Pilate and Claudia
This story is a work of historical fiction, based on the Four Canonical Gospels of Holy Scripture, as well as additional information provided by historians such as Josephus, and legendary materials collected from antiquity. The final resolution is my own.
I am not a monster. I am a man, made of flesh and blood, nerve and passion. And ambition…yes, of course, what would a man be without it? It defines him, or so I always believed, and makes him rise beyond the expectations of others who would spit in his face if he turned his cheek to them. Yet my wife Claudia would call it my fatal flaw.
But before you are too quick to judge me, you must hear my story. It will hardly absolve me in your minds, but perhaps it will give you some pause all the same, perhaps give you an uncomfortable start at the realization that you and I are not so very different as you first imagined. I believe the Nazarene himself said something about not throwing the first stone unless you were blameless yourself. Is there anyone truly free from the gnawing intensity of ambition, I wonder? Yes, perhaps one…but first, to tell my tale.
I was born beneath a yew tree, of a Caledonian tribeswoman who pleasured the Roman soldiers stationed at Fortnangall. I have been told that my mother’s eyes were the color of sky, and that any man who looked into them would not rest until he had lain in her embrace. I don’t remember one way or the other, for I was taken away from her as soon as my father was convinced she had borne his child. I wondered sometimes if she objected at all, or if she was happy to be rid of a hindrance to her career.
My father would never confirm any of my questions about her. He was an official of Caesar, and had a reputation to protect; I was a half-blood barbarian’s offspring whom he could afford to leave in ignorance. The whole sordid affair that had brought about my existence was best left untouched in the shadowed land of unconveyed memories.
Nevertheless, he saw to it that I inherited his name, and that I was educated as a true Roman. I was taught of the founding myth of our great City and Empire, of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf, of the way we brought civilization and order to the world and reached the pinnacle of human achievement. I also learned about Roman law and our dedication to justice. “Fiat Justitia ruat caelum” – “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”
I am not going to fall back upon some noble standard to explain my actions. I came forth into the world the unwanted accident of a night’s folly, beneath an ancient tree that symbolized death, as twisted as the ways of men. I had few high ideals, only a yearning to find some legitimacy, some sense of belonging…and power. I wanted people to salute me when I walked by, and not snicker that their mothers were ladies. I had a ferocious temper and tasted vengeance on my tongue often enough. I vowed to make them rue the way they had treated me.
Having never known my mother, I could not say I loved her. I rarely saw my father, and knew he felt little more than stoic obligation to me, so I could not love him either. I did not develop strong attachments to my stern teachers, nor anyone in fact, and tended to be a loner, a plodder, a self-made man. But in spite of all hurdles in my path, I did excel at what I was taught, and upon my majority I became an officer in the army through my father’s good name and my own determination.
There was one dilemma, however. To climb yet farther up, I knew I must make some binding alliance with a powerful, pure-blood family. This would require a marital settlement. I had no romantic daydreams; I had lived long enough without love to grow accustomed to it, and decided I could go on as such. If I could strike a good match, I would do my duty and take care of whatever little wife I wound up with. Like a pet cat, I would keep it fed and give it shiny toys to play with, and scratch it every once in a while. Nothing too time consuming, to be sure. Nothing that would throw me off my own mark and rise to glory.
But then I met Claudia. She was of noble birth, and I had done everything in my power to arrange a settlement with her father, hoping to claim the prize of her dowry and her legitimacy. But something happened to me when I first met her, with her sparkling green eyes and rebellious gold curls that danced as she walked. The softness of her hand as it slipped into mine in greeting. I did not know how to love, and yet if I loved anything, it had to be Claudia.
But there were others courting her favor as well, men with better breeding and more wealth than I had to offer. She seemed quite adroit in the art of accepting their flattery with a pleasant countenance and playful demeanor, sparring with them with witty remarks and her ever-merry laugh, never promising too much but always keeping them guessing.
I knew I did not have the words to match them in the game. I could learn quickly when it came to the art of war, but I was never adept at the art of wooing woman. So I decided one day my only chance of turning the tables on my rivals was to be brutally honest with the woman I hoped to claim for my wife. Upon our third arranged meeting, I decided to put my rather straightforward plan into effect.
“Lady Claudia,” I began as we walked leisurely through her father’s gardens, “I will be frank with you.”
“Really?” she twitted. “How refreshing, for a man.”
“That’s why I’ve decided upon this approach,” I admitted. “I cannot but imagine that you have had enough poetic sentiments from my worthy competitors.”
“Oh, they’re really quite amusing,” she laughed lightly, “especially because I have managed to elude every one of them thus far.”
“Do they not disgust you at times? Would they not be superior in your eyes if they spoke as honest men?”
“What would they say?” she countered. “That my father is a prominent man of means and connections in high places, and as such I am desirable to them?”
“At least it would be the truth.”
Claudia snorted, like an annoyed mare in the stables. “If they think they deceive me they are very wrong. I know their motives for swearing their undying devotion, for praising my every word and deed as a great accomplishment, for saying they could search a hundred years and never find another to enflame their ardor. Ha! It is a sure sign of their duplicity when they know so little of me, and yet are determined to fall in love with me on the spot, come what may.”
“Are you truly not the least bit insulted by this?” I queried. “Especially since they will undoubtedly repeat the process with others?”
“I have very little to do with it,” she noted with a shrug. “They seek me not for myself, but as one who will satisfy a need or lend flesh to a phantom in their own dreams. They want many things from me – fortune, position, a partner in the marriage bed, or a submissive woman to possess as a prize and dominate as a slave. But I am not so submissive, nor easily won, and my father would never force me into a marriage against my will. So you see I have already won in the game. I will choose my own mate, if any.” She paused, and turned to face me. “So do you fancy yourself to be a man of truth, Pilate? Superior to all these others in your integrity?”
I met her gaze steadily. Her one eyebrow was raised sarcastically, but I sensed that her eyes were searching my soul. “I would think it foolish to lie to a woman such as yourself,” I answered carefully.
“That’s flattery,” she clucked.
“No, it’s truth,” I insisted. “And it’s also the truth that a marriage to you would enable my advancement and monetary settlement. And I have sought after these things eagerly, but no less than any of the others seeking your hand.”
She smiled slightly. “You are frank, Pilate.”
“It is only so you may know I am in earnest, and know I would not deceive you.”
“Small consolation, in the end,” she sighed, pretending to pout.
“Is it so small to know that Pilate will remain Pilate no matter the weather, and that he would be the same man today as he would be as your husband?”
“But what sort of man is he today?” she queried, hand on her hip.
“I am…just that,” I decided, “a man.”
“Well and good,” she exhaled. “But can you make good conversation on any topic of my choosing? Are you well-read? If I must spend my life with you, will I be bored to death?”
“In all honesty, I have never had time to read for pleasure, and I have not been one for light conversation. In fact, my social habits are generally mundane, and I have much preferred to keep to myself.” I saw the disapproving look on her face, and quickly added, “But I would not wish for my less than stimulating habits to send you to an early grave.”
This brought an amused smile to her face. A good sign, to be sure.
“I would be willing to learn anything you could teach me about…well, anything,” I assured. “It would do me much good to be more pleasing in company, for any position I might ascend to.”
“Ah, a career plan”, she twitted.
“And something I think that might help us…get better acquainted. I believe I should be able to learn better from you than anyone. You are…very fine, Claudia, graceful yet strong. That is what a soldier wants in a wife. Someone he can truly…admire…truly love. Even though I do not know what that entails, I do believe…I do hope I could give you some of the happiness you deserve.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “You know, I never met my mother…but if I ever father children, I should very much like them to have a mother like you, who would raise them to be fine Romans.”
Claudia stared at me long and hard. “You intrigue me, Pilate,” she admitted. “For some reason I am inclined to believe that you are sincere.”
“I appreciate it.”
She smiled at me quizzically. “We shall see.”
I will not drone about every detail of my life story. Suffice to say, Claudia did become my wife of her own choosing, and she did teach me to be more social. I had never been taught by a woman before, so I occasionally became cross at first, but she bore up with it stoically. She taught me to discuss the classics, appreciate music, food, wine, and other fineries I was unused to identifying with a gourmet palate. I still disliked large groups and viewed the scions of the court with suspicion, but came to greatly enjoy my time spent with Claudia.
Two years into our marriage, Claudia grew full with child, but she became ill and miscarried, nearly dying in the process. The physician said the strain was too much on her, and she would have no more children. I never saw her look so weak as then. I saw her lying in bed, as pale as the sheet….and I was terrified. I had not realized how very much she had come to be my anchor in the harsh current of the Roman Tiber.
“I’m sorry, Pilate,” she whispered. “I’ve failed you. Now I shall never bear you a son to bear your name.” She glanced down. “Perhaps, it might be best for you to consider…taking a new…”
“But I still have Claudia,” I cut her off, a lump in my throat. “For that, I am more than content.”
She smiled a little, sadly. “My birth is the main asset, yes?”
“No,” I blurted out, hard. Then we just looked at each other for what felt like forever, and I repeated more softly, “No.”
And then I knew just how much I had grown to love her, beyond any hopes, and we only grew closer thereafter.
As far as my career went, I did rise in rank, slowly but surely. And I learned to channel my fiery temper into fighting barbarians to defend and spread our empire. What was it to me that my mother had been one? I had never loved her; I could barely remember a thing about her; and she had never wanted me, anyway.
So I could learn to hate the enemies of Rome, view them as subhuman. I could order their dispersal and massacre with few qualms. And yet when my position changed from military to political, I was expected to sheath my sword, and work solely to uphold Pax Romana in conquered lands. Even through appeasement. And I hated it.
I suppose I always knew any foreign outpost I might be assigned would be a desert forsaken by the gods. The omen of the yew tree still hung over me, cursing my every step. I was appointed governor of Judea, one of the most primitive and restless provinces in the empire, dominated by priests and scribes and religious fanatics and false messiahs. And yet how could I turn the post down?
I spoke with Claudia about it one night, as we lay in bed together, not long before leaving Rome. I often discussed matters of state with her. She had become my link to sanity amid the swirl of political intrigue, and her mind grasped situations quickly and accurately. I had learned to trust her intuition.
“Pilate, do not fret so,” she sighed. “This may be an opportunity, sent from the gods for your glory. If you succeed in keeping the peace among such an impossible race, you will surely be promoted ahead of others.”
“Are you so very sure the gods are on my side?” I quipped.
“Naturally,” she asserted. “You are my husband, after all. They wouldn’t dare cross me.”
I laughed out loud at this. “I should think that might work the opposite way? Would not Venus wish to spite me for claiming a bride that rivals her beauty?”
“Now you’re talking nonsense.”
“Well, at least her wit…”
“Thank you for nothing.”
I turned and kissed her on the mouth, and the neck.
“Pilate, enough!” she pushed me away playfully.
“But we will have so little time together now,” I protested. “I must set sail within the fortnight.”
“I don’t see what cause you have for complaint, considering I shall be mistress of your palace in Judea,” she retorted.
“Claudia…you’re not serious?”
“Did you think I would actually trust you to take care of yourself, all alone?” she queried with a coy smile. “Your temper is always getting you in trouble; it’s as predictable as the weather in its outrageous explosions.”
“There is danger in Judea, serious danger,” I warned. “I could not allow you to run that risk.”
“Oh, don’t be so heavy-handed,” she chided me. “I do think I can take care of myself, indeed, far better than you can, often enough. Besides, when I married you, there was a sense of obligation involved for me. I must be there for you.”
I smirked. “You take your obligations to heart, don’t you?”
She looked at me, and her eyes shone brightly, even in the dark. “You are a man, Pilate… I mean, a real man. I always feared I might be wed to a fop, a perfume-stained, prattling-tongued fop. I could not have borne up with that. They say you are a brute, with anger pent up inside you; well, perhaps you are, to your enemies. And yet I know you can be gentle as well, at least with me. They say you are driven my ambition; I’ve always known that was true. And yet you have not lost yourself…you say what you think, and you will not mince words for anyone. Your love and hatred alike is authentic. Hence, you are a real man. I can love that man. I cannot be too long apart from him.”
I smiled softly. “I hope I shall always be…a man to you, Claudia.”
I knew Palestine was a necessary evil in my life, but I found it exceedingly hard to endure. I was never cut out to be a diplomat. And indeed, there were times I gave up trying to be one altogether. I did not suffer fools, or rebels, lightly. If any Jew dare raised his hand against Rome, that hand would be swiftly cut off. I was not afraid of the use of manacles and whips and crosses. I was not afraid to draw the blood of traitors, and mix it with mortar to build upon.
But then…there was the Nazarene. Another death, after so many, should not have stained my hand or conscience so very keenly. And yet some things that bear common appearance yet hold a different form, a sharper dig at a heart supposed to be long ago hardened. Oh, what was wrong with me?
The Pharisees brought him to me for judgment during the Jewish festival of Passover. It was early in the morning, and I was in no mood for such a task. To make matters worse, due to the holy days, they had the gall to make me come out to them, lest they defile themselves by entering the dwelling of a gentile.
“What accusation do you bring against this Man they say you have brought to me?” I demanded gruffly.
“If he were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered him up to you,” the high priest Caiaphas responded, crossing his arms across his robes.
“You take him and judge him according to your law,” I instructed impatiently. “Why bother me with such trifles?”
“But it is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” another priest retorted.
I raised an eyebrow. “Death? What has he done to merit this?”
“We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ, a King,” Caiaphas concluded.
This left me with a distinct feeling of doubt. Since when had the Sanhedrin become so very sensitive about the interests of Rome? I knew their games of double-dealing to get what they wanted, and my nostrils swelled with the scent of something rotten. There had to be some ulterior motive at work in their minds. And yet there had been enough fanatics in this country to warrant further investigation.
“I will question him,” I stated, returning to the Praetorian.
My first impression of the Nazarene was dominated by the look in his eyes. They were so ordinary in some ways, and yet like no other human eyes I have ever seen. They were Jewish eyes, to be sure, and yet they seemed to transcend his race. I cannot accurately describe what I mean by that. I was never a frivolous man, never given to flights of fancy. But in spite of myself, I marveled.
I took my seat upon the marble throne of my office and stared down the man before me, my curiosity piqued. “Are you the King of the Jews?” I challenged him.
“It is you who have said it,” he responded solemnly. “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” I shrugged contemptuously. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.”
This seemed satisfactory enough to me, even if it proved puzzling. He clearly was no threat to Roman interests, just a self-proclaimed spiritualist of little note. I returned to the chief priests and stated, “I find no fault in this man.”
“But he stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place!” they insisted fiercely.
“Then…he is a Galilean?” A small smirk formed on my mouth. “Then he belongs to Herod’s jurisdiction. Send him first to Herod for his judgment.”
I had never been overly fond of Herod, a sniveling sycophant more concerned with maintaining the pleasures of his position than ruling with the judgments of a king. But he was of use to Rome as a puppet, and of use to me now as a solution to the day’s trouble.
But in the course of a couple of hours, my plan unraveled altogether. Herod had sent him back to me, and the chief priests, how having had time to gather a crowd together in the courtyard, were back to bother me again. While he found no fault with him either, it seemed that he had expected some sort of grand miracle to be performed by the prisoner, and when he did not get what he wanted, decided to make sport of him, mocking his claims to kingship and clothing him in a purple cloak. I was simply annoyed that the problem was back in my lap.
“You have brought this man to me, as one who misleads the people,” I reiterated to the assembled throng. “And indeed, having examined him in your presence, I have found no fault in this man concerning those things of which you accuse him. Neither did Herod, for he sent this Nazarene back to me. “
“He stirs up the people with his preaching!” they insisted. “He is a danger to the empire.”
“Think you the eyes of Pilate are so blind, and his ears so deaf, that a dangerous seditionist could command your attention and escape mine?” I spat. “By your own evidence, this man said ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’, and all else that was said by him was in public, and open to all. Your accusations are groundless. You have turned him over to me out of envy alone.”
As I turned to leave again, I heard them crying out, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!”
Barabbas. I had heard that name before. He had been thrown into prison for a lifetime of murder and theft, as well as involvement in a certain rebellion made in the city. They may have just presented me with a perfect way out…
Back inside the Praetorian, Claudia was waiting for him. Her skin was tight and her eyes bloodshot from what I assumed was a sleepless early morning. I had noticed that she had tossed and turned much of the night before.
“Pilate,” her voice was low and gravelly. “Have nothing to do with condemning this just man.”
I was astounded. “Claudia, how do you know anything of him?”
“I suffered much in a dream last night,” she explained. “I saw that face…his face. And his eyes were the same.”
I laid my hands on her shoulders. “A dream, Claudia? Really, wife, you must get a hold of yourself…”
“Since when have you been so quick to discount my advice, husband?” she shot back. “It was not just any dream…it felt real. Realer than real. He’s innocent of any crime.”
Truth be told, I could not discount my sense of unexplained internal dread at the prospect of being a party to the death of this man. Furthermore, dismissing Claudia offhand was not something I was ever comfortable with, and she seemed intensely set upon this point.
“I do not believe him to be guilty either,” I admitted. “But I will let the crowd solve the problem for me. Let them choose between the murderer Barabbas and the Nazarene.”
“But if he’s innocent, would it not be simpler just to…?”
“As you have told me many times, Claudia, being diplomatic often requires trickery,” I noted.
Reluctantly she nodded, and I gave instructions to the guards to bring Barabbas out of the dungeon. Then both prisoners where once again brought out to the steps of judgment, in the sight of the crowd in the courtyard.
“There is a custom among your people that Caesar smiles upon,” I began coolly. “Every year, at the festival of Passover, we release a chosen prisoner to you. So I give you the choice.” I beckoned for both prisoners to be brought forward. “Who do you want me to release to you? A notorious murderer, or this man, your King of the Jews, in whom I find no fault?”
I was so sure of my plan, I never considered that it might well backfire. Surely the Nazarene, who I had since learned had quite a following among the common people, and had just been heralded with great pomp and circumstance upon his arrival in Jerusalem, would be the pick.
But the chief priests had already done their work, stirring up the crowd, so that they would ask for anyone but this Jesus. Yes…they were going to choose the convicted murder over the supposed healer.
“Barabbas!” they cried out. “Free Barabbas!”
At first I did not react, too stunned by what was happening. But they shouted all the more.
“Barabbas! We want Barabbas!”
At last I collected myself and demanded of them, “Then what would you have me do with Jesus, called Christ?”
“Crucify him!” came the cutting reply from them. “Crucify…!!”
“Silence!” I blurted, becoming increasingly disturbed by their determination. “Nothing deserving of death has been done by him. I will therefore…chastise him and release him.”
I was already giving away the moral high ground, and I knew it. If the man was truly innocent, how was scourging him a just sentence? I knew the nature of these things; whips with bits of metal attached, a partial death sentence as it was. But perhaps…it would satiate some of the bloodlust of the mob. Perhaps it might…end the horror. Oh, what was this in me, rebelling against the thought of shedding blood? I had never done so before. Was it that the more I tried to save this man…the more invested in his life I became?
It had been an hour since the order for the scourging had been given. I now waited for him to be brought back into the Praetorian, and announced to the crowd outside, “Behold, I shall bring him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in him.”
But still they cried out all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
“Why, what evil has he done?” I demanded, becoming sick of the repetition.
“By our law, he should die, for he claims to be the Son of God!” one blurted out at last.
I felt a chill run up my spine. I was not particularly superstitious, but the combination of Claudia’s hysterics and the look in the prisoner’s eyes made me feel uneasy. This last statement added to it.
“What god? No Roman god!” I spat. “What harm is he to Rome?”
“Rome is not insensitive to the will of Judea,” Caiphas remarked slyly.
I stepped back, realizing the implied threat. They intended to make trouble for me…yes, they would make me pay if they could, and spread rumor and complaint until my hard-earned rank was robbed from me in the greater interest of Pax Romana. Always, always the promise of some peace that could never truly be realized…not for me, anyway. Sickened, I turned to leave them.
“If you do this, you are not Caesar’s friend!” Caiphas shouted.
I turned back around and glared at him. I wanted to shoot him down with my authority, but I knew the dice was in his hand, and he was preparing to roll it.
My stomach knotted as I strode back into the room where the prisoner was, and I saw for the first time just how horribly he had been affected by the work of the scourger and the cruelty of the soldiers who had turned to making sport of him. His face was bruised and swollen almost beyond recognition, and a hideous crown of thorns was pierced through his forehead and tangled in his long hair. A torn purple cloak was flung around his shoulders. Ah, yes, they had made him…like unto a king…
I just stared at him for him for a moment, as the blood from thorns ran down his face. “Where do you come from?” I queried hoarsely.
He made no answer, but continued to look at me piercingly. It was as if he had summed up my whole person in his mind and could read my scattered thoughts even now. I felt unnerved and agitated.
“What? Have you no words for Pilate?” I snapped in mocking disbelief, struggling to regain my own confidence. “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?”
Did he not understand? I…did not want to kill him. I wanted him to stop me from doing it, somehow…I wanted help. I wanted him to plead with me, plead for his life…some words, some direction, something, anything…
“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” he replied in a weakened yet unwavering voice. “Therefore those who have turned me over to you have the greater sin.”
I found myself marveling more over this, even as it drained me. “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you? They say you claim to be a king of their nation, and now the son of their god. You have said your kingdom is not of this world…” I squinted at him. “Then you are a king?” I was testing him, testing to see the level of his grand illusions. But again his answer left me unable to pin him down.
“You say that I am a king,” he retorted. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth.”
I felt everything inside me crystallize hard with the cynicism that had enwrapped me my whole life long, and asked out loud, more to myself than anyone else, “What is truth?”
Then I turned and left him before any answer could be given me.
Outside once more, I peered down from the steps of judgment and across the faces in the crowd, snarling, fist-waving, baying for blood. I hated them, one and all, for forcing me against this impossible wall. I wanted to beat my fists against it, to break it into so many pieces. I hated being so very out of control. Yes, I knew the final word still rested with me; but to speak it would be either this man’s undoing or my own. Was I really willing to risk that much for a Judean peasant?
But this man, this man…something about him made me feel stripped naked before him, to that part of me that still clung to some notion of justice and some desire to follow it, in spite of everything. The better angels of my twisted nature, perhaps?
Perhaps. All I knew was myself, and the Man, as if we were the only two beings beyond the insanity raging below in that one horrific moment.
Then I saw a pair of eyes in the throng that matched those of the Nazarene. They were brown Jewish eyes, like his, but they belonged to a woman. Like his, they seemed to bore into my mind. I saw the utter desolation in them.
She must be a relative, I thought, His mother, perhaps…yes…
I swallowed a lump in my throat. And suddenly I seemed to recall a memory I thought lost in the haze of my mind. My mother’s eyes, bright blue, with the same desolation in them…as I was being taken away by my father’s soldiers.
So she did care, I realized suddenly. How could I be thinking these things now?
I shook myself out of my memory, and turned back to this so-called Messiah beside me. Had he seen the woman with his eyes, being shouldered by the young man in the crowd? I could not tell. The prisoner must have known she was present somewhere down there, for his eyes were in her direction, and there was such a look on his bruised, bloodied face…I cannot describe it for the life of me.
I thrust my hand towards him, and bellowed, “Behold, the Man!”
For a moment, there was silence. And then the bloodthirsty mouth of the crowd rose up again, in a lion-like roar, “Away with him, away with him! Crucify Him!”
“What? Shall I crucify your King?” I sneered at them, hoping the words would sting, just a little bit. These beaten peasants had no king of their own, I knew that well enough. But the words out of my mouth stung me instead.
And then the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar! Crucify him!”
Disgust at the blatant hypocrisy overwhelmed me. But I could see no way to escape it. Still, I tried once more, just to speak what I knew to be true, for once.
“Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more…
I felt the sound of them blurring in my ears, almost fading away, and I turned once more to the man whose life was in my hands…or perhaps not, if he really were some almighty messiah. It seemed a sorry joke to me. The son of a god? Really? And left to be torn apart by ravenous wolves like this? And yet he seemed…resigned to it. What could be his reasoning?
All I knew at that moment was that my own plans had run out into folly, and all my logical solutions had come apart. There was no clever trick left to pull. All that was left now for me was to…decide.
I made a gesture, and a servant came forward bringing with him a bowl and a pitcher of water. I watched dully as the water trickled slowly from its mouth and fell on my hands. The water was so cold, having been left out in the chill morning air…but it seemed to burn me all the same.
“I am innocent of this man’s blood; take him yourselves and…crucify him…” In spite of my chosen phraseology, the last words could not help but make me shudder.
The crowd roared in approval, and I saw them bring forward the cross-beam and toss it to the ground as the condemned man was led down the stairs to pick it up and carry it to the place of execution. I was not unaccustomed to violence, in all its many forms; why did I find my stomach churning when I realized that the scourging I had inflicted on him in hopes of saving his life along with my reputation would make carrying the cross torturous beyond belief? Would he even have the strength to make it that far, or would be perish along the way?
Still they tied it onto him, as they did with the two thieves condemned to die in the same way on the same day. Turning him around, once last time, his eyes fell on me. I waited for the hatred to burn me, the hatred I had seen in the eyes of all the other Jews I had condemned to die, of all the other men I had slain by the sword and spear in distant battles for the expansion of Empire.
But there was no hatred there. Just pain and…was that pity? Again I was overcome by a feeling of being stripped bare in his presence. That all my power, all the prestige upon which I stood, had suddenly crumbled to dust under his gaze. That he saw through that raw wounded part that lies within every man, and which every man tries so very hard to hide. But his eyes tore the stifling bandage off, and I felt it bleeding fresh.
He would make it to the hilltop, I realized. I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew. He would live to feel the nails through his hands and feet, and the strain of suffocation collapsing his lungs. He was young and strong, a carpenter’s son…indeed, young enough almost to have been my own son, if I’d ever had one that lived to be born…and his resolve, I realized, was all the stronger. It was as if…he had to do it. And he intended to do it. And he would do it, to the last drop of his blood. And then I spotted his mother again, moving forward as far as she could in the surging crowd. Would she ever reach him before the end, I wondered? What would sustain her through the coming horror? What sustains any mother…whose own flesh and blood is robbed away from her? Oh…I had had enough of this…had to leave…
I strode back into the palace, trying as hard as I could to maintain a regal bearing, but I sensed that the guards and servants were looking at me differently than before. I knew the nauseating look well enough. It was a restrained contempt, just as I had seen in the eyes of many when I was a boy. But I thought I had grown past that, that no one would dare glower at me because of my rank. And yet all that prestige seemed to have melted away in a matter of moments, and I felt vulnerable to their silent censure. Unconsciously, I fumbled with the towel in my hands as I went to my room.
Then I saw Claudia, standing in the threshold. She, too, seemed transformed into something altogether terrifying. Like some marble-hewn goddess, she stood stiffly erect, proud and cold in her bearing, yet with a spark of fearsome fire in her eyes, like a snake preparing to strike.
“Do you think you will ever have clean hands again, Pilate?” she hissed, gesturing to the towel. “His blood has marked you now, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“He was only a Judean peasant,” I spat.
“He was a man…a real man!” she exploded. “No…more than a man…more…”
“Enough, Claudia!” I blurted. “You’re acting hysterical. Do you not know how many would-be messiahs spring up every year in this wilderness?”
“Does that mean that among all the frauds and madmen, there may not be an authentic one? Tell me true, did he strike you as a fraud or a madman? Answer me, Pilate!”
I turned briskly. “No, he did not. But a man can convince himself of anything, if he has enough ambition.”
“Like you, Pilate?” she shot back.
My temper surged. “What does it matter if there be one god, or a thousand, or none at all? What matter is it to me…to us? I am a realist; Rome is the world we have built. I have struggled to find my place in that world my whole life. Why should I abandon it for the sake of an abstraction?”
“But our Rome is founded on justice…”
“There is no justice in this world! Our gods are made of stone, images of ideals we can never hope to achieve. They say let justice be done, though the heavens may fall…but why should they fall on our heads? Why should I sacrifice myself for lofty notions thought up by philosophers? Life is too short, with too little meaning. We must grasp what we can, while time is still on our side.”
“I cannot believe you are saying this…”
“But is it not grounded in logic? If this is the only world, we must live for ourselves alone. No one else can live for us!”
“For you, Pilate,” she croaked in disgust. “I want no part of this life of yours. I am going back to my family in Rome, to leave the curse of this place.”
“Claudia…” I approached her, tried to grab her by the shoulder, but she jerked away from my grasp.
“Don’t touch me,” she snarled. “You have blood on your hands, and don’t think any water will make them clean again!”
Then she turned and stormed out of the room. I remained as silent as a stone, watching her go.
An indefinite amount of time passed when one of my aides approached me in the hall. “Your Excellency,” he addressed me lowly, “is there anything further you…?”
“A sign will be placed above the Nazarene’s cross,” I declared wearily. “Have it written out in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek so that all may understand. It will read ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’”
He blinked. “And if the high priests raise complaint…?”
“Then you can tell them what I have written, I have written.”
You know the rest of the story of that Man sent to be suspended on the tree. At first I wanted none of the details, but ultimately the details came to me anyway, through the centurion overseeing the crucifixion. He said that Jesus had cried out from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He said that he had thirsted, and been given bitter army wine on a sponge. He said that his mother had finally reached him when he had stumbled carrying his cross earlier on the road, and again made her way to the foot of that cross.
He said that when the Man had died, the sun had hidden its face and the clouds wept and the earth shook, and that he had fallen to his knees and exclaimed, to my great disturbance, “Surely this Man was the Son of God.” I rebuked him for giving in to such superstitious displays of weakness, in front of his own soldiers on duty, no less!
Yet to claim that I could dispel the feelings rending the distant confines of my own soul would be the deepest lie I could tell. Even as I scoffed at the idiocy of the high priests, demanding to put Roman guards at the tomb lest his disciples steal his body away in the night, I could not help but be haunted by the claim the he had prophesied his own resurrection from the dead. I did not believe it; of course, I did not believe it! But the thought of it rolled around in my head nonetheless.
And when it happened, the great disappearance of that very same body, I of course ascribed a logical explanation to it. The aftershock of that earthquake must have knocked the guards unconscious, and the disciples must have come and taken the body as predicted…although to risk a similar fate as he had met, for the cause of a dead man, was almost just as unthinkable to me as a man rising from the dead. And from the subsequent behavior of his followers, I found it exceedingly hard to believe so many would do so much, all for the sake of a lie. No, they had to believe it…simple-minded, delusional, idiots…could they not accept what fate had dealt out to them?
But fate is a fickle thing. It always has its way with men, work their woe. What else could have explained the rise of such a sect, the unlikely survival of a handful of fanatics, as I was wont to call them? And what else could be blamed…for my own downfall? For after sacrificing an innocent lamb upon the altar of the people to save my post, I still found myself recalled all the same for accusations of brutality and mismanagement.
I was disgraced, and fast fell out of favor with the Emperor. There was no one to speak on my behalf. No, no one would protect me, no one in a position of power would lift a hand in my favor. Was the ill-begotten son of a long-dead minister of state and his barbarian harlot worthy of receiving any justice or mercy? No, I was the perfect one to be the scapegoat, branded for failing to subdue a universally troublesome province. I was being sacrificed for the greater good, evidently…just as I had reasoned was necessary to do…once…
I had lost everything by then…my dreams of glory, my chances of success, my honor, my integrity, even Claudia. And now in the darkness of the prison cell into which I had been cast after my condemnation, I realized how little it all meant, except Claudia. The rest had been illusory; she had been real….nay, my only reality. Lying on the cold floor of my cell every night, with my red military cape wrapped around me as my only warmth, I yearned for her loving presence. Now night was falling again, and it seemed darker than ever.
I unsheathed the dagger my guard has smuggled into my cell in return for the golden eagle amulet that had once stood out as a symbol of my prestige. I had bribed him well, too well in fact, with the very last vestige of my dignity; now I regarded that dagger as my dearest and only friend.
I tested the tip with my thumb. The sharpness drew blood. I winced. What does pain matter? I challenged myself. Better to end yourself…you have brought nothing but pain on yourself and others…
I extended the blade, point towards my breast. I had failed Claudia; I had failed her as a man. I could at least die stoically like a man. Perhaps that would cheat my enemies of the sweetness of mockery, of deriding Pilate, wasting away in a dungeon. My sullied honor would be restored to some extent, through my own self-destruction. But my hand still trembled. What a strange thing, to harm one’s self! So unnatural to man, with his wit and cunning and ambition…oh, ambition…
The world seemed to have melted into a surreal dream as I lay there, drifting between life and death, and my eyes could see only what my muddled brain could comprehend. But I still managed to make out the form of Claudia standing by the prison door, still radiant, although silver streaks had run through her golden hair. Surely she had not grown old so soon? Had she grayed so strikingly in her middle age? Was it not…before her time?
“Pilate,” she gasped, and I could detect the shock inching through her voice. “You’re…you’re bleeding!” She came over to me, and touched my chest. I heard her moan softly as she pulled aside the military cloak and saw the knife buried deep inside.
“Claudia…” I forced myself to speak.
“Don’t talk,” she ordered, full of authority, then turned to the door. “Jailor! Bring me the wine from the jug outside! Hurry!”
She began to undo my breastplate. I grasped her hand and kissed it.
“It’s been so long…so long…”
“I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry…sorry I didn’t come…before this…”
“It is enough that…you did come…”
I heard footsteps, and the jug of cheap wine being put down, and the soaked sponge being pressed to my lips. Oh, gods…I had not known how very much I thirsted…until now…
“I can go can now…to the boat that carries all to death…” I whispered, fast losing consciousness.
“Pilate, don’t go! Not yet!”
“There is…nothing left to stay for…”
“Pilate, you must hear me! Please, please let me tell you…I must tell you that…it had to happen, your condemnation of the Christ. It was no accident.”
I sneered grimly. “Must you speak of the Man…even now?”
“I speak only of that which you cannot help but think upon,” she retorted.
Still as clever as ever, my shrewd little wife…
“You’ve spent your whole life thinking of yourself as an accident, but everything that has happened to you has been for a purpose. Oh, how could you think that taking your death into your own hands was not a crime against yourself and the One who made you?”
“If anyone made me, then…he must be laughing…” Then I laughed, bitterly. “If there has been a purpose to all this, it is a sorry one indeed…the sport of the gods, perhaps?”
“Not so, not so, dear husband. The wrong has been turned right. He’s not dead, Pilate, he’s alive! And he has no bitterness towards you, or anyone. He died as much for your sake as anyone else’s. He died to turn all wrongs to the right, to give us all a second chance…”
“You are believing myths,” I rasped. “When a man is dead, he is dead…” I lifted my blooded hand indicatively.
“It is no myth, nor is the heart of man a thing that dies. I know it! Christ did not forget you, Pilate. He sent me a dream to come and find you. He is the truth you always sought! You have always had goodness in you; I knew it since the first day we met…” Her voice trailed off, and she tried to suppress a sob. “Pilate, I had to tell you…the Man who you crucified forgave you, even from the cross, and again in my dream.”
I blinked. “But…do you forgive me, Claudia?”
She swallowed. “I thought I hated you once, but now I realize it was my own pride and sense of betrayal. Now I know that those feelings of hatred were really just another side of love. I can’t…can’t bear to lose you forever! Oh, Pilate, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I croaked. “I…I don’t know if I can believe in anything…except…except you…” I touched her face. “You’re the only truly noble thing…I know…”
“Then trust me, for God’s sake…” She swallowed back a sob caught in her throat, and I felt a teardrop fall on my hand. Very gently she wiped the blood off my hands with the hem of her dress. The blood…off…my hands.
I had tried to do that many times since that terrible day, every detail of which was burned indelibly in my mind. But I never could manage. They were stained, stained scarlet as my military tunic. Ultimately, I had stopped trying to remove the redness. I could no longer imagine my hands any other way.
But now…in some strange way, I felt that Claudia had truly washed them with her tears. Because the tears were more than saltwater, they were…love…
And then I knew. I understood. It was not so much that the blood I had shed was going away but rather…I realized just what that blood was worth. It was love.
Every drop of it another drop of love. Like Claudia’s tears.
I never felt love so strongly as at that moment; indeed, it was the first time I had felt anything strongly since that day when I thought all the feeling had drained from me with the words of condemnation. Suddenly I saw myself and everything through it, like a prism.
And…I saw His eyes again, and the eyes of His mother, penetrating me, and yet not condemning me. And I saw tears in those eyes.
And as the sight of my eyes faded, and my senses faded to that place where all souls are laid bare, I knew they were true.
By Avellina Balestri