Rome never slumbers. The early morning clatter of chariot wheels and the rhythmic march of passing soldiers wake me before dawn. I long to rise and watch them, to recall what makes ours the greatest empire on earth, but pain pins me to my sleeping pallet. The gods have taken everything from me, even these simple pleasures. My wife … dead. My sons … indifferent. My rightful status stripped from me, humiliatingly, by the Emperor. Curse them all! Gods and people alike.
Soon one of my few remaining slaves will come to dress and feed me. Even in his eyes I will read scorn. To him I am an old, dying man. He will not see what I once was—a Roman prefect, power-wielder and judge, bestower of life and death.
Last week one of these lowborns even had the audacity to ask me if I harboured any regrets. I stoically ignored him but his words have chafed in my mind. Regrets? Of course there are regrets. Taking that position in the Judean backwaters was my first mistake. How I hated those arrogant Jews opposing me at every turn, everything centring on their revered ‘one god’ and senseless laws. Only their Samaritan half-brothers, with all their sacred objects, were more dim-witted. Was it my fault that my troops took such extreme measures to break up their gathering? Curse that forsaken piece of Jewish soil, that place of my undoing!
Yet, it is not to the political blunders that my mind returns. Over and over my thoughts circle back to a single morning.
And one particular Jew.
I recall that I was barely awake when the priestly mob arrived. They refused to enter my palace, not wanting to sully themselves in the house of a Gentile before their Passover feast. Instead, I was forced to go outside to them. The crowd pulsed with the kind of blood-lust that I had often seen in Roman arenas. It was in their eyes, their bearing, their raised voices. They sought the death sentence for the prisoner they thrust before me. Even all these years later, I still remember the first look that passed between us—those dark, knowing eyes looking steadily into my own, and the strange fear that brushed my skin at that moment, raising my flesh to bumps.
I had him brought to me then, for if there was one thing I understood in that single glance, it was that this man was no criminal. He was young and strong, but no fire of hatred or rebellion burned in his eyes; in fact, I saw in them only a surprising sense of calm. I still remember the first question I asked him. Are you the king of the Jews? The words were said in jest—it’s what all their rebels claimed to be—yet I couldn’t shake the notion that this man had the bearing of a true prince.
I have never forgotten his soft reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. ” Or the way he glanced up as he said them, as if his eyes roamed beyond the grand pillars and ceiling towering over his head. “If it were,” he continued, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” The fear that had brushed my skin earlier crept a little deeper into me at those words and the authority with which he said them.
We spoke then of truth, for he declared that he had come to testify to the truth in the world. I laughed out loud at the naivety of these words. In my position I had seen too much lying and deception; people stabbing their friends in the back for political gain. Truth changes overnight. No-one can be trusted. Watch for the knife in your side. These were the maxims that I lived by, but this man was an idealistic. A dreamer, perhaps. But not a criminal.
I told the Jews as much, but they shouted me down, even when I offered to release him as part of the Passover custom. They called instead for Barabbas—violent, vile Barabbas!
The lashing? Only now do I think back on that lashing with shame. Now that pain is my constant companion, I recall more clearly the agony and weakness in the prisoner’s eyes as I brought him out after the beating, parading him to his accusers. In my defence, perhaps I had hoped to quench the mob’s thirst for blood. It coated red the prisoner’s forehead and hair, where the soldiers had rammed down a wreath of thorns. It was visible in the dark stains on the robe they had dressed him in. It congealed on his legs and arms. Yet, if anything, the sight of his blood heightened the crowd’s fevered savagery. Crucify, Crucify, Crucify. The refrain pounded relentlessly through the walls of my home, even long after I ordered the palace doors barred.
What was I to do? I had never faced a crowd so hungry for a man’s death. And the fear crept ever deeper; I felt the knot of it lodged tightly in my throat. Perhaps it was the message from my wife, warning me of the dream she had had about this very man. Perhaps it was something one of the priests said just before the door clanged shut—this man claimed to be the son of their God.
He stood silently as I again pressed him for answers. I’d had prisoners cower in fear, beg for their lives, sometimes even spit in my face, but I’d never had one that stood so calmly—so unafraid—before me. Didn’t he understand that I had the power to free or crucify him?
“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Those were the words that finally lodged the fear deep, deep into the core of my body—the place where it festered and spread into the throbbing pain that is my daily companion.
I tried to set him free. I tried. Yet the Jews were unyielding, even threatening me with the wrath of Caesar. What choice did I really have?
Those final events are so clearly etched in my mind that for a moment I am back in that stone paved courtyard in Jerusalem, walking to the judgement seat, with the crowd pressing in around me. They sense they have won; I see it in every victory-twisted smile and smirk.
“Here is your king!” I shout as the guards push the prisoner forward. Angry voices rise in uproar. Take him away! We have no king but Caesar! Crucify! Crucify!
As my eyes lock once more onto the prisoner’s, I recall his last words to me: “The one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” Why then do I sense that he is watching me? Weighing me? Finding me wanting? I quickly avert my gaze and study the servant struggling through the crowd with a brimming bowl of water. Drops splash onto my robe as he places it on my lap and I plunge my hands into the cool water. For just a moment I imagine the water swirling red from the blood on my hands. Yet I snap back to reality and loudly declare myself innocent of this man’s death.
“Let his blood be on us and on our children,” the crowd replies.
And finally I send the most innocent of men away to be crucified.
A voice draws me back to the present. Water splashing. A cool cloth on my face. I open my eyes and watch the slave’s efficient, yet uncaring, ministrations. It’s the same one who asked me about regrets.
“I do…,” I say, voice gravelled by un-use. He stops—startled—and leans closer to hear my words. “I do have a regret,” I say more clearly, and his eyes widen in comprehension. “I crucified a man once. A Jew called Jesus.”
He stumbles around for words, perhaps trying to console me. But I know there is no comfort to be had. That one day in Judea was the start of my unravelling.
It was the day I learnt that guilt does not wash away as easily as blood.
- The Gospel accounts vary slightly in the order of events of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. I have stuck to the longest account, from John. John does not mention Pilate sending Jesus to Herod, which the other Gospels do mention. John also does not refer to the warning from Pilate’s wife, but I mention it in passing, in order to drive home Pilate’s growing fear.
- Pilate had a number of run-ins with the Jews in his time as Prefect. He smuggled military insignia (bearing the emperor’s image) into Jerusalem at night, but was later forced to remove them. He also used temple money to build an aqueduct, which led to an uprising. He was eventually recalled to Rome for a trial (and removed from office in A.D. 36), following a massacre of Samaritans, who had gathered to witness the discovery of sacred objects on Mt Gerizim.