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by Stephen Dando-Collins
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: In a magnificently conceived and executed historical novel, first-time writer Stephen Dando-Collins invents a historical conceit worthy of the work of Dan Brown and worthy of comparison with the huge, international bestseller THE DA VINCI CODE. During the reign of the Emperor Vespasian and shortly after Roman armies have crushed the Jewish revolt in Judea and destroyed the temple, a young Roman Questor and investigating magistrate, Julius Varro, is commissioned to investigate the story that a Jew rose from the dead after being crucified in Jerusalem some forty years before. Implicit in his commission is the mandate that he must return with proof of the conclusion that such an event could not have happened. The fast-growing cult of the Nazarene is becoming a threat to the political stability in the region--and to the power of Rome as well--and convincing disproof of the story. Many of the witnesses to the tale are long dead, the trail of evidence is chancy at best. Many of the living feel compelled to lie to protect their own lives. Questor Varro pursues his mission with zeal and conviction, determined to produce a report that will demolish the claims put forward by those he regards as religious fanatics and crackpots. Along the way, his investigation stirs religious passions, immerses him in unexpected intrigue and foments violence. He also finds himself attracted to a beautiful Jewish slave girl. Varro completes his report demolishing the myth that seems to be fueling the new Christian movement and is set to return to Rome when an extraordinary, in fact miraculous, event occurs that changes everything?including Varro's own beliefs.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: November 2009
10 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [597 KB]
Reading time: 380-532 min.
THE DEAD JEW
Antiocn, Capital of the Roman Province of Syria.
February, A.D. 71
In the time of our grandfathers, there arose a man of Rome who won the hearts of his countrymen, a man unlike any who came before him or who came after him. He was the grandson of Marcus Antonius, yet he was not ambitious. He was the brother of Claudius, yet he was no fool. He was the father of Caligula, yet he was not depraved. He was...
A roar from the crowd intruded on Julius Varro's thoughts, dragging him back from the work of history which for years past he had been aching to commit to paper. On the sands of the amphitheater of Antioch in front of him, Jewish prisoners of war had been pitted against each other, with one prisoner in every pair sent out unarmed. Under the sweltering midday sun, while many in the 30,000 crowd ate a lunch of juicy Damascus plums and fresh-baked bread and spicy balls of goats meat provided by the editor of the games, Jew was expected to butcher Jew, as entertainment for the mob. To the delight and amusement of the Syrian spectators, some defenseless victims ran, uselessly, pointlessly from their appointment with death. There was no escape in the circular stadium. Now, one pair in particular had drawn the attention and the ire of many in the crowd around Varro. Spectators gave bellicose voice to their displeasure.
"Run, Jew, run!" came the screeching voice of a woman in an upper tier.
"Kill him, old man!" called a vicious youth to Varro's right. A thousand voices raucously concurred.
Beneath a shading purple canopy, thirty-four-year-old Varro, athletic, dark-haired, clean shaven like all Romans of his day, sat in the second row of the amphitheater's official box, the tribunal of the editor of the games. His deep brown eyes were fixed on a scene directly below the box. There stood a tall man, naked but for a thick leather belt. An olive-skinned Jew, broad of shoulder, with the skin hanging from his starved bones, he wore a gladiator's helmet with a metal visor fixed to the front. Peppered with holes for sight and breath, the visor covered the face, rendering the owner anonymous. A tuft of gray beard projected below the visor. At his right side, the Jew held a short sword. He was frozen, with his eyes on a younger, wholly naked man of twenty or so who knelt before him. Here was the cause of the crowd's unease--the young man was begging the other to end his life for him.
Through the baying of the mob, Varro could just hear the young man's plea. He spoke in Aramaic, the language of the region, a language of which Varro had a basic comprehension.
"Kill me, father!" cried the youth. "Kill me now!"
Varro, disinterested in the days' entertainment program until now, could not take his eyes from father and son. He knew the pair would have been numbered among the 97,000 Jewish prisoners taken during the Roman siege of Jerusalem which had all but ended the Jewish Revolt the previous summer. At this public spectacle in Antioch, these were the last of the prisoners to be disposed of. Here, a father had been ordered to kill his own son, and the father could not bring himself to comply.
The hoots and boos of the crowd were increasing to a crescendo. Varro could no longer make out what was being said on the arena sands. By his gesticulations, it was obvious that the boy continued to implore his father to dispatch him. There was no response; the parent remained immobilized. Varro wondered what he would do in the same situation. Varro was childless, not even married. Would his own father have had the bravery and the humanity to swiftly end his son's life in similar circumstances? Varro doubted it. His father had not been a man of courage.
If Varro were the father faced with this dilemma, he now pondered, what then? What if this were his son on bended knees before him, knowing that if Varro did not kill his child someone else very soon would? As Varro watched, the Jewish boy took his fate into his own hands. Coming to his feet, he scrambled the several paces that brought him to his parent's feet, then dropped to his knees directly in front of the older man. Grasping his father's sinewy right arm, the boy brought the sharp tip of the twenty-inch legionary sword to the middle of his chest, above his heart. The youth looked up, and spoke words of parting.
Then, with all his might, the young man pulled his father's arm toward him. The blade pierced the boy's flesh, and slid into his heart. Spectators roared their disapproval. Father and son had deprived them of their sport. As the boy died on his knees in front of him, the father withdrew the sword with an anguished cry, then cast it away. Bloodied, the weapon spun through the air and landed on the sand. Inclining his visored face to the cloudless sky, the old Jew began to scream inaudibly to the heavens.
The standing Jew was quickly surrounded by heavily armed troops. Men of the Antioch City Guard, they came running from the perimeter of the arena. As the soldiers stripped the man of helmet and belt, Varro could see that the elder Jew's face was long, and weathered. The father lowered his head, and locked his tear-filled eyes on the body of his son. Amphitheater slaves in red-striped tunics of white wool appeared around him. The slaves had dashed from a door in the arena wall which opened just long enough to admit them. Some brought buckets of sand, others carried a giant hook of iron. With the expertise of habit, several slaves quickly forced the razor sharp tip of the hook through the body of the youth. It entered at the stomach and exited from the middle of the back. Putting ropes over their shoulders, the slaves dragged the limp corpse from the arena. In their wake, others spread fresh sand over blood soaking the arena floor.
As the soldiers then withdrew, Varro saw that another Jew stood facing the father of the boy. This younger man had been equipped with the father's belt, helmet and sword. Some in the crowd were urging the older man to run, others called for the new executioner to quickly terminate the father for his lack of spirit. The elder man sank to his knees and lowered his head. The second prisoner quickly obliged him. Raising the sword two-handed, he brought it down across the back of the old Jew's neck. To cheers from the tiered seats the gray-bearded head was separated from the older man's shoulders with a single violent slice. With a spray of blood, the head fell to the ground. There it lay, the open eyes still watery with tears.
* * * *
"Did you see that wretched Jew, depriving the crowd of their entertainment?" said General Gnaeus Collega as he and Varro stepped from the general's litter in the light of spluttering torches held by the general's attendants. Ahead of them, broad steps rose to Collega's Antioch residence on the Augustan Way. Collega, commander of the 4th Scythica Legion and Acting Governor of the province of Syria and its sub province, Judea, was the same age as his deputy Julius Varro. Overweight, short, and losing his hair, Collega looked ten years older. He had been administering the region ever since the governor, Licinius Mucianus, had led an army on Rome eighteen months before to unseat the emperor Vitellius and install the current emperor Vespasian in his place.
"Which wretched Jew was that, my lord?" Varro asked absently. A thousand times over the uneven contests between pairs of Jews had been repeated in the amphitheater through the day's middle hours, with each armed man disarmed to face his own doom as soon as he had terminated his designated victim, until 2,000 Jews had killed one another. In the afternoon, the lunch time diversion of the Jewish extermination had given way to the real entertainment of the day, the professional fighters. None of this interested Varro. He would have much rather been writing his planned history of Germanicus Caesar, Roman hero. Epic poems and turgid histories had been written about Germanicus, but no one had dared to delve into his murder. That, thought Varro, would be a true test of his skills as a writer and an investigator. To solve the mystery, that would be a challenge he would enjoy. There was no challenge, no fascinating intrigue, about the bloodshed of the arena. Its lack of nobility sickened him.
"The fellow who fell on his own sword after separating the old man's head from his shoulders," Collega responded as they went up the stairs. "Most unsporting of him."
Varro nodded in remembrance. "Ah, that wretched Jew." Before the soldiers of the Guard could reach him, the decapitator of the father who had grabbed Varro's attention had put the sword to his own throat. Looking up at the crowd, taking in the sight of his tormentors for one last time, he had fallen forward. As the sword's pommel hit the ground the blade punctured the man's throat and rammed on through. The point came out the back of the neck. The Jew had died instantly. The crowd had howled its derision. This, they cried, was the act of a coward; they had been cheated.
Blood and death were like food and drink to most Romans. What made Varro different, he did not know. But, as a Questor--a junior magistrate--and the deputy of the Governor of Syria and Judea, Varro could not afford to show anything other than a hard exterior. So he attended the games, watched the barbarity that passed for entertainment, and put on a Roman face. Especially when he was sharing the official box with the emperor's son; that morning, the gleaming golden chair at the front of the box had been occupied by Titus Vespasianus, thirty-two-year-old general, conqueror of Jerusalem, heir to Caesar Vespasian, and second most powerful man in the world. After viewing the morning session, Titus had departed Antioch, setting out for Alexandria in Egypt where he would take ship for Rome to join his father.
Collega was out of breath by the time he reached the top of the steps. Coming to halt, he put a hand on the middle of his chest. A wince of pain creased his cheek.
"General?" said Varro, halting beside him. "What is it?"
"Indigestion, according to the noble physician Diocles," Collega replied. He had been eating throughout the day as he watched the games; rich delicacies: grilled dormouse dipped in honey, pigeon wings, sweetbreads. "Not that I trust that old drunkard of a Corinthian's diagnoses. He ignores half my ailments and dispenses obscure potions for the remainder, which do me no good whatsoever. Did you see him today, wagering on every contest? And losing. Damned fool!" Collega set off again, walking in through open double doors, ignoring bowing slaves. "Diocles' judgement leaves much to be desired. If I am ever truly ill, he will be last man I consult. He would kill me before my time."
"You know what they say, general: if you want to live a long life, never make your physician your heir."
"Well said, Varro, well said!" Collega cackled. "If the truth be known, Syria is bad for my health. I am more than ready to go home, I can tell you.
Only the previous day Collega had learned from the emperor's son that a new governor of consular rank had been chosen by Caesar to come out to Syria. But, for a variety of reasons, the new man, Petus, would not arrive in Antioch for another fourteen to fifteen months. And, because the new governor would bring out his own staff from Rome, including a questor, Varro would also be going home. Not a month too soon, as far as Varro was concerned. He had already given four years to this post. He could tolerate another year, but no more. With luck, he hoped, now that the calamities and crimes of the Jewish Revolt were in the past, peace and normality would return to the region. He might even find the time to finally expound his theories about the murder of Germanicus, reveal the murderer, and prove himself a writer of note.
Appearing in their path, a short, tubby man with white hair, a closely trimmed white beard and wearing a plain brown tunic which matched his sober bearing, announced, "My lord, you have a visitor."
"I am too weary for visitors, Pythagoras," said Collega, impatiently waving away his chief secretary, a Greek named for the famous philosopher of 600 years before.
"It is Flavius Josephus, my lord," said the secretary gravely.
Collega stopped in mid stride. "Josephus? Here? What does he want?" He glanced at Varro, looking worried. "I thought we had seen the back of Josephus." He grimaced to himself. "Very well, Pythagoras," he sighed, "lead us to him."
Pythagoras conducted the pair to a colonnaded garden courtyard. A slim man stood by a fountain where water spouted from the mouth of a bronze dolphin.
Collega produced a practiced smile as they approached. "My lord Josephus, I had thought you on your way to Rome with Titus Vespasianus."
Thirty-five-year-old Flavius Josephus wore a full beard and a serious expression. Five years before, he had been the Jewish general in command of all partisan forces in Galilee fighting the Roman army. Josephus had changed sides, going over to Vespasian and Titus, advising them on strategies against his former comrades and predicting that both father and son would in their turn rule Rome. His defection had brought him freedom, Roman citizenship, and the ear of the sovereign of the Roman world. "Soon enough, Collega," Josephus said, briefly accepting Collega's right hand. "I will overtake His Excellency's column on the road south. For the moment, there is a matter I would raise with you before I leave this part of the world."
Ignoring Varro, Josephus put an arm around Collega's shoulders and steered the general to a bench at the far end of the garden. Varro could imagine that Collega's skin must be crawling, knowing as he did that Collega despised all Jews. Counting against Josephus too was the invisible brand of traitor against his own people. Titus might trust this Jew, but Collega did not. As Varro watched from a distance, Josephus and Collega sank onto the bench. Now the Jew lay his right arm along the back of the bench, leaned close to Collega, then began to fill his ear with a stream of softly spoken words. After a time, Collega began to reply, in an equally conspiratorial tone.
Curious, Varro edged closer, taking care not to appear to be eavesdropping. He only caught snatches. "Nazarene" was mentioned, and "Jesus of Nazareth," "God of the Jews," "the Messiah," "the Christos."
Then, unexpectedly, Collega looked up and beckoned his questor. "How much of this have you overheard, Varro?" he asked him.
"Er, a little, general," Varro guilty admitted as he came up to the pair.
"You are a smart fellow, Varro," said Collega. "What do you know of this Nazarene? What name did you give him, Josephus?"
"Jesus of Nazareth, his Greek-speaking followers call him," Josephus replied, looking at Varro.
"I have heard of such a man, while in Judea," said Varro. "It is said by some that he worked miracles, my lord, like so many Jewish miracle workers. I believe he was crucified at Jerusalem, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar."
"Miracles?" said Collega caustically, shaking his head. "Pah!"
"Well done, questor," said Josephus approvingly. "This Jesus was indeed crucified during the reign of Tiberius."
Varro felt that Josephus had an intelligent face. Unlike Collega, Varro was not a man of inherited prejudices. He took people as he found them, and on the few occasions that he had met Josephus he had found him a learned if immodest man..
"Crucified? For what crime?" Collega asked.
"The Nazarene was convicted of sedition against Rome," Josephus went on, addressing Collega once more. "His followers insist that he came back to life, two days following his execution, and that is their proof that he was divine, that he was the Messiah, as it is said in my native tongue."
Varro frowned. "Messiah?" he queried. "I'm unfamiliar with that term, my lord."
A smile tickled the corners of Josephus' mouth. His lively eyes sparkled. "The Christos, his Greek followers call him, questor--the anointed one.'"
"Anointed for what?" Varro asked.
Before Josephus could reply, Collega interrupted. "This coming back to life nonsense," he said with irritation. "Do these people really believe it, Josephus? We have a few of these Nazarenes here at Antioch. I had classed them with all the other Jews of the city." There were in fact 40,000 Jewish residents in the Antioch population of 250,000. "Do they genuinely believe that he actually rose from the dead?"
Josephus nodded. "They believe that he rose from the dead, that he walked from his tomb at Jerusalem, walked to Galilee, then ascended to Heaven. They say he was a god, Collega. A dangerous claim in these unstable times, you would agree."
"A god?" Collega scoffed. "Did anyone see him, after he supposedly rose from the dead and went strolling around Palestine?"
"It is claimed that a number of his devotees saw him and spoke with him after his execution." Josephus smiled, knowingly. "Obviously, this claim is fraudulent, Collega. Thereby hangs the means of suppression of the Nazarenes."
"You have lost me," said Collega impatiently.
"The beauty of the approach I am about to suggest to you, Collega," Josephus confided, "is that you do not have to execute a single Jew to destroy these people. Here is the crux of the matter..."
So that he missed nothing, Varro took a step closer.
"Prove as baseless the claim that this man rose from the dead," said the Jew. "And you destroy the basic tenet of the Nazarenes' belief. Prove that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah, the redeemer of the Jewish people promised by ancient texts, and publish the evidence the length and breadth of the Empire, and you will make these Nazarenes a laughing stock. The edifice of their belief will come crashing down, and the Nazarenes will have been shown to be mere story-tellers and frauds. Their Messiah will be discredited, and their sect will fade into obscurity."
Collega frowned. "Prove that this Jew did not rise from the dead? You think that would be enough to destroy them?"
Josephus nodded. "Prove the ridiculous claim of the Nazarenes to be the myth it is. Like the myth that Nero Caesar is still alive and living here in the East in disguise."
It was Collega's turn to smile. He was thoughtful for a time, unconsciously tugging the lobe of one ear. Then he turned to Josephus, who had given the general time to consider his words. "What of these claims of miracles that Varro speaks of? Would it not also be necessary to disprove those?"
"Miracles, miracles," Josephus responded with an open-handed shrug and a pout of the lips. "You have been in the East long enough, Collega, to know that this part of the world abounds with miracle workers, all of them nothing more than clever magicians. Even Caesar Vespasianus, when he was at Alexandria last year, performed miracles, right before my very eyes."
Collega looked at him with surprise. "He did? Caesar did that?"
Josephus nodded. "I saw it for myself. He cured a blind beggar, simply by spitting in his eyes. Another, a lame man, he cured by stomping on his foot. Yet, is Caesar making claims of divinity?"
Varro watched as Collega again lapsed into thought. Like the general, Varro was astonished by the revelation about the emperor's miraculous powers. He had met Vespasian when he was a general of consular rank, before he became emperor of Rome. Vespasian had been coarse, as foul-mouthed as a common legionary, and terse; the last person Varro would have credited with heavenly powers. Then again, when he met him, Varro had never imagined that the general would one day be his emperor, either.
"So, you see, Collega," Josephus went on, "this fellow Jesus' miracles are of no consequence when it comes to disproving his divinity. We must concentrate on the unique claim, the obviously ridiculous claim as far as thinking men are concerned, that Jesus rose from the dead. This is the foundation of the Nazarenes' appeal to the feeble-minded. Undermine that, and you will destroy the sect and all that it represents. In doing so, you will be able to guarantee Caesar that you have destroyed a corrupting influence within the Jewish community and brought stability to Syria and Judea, and to the Roman East as a whole." He paused, letting his words sink in.
Collega, obviously uncomfortable with the Jew's proposal, screwed up his face. "What do you have against these Nazarenes, Josephus?"
"The Nazarenes are recruiting followers outside the Jewish faith, making an abomination of Jewish Law," replied the pious Jew. "Worse, for Rome, they are infiltrating the cities and the towns of your domain, Collega."
The general turned, scowling. "Can one dead Jew be so troublesome?" he asked, thinking aloud. "Could right-thinking Romans believe the Nazarene nonsense?"
"Fantastic untruths take root in feeble minds," Josephus declared. "The corrupting doctrines of the Nazarenes cannot be tolerated. Mucianus would approve if you were to act against these people." Ever since he had engineered Vespasian's rise to power, Mucianus, Collega's former chief in Syria, had been the emperor's right hand man. "We both know that Mucianus has no time for philosophers of any kind," Josephus continued. "Most importantly, Collega, Caesar would approve. Eliminate a cause of friction within Jewish communities. Halt the insidious spread of Nazarene influence. Do this, Collega, and you will assure your swift career advancement on your return to Rome."
"Is this Titus' wish?" Collega asked. "The destruction of the Nazarenes?"
From his perspective, Varro could sense the general's indecision.
"These are your provinces, Collega," said Josephus. "What you do in your own provinces is for you to decide. Equally, what you do to advance your own career is for you to decide."
Collega was nodding slowly.
"That career is by no means assured, Collega," Josephus persisted, his voice changing, losing its friendly edge and taking a more distanced tone. Now too he came to his feet.
With sudden concern that the Jew knew something that he did not, the Acting Governor brought his head around to face him. "What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
Josephus shrugged. "There are other men of your rank who served in the Jewish War and won great honors. Certainly, you have performed your duties admirably here in Syria all this time. Your handling of the inquiry into the Fire of Antioch met with Titus' approval." He glanced at Varro as he said this, knowing that the questor had been instrumental in the outcome of that inquiry only weeks before. "Yet, for all that, Collega, there is nothing to match the glory of a military campaign when Caesar comes to decide the new year's appointments. Already, you will be a year or two behind your colleagues by the time you return to Rome." He paused, for effect. "However, if your return were to be preceded by a meritorious achievement, such as the discrediting of the Nazarenes..."
Collega did not reply.
"Your future is in your own hands, Collega," Josephus hissed. "Think on it." With that parting comment, the Jew strode from the garden.
Collega looked up at his deputy, as if seeking guidance. "What do you think of all that, Varro?"
Varro shrugged. "Troubling, my lord."
"Yes, troubling. Is it Titus' wish, the discrediting of the Nazarenes?" Collega pondered. "Or is this all Josephus' idea, and he wants me to think he is doing Titus' bidding?" He tugged his ear lobe. "Troubling indeed."