11 September 2005
I am an old man now, living with one of my daughters and her husband in a small one-room house in Rome, but once I was a mighty Roman soldier.
Born in Rome to poor parents, my father had no trade and thus had to work wherever and whenever he could. But we were Romans and proud and so much better off than the all the slaves in Rome. With no trade, when I became of age to leave my father’s house, I could think of no trade I wanted to learn and having seen Roman soldiers throughout my childhood, being a soldier looked like what I wanted to do. Being a soldier did not require any special skill or so it seemed to me and soldiers were paid, fed and given shelter, all of which was just what I needed. Only problem was that in those days, only upper class Romans were selected to be in the Army but I thought that if I could only get a chance to speak to the local garrison commander, with my strong body and me being so tall, he might just take me in. What did I have to loose trying? So one day, I made my way to the garrison and met 2 soldiers standing guard at the gates, which lead into the compound courtyard and commander’s room beyond. At first, when I told them I was there to become a soldier, they both laughed at me but then the taller of the two turned to the other and said, “Why not let him in. He is the commander’s type with that nice face and mouth and that nice body of his. Maybe the commander will give us some easy duty for throwing some fresh meat his way,” and with that, the soldier who had just spoken opened the gate, went in, closed the gate and disappeared in the courtyard beyond. A short time later, he was back at the gate and holding it open said, “Go right on boy, the commander would love to meet you!”
Once inside the courtyard, I could see the commander in a small room at the far end of the yard standing in front of a table with is metal tunic and helmet on a stand behind him. He was a man perhaps 40 years of age and getting fat around his middle section. When I reached his room, I spoke softly and he nodded for me to come in. “So you want to be a soldier?” he said, never taking his eyes off the table in front of him. “Yes sir,” I replied, “I am strong and tall and would be a good soldier.” The commander looked up from the table at me and his eyes went up and down me once as if he were inspecting a horse to be bought or a slave. “Yes, I do see you are quite fit but do you think you can follow orders, even if it means being killed or killing an enemy of Rome,” the commander said looking me directly in the eye. “Yes sir, I know I could be the best soldier you ever have had,” I replied staring him down. "Ok, then. You are now a soldier. Tell the 2 at the front gate to take you for your uniform fitting and to get you bedded down for the night. But, I will be checking on you and if you embarrass me in anyway, I will have your head on a spike in the courtyard, you hear me?”
The first year I was a Roman soldier it was all I thought it would be. I was stationed in Rome and got to see my parents anytime I was not on duty and spent most of my days just patrolling the streets of Rome, breaking up fights or clearing the way for a Rome Senator or other Roman government official. But then in my 14th month, I was selected, along with 20 others, to go to the Roman province of Judea to relieve soldiers there that had served their time and were ready to come home. Judea? I had never heard of it and as I had never even been out of the city of Rome, did not want to leave my parents or the comforts of Rome. But what could I do? I could not protest, as I did not want to be labeled a troublemaker and maybe even be released from the Army. While I was a solider in Rome, I had been collecting my pay, giving some to my parents and saving for the day I could buy a small stall in the marketplace and perhaps sell vegetables I bought from farmers out in the countryside and brought to the city to sell. It would not be much of a living but I would not have to work for another like my father had to do.
Like it or not, eventually the day came that I headed out to Judea and I had no idea it was so very far away. It took weeks to get there and the journey was long and hard. Once in Judea we entered the city of Jerusalem and finally settled into one of the two garrison headquarters there. At first, I could not believe my fate. All the people in the city seemed so poor as if they were slaves but there were no masters and the city was primitive with only temples having any real stone in them.
As when I was in Rome, in Jerusalem, all I did everyday was walk patrol with another soldier making sure there was peace. As I did not know the language spoken in Jerusalem, it made it very difficult to settle any sort of argument and usually I just pushed people a part and would wave my sword as some sort of threat.
Then one day, while I was on patrol, a soldier I had not seen before from the other garrison came running up to me and said that there was a big disturbance in his district and that all Roman soldiers where needed there immediately and that I should follow him. Disturbance? Since I had arrived in Judea there had always been rumors that the people of Judea wanted to revolt against the Romans and get rid of all Roman presence in the region but I had never believed it. These people were not war like and besides what did they have to rebel about? We Romans did nothing to them but keep the peace and collect some taxes.
Running, the soldier I was following, lead me through one alley way and then another, stopping briefly to talk with any soldiers he found and having them join our group. As we continued to run behind the lead soldier, after a while I could begin to hear the sound of many voices of a large crowd, which only grew louder and louder as we ran along. Finally, rounding the corner of one building, there was this massive crowd of people in the street and overflowing into all the adjacent alleys and they all seemed to be moving slowly in the same direction. As I got closer to the crowd, I could see, far up ahead, three crosses being drug through the street. A Crucifixion! There was going to be a crucifixion today or rather 3! I had never seen a crucifixion but had heard this form of death was Roman punishment for treason or crimes against the Roman Empire. Who had committed such a crime? How come I had not learned of it?
The band of soldiers I was with, now some 10 or 12 took up positions along the trailing edge of the crowd just in case the crowd began to become violent against any Roman property or Roman citizens. Again, looking over top the heads of those in the crowd, I could see that the crosses ahead where being drug on a road leading out of the city and I could hear people yelling and screaming at those carrying the crosses but I could not see the criminals directly from where I was.
Slowly as we moved along, the crowd began to thin for some reason and slowly but surely, I came closer and closer to those actually carrying or rather dragging their own crucifixion crosses. Of the 3, I could see that one man had been scourged badly and must be the worst offender and with so much blood dripping from all his wounds, wondered how he could even walk, much less carry the heavy wooden cross.
Finally, the Roman soldiers at the front of the procession told the 3 men carrying their crosses to drop them and I and the other soldiers with me formed a ring around the crucifixion site to make sure those in the small crowd now would not interfere with Roman business.
One by one, the 3 to be crucified where dragged over to the crosses which lay on the ground and put into position with their head at the top and feet at the bottom and their arms outstretched on the cross members of the cross. Then, without warning, a Centurion came up to me and said, “You, nail that man’s hand to the cross.” “But sir,” I responded quickly, "I have never done that.” “Soldier, you take the big nail over there and you place it in the middle of his hand and you hit it with the mallet laying right there until the nail is all the way through his hand and the wood. Understand?” “Yes sir,” I responded, stepping forward and picking up the nail and mallet.
Kneeing down beside the cross and placing the tip of the nail on the convicted man’s hand, for some reason, as I raised my hand holding the mallet, I looked at the face of the man and there, with his head turned towards me, through eyelids which were barely open from the beating he had taken, were these eyes of such kindness, peace, compassion, and most striking of all, pity for me and something went through me like a sword to my heart and I was frozen and could not move. Faintly from behind me in what had become total silence, I could just barely hear, “Soldier. Get on with it. Wait are you waiting for?” And then I remember being shoved to the ground and then nothing until I was back at the city garrison being told I was a disgrace to the Roman Army and that I was dismissed and told to collect me pay and get out.
It took me a long time to get back to Rome and as I traveled I would hear about the crucifixion of what many people believed was a holy, spiritual man. A man named Jesus. Could it be the same? Could I have been there and seen him? Every time I sat with others and heard them tell what they had heard of the crucifixion, I never said a word or let on that I was once a Roman soldier.
Finally, I arrived in Rome and my parents were very surprised that I was back from Judea so soon and although I tried to explain what had happened to me that day, they never understand and thought I had been some sort of coward and disgraced the family.
For a very long time no one in Rome knew of the crucifixion of this man Jesus, as who cared about what happened in the outer provinces as long as they paid their taxes and did not revolt. But one day, my daughter came home from being out and she had met this group of people who talked of the man, Jesus, who had lived in Judea and had preached peace and love and he had died to forgive the sins of the world. Many times I have been tempted to speak to her of that day, that nail, but I never have and as for believing this man, I met, I saw, that changed my life that day was a holy man, well I am too old to believe in a new religion but I do know that I was stabbed that day by something sharper than a sword.