“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”
Caesarea, Jerusalem, Britain, Rome, Alexandria
Rome, Northern Italy
When Halcyon, daughter of Aeolus, who was guardian of the winds, came of age, she married Ceyx, king of Trachis. Their love and devotion for each other was so great, it was known throughout the kingdom.
One day when Ceyx sailed from the land of Trachis to consult the oracle at Delphi, he was shipwrecked. Wakened from a frightful dream about the wreck, Halcyon ran to the seashore, looking for her beloved. As she searched for the wreckage, the tide washed her husband to her feet. He had drowned. Distraught, she threw herself into the sea to join him.
When the gods looked down, they could not bear the death of two people who were so much in love, and so they transformed the couple into sea birds. During the winter, the gods ordained a week of calm so they could brood their young in a nest that floated undisturbed in the safety of a windless sea.
Ever after, that week in winter has been known as Halcyon Days.
A Tale from Metamorphoses
(43 BC–AD 18)
The 14th day of the month of Nisan, A. D. 33.
Dawn came as a pale brush of pink across the eastern sky. It came quietly, without flourish, but it came quickly, giving dimension to the featureless landscape and color to the somber collection of grays left over from the night.
Jerusalem caught something of that pink in the stone walls that surrounded the city, something of it in the walls of the Temple, and something of it in the walls of the Fortress of Antonia that adjoined it.
In a room in that fortress, a centurion dressed for the day’s duties, his statuesque features looking as if they had been chiseled from the quarries of Cararra. His skin was smooth, as if polished by finely gritted abrasives. It bore no pits, no scars, no imperfections at all.
Over his gray, woolen tunic he pulled a fitted leather jacket with short shoulder pieces and long overlapping straps extending mid-thigh.
He buckled his belt on which hung two scabbards: one sheathing a two-foot sword; the other, a dagger.
He sat on a chair and snugged on a pair of boots, their soles layered with leather and studded with short, thick-headed nails.
He stood to put on a bronze helmet, fitted inside with an iron casing and lined with heavy cloth. A crest of crimson plumage ran down the middle of the helmet, the color matching the cape he draped over his shoulders and fastened with a clasp.
Finally, he picked up a rod made from a sapling, the characteristic emblem of authority for centurions.
Wood, metal, leather, muscle—together they represented the strength of the military, which, over the centuries, had turned a mere village into the mightiest empire the world had ever seen.
His first name, followed by the name of his clan and the name of his family, was Lucius Alexander Titus.
Lucius had grown up in Alexandria, Egypt, his father a librarian there. At his fingertips in that library lay the greatness of three cultures—Roman, Greek, and Egyptian. The Egyptians were better farmers, better breeders of animals, and more awe-inspiring builders. The Greeks were better thinkers, better writers, better at almost everything. But the Romans, the Romans were better soldiers. They were, in fact, the best the world had ever seen. As a young boy, Lucius stood in awe of the soldiers he had read about in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, aspiring one day to stand in their ranks.
Though not more original builders than the Greeks, the Romans were more prolific builders, especially with aqueducts and roads, both essential if their destiny to rule the world were to be realized.
Under the weight of Augustus’ leadership, the Republic had crumbled. Out of its rubble, he had built an empire. “I found Rome a city of bricks,” he once said, “and left it a city of marble.” The reign of Augustus had ushered in a period of rest from the civil wars that had plagued the Republic since its inception. Though skirmishes flared up on the Frontier, like sudden but containable wildfires, much of the Empire enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.
A web-work of roads connected the Empire, facilitating trade and the exchange of ideas. For the first time in history, Syrians and Italians were using the same weights and measures. Britons and Africans were speaking the same language. And all followed the same laws, swearing allegiance to the same Emperor. Under the shelter of this peace, known as the pax Romana, Lucius was born and raised and educated.
Few soldiers could read or write. Only those born to patricians, the elite class in Roman society, could usually claim such learning. But Lucius could do both, and he read voraciously. The stories about soldiers fighting on the Frontier led to his curiosity in maps. The very sight of a map would send the boy he once was to dreaming of distant lands and uncharted seas crashing against their misty coastlines, of the daring adventures awaiting him there, and the decisive victories, all of which would bring honor to him and glory to Rome.
Having apprenticed in the craft of cartography, he not only knew geography, he knew its importance. He knew which coastlines were suitable for harbors, which were not; which lands were good for agriculture, which for grazing; where cities would naturally spring up, and where existing ones, solely because of their geography, were destined to wither away.
He also knew its military importance. “Geography determines strategy,” he had been taught. In many cases, geography was the strategy. A strategic hill could control a valley. A narrow mountain pass could be an army’s strongest defense, or, its Achilles’ heel. A small stretch of marsh could bog down an army long enough for your archers to decimate their ranks and dispirit those who remained. He knew, almost instinctively, how the incline of the terrain affected the time it took for an army to advance and the tax it levied on the strength of its soldiers. He knew, from the geography, how long it would take to attack a fortress, what siege engines would be needed, where they should be placed, how many troops would need to be dispatched and for how long.
The absence of scars on his face and arms spoke of his relative youth—his lack of experience in battle. More seasoned warriors were generally well-marked—a stub where a finger once was, a scar where a sword once struck, a missing ear, missing teeth. Minor losses, mostly. They wore them as badges of valor, memories of battles fought that were now fodder for stories told.
Because of his physical prowess, his intelligence, and his natural leadership qualities, Lucius had risen in the ranks from infantryman to centurion. The major unit within the Roman army was the legion. The size of the legion varied over the history of Rome, from 4,000 to 6,000. Each legion was divided into ten cohorts. Each cohort was divided into three maniples, and each maniple was divided into two centuries. Originally, a century was composed of 100 men who were under the leadership of a centurion, but that, too, varied over the years. The Chief Centurion oversaw all the centuries within the legion. He had a place at the war council and a position of honor in which distinguished service was richly rewarded.
It was to such a position that Lucius aspired. If promoted, he would be sent to Caesarea for training. From Caesarea to the Frontier. And from the Frontier to Rome, where he hoped to finish his career.
For now, he served in Jerusalem. It was neither a place of adventure, like the Frontier, nor a place of appetite, like Caesarea, but rather a place where a Roman soldier was stationed while waiting to be stationed somewhere else.
As the sun rose, it turned Jerusalem’s weathered limestone white, helping to chase away the morning chill from the city streets. Visitors from Judea, Samaria, and beyond have made pilgrimages here to celebrate Passover, the second holiest day in the nation’s calendar. People were everywhere. And everywhere were the distinctive smell of wool and the incessant bleating of sheep.
The Fortress of Antonia adjoined the Temple on the northwest wall, strategically placed to cast its imperial shadow over all who assembled there. A Roman legion, the Twelfth (XII) Fulminata, originally formed by Julius Caesar, was permanently stationed at the Fortress. Its emblem, a thunderbolt, was depicted on a banner hung over the fortress. During holy days, especially holy days like this one, soldiers stood sentry on the walls and around the Temple porticoes to quell any hostilities that might escalate into full-scale rebellion.
The Fortress was divided into two sections: one for utility, the other for luxury. The larger section on the northern part of the Fortress housed troops in adequate but austere barracks. The smaller section on the southern part contained lavish residences for the officers, visiting dignitaries, and for Pilate and his entourage when he visited the city. Pilate was the Roman Procurator of Judea, headquarted in Caesarea, and visited Jerusalem often. Relations with the Jews were tenuous and frequent visits necessary both as a show of force and as a gesture, however feigned, of conciliation.
The centrality of the Fortress to the religious life of the city was strategic. Pilate’s alliance with the religious authorities was one he needed. But it was one they needed, too. Pilate had arranged for the ceremonial vestments used at Passover to be kept under armed guard in a locked room in the Fortress so that the High Priest has to come to him for permission to get them. It was an uneasy alliance but a necessary one. Both parties knew it and accepted it for what it was. And both have gone out of their way to cultivate it.
In his palatial quarters within the Fortress, Pilate was going over his schedule for the day as his dresser fussed over a new toga. The fabric was a large circle of white wool, finely combed and woven, luxurious to the touch. But it was heavy and cumbersome, and the dresser was struggling to drape it just right so it would cascade off Pilate’s shoulders in elegant folds.
It had been a restless night for Pilate, a lot on his mind, a lot on his schedule, and his wife’s tossing and turning hadn’t helped. Receiving a note requesting an earlier-than-normal appointment, Pilate pushed aside his dresser who was trying to position a laurelled wreath on his head. “Good Remus, man, leave the laurel and latch the sandals.”
The dresser dropped to his knees and twined the leather straps around Pilate’s calves. Pilate gathered his toga to keep it from sweeping the marble stairway, walking with his entourage of legal counselors and administrative attendants who briefed him on the case, reminding him of the holy day coming up.
Lucius, meanwhile, left his quarters, descending the stairs where his first stop was the carpentry shop on the lower floor. Two criminals were scheduled for execution, the vertical beams of their crosses already loaded on a small wagon, along with mallets, nails, ropes, a ladder, and supplies for the day. Lucius knelt, picked up a handful of sawdust, and brought it to his nose. He loved the smell of freshly milled wood, its sweetness reminding him of home.
His thoughts were interrupted, though, by voices coming from the Judgment Seat, the place in the Fortress where criminals were sentenced. The voices were muted, melding together as one, but the words were clear.
“Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!”
Lucius stood, listening to what had now become chanting.
“Barabbas! Barabbas! Barabbas!”
The chants trailed into silence. One by one, men in the shop and adjoining stables returned to their tasks. Lucius turned his attention to his steed, still in its stall. A beautiful animal. Regal in every way, especially in the way it held its head, as if it knew it were in service of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. He patted its neck. The horse turned to nuzzle him and snorted.
At the Temple, priests prepared for their day’s work, washing themselves ceremonially. Dressers helped them into their sacred vestments, one layer after another, slowly and methodically, brushing off any foreign matter, smoothing out any wrinkles. Some of the priests started sharpening knives. Others stoked the fire in the altar. All readied themselves for a long and arduous day.
Again a chorus of chants, this time coming from the Praetorium. And again Lucius stopped to listen.
He dipped a ladle into a nearby bucket and drew water, filled his mouth but did not swallow.
“Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”
Lucius gave the man in the shop an inquisitive look. He shrugged his shoulders. Lucius swallowed and replaced the ladle on its hook.
Long before the priests were ready to receive them, men were already in line to offer their sacrifices. Soon smoke ascended from the altar, curling into the early morning sky, sweetening it with the smell of cypress.
The smell eventually made its way to the Fortress, where a scribe rushed into the stables with a scrolled page of papyrus, sealed with imperial wax, an addendum to the centurion’s orders. Lucius was used to this. He often had his orders altered or rescinded, especially when visiting dignitaries were in town, and most especially when that dignitary was Pilate. He read the scroll and called to the wagonmaster.
“Wood for one more.”
The man summoned two of his laborers. As they loaded the extra beams, Lucius approached the carpenter on duty and pointed out something on the scroll. The man read it and nodded.
By midmorning the smell of charred fat and gristle hung over the city like a cloud.
Priests stood at various stations around the altar, each with his assigned duty to perform in the ritual of sacrifice. The line of men with lambs on their shoulders threaded through the Temple, tangled itself in the courtyard, and unraveled out the main gate.
Teams of priests worked in shifts to keep up the pace. Each took his respective post, executing his assigned duty with precision. In all, 200,000 would be prepared by midafternoon, time for the animals to be roasted and brought home.
The lamb was held down by a layman, and a priest pulled the blade of his knife across the exposed throat. Another priest caught the blood in a gold cup, rounded at the bottom so it could not be put down without spilling the contents. He then handed the cup to the next priest, who gave him an empty cup in return. The cup was passed through a line of priests until it reached the one closest to the altar. That priest splashed the blood on the side of the altar, where it dripped down the base and was caught by a gutter with two holes in it that channeled the blood to underground viaducts.
Another priest took the slain lamb and put it on tenterhooks, where, with a few quick cuts and hard yanks on the wool, he skinned it. He then made a vertical stab that released a slippery mass of entrails, which were caught and washed. The fat, according to Levitical law, was carved from the body, placed in a ceremonial vessel, salted, then poured onto the altar, where it sizzled on a grate, relinquishing its savory aroma as its smoke curled heavenward.
On a hill outside the city walls, another ritual was being performed—the ritual of executions for crimes against the Empire.
The 14th day of the month of Nisan, A. D. 33.
Sixth Hour of the Day (Noon)
Lucius was the centurion who oversaw the executions that day, a responsibility he was given from time to time, one he had grown weary of. It bored him. Once the crosses were erected, the rest of the day was spent guarding them, which was mostly watching and waiting for death to come, which sometimes took days.
The sun was high in the sky and the birds—a few vultures, taunted by smaller birds—made patient circles above the skull-shaped rock, known as Golgotha. An unusually large number of people had gathered to witness the execution. It wasn’t the typical group of mourners. Mingled among them were religious leaders of one station or another—scribes, Pharisees, rabbis. Their attention was focused on the one hanging from the central cross, whom they mocked mercilessly.
“Let this Messiah, this king of Israel,” one of them shouted, “come down from his cross that we may see and believe.” Others joined in.
Ignoring them, Lucius took off his helmet and wiped sweat from his forehead. He drew water from a bucket, swished it around in his mouth, spit it out. As he did, he caught a glimpse of a woman. He was drawn to her as if to a dream upon waking. I know her from somewhere, he thought. But where? A veil covered the lower half of the woman’s face. Her olive skin glistened. And although her black hair hung in sweaty strands framing eyes drained of hope, something about her, even at her most despondent, was beguiling.
He didn’t know her from Jerusalem, he was sure of that. Galilee, maybe. Four years ago he wintered with his men there. Or was it from Alexandria? Was she a childhood friend, long forgotten?
She turned her head and caught him staring. A moment of recognition came over her. Another time, another place, another her. Her face flushed, and she ripped her eyes away from him. At that moment a gust of wind blew the covering from her head, and her long black hair came undone.
That is when Lucius noticed the sky behind her, a clotted darkness that tumbled toward the hill. It came not as the darkness of night, a welcomed end to the day’s work, but rather as a bruise inflicted by a sudden blow, first mottling the skin, then purpling it, and finally blackening it.
Everyone on the hill saw it. The heckling stopped as eyes widened, sighs and cries rising as they sensed an ill sign. The moisture in the air began condensing on their skin, and it seemed as if an ominous presence were breathing over them with its clammy breath.
“Whadd’ya think?” asked Massina, one of the soldiers on the hill, a Syrian conscript, as he nodded toward the sky.
Valassio shook his head, his eyes peering into the darkness as if to pierce its mystery.
“I don’t like it,” said Antonius.
As the darkness approached, so did the apprehension. Those huddled in the crowd filled the eerie silence with nervous chatter. What is happening? What could it mean? Is it a sign? If so, of what?
“What if we’ve angered the gods?” asked Antonius of Valassio. A nervous pause. “You believe in the gods, don’t you?”
“The Roman ones.”
“What if there’s others,” remarked Massina, “and you Romans, by giving homage to just your own, make the others jealous? Ever think of that?”
Antonius walked to the brow of the hill, studying the strange and foreboding sky. Lucius joined him. “Didn’t Virgil write somewhere that ‘the sun shall give you signs’?” Antonius asked.
Lucius searched his memory. “’After the Caesar sank from sight . . . the sun wrapped his countenance in darkened gloom.’” The two looked at each other. “The blotting of the sun,” Lucius went on, “It is said to happen at the death of a divine ruler.”
They looked back at the man in the middle, neither speaking.
The rest of the city stopped its business, people pointing, commenting, lamenting.
For three hours darkness hung like a pall over the city.
After a while the city returned to work, for much needed to be done before the first star in the evening sky heralded the coming of Sabbath. The centurion’s household slave, Ashuk, who seemed carved from a solid block of obsidian, watched the sky as a street vendor pulled a roasted lamb, stretched across a wooden spit, from his earthen oven. Money changed hands, and the vendor passed him the lamb.
Those hours were a much-needed reprieve from the unrelenting glare of the sun, at least for the two criminals on either side of the man in the center. Lucius eyed him curiously. Over his head a wooden placard had been nailed, naming his crime.
JESUS OF NAZARETH
KING OF THE JEWS
He looks anything but a king, thought Lucius.
As the two thieves rested in the shade of the darkened sky, Jesus writhed in agony. His head jerked to one side as if struck by a fist. His stomach convulsed, spilling bile out his mouth and down his chest. What little strength he had left he summoned to his thighs, their muscles flexing, pushing down against the nail in his feet. Clenching his teeth, he pulled himself up, straining against the nails in his hands. Seeing the sudden movement, everyone gathered there looked up. Everyone watched as he sucked in a great gulp of air. And everyone listened as he wailed against the darkness.
“Eli . . . Eli . . . lama sabachthani?”
After saying it, he collapsed against the wood.
“He’s calling to Elijah,” one onlooker said.
“No,” said another. “He’s calling to his god.”
“It is finished,” Jesus called out, almost triumphantly.
His body slumped, his head lowered, and a prayer escaped his lips.
“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
Lucius stared at the contours of the man’s body. It seemed to him a war-torn landscape in the aftermath of battle. The sunken muscles seemed like sloping hills, trodden under the enemy’s brutal heel, their soil stained with the blood of fallen warriors.
A jolt shook free his thoughts, followed by a groan that escaped from within the earth, deep and low. A tremor rolled beneath his feet, then a violent quaking. People fell to the ground, screaming.
In the market, merchandise fell from vendors’ wagons, and Ashuk’s legs unsteadied him.
The quake sent fissures through the Temple. A few capstones on the walls fell to the courtyard below. The shaking ran through the foundation. Marble columns swayed back and forth. Some of the carved woodwork in the Temple strained and cracked. In the Holy of Holies the gilded masonry shook violently. Then suddenly, as if two hands had grabbed the top of the expansive curtain, it was torn in two.
The quake traveled through the Fortress of Antonia, shaking it and everyone in it. Horses in the stables whinnied and broke their tethers. Soldiers were in disarray. Pilate’s wife screamed into the pillows on her silk-sheeted bed, her husband beside her, holding her.
Back at Golgotha, the crosses swayed to one side. Screams slashed the silence. A jolt, and several people stumbled into each other. Terror filled their eyes, their voices. A great lurching threw everyone to the ground. Flat on their faces, people clutched the earth, confessing their sins, crying out for mercy. The crosses pitched back and forth, tearing muscles, rasping bone, snapping tendons. Screams from the crosses intensified the terror
Then, as suddenly as the earthquake started, it stopped.
Lucius was on his knees before the cross of the young Jewish revolutionary, thrown there by the force of the quake. A mist of questions rose within him. If there is such a place as Paradise, might the ragged borders of this body be the terrain that led there; might the blood spilling from his wounds be the tributaries that led to its source?
His thoughts became words.
“Surely this was the son of God.”
But he had no others, neither words nor thoughts.
Whatever battle had been fought there, it was over now. However fiercely the battle had been fought, now it was calm. In that sudden armistice, Lucius stood dumbstruck, as soldiers are sometimes struck in the aftermath of combat. All was silent, hushed and still. Any movement was imperceptible, slow and uncertain. The only sound he heard was the pounding of his heart; the only movement, the coursing of his blood.
The 14th day of the month of Nisan, A. D. 33.
Ninth Hour of the Day
As a shaft of western light pierced the darkness, screams from the crosses shattered the silence.
Lucius jumped to his feet, gathered himself, and took charge. “To your tasks. And be quick.”
The soldiers collected themselves and went about the routine of clearing the hill. Massina was first to his task. Picking up a club, he approached the most hardened of the thieves. He took pleasure in ending the constant barrage of curses the thief had hurled at him through the day.
A loud crack. The splintering of his legs caused a scream . . . more curses . . . a watery cough . . . a low moan.
Valassio approached the other thief. Pity was a contraband emotion for Roman soldiers. Yet as though some pulled ligament of remorse were holding him back, he hesitated.
“I begrudge you not your duty,” said the thief.
The soldier looked up at the lifeless body of Jesus, then back at the thief, and offered a benediction.
“God have mercy.”
“His mercy is in your hand,” he replied. “I am ready to receive it.”
The soldier clutched the handle with uneasy hands, then swung blindly, breaking both legs in a single blow. The thief took the pain into his lungs and held it, grimacing, then releasing it.
At the Temple the high priest, troubled from the quake, abruptly halted the sacrifices. He signaled the other priests, and they lifted several amphorae of water to wash down the altar. Drains at the altar’s base led to an underground pipe that shunted blood out the side of the city wall into the Kidron Valley. The water mingled with the blood as it flowed out the shunt until it became mostly water with only a trace of blood. With the cleansing of the altar, the work within the walls of the Temple was finished.
So was the work outside the city walls. The soldiers began removing the bodies so they could dispose of them before sundown, in deference to Jewish law. As they went about the grim work, Lucius searched among the remaining mourners for the woman he saw earlier. The once frayed crowd now looked like knots on a prayer shawl, strands of humanity drawn together by the quake.
Nearing the woman who had attracted his attention earlier, Lucius overheard her speaking. Her accent lifted the veil on the mystery of her identity, or at least part of it. She was Galilean. He had spent time in several towns along the Sea of Galilee—Capernauam, Korazin, Magdala.
Throughout Galilee were terraced villas and wealthy estates of those who had profited simply by the fortune of good geography. Because it was a large body of fresh water, the Sea of Galilee was not only lucrative for fishing but for trade. From Capernaum, for example, roads went to Jerusalem, Mesopotamia, the Jordan River Valley, and to Egypt. The golden ring of cities on the shores of Galilee were stopping places for caravans, sagging with spices from Arabia, perfumes from Jericho, fabrics from Egypt, and treasures from the far reaches of the Mediterranean. But Galilee itself had riches of its own to boast about and to barter. It was a cornucopia of olives, walnuts, pistachios, dates, apples, oranges, lemons, and a variety of melons to satisfy the most discriminating of palettes.
Galilee was not only a haven for trade but for leisure. And many went there to find their leisure, soldiers as well as foreigners. Lucius himself had found leisure in several of those cities. And women to share it with. For a price.
Could she be one of the local prostitutes? he wondered. No, she looks nothing like any of them, nothing of their hardness on her face, nothing of their cunning in her expression, nothing of their seductions in her clothes.
As he approached, their eyes met. For a moment he couldn’t speak. He’d seen them before, those exquisite olive eyes. A memory flashed, the way the scales of a fish catch the sun as it churns the sea’s surface. But as quickly as the memory came to him, it left him. Try as he could, he could not summon it.
The woman had recognized him earlier in the day. Since that moment she has feared this one, feared he would recognize her, seek her out, dredge up her past. She wrapped an arm around Jesus’ mother and drew her close.
Lucius called to her. “You, there. Halt.” The two stopped, but neither turned. “I know you, from Magdala.”
The woman looked over her shoulder. “I’ve known a lot of men.”
“And him?” he asked, nodding to the cross in the middle. “How did you know him?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand the difference in who you were then and who you are now.”
The woman whipped around, her eyes lit with anger, and stepped toward him. She stopped a sword’s thrust away. “Have you no shame! Do you know what you have done here today? Do you have any idea what you have done?”
“I have done my duty.”
“You say it as if you thought it noble.”
He stood in the presence of her disgust, disarmed. It was as if she had unsheathed his sword and was pressing its tip to his throat, threatening to slash it if he uttered another word. He stood silent, at the mercy of her indignation. A tense moment. But it was she who dropped the sword of words, she who turned, and she who walked away. He was left standing there, the place where the edge of her anger touched him, standing there and stinging from the encounter.