“Courage is of no value unless accompanied by justice;
yet if all men became just, there would be no need for courage.” Agesilaus the
Second, King of Sparta, 443 ~ 359 BC
Their footsteps echoed against the marble corridor; the clanking metal, the slap of leather against leather, and the steady cadence of military precision heralded the arrival of the Praetorian Guard. The very mention of the Praetorian hushed crowds and sent tremors through the most stalwart soldier. They were trained specifically to protect the Emperor and the senate, yet even the politicians were wary of their every move. The Guard harbored no political ambition, but wielded its influence in the name of Rome, and sometimes itself.
Everyone moved aside as the silent formation progressed. The contingent consisted of the Duplicarious, the administrator for his cohort, followed by two Sesquiplicarious; the prisoner was in the center, and two more Sesquiplicarious brought up the rear. This was no ordinary prisoner: this was Gaius Augustus Atilius, Princeps Posterior, of the Third Cohort, of the Tenth Legion, Centurion.
Gaius was dressed in full military regalia. He wore his imperial galea or helmet with pride. It was forged from silver and crested with a red plumb. Silver cheek guards protected the sides of his head and hid his face from palace gawkers. His body armor consisted of broad ferrous strips attached by leather straps, and nine silver phalerae, medals earned in battle for bravery, hung on his chest. The cloak buttoned at the shoulders and flowed behind him, tempting to trip the guards to his rear as they marched through the breezeway. Encasing the leather laces of his caliga, Gaius’ baltea clanked as he walked. Yet, he felt naked, for the one piece conspicuously missing was his gladius, a short sword.
The contingent slowed as it approached a large, ornate double door. Two guards, Praetorian as well, reached for the handles and pulled them open, revealing a large hall. To the left, small alcoves lined the wall, each displaying a bust of one of the many Roman deities. On the right side of the room flowed a fountain, the water dancing as droplets fell into an adjoining pool. At the center were marble tables laid out in a three-sided square; the open, forth side faced the door. The tables were laden with all sorts of fruits and delicacies, and as the people meandered and talked, they filled their goblets and stomachs in the extravagant fashion of Rome.
Once inside, the soldiers came to a stop and stood silently at attention. The doors closed behind them with a whoosh, and the hall fell silent as every head turned toward the guards. Just as quickly, they resumed their activities as if nothing had happened at all. The soldiers remained at attention, unmoving, as silent as the statues adorning the hall.
The Legatus, Vitellius, was sitting at the head of the table. Dressed in the more formal Hellenistic, his white tunic was decorated with wide purple clavi, vertical strips symbolic of his social status. A slave was attending to his needs. A senator, he commanded the Tenth Legion. To his left sat Marcellus, the newly appointed governor of Judea and Samaria, where much of this trouble began. Under his predecessor, the Jews of the region had grumbled and complained, at times standing on the verge of rebellion.
Pontius Pilot, the former governor, was known for his sympathy toward a small Jewish sect; however, it hadn’t begun that way. He had angered the Jews by marching into Jerusalem with the Roman standard in full display. The Emperor had given latitude to the zealous nature of the Jews and ordered the eagle standards covered. Though Pilot was an apt administrator and excellent commander, he was often so ruthless that it came back to his detriment in the end. Emperor Tiberius had to intercede on two occasions. Pilot’s ultimate downfall came at the bidding of his wife; whose dreams about a man named Jesus caused Pilot to question his resolve. He gave in to the demands of Jerusalem’s religious leaders to maintain order, but in the end rumors arose that he became a follower of the Way. Had it not been for his swift replacement by Legate Vitellius, anything might have happened.
It was the Tribunus Laticlavus, second in command, who approached Gaius. With a wave of his hand, the forward guards quickly moved to either side of their prisoner and allowed him to take two steps forward. Gaius stood tall and proud, waiting for his superior to address him. A man in his position would never proffer conversation that had not been requested. The Tribunus inspected Gaius with steely eyes and an air of contempt. This man had the right and authority to dispatch the soldier’s life without thought or hesitation, even though he was a decorated centurion, and a Roman Citizen. Silently, the tribunus turned, motioning to the guards, who quickly led Gaius to the center of the tables. Removing his helmet, Gaius stood looking forward, purposely making no eye contact with the legatus, lest he be accused of insubordination.
Silence fell over the room once again as the tribunus spoke. He instructed the Duplicarious to read the accusation brought against Gaius. Removing a small cylindrical object from his leather pouch and untying the strap, he unrolled the scroll and began to read:
On this fourth day of Maius, the 21st year of Emperor Tiberius, you, Gaius Augustus Atilius, Princeps Posterior, of the Third Cohort, of the Tenth Legion, have been charged with subversion. By undermining known and proven practices of military discipline you have led the men under your command to doubt the wisdom of Rome and the order that has brought her glory. In addition you have accepted the position of an atheist, rejecting the providence and power of the gods, and embracing solely a single, minor deity of a backward people. Having been adjudicated by your commanders, and being a Roman citizen, you have been brought before your legatus for questioning, judgment, and the proclamation of sentence.
The Duplicarious rolled the scroll and, handing it to the tribunus, he smartly stepped back into his position. The tribunus walked around Gaius, looking him up and down, a tactic meant to intimidate. Yet as he looked intently into Gaius’ eyes, he saw neither intimidation nor fear. A veteran of numerous military campaigns, this Centurion would not be easily manipulated. Reaching toward the Duplicarious, the tribunus unshielded his sword. A collective gasp sounded across the room, but the Praetorian did not flinch. Wielding the sword with the precision of a soldier, the blade came within inches of Gaius’ face, but still he did not recoil. As practiced a prosecutor, as he was a swordsman, the tribunus spoke.
“You have been charged with a serious crime. With an accusation of subversion I am within the rights of the law to strike you down. Yet, you are decorated, and your loyalty to the empire to this point has been without question. Therefore, I will give you an opportunity to answer the charge. Are you guilty?”
Gaius spoke in a steady and deliberate tone. “My lord, it is neither my place to question the wisdom of Rome, or the discernment of my tribunus.” Tension was thick as this man’s fate hung in the balance. He continued, “If my commanders have found my life yielded to a singular god, and that I have begun to treat those in my command with dignity, respect, and honor, then I am guilty.”
“I am guilty,” the tribunus repeated. He spun around, facing the tables with a smile on his face. “So you concede to the charges of subversion and admit your guilt?”
“I confess to the facts, but not the conclusion, my lord.” Snickers in the room quickly replaced the tribunus’ smile with consternation. Gaius cautiously continued, “I have served Rome faithfully for fifteen years, fighting, killing, and spilling my own blood for her glory. In the past three, I have come to find a glory, which does not replace Rome’s, but is greater. Yet, I have dispatched my duties as a loyal citizen and a faithful soldier with the same honor and loyalty. I do not admit or confess to the charge of subversion.”
The tribunus began waving his hands and spoke louder. “The beliefs that you hold are in contradiction to the very idea of Rome. By virtue of acting on them you influence those in your command to follow your lead. Is that not subversion?”
“Subversion, your immanence, is designed to move people against Rome. I have no desire to see Rome fall, but rather for her to achieve a greater glory.” Where were these words coming from?
“Greater glory? There is no greater glory than Rome! To speak of such is to speak treason!” The more he spoke the more animated he became. The crowd was pleased with the entertainment, even if it was at the expense of the tribunus. With each response he continued his tirade. “You speak of glory as if you understand the nuances that set Rome apart from the rest of the world. You have been raised and trained to conquer, but the glory of Rome is more than battles. It is order out of chaos, justice out of injustice, and the city of Rome itself is a shining light of the ingenuity and greatness of its people.” He spun toward the prisoner, taunting him to react.
Gaius stood firm. “Beg my pardon, sir, if my words are inadequate to express what is in my heart.”
The tribunus lashed out. “Your heart is not on trial; if it were I would have it cut out. It is your actions that have caught the attention of your commanders.” He motioned to the Duplicarious, who handed him another scroll. He continued more calmly. “I have in my hand,” he slowly lifted it above his head for all to see and waving it at Gaius, “testimony of those you have tainted with your pagan beliefs.”
“Let us see.” The tribunus scanned the list, deliberately looking for the most egregious offense. “Ah, yes, it says here that you refuse to pray to your ancestors, or to the genius of the Emperor. Do you not acknowledge the divine nature of Tiberius, our beloved Emperor?”
All eyes fell on the captive, whose expression now waned. He felt pressured by his loyalties, pulled in two different directions. His conversion to the Way had so totally captured his heart that nothing else mattered; yet he was a loyal soldier. The battle that raged in his spirit was greater than any he had waged on the field of combat. The words that had come easily before now caught in his throat. To deny Rome meant death physically; to deny his new God would mean death eternally. So, he chose to remain silent, and prayed.
A smirk spread across the tribunus’ face. “I will take your silence as testimony against yourself. Let us not, however, stop here.” He began to read the scroll again. “It says here: ‘Gaius Atilius has refused to punish those under his command for behavior unbefitting of a Roman Soldier.’ This lack of discipline can lead to chaos in the field of battle. The army cannot risk lenience. Swift and severe punishment alone will maintain order.’” The tribunus paused for effect. “What do you say to this charge?”
A large ornate door opened to admit an unannounced soldier, swiftly relieving the mounting tension. He paused for a moment until the Legatus beckoned him to approach the table. He whispered into the Legate's ear, handing him a sealed note. Breaking the seal, the Legate read the message, and then scribbled a response. Taking the proffered message, the soldier bowed slightly, then turned and swiftly left the hall.
Frustration spread across the Tribunus’ face. The momentum of his prosecution had now been brought to a standstill. He impatiently waited for the soldier to leave before continuing to question the centurion. That, however, would have to wait.
The Legatus rose and addressed Gaius. “The charges brought against you cannot be ignored. I have chosen to listen to the accusations and to your response because a soldier of your caliber deserves this honor. Other matters have come to my attention that I must address. We will adjourn for the day and resume the questioning tomorrow.” A servant girl helped the legatus with his robe as he moved around the table, still speaking. “I am curious …” He was now standing in front of Gaius. “Why such a decorated soldier would give up so much for so little in return. The glory of Rome is yours, but you toss it aside for…what? That is most curious. Tomorrow I would like for you to explain what you believe to be Rome’s’ glory. I want you to remember from where you have come … most curious…” And with that, he left, followed by an entourage of servants, staff, and guards.
The tribunus instructed the guards to remove the prisoner. In tight formation they turned and led Gaius back down the hall, beyond the gates, and finally to the garrison prison. Two guards were placed outside the locked door, and though Gaius had no intention of escaping, the guards took their duties seriously. Their Centurion would not be as tolerant as the one they held captive.