Book I

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Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter XVI, where Gessimus Florus gets a province, and Bin Jamen a.k.a. Nil gets a ghostwriter

It was the first day of Lemuria, the feast of dead. Rome was unusually quiet in the evening. Well, not really quiet. Rome is never quiet. However, compared to the usual night rumpus, it was quiet this night. The emperor was sober. Well, almost. You would not expect him to keep this up for all nine days of Lemuria, but getting drunk on the very first day would certainly look inappropriate. Getting girls did not seem like an appropriate idea either, at least for now. Maybe later. For now the emperor had fun listening to the reports from the provinces that Tigellinus read to him aloud.

They were reclining on couches in a small triclinium in the back of the palace specially designed for confidential or private meetings. The room had four couches and a table in the middle. The walls were covered by heavy deep-green drapery, hiding a couple of niches behind them. Several oil lamps were lighting the place. Two couches were vacant; the emperor and Tigellinus were alone in the room. Again, almost alone – there was a couple of slaves serving wine and food. Yes, wine. If you remember, the emperor was almost sober.

“Here is a report from my man in Judea,” Tigellinus said. “That’s the one who investigates the threat of an arson in September.”

“Go on,” the emperor said, taking another bunch of southern Italian grape. He was bored, but a languor all over his body felt pleasant and relaxing, so he just continued to do nothing. With this soothing apathy filling him, listening to the reports was sort of fun. Not that they contained anything interesting, but they did not distract thoughts from roaming elsewhere either.

“He writes that he found the traces of that Benjamin somewhere near Caesarea,” Tigellinus said, “but neither the procurator nor Judean authorities are aware of them.”

“Benjamin?” the emperor asked.

“Yes, that one, you remember,” Tigellinus said. “Oh, yes, Bin Jamen.”

“Oh, that one,” the emperor said. “So he really has become a traitor if you need to send other people to catch him.”

“Eh?” Tigellinus said. “Oh, yes, Caesar, he did!”

Nil, you lucky bastard, Tigellinus thought. If you’d know that Caesar just turned  your death sentence onto that mysterious Greek trader you are chasing after. Tigellinus chuckled aloud at his thoughts.

“What’s so funny?” the emperor asked.

“He reports that Jews are ready to revolt at any moment,” Tigellinus said, covering his thoughts. “And he says that only Albinus’ wise rule keeps them under control.”

“Wise rule?” the emperor laughed. “So funny. Did they send levy in time this year?”

“Yes, Caesar, they did,” Tigellinus said.

“Speaking of levies and September arson,” the emperor’s thoughts clearly steered away from Judea. “Do you think it’s ridiculous that we will only make money on oil, but not on the grain if this fire happens? After all, Rome consumes ten times more grain than oil.”

“Yes,” Tigellinus agreed. “But you remember what Galba said. We need a war or a revolt somewhere close to Egypt to make money on grain—”

He broke off. Apathy washed away from the faces of both men. They looked at each other in a silent surprise.

“Do you think Judea is close enough to Egypt?” the emperor asked after a pause.

“I am sure, Caesar, it is,” Tigellinus said.

The men looked at each other, smiling in silence.

“Why the hell does Albinus keep them from revolting,” the emperor asked at last.

Both men burst with a Homeric laughter coming from the bottom of their hearts. In a minute, Tigellinus wiped tears from his eyes and said, “I remember Poppaea wanted to give a province to Gessimus.”

“And you said, I need a province that I would not miss,” the emperor said, and both men exploded with drunken laughter again.

*  *  *

The next morning, Tigellinus woke up in his house in a bad mood. Something worried him about the whole thing. Late last night, when he returned from the palace, a courier was waiting for him. He brought a few sheets of papyrus found by vigils in the cart of some Greek trader. The cart was confiscated a few months ago and nobody really looked inside. The papyrus contained detailed instructions for incendiaries and pointed directly to the Christians.

It seemed like a godsend, but something did not add up. Maybe I need to make some reality check, he decided, and sent for Benjamin. The lad knows a lot about his people, Tigellinus thought. He may know something about Christians as well, and anyway, he may be a good candidate to test the legend. He went to the garden in the back yard and sat in the chair in front of the pool. He rested his foot on the stone border of the pool, reclined in the chair, and got absorbed in his thoughts.

Benjamin came fast, with his hopes high and his desire to please the master even higher. This was the second time he got to talk to the master and his second chance to impress him and raise himself in the household. He stood in front of the master, waiting for his attention. Soon Tigellinus turned his eyes to him.

“What do you know about Christians?” Tigellinus asked.

“They are vile creatures, master,” Benjamin said. “I think there is no crime that they would not do. I know a lot about them because I studied them.”

“Studied?” Tigellinus asked.

“Yes, master,” Benjamin said. “I’d like to write a book some day exposing their true intentions, showing them for what they are. I already have two chapters written. In these chapters I tell how they plan to burn Jerusalem.”

“Really?” Tigellinus said. “How interesting. Why Jerusalem? Do you think they could try to burn Rome?”

“There is no crime they would not do,” Benjamin said with a conviction. “Jerusalem is sacred for all Jews, and the Christian sect came from Judea, but I don’t see why they could not try to hurt Rome either.”

“I want to see these chapters,” Tigellinus said. “Bring them at once.”

Benjamin rushed out to bring his treasured manuscript. This clearly was his lucky day; the master not only talked to him, he asked for his manuscript. He just finished rewriting it based on his teacher’s advice, and now he would show it to the master!

Tigellinus meanwhile took a cup of wine from the hands of a servant and continued to gaze at the shaky surface of the water pool. Could it be, he thought, that vigils were entertained by the fiction produced by his own slave?

In a few minutes Benjamin was back.

“Read,” Tigellinus ordered without turning his head.

Benjamin started to read. A light smile was wondering on the prefect’s face while he listened. No, he thought, it’s clearly a completely different style. What a good lad. Such a naïve, “feel your vile joy.” He chuckled. Who would speak about himself in such words? But the book may have some use. It would be a good way to prepare public opinion. He raised his hand, making a sign to stop reading.

“This is good,” he said. “You are a smart kid, Benjamin, go ahead and write the book. I’ll order that you will be given the time and material to write it. I want the book finished before September. By the way, where did you get the papyrus to write these chapters?”

“My teacher, ben Ata, gave it to me,” Benjamin said. “He also advised me how to better put the words to describe the despicable abomination that those Christians are.”

“Your teacher is a good man, Benjamin,” Tigellinus said. The old dolt made the fake obvious, Tigellinus deduced, but anyway, in the end he gave some really good advice. Roman plebs are so stupid, that the book will work better the way it is now.

“On another matter,” he continued. “Have you ever heard of the name Bin Jamen?”

“No, master,” Benjamin said. “I’ve never heard of such a man.”

“Who, do you think, he could be?”

“The name sounds like Nabatheans, master,” Benjamin said. “That’s the people of the Kingdom of Arabia.”

“It sounds very much like your name,” Tigellinus said.

“Yes, Nabathean people are related to us and they have somewhat similar names,” Benjamin said. “But my name sounds somewhat different and it’s a single word. It was the name of one of our patriarchs. No Jew would distort the name of one of our patriarchs.”

“Good, good,” Tigellinus said. So, nothing will point to Jews directly, he decided. That’s good, the weapon must be directed precisely. When Christians are blamed, there should be no doubt that it’s Christians, not somebody else. And a hint to Jews will not hurt either. Tigellinus chuckled – a province that you would not miss, truly so. He looked back to Benjamin, “Could this be the name of a Christian?”

“Why not, master? They accept all sorts of scum. There are Jews, Greeks, even Romans among them. Why should Nabatheans be an exception?”

“He is Christian,” Tigellinus said. “Benjamin, you are a good boy, and I want to hear your opinion. Remember, what I tell you is secret. You should not tell it to anyone. People who cannot keep their mouths shut with these things don’t live long. Do you understand?”

“I would never betray my master’s trust,” Benjamin said. He heard his heart beating in his ears. The master is going to entrust him with an important secret! That’s the sure way up. Good bye, toilet cleaning!

“Good. Remember your words,” Tigellinus said. “This Bin Jamen is really a Christian, he is the leader of some sect that’s going to try to burn Rome on the third day of September Ides. That’s why I need your book before September. I want to expose their crimes for the time when they will get their deserved penalty. By the way, here is how they really instruct their men to behave.”

Tigellinus handed a piece of papyrus from the vigils quarters to Benjamin. He took it and started to read. As he progressed, his face went white and hands started to shake noticeably. What a good lad, Tigellinus thought, I even feel something like the voice of conscience about getting him into all this stuff. He considered it for a moment and then laughed mentally at himself. Conscience, duh! Meanwhile Benjamin finished reading and handed the papyrus back.

“You see?” Tigellinus said. “We know a lot about them. We even know the date and time they are going to strike. By the way, it’s the third day of September Ides, right after sunset, put it into your book. And we know their leader’s name – some Greek trader called Bin Jamen, as I already said. Mention this in the book too. And make them try to burn Rome, not Jerusalem, otherwise nobody will read it. Anyway, whether they succeed or not, they will be caught and executed. And I want Roman citizens to know their sins. It’s your job to tell them.”

“Thank you, master,” Benjamin said with an eagerness while getting some of the color back to his face. “Thank you for your trust. I will not let you down!”

“I have no doubts about that,” Tigellinus smiled. “Just remember, nobody should know what I’ve told you. You can talk with your teacher about that, it seems he gives you good advice. Warn him that if he wants to live to see the Christians punished, he should keep his mouth shut about it.” The lad will certainly share this with his teacher anyway, he added mentally, so let him get the warning through.

Benjamin pressed his hands with papyrus to his heart showing with all his pose that he understood.

“Go,” Tigellinus said and dismissively waved his hand.

*  *  *

The same day, Benjamin went to his teacher. They met again in the same study room.

“Let’s start from how is your work and position in the house of the prefect going,” ben Ata asked as usual.

Benjamin started to describe his meeting with the prefect and their conversation. As he got to more and more details, bet Ata looked more and more worried. He listened without interrupting, shaking his head occasionally, setting his hair straight, putting his hands to his temples like he had a headache. But he did not make a sign to stop, so Benjamin continued until he told everything.

Ben Ata thought for a while without saying anything, and Benjamin did not dare to ask the teacher what he thought about the whole thing.

“These are very dangerous things you’ve got yourself and me into,” ben Ata said at last. “Very, very dangerous. By the way, when did the prefect say it’s going to happen?”

“The third day of September Ides,” Benjamin said. “Right after sunset.”

“I wonder,” ben Ata stroked his beard with a hand, “if the house of Doctor Noot will be affected,” he paused for a moment looking over Benjamin’s head. He thought for about a minute more. “Although, this could be a blessing. Seems like our Lord decided to get rid of this abomination that the Christians are. And He chose the Romans to be His tool, His sword in that. You may be blessed, Benjamin. You are going to turn this tool, the Romans, in the way our Lord wants them.”

“But, teacher, what about my original manuscript? They think it’s written by real Christians. What if they find that I am the author?” Benjamin stopped, realizing something terrible – he put his name there! He groaned and said, “Teacher, I’ve signed each piece of the original manuscript!”

“Trust the Lord, Benjamin,” ben Ata said. “Do you know his plans? I don’t. I just trust Him with all my heart and that’s what you should do. Of course you signed it. Maybe that’s how they’ve got the name of this Bin Jamen in the first place. You see, our Lord’s plan already works. They have your manuscript, but they did not think about you. Why do you think it will change?”

“But if they do find out, they will throw me to the beasts.”

“Trust the Lord, Benjamin,” ben Ata repeated. “Even if they do throw you to the beasts, do you remember the story of prophet Daniel? He was thrown to the lions and they did not touch him. Nothing can happen against our Lord’s will. Trust Him, and He will protect you. And you don’t know if He will let you be thrown to the lions either. He already kept you safe, even while you were careless enough to lose the manuscript. You see, maybe this is a part of His plan. Who knows, maybe you will have to write more from the name of this Bin Jamen in the future? And even if not, you already gave Romans something to put the blame right.”

“But what should I do, teacher?” Benjamin asked.

“Write the book just as your master instructed you,” ben Ata said. “Keep your mouth shut. See what comes next. And, most importantly, trust the Lord.”

“I will,” Benjamin said. “Teacher, I did not understand one thing you said. What did you mean when you said that I may have to write more from the name of this Bin Jamin?”

“It seems to me that prefect got the name from your piece,” ben Ata said. “It could happen that there is no Bin Jamen at all.”

“But the master was so sure about it.”

“Oh, he certainly has other information,” ben Ata said. “But I wonder if this information has the name of the leader. It could be that your manuscript is the only place where they found the name. Think, what will happen if they do not find any ‘Bin Jamen’ around? They will not trust your manuscript. So you may have to write a few more pieces and make sure praetorians find them and bring them to the prefect.”

“I see, teacher,” Benjamin. “But is it not a false witness against the neighbor? And so many people will die. Is it not against ‘Do not kill’?”

“No, but it’s good that you think about that. Of course, we should follow the Commandments,” ben Ata said with an approving smile. “But, Benjamin, what is following the Commandments if not obeying our Lord? You remember King Saul’s war against Amalekites? Our Lord charged him to ‘smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not’. And so he did. But when King Saul left alive their King Agag, prophet Samuel came in anger and killed this last Amalekite with the sword by hewing him in pieces. Because it is said, ‘to obey is better than sacrifice.’ And the Book also says, ‘for rebellion, is as sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’ Obey the Lord, Benjamin.”

“I see,” Benjamin said. “But how do I know, if the Lord wants me to do that.”

“Trust the Lord, Benjamin,” ben Ata said. “He’ll find a way to tell you.”