Pilate Speaks

a monologue by The Rev. Jan Nunley

I am not as you expected me to be. Two thousand years have passed, and yet you raise my name to life again each time you gather: sub Pontio Pilato--"He was crucified under Pontius Pilate."

You think you know me. You think you are me: sophisticated, worldly-wise, cynical, confused, agnostic . . . A craven bureaucrat. A harsh soldier. An uncertain judge. Two thousand years have passed, and you raise me to life . . . yet you do not truly know me. Very well, then. Know me now--as I was--if you can. Try to understand me--if you will.

My gens, my people, are the Pontii, of Samnium, in the mountains south of The City. My ancestor Gavius Pontius bested a Roman army. He showed them mercy. Three decades passed, and the Romans came again. They showed him death. Mercy can be dangerous to your health.

Pilatus is my cognomen, what you would call my "surname." "Skilled with the javelin," it means. Aim, flex, hurl, hit the mark. Decision, strength-control. That is pilatus. Vir fortis ac strenuus: a strong man in a strong body.

I am of the equites, the knightly class. I am the fifth praefectus; in Greek, hegemon--governor--of Judaea. I hold the power of life and death. I am a Roman, and in this place, I am Rome.

That doesn't make you tremble, but it should. You have had many empires since. They were savage outposts on the edge of the world in my time. We conquered them. They conquered others. Now you conquer--by war and law and trade--whatever wins the day. Our spirit rules yours yet.

My work is simple: I make this land secure. Secure for taxes, secure for trade--secure against war and rebellion. Sub Tiberio quies -- under Tiberius, peace.

Not that such a thing is easy here. This Judaea is a hard post. We who are Roman citizens are "the lords of creation, the togaed people," as our poets have said. These Jews, these men who sacrifice their manhood for their unseen God, maintain that they are heaven's chosen--despite the evidence. Cicero said it: they were born to be slaves. We were born to be their masters. They are slow to understand these things.

When I arrived in their holy city, Jerusalem, I did what any governor would do. On Roman ground I had the standards fixed: the image of Tiberius--the beautiful, powerful face of the ruler of all the earth. I woke to find them under my window, swaying, praying, begging me to remove the standards. They found them offensive. I put their necks to the sword. They refused to yield. Removing the standards threatened the honor of Caesar; a slaughter would have threatened the peace of Caesar. I am not an unreasonable man.

No, I am not unreasonable. I saw them thirst in this dry land, and resolved to bring them the best that civilization has to offer: water. Safe, convenient water, brought forty miles by Roman aqueduct from pure springs. Who could object to such a wonder? No man of reason. But these were not men of reason. Once again they gathered, this time to scream abuse at me in the tribunal, because I had used the money from their Temple treasury--no, because I touched it and defiled it. For their own good! My legionaries, stout men, gave them the sacrifice they deserved. Blood ran in their holy places. I taught them a lesson about mercy, as Rome taught Gavius Pontius. But this time, Pontius prevailed.

A third time. There were the shields--no images, merely the dedication: Pilatus to Tiberius, in my own quarters in Herod's palace. My homage to my emperor. My religion, consecrated to what I think holy. They objected. Threatened to write to Rome: Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, Philip, tetrarch of Batanaea, Trachonitis and Auranitis, and the others. They wrote to Him. He wrote to me. The shields are in Caesarea now. I built the Tiberieum there, to my god's honor. The dedication stone is all you have left of me. Oh, and some coins. That would be appropriate, you who worship coins.

So when they came to me with this Galilean Jew, Yeshua bar Yosef, you can see my dilemma. A wise man. A wonder-worker. A healer, a raiser of the dead. Favored by the god Aesculapius, he of the snakes entwined on a staff, killed by Jupiter with a lightning bolt, lest he give men eternal life. People prayed to him: Propitius sit, be gracious to me.

They wanted his life. What--was I Jupiter? And for what should I have him killed? Because he challenged their law. Their law. "Your law is none of my concern," I said, thinking to myself: I have bowed too many times to your law. I am hegemon in this place, not your rabble. "Crucify him yourselves," I told them. I ad malem crucem, I muttered under my breath--and go hang yourselves up too.

I found no case against him in the law of Rome. Three times I told them that, three times: "No case!" And I tell you, I feared to condemn him.From the stories I heard, he was favored by the gods. Who would put the gods' favorite to death? "I came into the world to witness to the truth," he said to me. Ti estin aletheia, I said to him in Greek, the only tongue we shared--What is truth? He seemed to speak of truth in the abstract, the absolute. I know only of truth in the particular--the truth of the law of Rome.

Yet this Jew challenged my law as well as his own. He would not deny that he was a king. The maiestas, the majesty of the Roman people, embodied in the Lord, our Caesar, was at stake. Our national security, the very core of our way of life, civilization itself. Surely you must understand this. You have not been slow to protect your own interests, in your own empires of the West.

I had him scourged; perhaps that would satisfy them, soothe the blood-lust in their rising voices. I, lictor, colliga manus--go, lictor, tie his hands. That was the order. Unum, duo, tres, quattuor . . . Afterwards, the men played the old army "king game" with him, basilinda, tossing the dice for the honor. The winner crowned him, cloaked him in a red army blanket stained with mud and blood. "There's your King of the Jews," they laughed. It was not enough.

I offered them another prisoner. It too was not enough. Ecce homo! I cried to them--here is your King! "If you set him free, you are not philos tou kaisaros, Caesar's friend," they screamed. A chill went down my spine. Seneca spoke of amicitia Tiberii--et frigore: Tiberius' friendship and his coldness. If I let this man go free, or sentenced him to death, I could feel one or the other. And I could not say--I could not say which one I would feel.

I called for water--as who would not? The poet Ovid says that "crimes cannot be carried away by water"--and so with this one: not even by the water I had brought to Jerusalem could my hands come clean.

I gave the order: Staurotheto. Let this king be crucified, and between two bandits, too. King of the Jews--I ordered the sign: in Latin, Greek, and that barbarian tongue of theirs. Let there be no mistake. Once more, their leaders insisted it would not do. "Say, this man said he was King!" they whined. Enough! I roared. Quod scripsi, scripsi. O gegrapha, gegrapha. What I have written, I have written. Do you understand?

After it was done, some of them asked for the body. It was the least I could do for a king. Sub Pontio Pilato, sub Pontio Pilato, two thousand years, year after year. Sit tibi terra levis, let the earth lie lightly on you, prophet of Israel. Oh, how lightly it lay on you, and for so short a time. And how heavily on me, and for so long.

Source for material in this monologue: Ann Wroe, Pontius Pilate (New York: Random House, 1999) 


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