THE WRITER (or, How I wrote the Bible)
Rome, The Empire – 40 CE
Rats feasted on a dead drunk, but out of sight. A heavy evening after the scorched afternoon; late summer, the month of the God Emperor Augustus. The air glowed, smoke from thousands of oil lamps and open fires catching the sun’s fading power.
The writer’s eyes burnt as he stood on the balcony of his family domus on the Palatine Hill, watched the murmuring city stretched out below. He acknowledged a peculiar beauty in the wide sweep of wretched humanity huddled together; slums and tenements hugging the banks of the Tiber, hill after hill to the glimpse of distant, burning sea.
Time passed. Abstract forms took shape. His heart leapt, giddy.
Later, a fat moon rose from behind the imposing home, cast its cold light over the dead day, the greatest city in history, the worried man. But the writer had a fire in his belly, a new idea burned, became alive. At last, his simmering anger had found a purpose, some kind of direction.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ said his mother, touching his elbow and rubbing it fondly.
‘From up here, yes. But it is a different life in the slums,’ he answered. ‘It stinks like a dead dog.’
‘It’s said there are a million souls in the city now, Marcus. A million. They are here by choice. This is the Golden City of Dreams. Dreams of wealth, success, excitement. You cannot blame our Senators or our Emperor for the squalor that success inevitably brings.’
‘Especially since we have a Senator as guest this evening, mother?’ quizzed Marcus, worried for his father.
‘We must be gracious. Anyway, Maximus has been very kind to us. And he’s your father’s best friend in the Senate.’
‘That’s a very beautiful stola you’re wearing, mother. Where did you get it? And is that black wig from India, perhaps? Has generals’ pay risen again?’
She didn’t answer, just stared at the city in silence until a servant announced the Senator’s arrival.
‘I will welcome our guest. Please, for me, be happy.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Marcus, as if to himself.
His mind flew: filled with conflict, many emotions, passion. In recent months, he had begun to question the society in which he enjoyed a privileged place. The vast majority were poor or enslaved, while he had enjoyed a Greek education, the spoils of Empire and the stability of position. But it wasn’t enough. Not anymore. Not since he’d started hearing the stories, the stories he’d begun to write down and share, in Greek so that they could be read throughout the civilised world.
Would his stories bring any fairness to the casually cruel and biased system that controlled so many millions of lives? Probably not, but he knew that was not reason enough to abandon his project. The simple act of writing would purge his own guilt and, like a pebble in a pond, who knew where the ripples would end up? His heart beat louder as he lost himself in the structure, the plot, the drama. He was truly lost to it.
He heard his mother calling his name repeatedly.
He drained the goblet of wine and took a deep breath. He turned from the glorious musings, hesitated, went to the dining area. During the hot summer season, evening meals were taken in the peristyle, the open garden in the centre of the domus. The servants waited in the shadows while oil lamps on the pillars illuminated the guests. Two child slaves were tasked with using ostrich feathers to keep flying insects away from the diners. The centrepiece was an innovation: a long oak table which overflowed with gold platters of grapes and bread and many jugs of wine. The guests were seated on plush, high-backed chairs, rather than the typical lounges.
‘Mother, your generosity is unequalled in all of Rome,’ said Marcus, touching his lips and bowing deeply. He turned to the guests. ‘I welcome you, Senator, and all our guests on behalf of my father.’
‘Indeed,’ said his mother. ‘He risks his life blood in Gaul so that we may enjoy the fruits of the Empire.’
‘I thank you for your welcome, Marcus,’ said Senator Maximus, resplendent in his purple-trimmed Senatorial toga. ‘In these difficult times, the welcome of friends is indeed a respite.’
Other guests. His mother’s current artist-in-residence. The wine merchant who lived next door. The merchant’s wife. To Marcus, the artist was a pompous man whose ability didn’t match his ego, a frighteningly familiar idea for a struggling writer. The merchant couple were wealthy, overweight and vulgar in all their habits. Bacchus was their favoured god. So they called for more wine. The servants filled the wine goblets with mulsum, honey wine. All present stood and drank in honour of their hostess, her courageous husband and the House Gods.
For the first course, a plate of mixed salad with olive oil dressing was followed by sea urchins marinated in liquamen, the sauce made of salt and rotten fish. Salt was ubiquitous, Rome herself having been founded on a salt mine. The finest spices from Ephesus were passed around the table. Praise flowed and Marcus was happy for his mother and thankful for his fortunate circumstances.
The talk was of politics, of course. There was discussion of little else at Roman dinners, Emperor Caligula having recently returned from Gaul with cartloads of seashells and thousands of slaves. Now, the Emperor was reimposing his will on the city at the centre of the world.
‘I know Tiberius put the last independent legions under imperial control and will be remembered for not much else,’ said the merchant, ‘but I preferred him to Gaius Caesar Germanicus Caligula.’
‘Little Boot has increased the free flour ration and the games are becoming more bloodthirsty,’ said Maximus. ‘So the masses are happy enough. But I must warn you all that he is seeking to replenish the state treasury.’
‘How?’ asked the merchant, worried. ‘More taxes?’
‘Worse,’ said the senator. ‘Extortion and confiscation. He has demanded tribute from many wealthy citizens. Failure to pay has led to confiscation of estates.’
The merchant became pale and quiet, calculating how much he could easily offer the Emperor should the agents come knocking. He decided to lead the discussion away from the disturbing topic.
‘Yesterday, I saw two gladiators fight a lion,’ he exclaimed. ‘A lion! It managed to gore one of them before they dispatched it with a dagger in the ribs. It was truly a spectacle. The mobs lapped it up. But think of the expense in bringing a lion to Rome from the furthest part of Africa.’
‘The servants are talking about his plans to make his favourite horse a senator,’ said Marcus.
‘Nonsense,’ retorted Maximus. ‘I fear these whispers are being put about by someone who sees opportunity in our emperor’s madness.’
‘Claudius does have the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard,’ said the merchant. ‘And Little Boot executed Naevius Sutorius Macro of the Guard after he ascended. So there will be no love lost there.’
‘The Guard may yet save us all,’ said Maximus.
The discussion was interrupted by the head servant, a Greek, who rang a beautiful gold bell to signify the arrival of the main courses. A full roasted pig, assorted baked fish, a roast pheasant and copious quantities of wine soon covered the table. The guests rejoiced and praised their hostess.
‘Did you hear about Caligula’s little episode in Jerusalem?’ asked the artist, a self-obsessed man who observed his reflection in anything shiny at every opportunity.
‘Please go on,’ said the merchant’s wife.
‘Well, I have it on good authority that he wants to put a wondrous statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem.’
‘How do you know this?’ asked the merchant.
‘My very good friend is the sculptor. The statue is almost complete. Fortunately our puppet there, Herod Agrippa, won’t allow it. He thinks it’ll drive the locals mad. They’ve been very restless in Judaea, apparently.’
The conversation waned, all mouths busy with the main courses. Marcus was more disillusioned with Roman society than ever before. He knew Caligula was broadly disliked, but now it seemed clear that the Emperor was mad and the citizens would suffer for his insanity.
‘Yes, I’ve heard stories from Judaea,’ said Marcus, quietly delighted at the opening.
‘Do tell,’ said his mother.
‘I’ve been speaking with a Judean. He’s a slave in the baths near the Forum. Nice chap. Quite intelligent. He can even read Greek.’
‘Fascinating how some of the savages can adopt our ways,’ said the merchant. ‘But no more civilised than dogs.’
The others nodded their approval of the assumption, a commonly held superiority complex.
‘So this slave, Luke is his name, he told me about a character in Judaea. I’m writing a long story about him. A novel.’
‘Wonderful,’ exclaimed his mother, clapping her hands and kissing him on both cheeks. ‘You will be the greatest writer the Empire has known. You are still so young. You have time. All you need is the idea. Praise to Mercury,’ she said, raising her goblet, ‘Protector of writers.’
‘And merchants!’ said the merchant as all at the table raised their drinks.
‘Tell us your idea, Marcus,’ they chorused.
‘The idea is to write a sequel to the Testament, the holy book of the Judeans, which is very popular reading among the literate classes.’
‘I’ve read some of it,’ said the artist. ‘I even have the scrolls in my studio. Quite fascinating, really. Their god character is such a brute. Is it meant to be ironic?’
‘Oh, it’s magical,’ said the merchant’s wife. ‘A fantasy, I’d say. The part about the creation of the Universe is so exciting.’
‘Genesis, isn’t it?’ said Marcus’s mother.
‘Everybody’s talking about it. Escapist, exotic literature is such an antidote to political plays and love stories.’
‘I’m so tired of the Greek myths.’
‘Yes,’ said Marcus. ‘So I hope to capitalise on this interest in religious escapism and continue the story.’
‘In which direction?’ asked the merchant.
‘More wine!’ called his wife. ‘Bring us that pale Spanish.’
‘You’ll like this,’ said the merchant. ‘It hasn’t suffered for travel. Marcus, I apologise. In which direction will you continue the story?’
‘This slave, Luke, has given me the entire structure,’ said Marcus, excited now at the growing potential of his story. In truth, he was amazed at the popularity of the old Judean stories among Rome’s elite. It all seemed to fit perfectly. ‘Just a few months ago, a man in Judaea claimed to be the son of their god.’
‘Yes,’ said his mother, ‘the Judeans have only one god. How quaint.’
‘Needless to say, he upset the local priests and they had him crucified. Our man Pilate was forced to order the killing.’
‘As cunning as wolves, priests.’
‘This crucified man supposedly performed miracles, such as turning water into wine.’
‘Water into wine? Then off with his head!’ exclaimed the merchant.
‘Quite,’ continued Marcus, after the laughter subsided. ‘He is also said to have cured lepers and raised the dead.’
‘All very interesting,’ said the artist, a secret atheist. ‘But it sounds like a simple religious fantasy to me.’
‘It gets better,’ said Marcus. ‘After he was entombed, three days later, he rose from the dead.’
‘A standard switch, I would’ve thought.’
‘Those Judeans have had too much of the man’s magic wine, I fear,’ laughed the merchant, uneasily.
‘Apparently a lot of them believe this is all true. Besides all the magic tricks, he had a profound message: that all men are equal, that the Emperor and the slave are as one before god.’
‘Be careful with this tale,’ warned Maximus. ‘That kind of talk could get you deported. Or worse.’
He’d thought of this risk, of course, and had already taken the decision to publish under an assumed name. Perhaps a Judean name for authenticity: Matthew or Luke or just put it down as the word of God. Edgy. He would lose credit for his work and any chance at profit. But these motivations were no longer the drivers of his creative urges. His spirit demanded more. His soul had awoken. He would create a character like none seen in fiction before. Pit him against an empire. Challenge the status quo. An Odyssey for a new millennium, a Ulysses not on a journey of self-discovery through allegory, but a hero for the poor, the enslaved, the ninety-nine percent.
The dishes were cleared and dessert of Syrian pears and Greek honey was placed before them.
‘Your main character, Marcus. The magician, what is his name?’ asked the merchant’s wife.
‘Literally, the anointed one who brings the salvation of God,’ said Marcus. ‘For a hero, Jesus Christ has more of a ring to it, don’t you think?’
‘I’m worried, Marcus,’ said his mother then. ‘I don’t want you causing any trouble.’
‘Don’t worry, mother. It’s just a story.’
A story that can wait awhile, perhaps. This scene, this now, this is too interesting to lose.
Another story formed.
The writer excused himself, went outside to smell the night and to look at Jupiter, King of all the Gods, in all His glory. He smiled.
Find this and all my short stories so far in one juicy collection, The Writer and Other Stories:
Why I wrote this story
The Christian Bible, and all holy texts, are works of fiction. I don’t believe that any book should be banned, but the Bible is so toxic and offensive, it should at least carry a sticker on the front cover saying ‘This is a work of fiction and should not be taken literally.’