Apparently, it’s a holiday. Although, to be honest, most days seem to be a holiday here. And not the sort of decent, joyful, singing-in-the-street sort of holidays we’re used to back home. Here the holidays go on for days at a time, and everyone stays indoors, only emerging to look stroppy and bad-tempered and ready for a fight. Too much religion and not enough wine. Something to do with their miserable mountain god, I suppose.
Anyway, I hate holidays in Judea. Holiday for the Jews, double overtime for the soldiers. You never know when the empty streets will suddenly fill, for no apparent reason, with crowds looking to roll-over a legionary. There are forty crosses on a roadside in Galilee which I filled after the last holiday: I know I told the legates it had been an insurrection, and it probably was, but in my book, as soon as a sword or a club or a rock was lifted towards a Roman, I don’t care what the motivation is. I’ve been a centurion for long enough to know that Pax Romana is not concerned with fine distinctions, and neither is the Governor.
But now here I am, in the capital, for the longest and worst holiday of the year. Appropriate, I suppose, for this is the smallest and worst capital in the Empire. Stuck high up on a desert mountain, where water is short and the air is thin, and nights are freezing cold. The olives are wizened and the wine is worse. All in all, I almost prefer being in Britannia. And the crowds!
The whole of Judea is here, and swarms of people from all over the Empire, pouring into the tiny city as if their lives depend on it. And for such a strange religion as well: a cruel and capricious and changeable god (only one!), who makes demand after demand on his people, and never allows them anything in exchange. Such an exclusive god as well. I’m a well-brought up Roman citizen, and I’m perfectly prepared to offer libations at the altar of Mithras and Zoroaster and Toutatis and Lud. But when I arrived in Jerusalem I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I am NOT to go to the Temple, and I am NOT to attempt to pay respects to the Jewish god: “a jealous god” they call him. Psycho, more like.
And now dumped into mopping up duties. Mopping up after another religious-political mess up. A man who claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a holy man; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a prophet; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a political leader; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a rival King to Caesar. Honestly the story isn’t straight, and I don’t think it ever will get straight. Any little respect I might have had for the Jewish religious leaders, and the little respect I have for legates and governors has long gone. The naked pursuit of private agendas is one thing: how else did Pax Romana get to be Pax Romana without it being imposed so decisively? What really annoys me is the incompetence shown by the priests and the Governor. This trouble-maker could’ve been arrested long before the holiday, or he could’ve been “disappeared” until after the crowds dispersed. But a public trial and a public execution on the day before the holiday when the city was at its most volatile? … well! If you want a problem solved, best call the Legion VI Ferrata!
The execution spot, just outside the city walls, is prepared. Golgotha, the Jews called it (barbarous tongue): Calvary to civilized folk. We’ve had executions there regularly, the last three days ago, and the bodies have been taken down this morning. There are four crosses ready, although we’re only going to need three: one for the Galilean political, and two for ordinary criminals— robbers? bandits? something like that. The next problem to sort out is getting to the execution ground. The streets between the Governor’s palace, the Antonia, and the nearest gate to Calvary are narrow, and bound to be crowded. Short swords might be needed, but clubs will be more effective for close-up work. Better make sure that the detail are issued with them. I’ll pick up the execution party (party! Great name for it!) at the Antonia, and lead them through. Should I ride? No, that’s foolhardy in these streets. I’ll have more control on foot. Easier to get to miscreants at their level.
The robbers are not pleased to see me: one swears, one cries. The “political” says nothing, and just stands there. Is he too dazed to know what is going on? His face and back are certainly streaked with blood and bruising. Let’s see when I order them to shoulder the cross-bars. Hmm… he’s looking around him, like he’s examining the guards who will accompany him to Calvary. He knows what’s going on. More than that: he thinks he’s in control. He’ll learn soon enough.
The streets are tumultuous, but there doesn’t seem to be any resistance. In fact, the crowds are out to jeer at the prisoners. That’s unusual. Jews don’t normally take against the subjects of Roman justice like this. A man could be a rapist and a murderer, but if he was being killed by Roman law, then he immediately turns into a hero for the crowds. But I know enough Aramaic to recognise an insult when I hear one. Ugh! And the air is filled with curses and spit. “Watch it, you! Improve your aim if you don’t want to end up on a cross!”. Better keep a close eye on the political. No reaction. He’s staggering under the weight of the cross bar, banging its outstretched ends into walls and corners and people. But he’s not answering back. His eyes are focussed on the man ahead of him. Sometimes he’s looking into the crowd, like he’s looking for someone in particular. He’s not going to find them, not in this mob. They are always disappointed. No rescue crew coming. He still hasn’t said a word, though. Nice quiet prisoner.
There’s space to breathe outside the city walls, and the air is fresher. Fresh enough for a rain storm? Dammit. I wish I’d brought my long winter cloak. I’m going to get soaked through on this exposed hill waiting for the prisoners to die. I’m going to get a brazier and break their legs after four hours if they aren’t dead by then. No point in prolonging my inconvenience.
Strip the prisoners naked, throw them to the ground, lay them upon their cross bars in front of the uprights we’ve already fixed into the ground. Arms stretched out. Legionaries! Get those nails in! Hope the cross-bars haven’t been used too many times before. Sometimes it’s hard for the nails to grip in stained and splintered wood as they go through the prisoners’ wrists. Two of the three cry out. Ah! A grimace of pain from the political! Still alive then, and not drugged out his suffering by some friendly supporter. Thread the ropes through the hooks on the back of the cross bars and over more hooks on the tops of the stake. Drag the prisoners upright. Pull them to the tops of the stakes. No, I don’t care if their bodies dangle in the air for a bit whilst you get things sorted, legionary! You’ve made sure their arms are tied to the cross bar as well? I don’t want them dying of suffocation too quickly. That always happens if it’s just nails. The people need to see Roman justice, and that takes time.
All three prisoners make it to the cross alive. Practice and professionalism! Final nails into the feet! Push their legs up into a crouch. Just enough purchase to lift their bodies up when they feel their lungs being crushed. Longer to die, and longer to bring the message home to the people about Roman justice.
One last job for the political. Get me a ladder against the political’s cross. Climbing up, I can see the crowds, a decent, and safe distance away. Hand me the titulus. No, that wooden board. A last nail to fix it above the political’s head. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. So that’s his name. Some Jewish VIPs shout at me as I climb down the ladder: “You can’t put that up there!” “Speak to Pilate.” “But, he’s not our king!” “Speak to Pilate.” “Put ‘He said he was king of the Jews’”. “Speak to Pilate. And don’t speak to me again.” This last with my hand on my sword. They shut up.
Not for long though. They turn their attention to the political. Abuse and curses and religious language, I suppose, though I have no idea what most of it means. They must really hate him. The political says nothing for a long while. The screaming continues until one of the robbers joins in as well. Even on a cross you can find someone worse off than yourself. Eventually the political opens his mouth. Finally! “Father, forgive”! In barely a whisper. It stops the abuse for the moment. Everyone looks slightly bemused, as if surprised to find themselves where they are, in a boneyard, screaming at dying men.
The sky’s clouded over. The storm is coming. Good job I ordered that brazier. Three of the lads are playing dice in its warmth. The crowds have thinned now, sensibly enough. The political isn’t going anywhere. Two people remain, standing as close to the cordon of soldiers as they dare. The political is speaking to them, a man and an older woman. Something about looking after each other. You should’ve thought about your will before you got into trouble, sonny.
One of the robbers has already died. The other is close to it. A hour inside my timetable. Good job too, because it’s now as dark as pitch, and the rain is lashing down. Only the political is still going, pushing himself up on his nailed feet, stretching towards the heavens. “I have finished…” (true enough, sonny). “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” And then the political shudders, and dies.
That’s odd. What’s was that all about? Have I missed something in all the events of the day. Perhaps, all in all, this man really was righteous? Even so, righteous or not, he’s dead.
Thank the gods that was over. Mopping up successfully accomplished. Time to get the body down before sunset. Let the relatives have him, and then we can forget all about him. I wonder if the water is hot in the barrack bath house?