13 October, 64 AD
Made of Cyclopean stones, the Tullianum was a prison without bars. There was nothing to prevent the prisoner from walking out into the open air, yet Symeon did not escape. It was a perverse honor to be held there, where the Romans had executed kings, generals and noble traitors. It was a mark of respect.
The breaking dawn illuminated the cell and Symeon began to pace, repeating and polishing newly-memorized phrases until the language was clear in his mind. His friends had often pleaded with him to set the words down, but he had always deferred, saying, “There will be time.”
There was no more time. Fifty-nine years old on the day of his death, and still learning only through mistakes. That was the story of his life. Always he had to stumble in order to see the path.
“Guest, sir.” By law Symeon was allowed no light after dark, nor writing instruments. But out of kindness his guards allowed him a visitor, a man he had spent much of his life cursing.
Saul and Symeon were a study in opposites. Tall but stooped, Symeon was bald on top with a long white beard, whereas Saul’s thinning hair was clipped close, his grey beard nearly squared. Symeon exuded calm, perpetually smiling in the face of sadness. Short, Saul suffered all a short man’s failings—temper, arrogance, envy, bombast.
Still Symeon was glad to see him. “Good morrow, my friend.”
Saul had no time for greetings. “I am to be executed! Can you believe it? I am to die! You as well,” he added in after-thought.
“Ah. Did they say how?”
“As a citizen, I shall lose only my head. You…” Saul momentarily focused on someone other than himself. “I am very sorry to say, you will be given the death of a slave.”
Symeon closed his eyes. The rest of his flock had been sold into slavery, including his darling child. Now Symeon faced the unthinkable – crucifixion. I must brave it as a man with not only an example to set, but one to follow.
Turning his mind from his fate, he said, “But why are you to die? They can’t be charging you with the fire. You were already in custody.”
“I’m to die for my Judean crimes.” Saul’s bitterness was acid enough to taste in the air. “It is a pretext. The crowds are becoming increasingly violent and Nero needs someone to blame for the fire. Who better than we troublesome Hebrews?”
Symeon had no time for railing. Lowering his voice he asked, “Marcus is here?”
“Yes.” Saul sniffed. “You know I disapprove. Judaism is for the Jews.”
“That was not His message.” Symeon called to his guards. “Gentlemen, I die today. If you wish to hear the end to my tale, I must speak quickly.”
The two Romans entered and sat on either side of the door, their wooden staves across their laps. Saul sat in his accustomed place, closing his eyes to behold the story.
Symeon remained standing, framed in the light from the doorway, and recited his story, careful to get each word right: "And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they called together the whole band. And they clothed him in purple, and platted a crown of thorns…"
Outside the cell, the young man called Marcus crept forward. He was not Judean, but northern Italian—blond hair, freckles, a pugnacious nose. Taking up a post beside the door, he began making frantic shorthand notes upon a wax tablet, preserving Symeon’s words for ever.
* * * * * *
Not far away, a god stalked among the charred remains of the Esquiline Hill. Short and stocky, well-muscled and fit, the rising sun revealed streaks of red among his blond hair, echoing the crimson glint in his eye. The god’s name was Nero.
As mercurial as his uncle Caligula, and nearly as bloody, Nero Caesar had been recently the title of Divus, his godhead voted on by the whole senate, under the stony gaze of Rome’s more traditional deities. Primus inter pares indeed.f us notion, elevating men to such lofty levels. the notion of Nero touting his godhead. It was un-Roman.s could se
Trailing in the god’s wake was a mere mortal – Titus Flavius Sabinus. In his early thirties, Sabinus owned a strong chin and bright blue eyes. Of a senatorial family, his great-grandfather had been a soldier-farmer in the best Roman tradition, fighting at Pharsalus—on the losing side.
Sabinus wondered what that ancestor would think today. From opposing the Caesars, the Flavians joined the rest of Rome to serve them. “Caesar, the engineers assure me they are working as fast as they can. There are acres of rubble to shift—”
“Not nearly good enough!” cried Nero. “Commandeer more slaves. Homeless Romans are suffering, I among them! I refuse to inhabit that shabby relic any longer than necessary.” He pointed back towards the magnificent house on Palatine Hill that had once belonged to the Divine Augustus, spared from the ravages of the seven-day fire.
What was there for Sabinus to say? “Yes, Caesar.”
In private, Sabinus ascribed to the Stoic philosophy, believing violent emotions stemmed from errors in reason. The goal of life was to live in accord with nature, said the philosopher Zeno, and virtue itself was enough cause for happiness. To be forced to serve a man so unpredictable, so ruled by passion, was a trial for Sabinus. But he was no idealist – no Cato of Utica, certainly! Though a Stoic at heart, Sabinus lived in the real world.
They strode on, followed by the phalanx of freedman-assistants, licker-fish, and ass-spongers that Nero invariably collected. Preceding them were the Praetorians. Dressed all in white, Caesar’s guards appeared like deadly doves against the charred, black remains of the bodies underfoot.
Though many had come for alms, some onlookers were here to search for kin. That they still searched three months after the fire spoke to the depth of their despair. Nero murmured to Sabinus, “Poor fools. They claim I sang an ode to Venus while the city burned. As though that would be appropriate! I’d have picked the Song of Troy, particularly the sacking of the city and the death of Priam. More apt by far.” He began to sing in that high, carrying voice that commanded so much applause:
Then son to mother, mother to her son, pointing to the place where Troy lies prostrate, will mark it afar with pointing finger, saying: “Yonder is Ilium where the smoke curls high to heaven, where the foul vapours hang.” The Trojans by that sign only will see their fatherland.
The humor eluded Sabinus, but he produced a smile nonetheless. His uncle, the retired general Vespasian, having inattentive during one of Nero’s concerts, was called up out of retirement to govern the unruly Africa Province. The lesson was simple—appreciate Caesar’s artistic talents or suffer the consequences.
Everywhere there were signs of the fire. Sabinus reflected that Nero had managed the crisis well. He had raised tribute all across Rome’s client kingdoms to fund the rebuilding of Rome – better by far than imposing a tax upon an already suffering people. Suspending all military exercises on the Campus Martius – the field of Mars where young Romans learned to fight – he raised a sea of tents to house Rome’s flotsam and thrown open the doors to Rome’s public buildings to the homeless.
The execution for all these arrangements fell on Sabinus’ narrow shoulders. Elected aedile, he was in charge of public maintenance for this terrible year.
Sabinus had thought this dawn stroll through the rubble was for Nero to view the reconstruction. Instead the young god was outlining the grand new domicile he had conceived. “Not that the Domus Aurea will be a true domicile! No sleeping chambers, just room after room of delights: fountains, statuary, mosaics. A place fit to recreate and fill the natural artist within! Open to everyone, of course. Rome’s fault lies in too much engineering, not enough art!”
Thinking of engineering, Sabinus opened his mouth to keep a promise. “Caesar, I have a proposal from one of our contractors, Quintus Flavius Gaudentius.”
Nero smiled. “Nepotism?”
Sabinus flushed. As the family name Flavius indicated, Gaudentius was not just a hungry young architect, he was also a distant cousin. “He wants to experiment with building materials.”
“Does he plan to use Pompeian bread?”
Sabinus’ smile was fleeting. “Almost as hard – concrete. He claims it will reduce building time by two-thirds.”
Nero snorted. “If he lives up to that boast, I’ll make him Caesar’s personal architect!” suddenly Nero’s pace slowed, and Sabinus quickly matched it – it would never do for Sabinus to precede a god. Sabinus traced Nero’s darkening expression to several lowly denizens of the crossroads colleges. Officially a part of the cult of the Divine Augustus, these men existed off of low criminality and extortion.
Nero noted Sabinus’ start of surprise. “You know them, Titus Flavius?”
“Yes, Caesar,” Sabinus answered carefully. “I’ve encountered them several times this year. Rigging scales, selling ‘protection’ and the like.”
“And they were in my company during the fire,” said Nero, testing.
“Were they? I was much engaged.”
“Even villains, Sabinus, have their uses.”
Sabinus was not a fanciful or imaginative fellow, but in that moment he was certain that the rumors were true. Nero might not have started the fire. But once the blaze had sparked, the new god had fanned it until two-thirds of the city had vanished. Now Rome would be rebuilt from Nero’s pure imagination.
* * * * * *
The scribe Marcus started, his stylus skidding across the wax. Hearing footsteps, he scampered away from the Tullianum door just as several smart-looking Romans approached.
Inside the cell, Symeon was near the end of his tale when he was interrupted by the new arrivals, come to escort Saul to his execution.
“We won’t die together?” asked Symeon.
“Apparently not,” said Saul. “I, for one, am grateful. I do no think I could endure the sight of you on the cross.” He paused, then said, “I wish I had known him in life.”
“You never met our lord,” said Symeon. “But you knew him.”
Another man might have smiled. “I believe that’s the kindest thing you’ve ever said to me. Tell me again there is nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing to fear, Saul. Remember that, and let it be.”
“Let it be.” They embraced, then Saul was marched away, leaving Symeon in the custody of his two jailers. “Well, shall we?”
The Roman called Processus hesitated. “Before you go—today is the festival of Fontus. The god of wells and springs. It makes me think of what you said, the custom of your lord to wash away ill-deeds. I…would like to be washed clean of this day. Of your death.” The other Roman, Martinianus, murmured agreement.
Symeon shook his head. “It is more than that, I fear. To be washed clean in the eyes of the Lord, you must accept Him as the one and only.”
“I do,” said Martinianus at once.
“And I,” echoed Processus.
Symeon was pleased. “Very well. But we must be quick about it.”
The Tullianum had been a cistern in the days of the Roman kings. A ladder was fetched, and the three men descended to where water still bubbled. Surrounded by the bones of Rome’s enemies, Symeon performed the baptismal ritual as he had done many times. Then he ascended the ladder and followed the converts out into the October air. They led him across the Tiber River to a field named for an ancient city, long vanished. The Campus Vaticanus.
For years the Vatican had been an empty field, ager publicus, available to the public. But Rome was ever-growing, and Caligula had begun construction of a racetrack around the field. Nero had finished it, and now it was the central gathering place for spectacles and sport.
* * * * * *
Four sets of mass executions were slated for noon, all in different parts of the city, so that every Roman could feel the proper vindication. Dubbing it the Great Catharsis, Nero devised the punishments himself. On the Aventine, the condemned were doused with oil and lit with torches, the crowd taunting them as they ran a deadly race among the charred ruins. On the Quirinal, savage boars were released to tear the sacrificial flesh, a cruel jest for people to whom pork was anathema. On the Campus Martius, dispossessed citizens were invited to cast stones into a crowd of Jews. They aimed at eyes, teeth, joints and loins – eager for vengeance, the mob was not after death, but suffering.
Saul was escorted to a spot within sight of the grove atop the Caelian Hill. Closing his ears to the jeering of the masses, he knelt with several others. The axe passed through his neck almost without resistance. Mouth still moving in prayer, his severed head struck the ground and bounced three times. By the time it came to a rest, a bronzed sheen had passed over the eyes of Saul of Tarsus.
* * * * * *
The most visible execution was saved for Symeon. As leader of the Hebrew sect accused of masterminding the inferno, he was to die alone, under the eyes of Nero himself.
Martinianus and Processus led him to the inner field of the Circus, where a massive Aegyptian obelisk of red marble stretched skywards. Beside it the cross was prepared, laying flat. They stripped Symeon naked, causing the crowd to jeer at the peculiar mutilation Hebrews ritually performed upon themselves. A hush fell as the Princeps, watching from his special box, rose to make a speech. The majority of the words were lost on Symeon, whose Latin was not entirely fluent, but he did recognize a few words and phrases. Judea. Incendium. Perfidia. Chrestiani.
Processus wept as Symeon laid his body upon the cross. “What are you blubbering about?” demanded the engineer as he placed an eight-inch iron spike in the center of Symeon’s palm. There was a sharp rap of the hammer and Symeon jerked. He kept his teeth firmly shut as the spikes were driven home – one for each hand and a long one that rent both his ankles. But when they moved to lift him, he said, “Please. I am not worthy.”
“I agree,” growled the engineer. “Even a slave’s death is too good for you.”
To his two Roman converts Symeon said, “I beg you, not upright. I am not worthy to die as he did.”
The engineer scoffed. “What other way? Upside down?”
Closing his eyes, Symeon nodded. “That will do nicely.”
The engineer protested, but Martinianus and Processus were insistent. Shrugging, the engineer obliged and Symeon was hoisted with his head pointing head down. The pain as they lifted him into place was sharp and surprising. Dirt was packed into the post-hole, along with wooden wedges to keep the cross upright. A careless shovel covered Symeon’s face in the dry earth. Processus quickly knelt and wiped the dirt away.
Trumpets blared and the races began. Symeon heard the chariots thundering past him, but already his vision was blurring. He could no longer hear the spectators.
The last thing he saw was a wayward stone, dislodged by the digging of the post-hole. Across the stone, a grasshopper was resting, its legs folded as if in prayer.
A prayer upon a rock.
To the grasshopper he said, “Thank you, my lord.”
* * * * * *
In the imperial box, Nero cheered the racers so fiercely his voice threatened to break. This was no common race. Today, the Ides of October, was the race of the October Horse, where the best war-horses in Rome were raced in pairs. Of the winning pair, the right-hand one was ritually slaughtered by the special priest of Mars, symbolically offering up the very best that Rome owned to the gods.
Sitting beside Nero Caesar, his wife Poppaea was making a scene. She was known to be sympathetic to the Jews, and even liked to pretend from time to time to be Hebrew herself. She wept fiercely, clawed at the air and her own skin – but not her beautiful face. Grief had its limits.
Turning on her cushioned seat, she held out her arms to her personal guest, a handsome young Hebrew priest. “Yosef! Yosef, tell me your God will forgive us!”
Yosef ben Matityahu pressed his lips tight, framing his reply. He had come from Jerusalem to plead on behalf of four men condemned by the bigoted, pecunious governor of Judea. Introduced to Caesar’s wife by the Hebrew actor Alliturus, Yosef had appealed to her altruism, seduced her to his cause with his low, musical voice. His four men were released, and for a few weeks he had strutted through Rome’s Hebrew communities as a great man.
His success was now dwarfed by today’s immense loss of life. Yet in this mass slaughter, Yosef saw not hatred of Hebrews, but rather a love of violence. Yes, there were epithets and slurs that were particular to the Jews, but tomorrow it could be the Britons, or the Parthians, or the Germans. The foe, Yosef understood shrewdly, was only an object of the pageant of blood, not its cause.
“If this is justice, then the Lord will approve,” answered Yosef carefully – he was within earshot of the ruler of the world, and did not fancy losing his life to one Roman’s whim. “But the Lord reserves vengeance for Himself.”
Nero turned sharply, and Yosef blanched. He had never spoken before to the short blonde god-on-earth, never even been in his presence.
But Nero was smiling. “That’s just right. Vengeance is reserved for us gods.”
Drying her eyes, Poppaea grinned in return, blowing him a kiss. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, and she might just as easily have struck him as kissed him.
As Nero returned to watching the race, Yosef frowned. Somehow he had made Caesar feel better about slaughtering so many of his people.
I am a traitor, he thought.
* * * * * *
Some rows back from Caesar’s private box, Sabinus listened as his elder son hooted for his favorite team. His firstborn son was the third to be named Titus Flavius Sabinus, and so he was called Sabinus Tertius – Sabinus the Third. A normal fourteen year-old, he was quite unlike his brother, Titus Flavius Clemens.
Young Clemens was both brilliant and feckless. An idealistic cynic, a lover of language and uneasy thoughts, the boy was congenitally opposed to work, capable only of short bursts of excited exertion. Only twelve years of age, already his eyes bore the disillusionment of a man twice as old. Most troubling to his Stoic father, Clemens was devoted to that lowest of art forms, the theatre.
Now, while everyone else watched the chariots, Clemens was staring at the crucified man in the inner field. “Will he die soon?”
“Very soon, I imagine,” Sabinus answered. “Quicker than if he were upright.”
“Good. He shouldn’t suffer.”
Sabinus arched an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“He didn’t start the fire,” said Clemens. “He’s innocent. This is a Tragedy.”
“Don’t let Caesar hear you saying that,” warned Sabinus seriously.
“Father, it was Caesar who…”
“Don’t.” hissed Sabinus. “And don’t believe everything you hear. Caesar was in Ancona when the fire broke out.” Clemens opened his mouth, but Sabinus quelled his son with a painful grip on the boy’s knee. “Watch the race.”
“Yes, father.” Yet Clemens continued to surreptitiously watch the man hanging upside-down upon the cross. Death did not trouble Clemens. Nor did the idea of execution – the State had the right to eliminate its foes, just as a master had the right to take the life of a slave, or a father that of a troublesome child.
But just as the execution of a whole household of slaves had recently led to riots, protesting a monumental cruelty, so too was this execution crueler than needed. They allowed the dying man no dignity at all. There was a famous passage from Homer that Clemens knew by heart:
It is entirely seemly for a young man slain in battle to lie mangled by the bronze spear, for in his death all things appear beautiful. But when dogs gnaw upon the gray head and whiskered chin of old men, exposing their naked loins, it is the most piteous thing we wretched mortals may behold.
Those words were at the center of every Roman. Yet here was an old man, a white-bearded grandfather, bald as an egg on top, dying in as unlovely a manner as man could conjure. It was meant to humiliate the dying man, but Clemens felt as if the humiliation were his own.
A man should die with a sword in his hand, he thought. If this man really was an enemy to Rome, then he should be allowed to take his own life or face a swift execution.
I shall die on my feet, blade in hand, decided Clemens, picturing the scene as though from a play by Seneca. Death shall find nothing shameful in me.
* * * * * *
Nero had strong reason to choose the Hebrews as his personal nemesis. His claim to godhood was one that Hebrews could not accept. For the Hebrews, there was but one God, a divinity they refused to name or even refer to. Taking it as a personal affront, the Divine Nero had set himself to the humbling of the Judeans, both as a nation and as individuals. These executions were only the beginning. Judea would bear the brunt of the taxation that would renew Rome once more. If they did not like it, they could dash themselves on the jagged rocks of Rome’s legions.
Naturally, his beloved wife had taken a perverse liking for these troublesome peoples. Perhaps it was their defiance of him that attracted her. Whatever the cause, she was sympathetic to their plight – so far as she understood it.
As the racers thudded past, she stroked Yosef’s hand and asked him questions, allowing no time for answers. “I imagine Judea as a land of desolate beauty – all deserts and wind and empty spaces. Is it? Oh, I do hope that Cleopatra likes it there – I don’t mean the Cleopatra, of course. No, my dear friend Cleopatra is wife of the new governor, Gessius Florus – have you met him? They were a bit out of funds, so I arranged for my Caesar to send Florus to Judea. A bit stodgy, I know, but one cannot choose one’s husband – well, I did, didn’t I? But I am exceptional.”
“In every way,” replied Yosef. He knew he was being used to make her husband jealous, but it was hard to stop his heart from racing. Poppaea was very beautiful, a natural and careless beauty that had men making fools of themselves for her. It was proof of Nero’s godhead that he had found a Venus to be his bride.
But Venus’ words kept Yosef’s lust in check. He had, in fact, met Florus. One would be hard-pressed to find a more odious villain in all the world. He and his wife had already made it clear that they despised all Jews. It had been Florus who had condemned the four priests Yosef had come to rescue. If sending Florus to Judea was the form of Poppaea’s favoritism, better she had never heard of the place.
“Now, tell me, Yosef, is it true about Hebrew priests? That they are given to fits of prophecy? Oh, tell me something that will come to pass!”
Yosef made his apologies, explaining that he had never been gifted with the Sight. Which was not entirely true. During fasts and cleanses, he had experienced visions. But his only prophecy was one he dared not utter: that Rome was sowing a crop of hate that would spring up to consume Rome itself.
* * * * * *
The races ended when the rains came. In a foul temper, Nero left his wife to flirt with her pet Jew while he was carried in a covered litter across the river. Sending his sons home, Sabinus dutifully followed Caesar.
Upon entering his temporary domicile, Nero’s spirits were restored by the sight of Zenodorus, the Greek sculptor. Shaking off the stray droplets that peppered his hair, Nero rushed forward. “You have it done? The model?”
“Indeed,” said the Greek, his pleasure in his own creation masking his distaste for his patron. “If you will follow me.”
Half the size of a man, carved from soft wood, the model depicted Nero as Apollo, the personal god of the Divine Augustus. Nero meant to place himself as a god over Julius Caesar’s own heir.
Circling it, Nero began to frown.
“Is something amiss, Caesar?” The query was hopeful. Zenodorus had been literally dragged from his native land to serve this man. If his work was unappreciated, he might be let go.
“It’s very good.” Nero pursed his lips. “Too good! It looks every inch an Apollo. Anyone seeing this will think of Apollo first, me second. And that. Won’t. Do!” Nero suddenly rounded on Sabinus. “When I entertained King Tiridates and the Parthian ambassadors last month, they hailed me as some god of theirs.”
“Mithras,” offered Sabinus. “Their warrior god. He commands the sun. Much like Sol Indiges, with aspects of Hercules Invictus. My uncle Vespasian—”
Nero’s gaze darkened. “Yes? What does the old Muleteer say?”
Flushing, Sabinus continued. “He says that Mithras has become very popular among our legions in the East.”
This news quelled Nero’s anger. “Zenodorus, I want to see another model, one with me as this Mithras!”
Zenodorus masked his disgust with a deep bow. “As you command, Caesar.”
Nero departed. Lingering behind, Sabinus saw the frustrated Greek sculptor lift chisel and hammer. With one sharp blow he struck Nero’s face clean from Apollo’s frame. It landed on the floor, facing the sky.
Face turned upwards, thought Sabinus. An ill omen if ever I saw one.
* * * * * *
Elsewhere in the city, Marcus arrived at the appointed place well after his time. He passed the door with the chalked sign and saw only three others waiting for him, kneeling in prayer. “Where’s everyone else?”
“We are the only ones,” said one of the men, a Roman with a long face. “The others are too frightened to meet.”
“Or else dead,” said a Judean with a scar that reached from his right ear to his nose. “And even if they’d come, you’re late.”
Marcus shed his waterproof cloak. “I know it, Seth. But I wanted to stay at the Circus until I was sure—”
He glanced at the only woman in the room, a young lady. Tonelessly she said, “He is dead, then.”
“Perel, yes. I’m sorry – he’s dead.” Marcus refrained from saying how her father had died.
“The body?” asked the horse-faced man.
“I saw where they threw it,” Marcus said. “He’ll have a proper burial. Saul, too.”
“And his memoir?”
Marcus patted the heavy satchel of wax tablets. “Completed this morning. I think he meant to say a little more, but…”
The girl named Perel rose and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Marcus. You risked your life for it. Whatever is missing, Seth and I will supply.”
As she stepped back, the lamplight revealed a face torn away from its natural beauty. The right side was all that was lovely—a sharp brow, almond eyes, full mouth. But the sinister side had been maimed by some disease, the skin falling slack, leaving the left side of her face expressionless but for a tragically down-turned mouth. It was as though she had seen with one eye the face of the Divine, and bore the scars.
Perel turned and knelt across from the long-faced Roman. “Marcellinus, I was instructed that, should this day come, he wanted you to lead us forward. In place of my father, you must be father to us all now.”
Taken aback, Marcellinus gestured to the scarred man. “Surely Seth is the better choice. He’s the last of the original...”
“Last, but far from best,” interrupted Seth. “Symeon knew this was true.”
Marcellinus drew a deep breath. He had first been a disciple of Saul, and come late to the word of Symeon. “Very well. Though my shoulders are far too narrow for it, I will don Symeon’s mantle. A giant’s robe on a dwarf,” he added.
“Perel,” said Seth with urgency, “you must hurry back to your master. We can’t lose you, too.”
But before she would consent to leave, the young lady insisted upon hearing Symeon’s last dictation. When Marcus came to speak of Symeon, she said, “You’ve changed his name.”
“He wished it,” replied Marcus.
“I know. But it still sounds strange to me.” Perel wet her lips, and tried speaking it aloud. “Petros. Petrus. Peter.”
Marcellinus smiled. “I suppose we should change Saul into Paul. He always tried to match your father’s every step.”
Perel bowed her head. “Let it be. Peter and Paul.”
Seth put a protective arm around her shoulders. “Let it be.”
Marcus continued reading aloud the last piece of good news Peter had delivered, written down in wax by the hand of Marcus.
The Gospel of Mark.