(Ruled Judea 26-36 A.D.)
My Claudia! Come out of there! I need you!
That crowd of Jews is driving me insane
With their demands that shatter Roman rules.
Beside the Tiber, from the seven hills,
We Romans rule the world with swords and laws
Superior to every power known
On earth or heaven in all history.
No other city-state has brought such peace
And economic favor on the lands.
With temples, gardens, amphitheaters,
Parks, circuses, baths, roads, and aqueducts,
Rome has surpassed the cities of the world,
In Pergamum, Phoenicia, Ephesus,
Brittania, Syria, and Judea–
The lands we’ve subjugated to our will.
I am a Roman citizen, my dear,
To whom the people’s good is highest law.
These Jews, this stubborn race, demands the death
Of Jesus, saying he has claimed to be
A King, as though that claim were something new.
There’s nothing new beneath the sun, their Law
And Prophets say the same, and it is so.
It shames the gods for Caesar, a mere man,
Who walks the seven hills on feet of clay,
To say he is a god–do not be shocked,
My dear companion, mother of our boys.
Self-righteousness is unbecoming, dear,
On you, like drops of mud that soil a gown.
You know they talk the same in rooms from Rome
To Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem.
It’s true that the Sanhedrin has opposed
Me other times on their religious grounds.
After Tiberius appointed me
Judea’s governor, the army moved
Its headquarters from Caesarea to
Jerusalem at my command, a change
That made good sense strategically, my dear.
The marching troops were awesome to behold,
Their armor polished, horses dressed with plumes,
And soldiers carried standards overhead
As crowds admired their strength and discipline.
The soldiers’ standards bore the image of
The Emperor, which was the proper step,
For his authority extends this far.
The Jews, those most religious people, called
It desecration and idolatry,
And claimed that they would rather die than yield.
“We have no King but God,” they said to me,
And I, I am a man of reason, dear–
Euclid and Aristotle taught me much–
So I accommodated touchy Jews,
And made the army take the standards back.
Nor did the Jews approve when I had shields,
The golden shields inscribed with names of gods,
Hung up within the palace where I stayed
Upon Mount Zion, holy mountain to
The Jews, with holy this and holy that.
Their protest reached the Emperor, who made
Me take them down, disgracing gods, I say.
If Jews may worship their Jehovah’s name,
Shall we not honor Roman gods in turn?
The Jews want justice so long as it is
Their form of justice, and I say they’re wrong.
A man may worship any god he wants
So long as his devotion is sincere.
The world has room for many gods, the Jews
Have theirs and we have ours, and if I had
To fight more battles, as I did when young,
I’d take the Roman gods to watch my steps,
And not the God of Moses, who did not fight
When Roman legions conquered Palestine.
We have been kind and good as conquerors,
We let them worship as they please so long
As they pay taxes and maintain the peace.
These Jews, these stubborn zealots for a god
Who’s disappeared, were close to a revolt
When I took money from their temple, funds
From the redemption of their vows, to build
An aqueduct to carry water to
The crops, the livestock and the people–who
Cares where the money comes from when it’s used
For public good, and benefits the Jews?
I must administrate, and that I’ll do.
It’s true I mingled Galilean blood
With sacrifices that they made – one must
Keep order and demand respect if they
Will not confer it on superiors
Freely, and few submit to Roman rule
Without resentment at our power’s sway.
A governor cannot concern himself
Too much with popularity, as though
He were a suitor of a maid, for where
A suitor woos with his bouquets and gifts,
His poetry and songs, a ruler’s force
Keeps people’s power in the proper check.
Still, I’ve offended them enough before,
My dear, for once I might propitiate
The Jews, and grant petition on a case
Disposed of easily by death of one
For peace and good within Jerusalem.
If I let this man go, the priests would tell
The tale to Herod (eager to see him,
More eager to return the man to me),
And Herod would inform the Emperor,
Like schoolboys tattling in the tutor’s ear.
Within a month or two we’d have to leave
Our palace with the tapestries and slaves,
I’d have to lead recruits against the Gauls,
Out in a wilderness much worse than this,
Where you would have no statues by your bed,
No dinners for the captains and their wives,
No bathing oils, and no embroidered gowns.
I must go out to them, my love, they will
Not come inside the palace, or they’ll be
Unclean, they say, and will not be allowed
To eat the Passover, as though I, I
Would stain another Jewish holiday.
“What charges do you bring against this man?”
(I do believe it’s jealousy that brings
This crowd of sanctimony here at morn.)
They say, “If he were not a criminal,
We never would have handed him to you.”
“Take him yourselves and judge him by your law!”
They say they have no right to execute
A man, which is correct, for only I
Have power in the province to declare
In any case the penalty of death.
I want to know what the accused will say
To clear his name of crime, escape the cross,
And live to marry, raise a family,
Putting the past behind him like a dream
That vanishes when dawn dispels the sleep.
I’ll go inside and question him at once.
Bring Jesus to me in the meeting room.
I ask you, “Are you king of all the Jews?”
You ask if that idea’s mine, or if
Some others talked to me about your case.
Am I a Jew? Your people and your priests
Handed you over to me. What have you done?
You say your Kingdom is not of this world,
And that your servants would have fought to stop
Arrest by Jews, but that your kingdom’s from
Another place. So then you are a king!
You entered in the world to testify
To truth, and everyone who favors truth
Will listen to your speech. But what is truth?
Guard, watch this man. I’ll meet the Jews again.
I find no basis for a charge against
The man, but as you have a custom that
I shall release to you one prisoner
When it is Passover, do you want me
To liberate your Jewish king from chains?
They cry out for Barabbas, rebel Jew,
The last man worthy of his liberty,
An insurrectionist and murderer.
Instead of wine, they want a cup of blood.
I’ll find a way to pacify this mob,
For Jesus is as blameless as a lamb.
Have this man flogged. Look, I am bringing him
Outside to you to let you know I find
No basis for a charge against the man.
See how they’ve mocked him, and he wears a crown
Of thorns, a purple robe – Here is the man!
And yet they still demand I crucify.
You take him, Jews, and crucify, but as
For me I find no basis for a charge.
They say they have a law and by that law
The man must die, because he claimed to be
The Son of God. It’s like a northern wind
Has cut my bones, and piles of cloaks and shawls
Would not shut out the piercing shriek and cold.
Where are you from? Won’t you reply? Don’t you
Know I have power over life or death?
He’s right, I’d have no power over him
If it weren’t given from above, and that
The one who handed him to me has guilt,
A greater sin, for it is wrong to call
A lamb a lion, or a white wall black.
This man has done no wrong, I’ll set him free.
They shout that if I let him go, I am
Not Caesar’s friend, for anyone who claims
To be a king opposes Caesar’s rule.
Leave the praetorium and come out here,
Jesus, stand there beside the guard, and I
Shall sit upon the judge’s seat–they call
This place Stone Pavement, aptly named when stones
Are what they’d throw at you to punish you
For blasphemy, if Jewish law applied.
Chief priests and people of Jerusalem,
Here is your king–have you not had enough
Of blood, and shall I crucify your king?
They say that Caesar is their only king,
As though Tiberius had David’s heart.
What is it, guard, a note from her who shares
My bed? Give it to me and stand aside.
She says, “Do not have anything to do
With him who has no guilt, for in a dream
Today I suffered pain because of him.”
That woman–is she mad? Does she not know
The Roman empire was not built on dreams
And women’s fears, bad omens, auguries,
As though the gods would speak through formless things?
I cannot count on anyone; I trust
Myself, my power and experience.
My life is one long struggle in the dark.1
What shall I do? A governor decides–
That is why Caesar placed me here, to seek
The justice of conflicting facts and views.
Another insurrection, even threat
Of one, and Caesar will remove my head,
The same as Herod sliced that prophet’s neck.
The good of Rome and all the people is
What matters most, and if one man should die
Because he failed to mount defense–I gave
The opportunity–that’s hard on him.
The battle’s to the strong, not to the weak
And meek, the lambs that bleat in pasture lands.
I’m sorry that a blameless man must die.
He must be put to death because he called
Himself a Son of God when Caesar’s king;
No king but Caesar, not this Jesus Christ.
The basin’s here, I wash my hands, which do
Not shed this blood, nor do my eyes see it
Performed;2 I have no guilt, now go, take him,
And have him crucified on Calvary,
You are responsible for him, not me,
I’m not my brother’s keeper, Jews, am I?
They say his blood may rest on them and on
Their children, blood of him they once adored.
Go, write upon the sign above his head
“King of the Jews,” what I have written, I
Have written, it shall stand, a testament.
I’ve washed my hands, and yet I feel I have
Participated in the greatest crime
The world has seen since it began, the death
Of one who did no wrong, one more than man,
Almost as though he were a god himself,
That man who stood and would not answer me.
Forgive me, gods, have mercy on my soul!
A power greater than my own has worked
This evil deed, and still I am to blame.
I’ve crucified a King, my hands have sinned.
To wash with soap a thousand years will not
Remove the stain and stench of blameless blood.
Between the roads to life or death I choose:
Have mercy on me, Jesus, King of Jews!
1”Life is one long struggle in the dark.” Lucretius [Titus Lucretius Carus] (99-55 B.C.), De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), bk. II, l. 54.
From Virginia Street and Other Poems and Three Saints, Two Villains