joining into the exchange more good-naturedly were Rufus and Enrod, who glanced self-consciously back at me as they laughed at my expense. In the back of the procession, I heard Fronto, who had given me the spear, admit to Aulus, that it must have been a fluke. Either I was asleep as Geta suggested or, as Ibrim kept insisting, I had been possessed by a jinn. I remained on the verge of tears as their discussions continued. If I were to sum up the mood at that point, I might conclude that I was, in the final analysis, the bunt of their jokes: that strange, “wet-behind-the-ears” Jew-boy, who killed six men. It had to be a fluke, Ajax and now Fronto also believed. Because of my timid actions at our last stop, the sleep-walking theory propounded off-handedly by Geta appeared to be catching on. I heard Abzug and him discussing this issue, looking back disdainfully at me.
Before long, however, as we approached our destination, the bantering ceased. Silence once more fell over the group. Hunger and exhaustion had set in. By the salty smell and appearance of sea birds, we knew we were close. Then quite suddenly, after riding up and over a high hill, we looked down at the curve of the road and saw Tyre, sitting like jewel by the sea. The sun was setting in the west, and we barely had enough time to arrive at the imperial station on the outskirts of town before dark. Though our destination was not far away, we had to move slowly because of the glare of sunlight and sharp gradient. This effect had a mixed reaction among the men, particularly those in front. We could not focus on the road, let alone on the rider in front. The great orange ball of light was so brilliant, in fact, we were forced to shield our eyes. It was difficult to manage our mounts and blot this out. How could you guide your mount with closed eyes? In my present state of mind it was especially unsettling, especially after I had drank so much wine and made a mockery of my faith.
“What a pretty sight!” cried Vesto.
“Aye,” Decimus called back, “but blinding. Jupiter’s ghost, that’s bright.”
“Single file this time; follow the horse in front,” Aulus called through cupped hands.
Aulus command caused hysterical laughter in the group. Following his instructions, which weren’t easy, conversation once again broke out in the ranks. Ibrim suggested this might be an evil omen. Apollo disagreed, reminding us that Egyptians once worshipped the setting sun. This caused Ajax to snicker sarcastically. Vesto, Aulus, Rufus, Enrod, and Fronto also praised the spectacular sunset, while Geta, Abzug, and Decimus, like myself, were greatly annoyed. Abzug announced that he would ride backward to avoid the glare, which under normal circumstances should have been a humorous sight. Balanced precariously a moment, as he faced south, he caused the riders behind him, except myself, to scoff at his foolishness. Until we arrived below the hill behind a stand of trees, sunset was unbearable, even for its advocates. Good-naturedly, with the tap of his whip, Aulus ordered the courier to face front. Everything in front of my sensitive eyes were dark bodies against the brilliant ball of fire. The last blaze of dusk was the worst—a radiating flare, until deepening shadows fell over our assembly.
Out of nowhere it seemed, trees loomed again in our path. Darkness, aided by forests of cedars and oaks on each side of us, fell on Tyre. Stunned by night’s appearance, the procession lapsed into silence. This was fine with me. I had enough of their ridicule. Fears of ambush and other unseen dangers filled their superstitious minds. I wasn’t superstitious and had played in the forests of Nazareth through my childhood. Jesus, my oldest brother, who often sat by the kitchen window looking out at the night, believed it was a special time. If he was not meditating at his favorite place in our house in the evening, he was roaming outside in the darkness in prayer. I never saw him sleep. These thought comforted but also troubled me. Even at that point in my life I was unsure of his divinity. What I did have in the way of understanding of my father’s religion was taught to me by my mother but given inspiration by Jesus’ whose nature hikes and casual sermons were the foundation of my faith. All the reading I had done at school hadn’t helped me one bit to understand my god. Knowledge was not enough nor were clever words.
I wondered now where I would wind up if I died: Paradise or Gehenna. Jesus believed that when good, faithful people died, they would go straight to heaven. I wondered how he would interpret me killing those six men. Since I thought I was asleep, slaying those bad men shouldn’t count, especially since I helped save everyone’s life. Under the circumstances, my current love of wine should also not count. Papa was a good man, and loved the vine. If only my childish pranks and misadventures were held against me, I should be in good shape. I had nothing to fear. As I considered the road ahead, however, I had a chilling feeling that trouble lie ahead…. Would I survive my folly? Jesus had told me not to tempt God.
As we approached the imperial way station near Tyre, I remember Jesus’ last words to me as I bid him goodbye in Sepphoris, “Learn the heart of the Gentiles,” and my father counseling me to accept failure if it means I will have a foolish death. Papa’s advice had made sound sense during my journey. After all, my objective had been to become a scribe in order to earn a living and see the world, not risk my neck fighting barbarians in order to reach my goal. Jesus commission therefore made less sense to me. I understood enough of Gentile peculiarities and how they thought about the world. Most of what I learned so far about them wasn’t pleasing. They were rude, uncouth, unpredictable men. Although I thought I was dreaming at the time, this business of killing six men weighed heavily on my conscience, and yet most of them had been amused by what I did. They either explained it away as a fluke or outright miracle or grappled with Geta’s suggestion that I had been sleepwalking, which was actually the closest to the truth. Even now, after what happened near Ecdippa and all my efforts to fit in, none of them, even Caesarius and my Roman protectors, took me seriously. My attack of the falling sickness had only increased their doubts.
The truth was I was, by definition, a coward. Why should I risk my life to live up to a legend? Was I also a fool? I wasn’t Thaddeus, the Reaper. I, was, like it or not, Judah bar Joseph. My parents and brother had been against me becoming an imperial scribe. In spite of Jesus’ blessing, he was concerned that my experience would change me and I might, as a soldier with a sword, use it on Roman subjects, such as my own people. He reminded me before I rode away that I had a special purpose in this world. Knowing Jesus mind, I was certain that it wasn’t simply to learn the Gentile’s mind. My brother was talking about a distant future. What it was I didn’t know. After my miracle at the first imperial station, however, I shouldn’t worry. Perhaps it wasn’t my fate to die before my time. Seen another way, as an obedient son, it was my duty to live. To take any more foolish chances would, as Jesus warned, be tempting the Lord. These thoughts were like a warm blanket pulled over me. I was also comforted by the wine Rufus and Caesarius shared with me….What did it matter that I was a “wet-behind-the-ears Jew?”
“Torches!” Decimus called to Vesto. “Pull out your kit and try lighting two before we’re plunged into Styx.”
“Aye,” Vesto hollered, “very poetic sir. I got four in my saddlebag, but that won’t be an easy task. I’ll have to climb off my mount and catch up later.”
“We’ll wait,” Decimus reined in his horse “At ease men!” he barked. “Give him a hand Aulus. Please hurry. We don’t want to ride into the station in the dark. Just to be safe, light all four—one in front and one in back. Give Ibrim and me one too.”
I couldn’t understand why Ibrim had become our scout, when Abzug had been an imperial courier for so many years, but the Syrian was quite happy to be left alone. Riding one horse-link in front me, he glanced back frequently. I was surprised to see concern on his scraggly face. Caesarius, who rode beside me, was also concerned about my well being, as was most of our band. Despite the sympathy generated by my sickness and breakdown, there was always one tease in the group.
“Thaddeus, this reminds me of an ambush in Galilee,” Ajax called through cupped the hands.
“Yes,” Enrod looked back with wide unblinking eyes, “those murdering Jews. I just hope there’s a little sunlight left beyond those trees.”
“There’ll be no ambush,” Decimus barked, “stow that talk. Vesto, Aulus where are those torches?”
The two Romans walked up holding burning sticks smeared with pitch in each hand. Decimus reached down and gripped one and Ibrim rode up and grabbed the other as Aulus and Vesto climbed onto their mounts with torch in hand.
“Ibrim,” Decimus clipped, “ride ahead and warn the imperial stationmaster that we’re coming. Aulus you guard the rear with Vesto—always a weak point. You men stay alert. Rufus, I need your sword arm. You ride with me.”
“So, you are worried.” Rufus frowned.
“I’m just taking precautions.” The optio replied reassuringly. “We’ll be out of this soon.”
“What about Super-Jew,” Apollo called from the rear. “He killed six men. Let him ride in front.”
“Aye,” hooted Ajax, “he did it in his sleep!”
“The Reaper’s fearless!” chimed Fronto.
“He kills without mercy!” Enrod looked back with a grin.
“Zip, zap, zip!” Abzug made a flurry with his hands.
Fronto, Enrod, and Abzug might have been half-serious, and I expected Ajax to sound off, but the Egyptian, whom I suspected of insincerity, was back in true form.
“Don’t worry,” Caesarius said from the corner of his mouth, “your god will protect you. After what I’ve seen, I believe this. You have nothing to fear. Because of you, he will protect us all!”
I handed the flask back to the old veteran, unsure whether it was the strong wine that made him say such a thing, just glad that I still had one friend.
From the dark hallow of trees, we emerged during the last glimmer of sunset, riding through fields of wheat past farm houses, arriving onto the grounds of the imperial station on the outskirts of Tyre, moments before the collapse of night. The torchlight of Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto led us up to the shadowy, unfriendly outline of the building. The light in the window and the silhouette of a man against the lamp’s glow indicated that he was looking out into the night, waiting for us. Ibrim was supposed to have informed the guards on duty of our imminent arrival. Riding out with his torch, he confirmed this fact in a loud voice.
“The optio in charge is waiting inside. He didn’t believe I’m acting as a Roman scout, until I gave your names. He doesn’t much care for auxilia, but he’s heard of Caesarius. They used to be friends. Because we arrived so late, he’s in a surly mood. His attendants will give us our provisions tonight, but said nothing about exchanging mounts. This is a small station. He’s waiting to talk to you Decimus. He said the rest of us could make camp in the forest. I scouted out the area. This time there aren’t any neighbors like that bunch at Ecdippa to contend with.”
“Good work Ibrim,” Decimus said with relief. “He’ll be wanting to see my requisition. “Aulus,” he called out, “take the men to the first fire ring and begin making camp. I’ll try to find feed for the horses and mules. For right now, water and secure the beasts, get a fire going, and arrange the tents close by as we did before.” “We can’t loosen our guard, men,” he added, scanning the procession. “You Vesto,” he added, “gather up some wood for the pit. The rest of you pick the watch and make camp. Caesarius, Thaddeus come with me. You can help me carry the stores.”
The optio strided ahead of us without looking back, still holding his torch.
“I wonder who the station optio is,” Caesarius muttered apprehensively.
“Is Decimus angry with me?” I murmured back, feeling the veteran’s restraining arm.
“Shush,” Caesarius whispered sharply, “it’s behind us. Don’t put thoughts into his head.”
At first, Decimus rapped politely on the oaken door. There was a grumbling inside, so he called politely, while knocking, “This is Decimus, optio from the Galilean cohort with orders from Cornelius its prefect!” When this failed, he pounded impatiently on the oaken door, shouting irritably “Hello, I know you’re in there. This is official imperial business!” Finally, the door opened, a shaft of light and shadowy hulk appeared in the doorway, and a gruff voice replied, “Where is that scurvy Caesarius? I heard he killed himself some Jews.”
I bristled at this outburst. The optio whistled under his breath. A giant of man lumbered out, embraced the old man, raising him off the ground.
“Brutus!” Caesarius gasped. “I thought you were dead. Why haven’t you retired?”
“Brutus, his name’s Brutus?” muttered Decimus. “...I’m sorry,” he gathered his wits. “We arrived later than I planned. It has been a long ride.”
“Come inside Decimus,” he motioned with one large hand. “You too,” he added, frowning down at me.
“This is Thaddeus Judaicus, a new recruit,” Decimus introduced me, gripping the man’s forearm in respect.
“Humph!” Brutus grunted, glancing back at Decimus. “Lemme see those papers. Hmm, on your way to Antioch, are you? Auxilia, three cashiered veterans, and—ho, ho, a wet-behind-the-ears Jew.” “You’re not a prisoner?” He tweaked my nose gently. “Don’t worry. It’s none of my business. I got a bunch of misfits working for me. Why, you’re nothing but a boy.”
“He’s not a boy.” Caesarius said, giving me a nudge. “What we witnessed back on the road—”
“Caesarius,” Decimus interrupted, “that’s enough. Leave it be.”
“Ye-es, Caesarius,” I was taken back, “I’m surprised at you!”
“Must be the wine,” he replied contritely, “I should know better.”
Decimus dismissed Caesarius with a withering stair. “Where in that document does it say he’s a Jew?” He looked squarely at Brutus. “His name’s Thaddeus Judaicus. That’s a Roman name.”
“Really?” he said slyly. “Pronounce it out, friend. I may look like a rustic, but I made the connection. Thaddeus might be Roman, not Jew-day-icus.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Decimus glowered.
“Sir,” Caesarius said from the corner of his mouth, “stand down. He’s twice your size. Brutus has had too much wine.”
“Humph!” Brutus snorted, ignoring the optio but eying me with suspicion. “It’s none of my business. I am curious, though, as to why my friend Caesarius and two other veterans are being transported to Antioch. Have they been cashiered?”
Decimus folded his arms and tapped his foot, managing, with a shake of his head, to hold his tongue. Caesarius looked at me apologetically as Brutus glanced back at the scroll then down at me. I hoped he was sincere and would really drop the subject. I might even feel sorry for this man. In spite of his immense size, he looked beaten down, weary, and unhappy with his plight. He must have been as tall as Goliath, I thought, looking up at him. Yet his hair was white and he had mottled skin like Caesarius. Like all the veterans, he moved slowly, hunched over—a battle hardened soldier, now a crotchety old man. Not for a moment, however, would I have underestimated this fellow. Judging by his silence, Decimus must have thought so too as Brutus studied the scroll. We were at his mercy. We were exhausted and needed our rations, and I could see Decimus’ jaws tighten and eyes narrow to slits as the big fellow took another long and abandoned swig.
Finally, the station optio nodded, handed the document back, then reaching toward the small table on which a jug and several mugs surrounding it sat, shakily gripped the neck of the jug and poured us all a cup of wine. I still felt the effects of Caesarius and Rufus’ wine, but I took the cup graciously with a bow. Decimus and Caesarius seemed also reluctant but didn’t hesitant to sip from their mugs. The wine tasted sour and resinous. Like the rations at the last station, it was standard legionary wine.
“For your information,” Decimus explained, after clearing his throat, “your friend Caesarius and the other two veterans in our group are retiring. That document says nothing about them being cashiered. It’s not my concern why the prefect is sending them north.
“Are some of the others on this list retiring too?” Brutus emphasized the word.
“No, they’re being reassigned like the rest of the auxilia. Why aren’t you retired sir?” Decimus asked as Brutus gulped down his wine. “You are fa-a-a-r past the age of service.”
“I am retired,” he answered sourly. “You think I can afford to live on the imperial dole?”
“I would hope so.” Decimus’ jaws tightened again. “We need good, solid soldiers manning our outposts.”
That was another insult and yet it seemed to go over Brutus’ head. Decimus was very irritated at this point. Caesarius, like me, was anxious to get our food and wine and get our optio away from this man.
“Psst, sir, let’s get our rations and leave,” he tried being discreet. “The men are waiting at the camp. They’re hungry and tired.”
“Oh yes, the rations,” Brutus cocked an eyebrow, “I may be old, but I have excellent hearing.”
Reaching past Decimus, who instinctively gripped the hilt of his sword, he ruffled Caesarius matted hair. I jumped back with a faint yelp. Decimus rolled his eyes, straightened his shoulders, and pointed to the requisition. Our optio had escaped death while confronting the wily Ajax, as well as those moments when we were attacked by that band of men at the last station. Silently, I thanked God that he held his temper in check. I also thanked God that Brutus was a drunk. When we entered the room, it was obvious that the station optio was in his cups. This explained his rude behavior, but not his suspicions. Fortunately, he would probably continue drinking, until he fell down in drunken stupor, but not before he gave us our supplies.
“You have read the document,” Decimus voice rose progressively. “It was written by our prefect. Plee-ease, my men have to eat. We must rest up for the journey to Antioch. Give us our rations now!”
In a loud, uncouth voice, Brutus shouted “Uric, you lazy German, get in here!”
“Where are the other guards?” Decimus’ eyebrow plunged. “Is that man regular army? I hope you send attendants to tend to my men.”
Brutus chuckled with amusement. “We’re short handed thanks to cutbacks here in the north. Spread thin we are. Everyone’s being sent to Galilee because of those unruly Jews or to the frontier to protect Rome. Tyre has its own magistrate and guards. For a while, I thought they might close our station. Truth is, I think they forgot about us. I’m surprised you men didn’t take ship from Caesarea to reach Antioch. Fact is, aside from that German—the best of the lot, I only have five men. One of them’s so crippled he can barely walk.”
“What?” Decimus mouth dropped. “That’s outrageous! A station needs protection. You’re in the forest, man. I heard the emperor was sending most of his legions west to protect Rome against Germans, but in Galilee we’re spread thin too. An imperial station should have at least twenty able-bodied soldiers to guard travelers. I noticed at the last station they were undermanned, but nothing like this.”
Ulric, a big burly redheaded fellow with a full beard, arrived with a large sack on his shoulder. Already reeking with a wine and garlic, the room immediately stank of body odor.
“There’s more sir,” he said out of breath, setting down his load. “I woke Menalek and Plato up. They’ll give us a hand too.”
“That’s fine, fine indeed.” The station optio clapped his shoulder. “Give’em some spirits too and some of the Syrian cheese.
Ulric scurried back down the corridor, shouting out the other men’s names.
“Menalek and Plato?” grumbled Decimus. “You worry about Thaddeus’ name? That man smells like he hasn’t bathed in weeks. What kind of station are you running here, Brutus?”
“In answer to your question,” he snarled down at him. “I do what I can with what I have, which isn’t much. For your information, Ulric is a barbarian. All of them are barbarians, except poor Prospectus. He was retired, like me.” “Now out you go.” He made scooting motions. “My men will bring your rations to your camp.”
Sighing with relief, Decimus motioned us silently to follow him. When we were outside, he light-heartedly scolded Caesarius for almost bringing up the subject Thaddeus, the Reaper. For me, he saved the lecture until last.
“That episode will follow Thaddeus like a curse,” he began, with a chuckle. “I’m surprise you, of all people, Caesarius, brought that up. I brought you along because Ibrim said you two were friends. Ho-ho, that was a mistake! Tell me the truth, do you really know that man?”
“Well,” sighed Caesarius, “I know him, but I’d hardly call him a friend. He was a loud mouth bully when I served Germanicus. I was afraid of him. Everyone was. He’s alone now, like most bully’s are in the end.”
“Well,” Decimus’ tone softened, “I’ve been watching you, Caesarius. You have Thaddeus’ best interests at heart. I heard you tried to protect him a couple of times. I can’t explain the murdering rampage you and the others went on. It just doesn’t fit in with the cowardly old man I see now...but I appreciate you watching over the lad. I can’t say the same for some of those auxilia, but there’s still good in you. I saw it on the road and in camp. I hope those bastards in Antioch give you a fair deal.”
On that note, he looked past the astonished Caesarius, directing his voice at me. “As for you, young man,” he chided good-naturedly, “I want you to stop talking about that god of yours. You can’t help your reputation as Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper. That’s bad enough. Those men don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. But your stories about your god are making you a laughing stock. You have nothing to live up to, certainly not to that bloodthirsty Joshua or David. You’re eighteen years old, with your whole life ahead of you. The next time that jackal Apollo or anyone else tempts you to toss a knife or other weapon, tell them no. Explain to them that you have much to learn. Leave it at that. Walk away, Thaddeus. That takes courage too.”
Upon arriving in the camp, Decimus complimented Aulus on spurring the men on. The optio mood had changed after parting with that obnoxious man, an amiability born of weariness. The goatskin tents were already up and, thanks to Vesto and the men assigned to find firewood, most of which was stored near the station, a fire had been started in preparation for the evening meal. Aulus offered to serve the first watch and Rufus and Ibrim also magnanimously volunteered. This didn’t prevent them from sharing our meal. Until late into the night, as it turned out, there was no one guarding the camp. The spirits were high, especially when, to our delight, the eccentric, bad-tempered Brutus sent out an assortment of dried meat, bread, dates, cheese, and a generous amount of wine.
Caesarius status had changed dramatically tonight. Aside from Rufus and Enrod’s attitude toward me that was often capricious, the old veteran had made friends with me from the very beginning and had never wavered in his fatherly defense of me when the other men taunted and teased me. Because of this, Decimus attitude had changed toward Caesarius. I hoped Aulus and Vesto would mellow toward him too. After the men had sat awhile eating, drinking, and swapping tales, the optio ambled up to the fire ring. At first it seemed as if he might give us a serious speech.
“Listen up,” he called though cupped hands, “I’ve something to say.”
Everyone, including myself, had begun gorging immediately on the rations left by Ulric, Menalek, and Plato, who dumped them out unceremoniously on the ground. A second sack filled with flasks of wine was set down more easily yet attacked with more gusto. Apollo, Ajax, Fronto, and Rufus seemed to be already drunk as they sat on the logs eating their food and listening to Decimus speech. I sat between Caesarius and Enrod who, with his arm in a sling and balanced for hours upon his horse, was exhausted and needed special care. Ibrim inspected his wound, sprinkled some of his medicine on it then wound it back up. There seemed to be a sinister quality in him, yet the Arab had shown kindness to the Gaul. Since Caesarius, Enrod, and I had been too slow to grab our share of the wine, Rufus and Abzug unselfishly provided us with portions of their own private stock.
When everyone was settled around the fire and had stopped chattering back and forth, the optio held up his hands cheerfully and began his speech. Although he might have been light-headed after drinking wine, he didn’t sound drunk. As he took an occasional swig, there was only a slight slur in his words, a few pauses, and a giggle or two, nothing more. I thought he might just be exhausted from the long journey.
“I want no more talk about Jude—I mean Thaddeus’—feats with weapons. What happened at the last station is beyond understanding. Ho-ho, it gives me a headache just thinking about it. So let’s put it behind us. It’s unfair to test him now. He’s only eighteen years old. I was nineteen when I joined the legions. I was much more green than him. On the subject of his god, please be patient with him. I’ve instructed him again to keep his religion to himself. He’s said many outrageous things; some of them might be true, others are stories written by half-crazed prophets in the desert who had too much sun...or too much wine. All Jews are passionate about their god. It makes them crazy. Ho-ho, we’ve killed enough of them! My own dear mother was a follower of the goddess Artemis. I grew sick of her preaching, but I held my tongue. The statue of that goddess had eighteen teats on her chest and was as ugly as sin, but my mother worshiped her, as did many of our neighbors and friends. At least Thaddeus’ god’s invisible and you don’t have to look at him. I find his stories hard to believe but entertaining, and it’s natural for young men to carry on and try to impress their friends. I was quite talkative myself until I joined the legions.... Be patient men, and give him time. He wants to be a scribe, not a soldier. His weapon will be the quell!”
I was quite certain Decimus had made matters worse, and yet part of me was moved by his light-hearted effort on my behalf. I would learn from my tent-mates later that Ibrim had given the optio spirits from his private stock, which he guzzled down before approaching the fire. When he was finished with an otherwise coherent speech, he let out a belch, laughed, bowed foolishly, and told his audience a ribald joke that I can’t repeat. In spite of an undertone of mockery I detected in his speech, I understood the optio. I had noticed such careless behavior in my father when he was in his cups. It had been the first time I had seen Decimus tipsy. After all the pressure on him to deliver this unruly band to its destination, I didn’t blame him. What did it matter was that he ridiculed my religion and made a mockery of my feat. I won’t repeat their blasphemies about my god, but there were different theories circulating among the men about my prowess with the sword and spear—I had been sleep-walking, I was possessed by a jinn, it was a fluke, but only God, himself, knew the reason for what happened at our last camp. I thought I was beginning to understand these rustic pagans, but they were a mystery to me. Since Jesus could not change my mind, he wanted me to learn about the Gentiles, but only God knew the heart of men.
I had begun to seriously doubt my mission. Oh, how I wanted to be home with my family in the sane world of Nazareth! These were not my people. They were strangers. I was in a strange land. What was I doing so far from home? Unlike Moses, I hadn’t been commissioned by God. A voice hadn’t come into my head, commanding me to go forth. I had no prophetic dream to interpret as such. Only Jesus’ words, “Learn the heart of the Gentiles,” kept me going. One day I would understand what this meant. So far in my odyssey, I had learned many things about Gentiles, much of it wasn’t good, but I had stayed alive. Except for Enrod’s wound, we survived an attack, escaped angry Arabs, and avoided a mutiny in our group. Because of me, Caesarius believed, God watched over us. Perhaps he was right. How else I explain the miracle at Ecdippa? For the time being, I thought grimly, I appeared to be safe among this rabble, but tomorrow might bring more danger for our band. I could deal with the abuse from my traveling companions much more than fear of unseen foes. Words, in jest or anger, could be sloughed off, but not arrows and swords.
Though Decimus tried to be fair minded and had been protective of me, in the end he was still a Roman, reaching middle age, who had lost his ardor for the legions and might, in the end, fall in love with the grape. He had little respect for Jews and other peoples. I didn’t take offense, of course, because he had little respect for “barbarian” auxilia too. I noticed that, during the right conditions, all men lapsed into drunkenness. That night, as we encamped near the city of Tyre it appeared to be the right conditions, so I drank Rufus’ Greek wine, a marked improvement over that legionary swell, and became thoroughly tipsy myself. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I, too, was on the road to becoming a drunk. Yet the men approved of my state of mind that night. It was a proper way for a soldier to act. Because Decimus had allowed the men to continue heckling me about my religion and, due to his inattentiveness, allowed them to tempt me to use my alleged skills, I wondered how serious he was about protecting me from their wiles. Contrary to his speech, which, because he was tipsy, might not count, Apollo, Ajax, and the others couldn’t help making fun of me in my drunken state. I remembered very little about this before I staggered to my tent and tumbled onto my pallet. I had too much wine this time to dream properly. All I could recall when I awakened the next morning were leering faces, shadowy figures around the fire, ribald humor, which included jokes about my privates, and then, at an indeterminate point, blackness, as if I had fallen into the dark sleep.
As if echoing down a long shadowy tunnel, Aulus gruff voice was the first thing I heard.
“Thaddeus...Thaddeus Judaicus...Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper,” he said playfully, giving me a shake. “Had quite a night, did you. You’ll make a fine soldier yet. You fight like a Roman and now you drink like a Roman. It’s time to muster. We’ll be heading out within the hour.”
“Give’em some of Ibrim’s smelling salts, that’ll wake up him up!” Decimus called good-naturedly from the distance.
“I should’ve stopped him,” Caesarius muttered with concern. “He was having such a good time. He wants to fit in, but all they do is tease him.”
“Yes, that’s true enough.” Aulus chuckled. “Everyone was in their cups last night.”
I studied their faces. A third and fourth face loomed overhead: Decimus and Geta (one of my tent mates).
“Hmm, he doesn’t look good,” Aulus toned changed. “Are you all right lad?” he asked, raising me up. “We must get you on your horse.”
“How much did he drink?” The optio frowned, elbowing between Geta and Caesarius.
“I lost track,” confessed Caesarius, “but that stuff Rufus had in his saddle bags was pretty strong.”
“Humph!” Geta snarled. “That’s not even wine. It’s something he bought from Ibrim.”
“Well,” Decimus said with a shrug, “I drank it, and it didn’t hurt me.”
“It’s how much that matters.” Caesarius shook his head.
“How much of that did you drink?” Decimus asked, as Aulus and Caesarius helped me to my feet. “I took a few swallows and—whew—I was light-headed!”
“I-I don’t remember,” I stammered. “I mostly drank Rufus and Abzug’s wine.”
Aulus and Geta laughed softly.
“Ho, no wonder he doesn’t remember!” hooted Langullus.
“You young fool,” Caesarius growled into my ear.
It felt as if a drum was being beaten on each side of my head. I bent over a moment in the throws of a dry heave. Releasing me in disgust, Aulus let me pitch forward. The men broke into laughter as I lie on my face. Rolling over onto my back, I was jerked to a standing position.
“Lo, our great hero!” Apollo announced mockingly. “Can’t hold his spirits. It’s a wonder he didn’t wet his pants.”
“Look at him,” Ajax said with contempt, “he’s a mess!”
“You shouldn’t have given him that stuff I sold you,” Ibrim scolded Rufus. “It’s not for children. Not even grown men can drink more than a thimble without getting tipsy.”
Unflinchingly, Caesarius managed to clean me up after he and Aulus sat me down on a log. Rufus, who had been drunk himself, felt bad about giving me a flask of Ibrim’s’ spirits, but no one blamed him. Everyone, including the old veteran, agreed that it was my own fault. No one made me guzzle it down.
“Make sure he eats something and makes water before he climbs onto his horse,” instructed Decimus as he inspected the camp.
Except for the tent I slept in, the camp had been struck. The men had eaten their morning meal, and done their business. The pack mules were almost loaded, and were in an orderly line behind our mounts. I had slept almost right until the moment of departure. All that was left was the folding of the tent I slept in and getting me in shape for travel. Through bleary eyes, I could see the men as shadows in the morning shade, giggling and pointing at me as I was tidied up. I was ordered sharply by Aulus to get back up on my wobbly legs, this time to make water in the bushes. Sounds were magnified, the earth continued to reel around me, and the very thought of suffering the bumpy ride north made me want to weep.
The last thing done for me before I was placed on my mule was the offering of bread and figs by Caesarius, which I ate with great effort. Rufus mumbled an apology to me as I sat on my mule that didn’t sound very sincere. The esteem held for me by the group, if it was ever there, had fallen since our stop at Acre. The memory of me falling down on the ground and foaming at the mouth, added to the way I handled my spirits last night reinforced the image of a bumbling youth. I could hear it, and I could feel it. After last night and the way I acted the following morning, I was certain I done further damage to my reputation in the group. When we were finally on the road, Caesarius road moodily beside me. Rufus glanced back with a smirk but said nothing, as the remainder of the procession broke into murmurs, and Aulus rode past flicking his whip.
Before continuing our journey, we stopped in Tyre to buy some Greek and Roman wine in place of the swell we had been drinking on the trip. Decimus had promised we would make this detour, but because of the ill repute lately of Roman soldiers and auxilia in Lebanon, the optio had decided to make our visit brief. This didn’t prevent Rufus and the others from enjoying a tour through the main street. There were many pagan temples in this Gentile city, including one to Artemis, the multi-teated goddess Decimus had told us about. Though Decimus denied this, Apollo claimed they had naked priestesses roaming through the shrine. The men were forbidden to get drunk this early in the morning, but it didn’t stop them from sampling Syrian beer and stuffing themselves on stuffed dates and candied meats. The visitations were made in shifts. Because I was not feeling well, I volunteered to stay with Aulus, Caesarius, and Enrod to watch the horses and mules. We would get our chance, Aulus explained, when the others returned. For his part, Enrod was on the mend, but was in no shape to keep up with his brother and the other men. Caesarius wanted to keep an eye on me, Decimus trusted no one else but Aulus to take the first watch, and I had no desire to explore this pagan city.
As the other men were herded by Decimus back to their mounts, he motioned to us.
“All right, thanks for watching the animals,” he called jovially. “It’s your turn.”
“I just want to buy a bag of sweets,” Aulus said, patting his hoarse and handing Rufus the reins. “Come on, let’s make it quick,” he called back to Caesarius, Enrod, and me.
“I’ll stay here,” replied Enrod. “Rufus brought me back some stuff.”
“Are you all right lad,” Aulus studied him a moment.
“I’m fine.” He waved. “The infection’s gone, but riding my horse with one arm is tiring me out.”
Decimus watched the other men a moment, laughing and slapping each other’s backs as they climbed onto their mounts. Despite his orders, all of them were obviously tipsy. Apollo and Ajax were downright drunk.
“What about you?” Aulus turned to us. “You want to do a little shopping.” “Don’t worry, Thaddeus,” he winked. “Apollo made that up about the temple. You can buy Syrian beer or Greek wine.”
Caesarius shook his head. “No, I asked Geta to bring us some wine and dates.”
“You go on, Caesarius,” I said hoarsely. “I’ll wait here. I’ve had enough wine. Rufus will share his dates and sweet meats with me.”
Rufus, who had just handed Enrod a bag of treats, raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Enrod held out the bag to me, as his brother walked away. I took a few dates to be polite, but refused the jar of beer Abzug brought to me.
“You’re very kind,” I sighed, “but I’ve done enough drinking.”
Enrod took the beer, guzzling it down quickly before I changed my mind. Caesarius slipped away quietly that moment with Aulus, returning in barely more than an hour, with bags of candies, each of them holding large flasks of wine in their free hands. Decimus now ordered us to water the horses and mules and suggested that the men visit the communal cloaca before we depart. Worried that the men might heckle me about my circumcised member, Caesarius joined me as I stood making water into the abyss below.
“Your god is very cruel,” he commented, looking down at my penis, “I would never allow anyone to do that to me. Did it hurt?”
I could smell beer on Caesarius’ breath, so I wasn’t surprised he was being so rude. Apollo and Ajax were always rude to me, and because they had disobeyed Decimus and drank beer and wine, were especially so.
“Hey, lemme see,” Ajax peeked over the partition. “I heard Jew men have tiny members.”
“Stop it.” Caesarius stomped his foot. “Why can’t you leave him alone?”
Apollo walked right up to me as I hastily returned it to my pants. “How much do they cut off?” he asked with a giggle. “Oh, by the gods, it’s a monster. The mighty Reaper has a mighty shaft!”
“You foul, disgusting pigs!” cried Caesarius.
Decimus appeared suddenly, drawn by the commotion. “All right, you two,” he said through clinched teeth, “it’s time to leave. Get on your mounts! That goes for you Thaddeus and Caesarius. We must reach the next station by dark.”
Caesarius was more upset about Apollo and Ajax’s words than me. “What does it matter what that Egyptian and his cohort say?” I asked, as Decimus steered us back to the group.
The rest of the men only joked with me about my lapse in judgment last night, not my mutilated member. I took their teasing in good spirits, even managing a bow. Caesarius, however, was silent, as he led me to my mule. Decimus had failed to control his men again. He had been able to reason with the veterans, but he had little control over the unruly auxilia. It seemed very stupid to me to drink this early in the day, especially after last night, but the men were overwhelmed by the wine shops and beer stands along the main avenue of town. The optio himself, whom Aulus rebuked for getting tipsy, had disobeyed his own order. According to Decimus, when he was being scolded by Aulus, Syrian beer spoiled, which was the reason the men did not save it and guzzled it down. Most of them had tried to follow the optio’s instructions about the wine, too, but it had been too tempting not to sample the spirits purchased in Tyre. Decimus had, in fact, set a bad example, but was becoming well liked by the men. His attitude about these foreign cavalrymen had mellowed. It would be difficult for everyone in the saddle on the dusty road with the sun beating down upon them, but at least we had a large store of wine, sweetmeats, and dates. Fronto lumbered over to me, in high spirits, lifted me up, as Caesarius braced me from the other side, and sat me in my saddle. The old veteran gave me a crooked smile as he mounted his mule. Rufus and Enrod glanced back at me with light-hearted grins.
I could hear Geta say whimsically to Langullus, “cheer up, we’re half-way there. After a long day’s ride, we got ourselves plenty of spirits. I bought us a bag of Syrian nuts and those pomegranate chews you like.”
“You two sound like an old married couple,” Vesto teased. “Those pomegranate chews you like,” he mimicked playfully. “I hope you two aren’t in the same tent.”
Langullus’ reply was, “Shut your filthy mouth, you Roman dog!”
Vesto pulled his gladius out and wicked him lightly on the head, boasting. “If anyone else had said that Langullus I’d run him through.”
We knew the Roman guard had been teasing the veteran, but according to Ibrim, our self-appointed physician, Langullus old wounds were bothering him and he was in a bad mood. This banter brought guffaws from everyone in the procession, including the Arab. Aulus who, as usual, positioned himself in back of the procession, as the optio rode ahead, galloped back, flicking his whip, and swearing an oath, as our laughter grew out of control.
“By the gods, Decimus” he cried, “We should never have agreed to this stop. We have many leagues ahead of us. These men all sound like their drunk!”
“Calm down, Aulus,” Decimus called back genially, “I watched them in town. They didn’t drink nearly as much as last night. They’re tired and anxious about what lies ahead. So am I. In such a state a drop of spirits can make men giddy. At the fort in Antioch some of them will be turned away or cashiered. Others might face discipline or be reassigned to a new outfit. Only you ,Vesto, and, I hope for his sake, young Thaddeus will return to Galilee.” “For the rest of you,” he announced out ruefully, “this will be a one-way trip.”
On this sobering note, the laughter ceased and silence fell over the procession as the optio raised his arm and, pointing due north, motioned us on. Without further delay, we continued on our journey.
“Why couldn’t Cornelius have told us this at the fort?” the Egyptian complained bitterly, as Vesto trotted past.
“Don’t worry, Apollo” Vesto hooted, “the imperial cohort’s axe is sharp. It won’t hurt much.”
“That’s quite enough,” snapped the optio. “If there’s punishment, it will be nasty chores, extra duty, or expulsion from the legion. No one’s getting beheaded or flogged.”
“Oh I feel much better,” Apollo replied sarcastically. “We’ll get nasty chores, be forced into banditry or starve!”
“Yes, Decimus, my friend,” Ibrim said with concern, “this is not good news, not good at all.”
“Why didn’t the prefect punish us, himself?” Ajax groaned. “Aurelian might make examples of us.”
“He won’t do that,” Rufus mumbled to Enrod, “...will he?”
At this point, as Tyre faded in the distance, the other men broke into excited discussion. Caesarius and I listened calmly. Though the veterans already new what was in store for them, Rufus, Enrod, and Fronto also protested the prefect’s postponement. Abzug, I understood had merely been an undesirable at the fort and was lumped in with the veteran’s group. Caesarius had explained to me earlier that Geta, Langullus, and he would simply be cashiered and turned out of the fort. Apollo, Ajax and Ibrim, however, were uncertain about their fate. Would they simply be disciplined and be allowed to stay in the legion, as Decimus suggested, or would they be cashiered, too, for what they did.
“Listen up men,” Decimus spoke through cupped hands, “stop fretting. Cornelius did his best for you. He didn’t report your actions up the ladder but merely made recommendations. He’s had his hands full with the governor. Gratus is unhappy about his sympathy for the Jews. Cornelius has a soft heart, and when he considered the veterans and auxilia actions, he decided to defer judgment to Aurelian, but the details have been left out...Had Gratus found out about the incidents in Sepphoris, he would had all of your heads.”
After Decimus honesty, a feeling of doom fell over riders, which the optio’s words failed to dispel. What had he meant by ‘recommendations’ and ‘details left out?’ The unpredictable nature of my enterprise had been left even more in doubt by his words. Like my comrades, I felt betrayed by the prefect’s actions. In my case it was not because he deferred judgment to Aurelian; it was because he had, out of carelessness or stupidity, sent me ahead into the unknown. Questions swam in my head as Caesarius chatted with me...What awaited me at the new fort? Had this all been a great waste of time? I had killed six men and was turning into a drunk. I had suffered abuse, blasphemy, and ridicule by many of these men. Already, the trip had tainted me as a Jew and scrambled my thoughts. Who was I now, Jude or Thaddeus, Judah bar Joseph or Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper? The longer I stayed with these men, the less I worried about contamination and the more I cared about survival. Jesus wanted me to learn about Gentiles. Though feeling like an outsider, I was learning it first hand. I had eaten unclean food, drank to excess, and not bathed in days. After this foolishness ended—if I was still alive, I would be contaminated bodily and spiritually. I was becoming more like a Gentile each day.
“Jude, Jude, I was talking to you.” Caesarius was jerking my sleeve. “....You’ve got that look on your face. Are you going to be sick?”
“Don’t call me Jude,” I recoiled, shaking my head to dispel my thoughts. “.…My name’s Thaddeus Judaicus. That was my old life.”
“Rubbish!” spat Caesarius. “You might have to play their games, but you’re Judah bar Joseph. I heard that your father’s a fine man, and your mother’s a saint.” “One day,” he added dreamily, in almost a whisper, “I want to meet that brother of yours. I’ve believe he gave you great powers. How else could you awaken in your dream and kill six men?”
“I have blood on my hands,” I cried, fighting back tears. “I can never go back!”
After my outburst, the old man fell silent. Rufus and Enrod turned in their saddles, and Aulus studied me as he galloped past.
“Listen to me,” he said discreetly. “Pay attention, Jude. Any man in this group, including myself, would trade places with you. You have your whole life ahead of you. You must go home. This is no life for a Jew. When we arrive in Antioch, return with Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto. I wish I could go back!”