Farewell to Antioch
At first light, Marcellus shook me awake, but this time gently, a smile on his chiseled face. Turning to rouse the others, he called out in a singsong voice, “Arise soldiers of Rome, we must greet Fabius when he arrives, and you, young Thaddeus, must be long gone before then.” The twinkle in his dark eyes told me that he was exaggerating the danger. In all probability, I tried to reassure myself, General Fabius had more important matters on his mind, and, judging by the scroll he gave me, Aurelian would keep this secret to himself. The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t a secret to the rank and file of the fort, and Aurelian’s first centurion might tell the general, himself. By that time, I planned on having loaded the mules with my friends help, and, after a hasty breakfast, be on the road with my traveling companions at dawn.
All went well the first hour. After being given a frugal meal of cheese and bread by the cook, who was preparing the morning meal, we looked up the duty officer and presented him with my supply requisition. My Roman friends helped me load my mules, which required only two of the pack animals and then helped me lead them to the staging area close to the gate. Patting one of the gentle beast’s neck, Marcellus suggested that I keep them fresh, by riding a different mule each day and taking turns with the loads. All five animals now stood ready for the journey. The only thing I needed to do was find Aulus and the auxilia and wait as they were assigned horses for the trip. I was certain, because of their enthusiasm, that they would be ready and eager to get on the road, but in this calculation I was wrong.
As I stood chatting with my Roman friends, the first rays of dawn flew past, and muster was announced by the signifier’s horn. According to Marcellus, this was not the procedure on the march. It was unwise for a commander to alert the enemy he was present. Aulus and the auxilia had yet not arrived. I could care less about the signifier’s horn, but I had been surprised by the differences in Aurelian and Cornelius’ commands.
“They didn’t do that in Galilee,” I remarked with a yawn. “I’m fond of Cornelius, but his garrison didn’t seem as efficient as Aurelius’ fort. They stuck us in smelly tents and we ate slop from a big pot. Here they have wooden barracks and a regular mess. Optios in Galilee would go around and scream through the tent flaps to waken the men. The walls of this fort are mortar and stone, while in Galilee they are wood poles driven into the ground. The prefect here lives inside the compound in his own building, but Cornelius’ headquarters are in Sepphoris, over a mile away.”
“You can’t blame Cornelius,” Octavius sneered, “it’s that tight-fisted governor down there.” “By the way, Cornelius methods are normal and proper for Roman legions and cohorts. Most forts, especially provincial forts such as Galilee, are made of wood, and the cooks, who slop food into soldier’s plates, are picked from the rank and file. Wooden barracks have always been an option, especially if the governor of a province is stingy like Gratus. To the best of my knowledge, Aurelian is the one out of step. I admire his stone fort and the fact he hired a cooking staff, but it sometimes takes an optio’s cudgel to waken sound sleepers, and there’s nothing wrong with goatskin tents, which are standard procedure for legions on the march.”
“Very interesting,” I smiled wanly, “but where are my escorts? The idea was to slip out of here at dawn. At least Aulus should have arrived by now.”
“Well,” Octavius said, with a chuckle, “after that blast, they’re awake. Unless you know exactly where those men are, you’ll just have to wait.”
“That was an oversight,” I grumbled. “I wish I could find their barracks. Maybe they’re drunk. Those auxilia really like wine.”
“Everyone likes wine,” quipped Sergius.
“You stay put,” Marcellus gripped my shoulder. “We’re waiting for Fabius to come through the gate, but it might take hours for him to arrive. All your men have to do is throw on their clothes and grab a quick meal. You’ve got your supplies and animals ready. It shouldn’t take long to requisition horses.” “By the way,” he asked, reaching though the enclosure to pat one to the mules, “why don’t you requisition a horse. They’re a lot faster and more comfortable than these beasts.”
“I’ve grown attached to them,” I said, looking fondly at my mules. “We’ve come along way together, especially the gray one there. He was the second mule assigned to me on my journey and he’s still with me. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the others when I reach Nazareth.”
For those moments as we chatted, I was reminded of a simple fact: most of the soldiers I rode with were good men. I include Romans and auxilia together in this bunch. Of course not all soldiers were nice people. In the desert, I had won over the veterans Geta and Langullus, but I wouldn’t include Apollo and Ajax in that group. Yet, over all, there was an honesty and directness in my Gentile friends. Toward the end, even the Egyptian and Greek had begun accepting me. The crises in the desert had forced us, in a hostile land, to get along as fighters, if not friends. Whereas I sometimes saw a paternal quality in Caesarius, Decimus, and Aulus, the auxilia displayed an almost child-like curiosity about me. The Romans had my best interest at heart, but to the auxilia I was, at times, entertaining. I told them fabulous stories about my people and said many strange things, and yet the miraculous feat I performed in camp couldn’t camouflage my general inexperience. I was, from the beginning, a reluctant warrior and many times got on the other men’s nerves. Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim insisted on calling me Thaddeus the Reaper, but I never felt comfortable with this name. I was more than anything else a novelty in the group—a Jew who wanted to join the legions. All things considered, I became the mascot of the band. Now I had more protectors: Marcellus, Octavius, Sergius, and Nabalus. Like my other Roman and auxilia friends, Marcellus had grown fond of me, but his associates were more ambivalent. I had gotten on their nerves, too. Not having seen and heard my abilities themselves, it was difficult for them to believe the stories told about me. Even now, as I stood by the fence, I felt conspicuous. I had seen a mixture of incredulity and awe in the Antioch soldiers’ faces, but most of them, I was certain, could have cared less. At this point, I half-wished that I was anonymous so that I could slip away with my friends unnoticed and begin the journey home without incident. The other half—the soldier scribe, as Ibrim called me—was proud of my fame. In spite of the dangers and tribulations of my odyssey, that part of me dreaded returning to my humdrum life in Nazareth.
As the soldiers began lining up for breakfast, I grew anxious. This time, unlike yesterday in front of the prefect’s headquarters, the men were more interested in their morning meal. Outside of a few curious looks, I saw a blurry-eyed and bristly-faced assortment of men. Most of them had that glassy-eyed look of men freshly torn from sleep. Those not yawning and stretching or in a morning trance, glanced irritably in my direction, but there were no comments or salutations. Perhaps, I thought with a twinge of disappointed, I had given myself too much credit. No longer basking in the reputation of Thaddeus, the Reaper, I was once again an outsider. While trying to discern the faces of the men joining the breakfast line, I listened to my companions discuss the march ahead of them. What would it have been like to ride with Fabius’ staff into enemy territory? I wondered those moments. Would I have been a brave soldier scribe or show my cowardly side again? Idly, I considered this adventure as I watched men shuffle past, until, lulled by their mutterings and grumbles, I saw my four escorts in the distance. As they approached I was gratified to see that they were carrying their gear and weapons. By the expressions on their unwashed faces and their unsteady walk, it was obvious that they had been celebrating last night. I had seen drunken men before. What offset my disappointment at their foolishness was the fact that they each carried the same small sack of provisions that the duty officer had the cook prepare for us. They wouldn’t have to stand in line for breakfast. All they had to do was saddle their horses, fill their saddlebags, climb onto their mounts, and off we would go!
Marcellus frowned severely at them. “Are you men fit to travel?”
“Fit as a Syrian whore!” Fronto guffawed.
“Don’t worry,” Ibrim grinned mischievously, “we always ride drunk.”
“Is that true, Thaddeus,” Marcellus asked from the corner of his mouth.
“Well, . . . sometimes,” I answered reluctantly.
“This isn’t good,” Octavius said accusingly, “they should be sober. The duty officer better not see that!”
“I’m not worried about them,” Marcellus replied discreetly, “I’m worried about Thaddeus. Will they be able to function as escorts?”
“They’ll be all right,” Aulus said good-naturedly. “I’ll keep tight reins on them.”
“You’re a regular legionnaire,” Sergius said reproachfully, “you should know better.”
“Oh, I didn’t drink that much,” he explained quickly. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“It’s true,” I defended Aulus, “he was second-in-command during our journey from Galilee, helping to keep the men in line.”
“Yes, Aulus is a good man!” Rufus piped.
To prove their fitness, Fronto, Ibrim, and Rufus swaggered up to the three horses brought out to them, hastily saddled their mounts, filled their saddle bags, and though it took more than one try for each of them, climbed onto their horses. Aulus seemed to take his time in this task and yet, because his legs weren’t wobbly and hands didn’t shake, he was in his saddle first. This helped to alleviate Marcellus, Octavius, Sergius, and Nabalus’ fears.
right men,” Marcellus said sternly, “don’t fidget, hold your reins firmly, and
give the proper salute when you pass the duty officer.
I wasn’t certain if he was totally serious. Marcellus’ smile belied his disgust with my new escorts. As the attendant opened the gate, we rode out of the enclosure with Aulus in the lead. After reaching down and shaking each of their hands, I bid the four noble Romans goodbye with a proper salute. I would miss Marcellus the most. I wondered if I would ever see him again. As we trotted out the main gate, I looked back and waved at the four Romans. Turning forward, I watched Aulus bend down with his orders from the watch. He was immediately handed a requisition, before the orders were passed back. The requisition for supplies at imperial stations was even more important than his orders. The two documents were then shoved into his saddlebag. Upon saluting the optio, he turned in his saddle, pulled up on his reins, until the straggling auxilia and even more slowly moving mules caught up. I found myself riding behind our self-appointed leader. When we were on the road, he ordered me to retrieve the guideline from the tipsy Fronto. When the five of us were clear, the duty officer ordered the sentries to shut the gate. I trotted back quickly, took the line from the Thracian’s shaky hand, and fastened it to my saddle. Once again, we were on our own, our numbers much smaller than before, but this time we were not taking the dangerous desert highway where calamity had struck several times. Despite my resignation and the peace I felt now that I was going home, I had mixed emotions. I knew I was doing the right thing, and yet bittersweet reflections filled me as I glanced back at the Antioch fort. Was this the end of my odyssey, I wondered, as we trekked silently toward the coastal route winding south? The old Roman highway had been a long, bumpy ride, but it was much safer than the desert route. By now, of course, the rockslide that forced us to take that dangerous detour would have been cleared, but who knows what else might lie in our path? If nothing else, I consoled myself light-headedly, looking back protectively at my beasts, I own five mules, I have my own sword, and I’ve learned to drink strong wine.