Pax Romana by Benjamin Cronshaw
Image: Crucifixion (1565), Tintoretto
The sun’s rays pierce the early morning sky. Around the travelling caravan, the arid landscape begins to emit signs of life. Farmers rise to till their fields and tradesman turn to their crafts. As is custom in the East, the Parthian bows his head and prays to the ascending sun. The solar deity falls each evening in an eternal struggle against night and darkness, but always emerges victorious in the morning to herald a new day. It thus earned the title Sol Invictus – the unconquered sun.
The shining stone walls of Jerusalem rise in the near distance as silent and ever-present defenders of the city. The day is yet young, but there are already numerous pilgrims entering the gates. Jews from across the known world are coming for the Passover festival. Some are from Parthia to the East, whence the caravan has come.
Soldiers stand guard, wearing metal-plated armour and red woollen tunics. Some cower in fear in their presence. Others spit and raise their hands in a lament. These are not merely soldiers, but Romans. To the native population they serve as a reminder of the foreign occupation of the land, now a mere province at the outskirts of the Roman Empire. The Parthian sees one of the Romans suddenly cry out and march toward him.
“By Jove,” the man says, “I did not expect to see you again this side of Hades.”
“Sempronius,” Ahaseurus replies warmly after recognising his old friend. “It has been a long time since Antioch, and I see you have the plumed helmet of a centurion. I do hope you didn’t steal it.”
“No,” Sempronius says, smiling. “It pleased the Proconsul in Syria to promote me, and thus I earned a command here.” He lowers his voice and leans in. “This is a difficult region, and now especially is a turbulent time. Love for the legion is rare here, and I fear many would only too eagerly draw their swords should a banner be raised to fight behind. But this is not the place for such talk. Come to the barracks and we can talk over some wine, hey?”
“Tell me, Sempronius, is Campanian wine still the best?” Ahaseurus asks.
“Of course,” Sempronius exclaims with a humorous indignation, “or do you only drink camel’s milk where you come from?”
The old friends walk to the northern part of the city, where the Antonian palace serves as the legion’s headquarters. Around them the city’s bustling activity begins for the day; traders announce the day’s wares, young boys shepherd their goats and sheep, and the pious recite their prayers.
They reach a crowd blocking the street. Weeping and jeering fill the air. “What is happening here?” Sempronius asks before marching through. They reach the front of the crowd and sight the subject of the crowd’s fascination. Roman soldiers are escorting a prisoner to be crucified. Across his back and tied to his arms is the patibulum, the wooden beam of the cross. It is heavy enough for the fittest to labour under, but for the man’s weakened constitution it is a crushing burden. His back is a red lacerated mess from the scourging, whilst blood drips down his face from the crown of thorns. The bloody brutality serves as a warning to those who would dare invoke the wrath of Rome.
As the guards belittle him, the prisoner keeps his head down and limps down the cobbled street. He seems reluctantly and sadly resigned to his fate. At that moment, the man turns his head to the side and glances into the crowd. Ahaseurus is arrested by the man’s eyes looking into his own, as if they were penetrating deep into his soul and revealing all of his iniquities. Yet the Parthian gained no sense of any malice or judgement, but rather a peculiar sense of compassion.
Ahaseurus overhears two men speaking behind him.
“Our forefathers ate the Passover to remember they were once slaves but had been freed. Now we are slaves again! I had hoped that this man would be the Messiah of prophecy to free us from the imperial yoke, but now he is condemned to die at the hands of the pagan gentiles.”
“I had hoped so too Josephus, but we must keep our faith.”
“God has surely abandoned him, and we were foolish to trust his words.”
They notice Ahaseurus watching them and one says, “Let us depart before further ill avails us.”
“Who is this man?” Ahaseurus asks, turning to Sempronius.
“He is called Jesus of Nazareth, from the north in Galilee. He is known amongst the people as a teacher and healer. Some consider him a prophet. The prefect Pontius Pilatus has sentenced him to be flogged and crucified.”
“What is his crime?” Ahaseurus asks. “Is there any harm in such a religious leader?”
“The Nazarene’s own people betrayed him to us, accusing him of rejecting the authority of Caesar and trying to make himself king. There have been rebellions before. In the days before Augustus’ rule, a man called Theudas gathered four hundred men to his banner to eradicate the Roman presence here in Judaea. Judas of Galilee had the same pretensions and incited a rebellion a few years later. Both were defeated, but not without a great deal of bloodshed. It would only take the Nazarene to declare himself king for us to have another sanguinary war.”
The guards move the prisoner along. “There is something strange about him,” Ahaseurus says to Sempronius. There was an aura pervading his march of death, as if he was submitting to some greater purpose. Ahaseurus remains perplexed and equally captivated by the encounter.
“Do not worry about that man,” Sempronius suggests. “He is a mere troublemaker, and his followers will disperse with his death.”
“The Empire is based on the power of the sword, is it not?”
“The divine Augustus himself instituted the Pax Romana, peace throughout the Empire. The legion in Judaea is here to defend the borders and safeguard that very peace. If that requires the blood of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, then so be it.”
The Parthian presses him. “If you build your authority on the oppression of the commoners and the blood of innocents, and keep people in fear by such torturous brutality, how can you hope to achieve peace and justice?”
“Be careful with your words my friend,” Sempronius says with his eyes narrowing. “Are you a friend of Caesar, or not?”
Ahaseurus wished he could learn more about this man from Galilee, futile though it seemed. There seemed something about that man, something greater than he could foresee. He had worshipped the sun god all his life, never doubting its power to rise anew. This man from Galilee was condemned to die that day. Yet, the Parthian wondered whether the powers of death would constrain him, or whether, like the sun, he would rise again.