Excerpts

            The smirk on the Syrians face transformed itself into an ugly grimace as he drew back his flagrum to inflict another blow on the bloody skin and flesh that was once a man’s back. The braided leather thongs of the whip, fitted with alternating sharp pieces of bones and lead balls tied at various intervals, hissed through the air to land on the mutilated back of the helpless naked victim tied by his wrists to a wooden post. The Syrian was angry and sweating profusely under a sun too hot for April. Some of the watching crowd cheered as the blow struck, but those with even the slightest modicum of empathy gasped as blood splattered from the torn flesh. A barely audible forlorn grunt was the only sound that escaped from the mouth of the victim as the weighted thongs struck his back, but the agony etched on his face was like a silent scream. The grunt infuriated the Syrian. The man was supposed to scream, cry for mercy, beg like all the others he had whipped. What was wrong with this dog of a man? He didn’t act human.

The Syrian enjoyed pandering to the more calloused spectators who gathered around to hear screams of pain from the mouth of the tortured. He was determined to not disappoint them. Without a hint of humaneness or pity, he brought the flagrum back behind his shoulder again to strike a blow he knew would wrest a scream from the most stoic of men. Suddenly a loud voice rang out, “Amandio, stop!” But it was too late–he didn’t want to stop. The arm swept forward with all the power his muscles could muster driving the sharp bones of the weighted thongs deep in the man’s flesh. Amandio flipped his wrist at just the instant the bones penetrated the flesh causing them to rip through the skin and subcutaneous tissues like miniature knife blades. Those in the crowd who derived pleasure from such sadistic cruelty, cheered in appreciation of Amandio’s mastery of the flagrum. The majority of onlookers stood silent and averted their eyes as a renewed flow of blood floated small chunks of flesh down the man’s back and legs to the already red-stained dirt at his feet. The more squeamish began drifting away. The man hanging from the post, suffering in unimaginable pain, had not rewarded the pitiless Amandio with a scream.

The enraged Syrian, his eyes wild like a mad wolf, swung his arm back to strike again, but the Optio of a Carnificina Squad who had yelled for him to stop, stepped in between him and the sufferer and grabbed his arm. Optio Nepos knew he himself had been remiss in his duties. He was in charge of the scourging and should have been watching, but he had spotted a shopkeeper he knew at the back of the crowd and had walked back to chat. He had been deeply engrossed in conversation when Antiochus, Amandio’s scourging partner, rushed back and informed him excitedly that although he himself had stopped at the prescribed thirty-nine lashes, Amandio was still flogging the prisoner. Nepos had hurried back to the scourging post and yelled the stop order to Amandio. Now, after being ignored, he too was angry. He held the Syrian’s arm in a vise-like grip. “I shouted for you to stop. That was an order.”

“I didn’t hear you.”

Optio Nepos shook his head in disgust. “You better clean out your filthy ears, but it’s too late now. No excuse is going to work after Centurion Bassus sees this man’s back. He’s lost so much blood already he might die before he can be hung properly.”

“He’s a fool. He never begged for mercy.”

“You’re the fool if you intended to continue flogging him until he begged or died? The Governor and the Jews are going to be furious if this man doesn’t live long enough to be crucified. If he dies before we can nail him up on the wood, nothing is going to save you–or me. I know Bassus. He’ll have me flogged for failing to stop you but your fate will be worse. He’ll most likely have you flogged to death and hang your body up on a tree to rot until the vultures and the dogs tear your worthless carcass down and turn it into dung.”

Nepos turned to two of the other men. “Put this man’s robe back on him. I don’t want anyone to see his back.”

*****

            Centurion Quintus Aelius Bassus was an expert at killing people. He didn’t kill out of hatred or jealously or any other heinous motive. His victims were slaves and criminals and maybe occasionally, a foreigner who found himself on the wrong side of Roman law. Their specific crimes were of no concern to Aelius Bassus. As the leader of a Carnificina Squad, executing miscreants and other scum was his duty.

Bassus didn’t look the part of a killer. His face was an inverted triangle as it descended from a wide forehead to a clean-shaven, narrow, pointed chin giving his visage a heart shape. Two large eyes with black marble-sized pupils peered from the owl-like countenance. The look of innocence projected by the face was an anomaly and gave no hint of the man’s character who wore it.

Aelius Bassus had previously led a Carnificina Squad in Germany for two years where he learned the intricacies of execution before being abruptly transferred from Germany to Syria. He and his carninarii were now in a cohort of the Tenth Roman Legion temporarily assigned to the part of the Syrian Province called Judea where he reported directly to the prefect, a surly man by the name of Pontius Pilate.

*****

              The city of Caesarea Maritima was a white gleaming jewel sparkling in its magnificence as it boldly interrupted the stark monotony of the long, brown, barren Judean coast. Caesarea had been conceived and constructed by Herod the Great when he was client-king of Judea. Herod instructed his engineers and architects to make the city splendid and awe-inspiring to honor his patron, Caesar Augustus, and they had achieved their mission.

The harbor of Caesarea was Herod’s gateway to the world. It was a masterwork complete with two large breakwaters, two long moles on the interior to protect the ships once inside, and a great lighthouse built at the end of the southern breakwater with fires burning all day and all night to guide ships to his port. For anyone approaching Caesarea by sea, the entire visual experience of the city and harbor was one of overwhelming splendor that equaled or surpassed any other vista in the empire.

When the Romans took control of Judea in the year 6, Caesarea was a natural choice for their headquarters. They immediately commandeered the grandiose palace built by King Herod and converted it to serve as the Roman praetorium. The current prefect, Pontius Pilate, who very much enjoyed the luxurious comforts of the palatial praetorium, whiled away most of his time within its well protected walls.

Pilate’s predecessors had learned years ago it was wise to leave their sanctuary in Caesarea and make their presence known in Jerusalem when the Jews celebrated a major religious holiday. It was now April and time for Passover, a religious feast that oft times re-awakened passions and anger in the Jews toward their Roman usurpers. The streets of Jerusalem would bustle with throngs of pilgrims from the surrounding countryside and small towns. Pilate passionately disliked the ignorant peasants, their ridiculous holidays, and the city of Jerusalem, but contrary to his sedentary inclinations, he reluctantly decided it was time once again to make his annual spring-time journey.

Jerusalem was encircled with defensive walls around its entire perimeter except the northeast corner where the massive structure of the Temple Mount was integrated in the wall as an impregnable cornerstone. The western wall ran north from the southernmost part of the city to the Jerusalem praetorium, another one of Herod’s former palaces, where it jogged east for a short section and then north again. The short east-west section was penetrated with an arched opening known as the Garden Gate. Leading from the gate and roughly paralleling the upper west wall of the city was the Ramah road and adjacent to this road was an abandoned ancient stone quarry which dominated the landscape.

            Centurion Aelius Bassus was waiting in the abandoned quarry with a contubernia of eight soldiers. They were standing on a flat-topped rocky knoll rising thirty-five feet above the quarry floor. The knoll was a fractured section of limestone rejected as unsuitable for cutting into building blocks. He and his men were at the end of a straight row of ten round holes in the stone stretching in a line across the flat hilltop like so many perforations. The rough-cut holes were spaced about twelve feet apart and each one was about a foot and a half in diameter.

Directly west of the perforated hilltop, a smooth, round, barren outcropping of white stone rose up out of the quarry floor like the half-sunken skull of a giant who had been buried standing upright. The likeness to a skull was enhanced by two dark cave entrances at ground level giving the appearance of vacant eye sockets forever staring blankly at the emptiness of the old quarry

This pocket of wasteland was aptly named the Place of the Skull. Jews called it Golgotha and the Romans who came along later agreed the name was fitting and called it Calvaria.

The northern part of the quarry was completely void of vegetation. No shrub, no tree, no flower, no weed grew here. The only thing penetrating the nothingness was a small building built out of rejected quarry stones perched at the north end of the perforated hilltop. Stacked along one of the long sides of the building were beams of wood pre-cut in two lengths for later assembly into crosses. Inside, neatly arranged along the walls, were miscellaneous tools and supplies needed to carry out crucifixions: hammers, nails, ropes, chocks, ladders, iron straps, and short tough wood boards cut from olive trees.

The southernmost portion of the quarry closest to an east-west section of city wall had been converted into a garden by bringing in load after load of fertile soil to fill voids left by the quarrying operation. After placement of the soil, came seeds, plants, trees, and great quantities of water carried in large jugs strapped to the backs of mules. Fig, carob, and olive trees had been planted along with myrtle hedges and bright flowers of myriad colors and varieties.

On this crystal-clear, sunny April morning, if the two staring eyes of the skull could see, they would be looking directly at the centurion and his soldiers on the hilltop. To Bassus, the clean air of the spring morning and the soft fragrance of the abundant flowers in the nearby garden momentarily erased from his mind why he and his men were there. It was a good day to be alive he decided. His reverie was suddenly ended by a clatter of hoofs pounding the stone roadway adjacent to the quarry. A quick glance assured him it was only his optio, Valgus Nepos. The optio jumped from his horse, ran across the quarry floor, and climbed the rock-cut ramp to stand before him. “The scourging is done and they’re almost here!”

“How many?”

“The three prisoners and many people following. Most of the Jewish priests are coming too.”

“Maybe we should hang a few of them,” Bassus whispered laconically.