Book I

Ely's blog
Nil's blog
Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter XI, where, for a change, we meet two people who don’t want Rome to burn

The conversation with Nabatheans – that’s what the people of the Kingdom of Arabia were called – left Nil baffled at why they were so insistent in helping with the case. Granted, Nil thought, all these small kings, in almost client status to the empire, were trying to keep the favor of Rome, but this was clearly a far stretch from normal. They could grovel out of fear but going as far as asking the procurator for information? Even the province authorities would not press for accepting their help after the investigator from metropolis suggested they go to hell. And that was pretty much what Nil said to the vizier yesterday in the tavern. So how is it that representatives of a formally independent king, who was usually somewhat jealous in internal affairs, still pushed to be involved? Nil heard how, about three decades ago, before Caligula seized Damascus from Arabia, Roman agents had to hide from the city guards during their missions. Aretas IV, who was king of Arabia at the time, did not fancy agents of the empire working in his territory. Something does not add up, Nil decided, but hey, no harm done. If they help, so much the better, if not, who cares? Anyway, it was the procurator’s order to tell them, he concluded the thought with satisfaction.

Today he was ordered to stay in the palace and wait until he was invited to the conversation. Albinus had a number of issues to discuss with Jerusalem authorities and Nil’s topic was just one of them. On the other hand, as a person close to the procurator and a guest in the palace, Nil was accommodated with all the comfort possible, so he did not have much to complain about, other than being bored with waiting. And even the boredom was tamed by food, wine, and an Egyptian slave girl. Being raised in Rome, King Herod Agrippa II knew how to please his guests, although being conscious of local habits and sensitivity, he preferred not to offer Jewish slaves to serve foreigners.

If he had them at all, Nil thought. The province was poor for a reason. Harsh natural conditions made slavery inefficient. When a man can produce barely enough to feed himself, you don’t benefit much from making him work for you. As a result, few in Judea, whether Greek or Jew, owned slaves, and if they did, practiced patriarchal-style slavery in which the slaves were essentially part of the family. The only exception was with rich people and state owned slaves. Well, Nil thought, it’s not that different from Rome after all. The only difference is that there is way more rich people in Rome.

The whole day passed before Nil was asked to join the procurator in a large hall. The doors in the back were open to a gallery facing west, and hall was slowly darkening with the sun setting down. Albinus was talking to three other men, apparently representatives of the local power. All four were standing some distance from the doors to the gallery, but close enough to benefit from the fresh air coming into the hall from there.

Nil had already seen the king. Agrippa was dressed in a Roman tunic and toga. Being raised at the imperial court, he probably looked Roman even more than Albinus. Not so were the two other men. One was an elderly man in his early sixties with a gray beard and a moustache and a strict, stately, and significant expression on his face. He wore a sleeveless pullover made of a thick wool on top of a blue linen tunic that was going down to the floor. Multicolored threads of the pullover blended together into a dark lilac, somewhat brownish color. A golden plate with different colored gems was fixed to his chest by a yellow belt. This was accompanied by a dark blue turban-like hat on his head.

Another man was dressed similarly, except that his pullover was plain dark blue and he did not wear the golden plate. Anyway, their clothes looked almost black in the fading light of the setting sun. It strikingly contrasted with the white Roman togas of the king and the procurator. The second man was in his earlier thirties. His beard was not touched by gray and his face was respectful and expecting. Although, if somebody asked Nil which of the two he would rather see as an enemy, he would not be quite sure what to answer. With his trained eye, Nil could see a dangerous and powerful man behind the meek and subservient façade. The Governor of the Temple had very much the same functions as the first priest in some Egyptian temples. He was the head of the internal police of the Temple and sometimes carried more actual power than the formal head.

“Here is Nil Septimus, the man from Rome I told you about,” Albinus said when Nil entered the hall. “Nil, Caesar Agrippa—” the procurator gave a nod in the direction of the king, who was given the honorary title of Caesar of Judea by the Roman Senate “—wants to help investigate your case. These are the High Priest Ananias and the Governor of the Temple Eleazar. They have the people to carry out a local investigation. Describe the case.”

“We have reliable data that the Christians, or some new sect within the Christians, are going to try to burn Rome on the third day of September Ides,” Nil said. “We know the name of his leader. It’s some trader named Benjamin, probably, from Judea or Crete. He deals a lot with Greeks and is involved in selling goods in Rome. We know that he is trading oil for sure. We suspect that he will employ support from Egypt and, maybe, Egyptian priests, but he may also have local support here in Judea, because that’s where the Christians came from. That’s pretty much all we know for now.”

“Not very much,” Eleazar, the younger of the priests, said thoughtfully. “Although, I’d like to meet this Benjamin of yours.”

“Me too,” said Ananias, the older priest with his eyes now betraying a cruel old man behind the stately mask.

“Me too,” the king said. “And I am deadly serious about that. I expect you two to put your best people at work to give me and the procurator such an opportunity.”

“Also, we are wondering if you already know anything that can help with the investigation?” the procurator asked. “We know you keep an eye on those Christians, so I guess some information may have crossed your path before.”

The king looked at Eleazar.

“Unfortunately, no, nothing like that,” the young priest said. “But we will keep our eyes open. Frankly, I am not surprised. That’s the sort of thing you would expect from those traitors of our faith. As to Benjamin, this is a very popular name in Judea. I am sure we’ve heard about a lot of Christians called Benjamin. The question is if we have heard about that particular Benjamin.”

“Thank you,” Albinus said. “I hope you will be able to find the guy and prevent the disaster.”

“I think we all know what you hope for,” Ananias said with narrowed, angry eyes. “You’d like this to happen. Christians, Jews – who cares? As long as you can destroy us and cover your deeds.”

“Ananias!” Agrippa said.

“No, let him continue,” Albinus answered coldly. “What deeds, High Priest?”

“Taxation that exhausted the country. Bribes to let the criminals out of prisons. Robbers that you cover up as long as they share with you,” Ananias said. “Oh, you would love to have a new war on us, to destroy us and keep all these crimes of yours hidden. Don’t worry, procurator. We’ll find these criminals, if they ever existed. We know what is at stake.”

 “I’ll talk to you later,” Albinus said to Nil and gave a dismissive gesture. After Nil left, he said, “And now it seems all for today. I’d rather retire for now. Let’s continue tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow, Albinus,” Agrippa said with a nod, and the procurator left the hall. Three men were standing in the darkening hall. Then the king said, “I’ll retire for today too. You can go. See that what we discussed today is taken care of. I especially want you to be on the lookout for this Benjamin and Christians. I don’t want the wrath of Rome on my people, and you may be right, Ananias – I am not sure they will differentiate us from those traitors.”

“Yes,” the High Priest said. “Eleazar will put his best men on the case.”

When Agrippa left, the priests were left alone.

“Do you really want me to find and arrest this Benjamin, father?” Eleazar asked. “For a change, Christians are going to do a very good thing. They will teach Roman barbarians a lesson and bite them back. We prayed in our Temple for three centuries before the ancestors of those barbarians raped Sabine women to conceive the first Romans. And that’s what they are doing with the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if somebody gave a little back? And afterward, with the wrath of Rome on Christians, we could give away all those traitors to Romans. And enough wood to crucify them all, if they want. Wouldn’t you like to bite Rome back and take care of those traitors in a single shot?”

“For a change,” the High Priest frowned, “Agrippa said the right thing. You are too young, you don’t understand. You are right in saying that the Romans are barbarians. They think that Christians are just one more Jewish sect, nothing more. This Roman is an expert, he knows the difference, but most Romans and Caesar don’t. They will punish us for their sins. I want you to find this Benjamin and make sure nothing happens that may endanger us. We already quarreled with Babylon, and you know the result. The Temple was destroyed and we spent 70 years in captivity, until Cyrus came and allowed us to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Don’t quarrel with this second Babylon – Rome – and our people will be around to see the third, and the fourth one. Challenge it, and we may have to wait too long for the second Cyrus to return us home.”

“Father, are you afraid of Rome?” Eleazar asked.

“Yes, I am afraid of Rome, son,” Ananias said. “And you should be too. And stop these Pharisee’s tricks. They managed to get the Roman eagle down from the gates of the Temple, but they will not help us when the Roman eagles come to us carried by the Roman legions. And make sure that those Christians do not try their stupid conspiracy. You have enough men to investigate and prevent that.”

“As you wish father,” Eleazar said and gave a soft bow. “I will go even so far as to send a few of my men to Rome. Just to make sure that Christians don’t burn Rome.” He paused, and then added with a respectful and significant smile, “That those Christians don’t burn Rome on the third day of September Ides right after the sunset. Let’s go, father, we’ve had a tough day.”

Eleazar turned away and walked out of the hall. Ananias followed him with his eyes, sighed, shook his head contritely, and walked out of the hall after his son. 

*  *  *

Soon after Nil returned to his room, a soldier came in with a message that Albinus wanted to see him again. Nil followed the messenger to a triclinium, which was a part of the procurator’s accommodations in the palace. He was already there, reclined on a couch, alone in the room. It was dark and the light from a couple of torches was poor and fluctuating. There was no food on the table, just wine.

“Be my guest,” Albinus said, pointing to another couch.

Nil thanked him with a nod and reclined in front of his host with a goblet of wine in his hand.

“How do you like this?” Albinus said. “Dirty dogs. Suspicious of each other and of everyone they come around. If not for us, they would fight each other to death unless taken over by Parthians or Nabatheans of Arabia, and still they hate us. Anyway, at least they will really be looking for your incendiaries.”

“I hope so,” Nil agreed.

“What I called you for,” Albinus said, “is to tell you that I am sending a courier to Rome the day after tomorrow. You can send any correspondence you need with him. There is a trireme going to Ostia soon, so your messages will be in the hands of the prefect in a couple of weeks. You can send personal correspondence as well if you wish.”

“Thank you, I’ll certainly use this opportunity,” Nil said. The old bureaucrat wants to know what I will report back to Tigellinus, he decided.

“And one more thing,” Albinus said. “Don’t mention those silly accusations you heard today, would you?”

“Of course,” Nil said. And you are definitely afraid of those accusations, he thought, but why should I care? “I’ll just write that locals are hostile and rebellious, and that you handle them capably and well.”

“That would be quite correct,” Albinus said with a nod. “I guess you will be leaving soon?”

“Yes,” Nil said. “I am going to Egypt. There my main investigation will take place.”

“I’ll send you the paymaster with six months of travel and living expenses for your trip,” Albinus said. “I would recommend to take a sea route; it’s much faster. Meanwhile, feel free to stay at the palace with me for a few days to rest before continuing your journey.”

“Thank you, procurator. I’ll mention in my message how helpful you were in the investigation, as well as praise your administration of the province.”

“You are welcome,” Albinus said with a smile. “It’s always a pleasure to talk to an intelligent person.”