L. Annaeus Seneca,
Greetings from your uncle in Palestine. Whoever thought it best to extend the empire to this gods-forsaken corner of land ought to be put to the sword. There is nothing here except zealotry and fanaticism, political and religious. The population is in perpetual revolt and it takes a legion just to hold Jerusalem. The Jews neither honor the gods nor delight in the civilities of life. Their food is plain, their language coarse, their women rude. Even a Deputy Governor suffers in this desert. When the people are not driving him mad, the heat is.
I write, however, not to complain of my tribulations. I gladly endure them for the sake of Rome”and besides, soon enough, I return home, my service accomplished, my future secured. Rather, I have a story I want to tell you, perhaps to explain to you something more of my philosophy of life, continuing discussions you and I have had before.
Yesterday we executed a rebel. The man was in his early thirties, about your age. He was Jewish, and was put to death by popular acclaim. As is the custom, he was scourged before being forced to drag his cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed and left to die. The man was rather weak and expired quickly, as far as these things go.
Of course, no one dies immediately when crucified. This death is as painful a way to die as any I have seen. Spikes are driven through the criminal’s wrists and ankles, his torn flesh almost immediately beginning to swell. As the man’s own weight pulls at his wounds, the slightest movement, even breathing, becomes agonizing. The man slowly loses strength, painfully shifting and propping his body to take in every possible breath. Very few give themselves over to death, but scream and shriek until they lose the power to protest their pain. Finally, in the criminal’s chest”crushed as though piled under heavy stones”his heart bursts and he dies in one last moment of agony.
You have seen crucified slaves and know what I am talking about. You also know what I believe about crucifixion. I have no objection to capital punishment. It alone avenges capital crimes and ensures public order. Without the sword, our empire would collapse in a day. Yet I cannot bring myself to enjoy crucifixion as so many of the legionnaires do. This form of execution causes not only men in the ranks but even centurions and tribunes to adopt an excessively harsh view of life, sometimes laughing and joking a few feet away from a bloody cross-like mere barbarians. Yesterday, I saw several soldiers gambling for the cloak of the condemned criminal, making sport of his last possession, stained with his own blood. The sight cost me a night’s sleep, and not for the first time.
Still, no matter what the legions do to subject peoples and condemned criminals, I am convinced that it is my duty to live without any differentiating among men. You know my thoughts. I believe all men to be equal before nature, and thus acts just or merciful for Romans are also just or merciful for Jews. Discovering the standard by which to judge all human beings seems to me, in fact, to be the very goal of philosophy. I do not treat Jews and Romans differently, at least as far as ethics is concerned.
And that is why I intervened on behalf of the condemned rebel yesterday. As you know, it is accepted in Rome that a man should be free to commit suicide if he is about to be overwhelmed by calamity, persecution, or suffering. There is not a family in Rome that has not stood by while a loved one opened his veins and bled to death in a tub of warm water. It is my belief that this ethically justifiable mercy should be extended to Jews and barbarians as well, without favoritism or partiality. Such is the rule of nature and philosophy.
Therefore, I treated the crucified Jew as I would have a Roman. When he was taken to his place of execution, suffering agonizing pain after being nailed to his cross, I asked the attending centurion for permission to alleviate the man’s pain. Because the officer owed me a favor, he granted my request and allowed me to provide a humane death to the suffering Jew. I filled a bowl with wine, gall, and arsenic, then offered it to the condemned man. I could tell by his eyes that he understood the nature of my offer. He drank of the wine. A few minutes later the man was dead, spared the pointless and extended agony of crucifixion. Pilate had his corpse and the criminal his release from hours of excruciating suffering, pain devoid of value and purpose.
Yet something bothers me when I think about the scene. I offered the poisoned wine to the criminal just as he was giving his friends and family final advice and instructions. Because he drank of my wine as soon as it was offered, he was unable to speak any longer, an effect that he evidently had not expected. I have never seen such despair as I saw when the man realized that he could no longer talk. Though he had uttered only a few anguished words beforehand, after drinking the wine he could no longer speak at all. His throat was constricted too tightly for him to utter a single word as he hung on his cross for a minute or two, gasping and trembling, and trying to speak. Finally, he cried out with all of the strength that remained in his body, It is not finished! Then he died.
I do not know what he wanted to say or to accomplish hanging from a cross, but he apparently believed that something had been missed-and it was my fault. Just as he died, he looked in my direction, searing my soul with a look of furious indignation”as though I were the one who had condemned him to a pointless death on a cross, as though I were his betrayer. This criminal, who had made a point of forgiving his executioners minutes earlier, looked upon me with an anger that was inhuman. I saved the man from a death of hours, perhaps days, yet he looked at me in hatred.
It is not hard to imagine why he would have despised Pilate, the military guard, or the taunting mob, but he hated me”the one Roman in the whole empire who pitied his suffering. Perhaps he did have a few things to say to his family, but what great thing could he accomplish on a cross? Unless he had the power to tear himself from his tree, it was certain that he would die a terrible and painful death. And even fools admit that nothing good can be accomplished by needless suffering and useless pain.
I saved the man pain and humiliation, and I saved his family from the extension of their sorrow. Does a man stricken with a tumor earn virtue by living on in pain? Does a woman consumed by plague accomplish anything by allowing her death to linger for a few days more? Are families honored by sharing in the agonies of death?
A reasonable man would have thanked me for my mercy, for giving to a condemned Jew the same privilege enjoyed by a Roman Senator. And the whole world would agree. Only this one damnable Jew seems to have thought that he had something to gain by suffering torture and humiliation for a few hours more. Perhaps you can see why I loathe living in this desert.
I must go now. There is work to be done. Pilate has just sent word that another crucifixion has been decreed-this time a miracle-working prophet found guilty of blasphemy and sedition. I suspect even Rome will feel tremors from this execution, since the man has a large following of fanatical disciples, some of whom are armed.
Perhaps I can calm the outcry at his death by alleviating his suffering as I did the other condemned rebel. An act of mercy may do some good. And since the man is something of a philosopher himself, though in a rude and coarse manner, perhaps he will appreciate my gesture better than did the other Jew, especially since he has often expressed a disdain for death-provoking Roman and Jew alike with his teachings and antics. In any case, it will be interesting to see if this Jewish rabbi can die with the dignity of a Roman philosopher.
Our lives are completed in our deaths, Seneca. That is why I will preach the virtue of a noble death to the end of my own days and hope that you will do the same. No man can live well who is not prepared to die well. So always live and die as a Roman. And remember, too, to sacrifice to the gods whenever you worship at the temples. The gods must be placated if our house is to continue to rise. And whatever their reasons are, they insist upon blood sacrifice. So offer a ram for me, since it is nearly impossible to perform the proper sacrifices while living among the Jews. I hope to see you in Rome by winter.
Claudius Letum Dignitate
Jeffrey E. Ford is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.