Chapter 1: First Day in Court
This is a sample chapter from Book 4 in the Seeker’s Series called From Centurion to Christian
Other than the fifty or so people shackled together in a line and awaiting trial, no city residents were in attendance to watch Roman justice be served. Today was Caleb’s first day serving as a magistrate, but he had watched his uncle oversee these proceedings many times. He and his wife had already talked about what he would do differently. His senior lieutenants knew his plan, but none of the soldiers and administrators in attendance knew what Caleb was about to do. He was the new Centurion, overseeing nearly 600 men, but most knew little more than that.
He knew this justice system pre-dated both his uncle and him. Roman leadership and politicians had invested too much time and money to make the port city of Caesarea a trading center second to none on the empire’s eastern edge. Safer than the lands around Antioch, Corinth, or Carthage, Caesarea was the ideal port to build an empire that would go east to Kushun. The head of his legion told Caleb that the empire would eventually expand to China, and his city was a key part of that expansion.
The Roman senate and the supporting merchant class had commissioned a series of new roads from Caesarea, one to Jerusalem and another northeast towards the silk road. Caleb and Cornelius worked together to create and administer a toll system to finance the upkeep. As was to be expected, the Senate wished the tolls to be a revenue source, and the merchants thought that tolls would create a barrier to good business. As part of his final journey to Rome, Cornelius, and Caleb met with leaders of the Senate. They negotiated a tariff collection mechanism that everyone agreed would be fair and easy to administer. The bridges were the easiest places to levy a use tax, as travelers lacked alternative routes. Cornelius defended the merchants, petitioning for no tariffs to use these new roads leaving Caesarea. The leaders of the Senate agreed over dinner that there was already ample income from the port traffic, and there was no need to insight resentment from the merchant class by adding to their cost of doing business.
And with these new tariffs and traffic came new crimes and criminals. Caleb decided to use his first day as Centurion and magistrate to ensure that he would represent the merchant class and protect their interests as much as he protected Rome’s interests. His vision was to educate the community that anyone who attempted to interrupt fair and honest commerce would be punished. It was the centurion’s job to dispose of those who cheated registered merchants of economic progress, and Caleb had a place and a plan to do this. Caleb picked a location by the sea and near one of the new roads to hold his weekly court sessions.
Cornelius had taught Caleb that Roman authority in faraway places like Judah seldom monitored his methods, primarily if the tax revenue flowed and exports kept finding their way to Rome, Syracuse, and Carthage markets. In nearly every town and city, the centurion in charge of justice and policing had near-complete authority to judge and subsequently administer punishment to those brought before him. If he were consistent and did not show favoritism, the men under his command and those they governed would not challenge him. Above all else, Rome would not care how he decided and administered justice as long as he did it.
The redness of the winter sunrise was now greeting the warmer air coming off the Mediterranean Sea to the West. Caleb created an open-air semi-circle that served as a Roman court, and it sat on the edge of the sea, a short walk south of the port operations center. Everyone arrested by Roman soldiers during the last week now stood in the cold and waited at one of two entrances to the semi-circle. Each arrestee knew that there were only two outcomes of any Roman court in an outpost more than a few days from the heart of the empire; there was no second trial or second day of trial. On this day, everyone would either be found innocent or guilty; and for many of the fifty, guilty would mean the death sentence. Caleb and his wife decided that he would change this “normal outcome.”
Since the first person’s trial had not yet commenced, the Roman soldiers did what they always did before court started. They all sipped hot tea and ate warm bread from the centurion’s family. A few soldiers held the accused in line at the northside entrance, releasing them from the iron clasps on their ankles and wrists one at a time when it was their turn for trial. Once their case was heard, they would exit to the south and whatever life awaited them.
For their part in watching these weekly trials, many soldiers had all the evidence they needed to conclude that the local Hebrew populace was downright stupid. The native Judahites thought breaking Roman law but honoring their own would exempt them from Roman consequences and capital punishment. When would they learn that their best choice is compliance with their authority? And what was all this talk of their family’s importance when defending their unlawful actions? It is as if they had not considered their inability to care for their loved ones if they were missing a hand or part of a foot after breaking Roman law. Caleb had thoughts on this; unlike his uncle, he was Hebrew; Cornelius was Roman.
Caleb entered and took his place on a stone chair covered with luxurious pillows at the center of the outdoor semi-circle, and it was here that he would listen to each man’s story. He removed his helmet, loosened the straps on his sandals, and removed his bracers and gauntlets. He kept his two-edged gladius in front of him, unsheathed, for all on trial to see. After all, it was possible that he would personally administer justice if the situation warranted it. Although he prayed that he would not have to decapitate a man with his wife watching, he knew it was possible. His uncle taught him to pray in all things, but he also taught him that Yeshua does not always answer prayers in real time, despite what Simon Peter said.
To his left, on a smaller table, sat two Hebrew men he had hired to record all spoken claims on parchment at a small table to one side. Each man recorded an independent account of what happened. Then, a third man compared the copies, ensuring the details matched before one copy was sent back to Rome. The other stayed in the hall of records in Caesarea. Before Caleb was born, Cornelius decided that these proceedings were public records; if anyone wanted to know what happened when someone failed to return from court, they could read for themselves.
Caleb assigned three fully armed soldiers at each entranceway as his uncle did. One held his unsheathed gladius while the other two spoke and answered questions. No Roman soldier could converse with anyone other than another Roman citizen or soldier while his sword was in his hand. History had taught Roman leadership that words provoke a sword strike more than an aggressive action, and the Centurion in charge commanded all who held their weapons to avoid speaking; lest they lose their tongue.
Caleb paused and reflected on all that had happened since waking up that morning. Caleb remembered holding his wife and child while he prayed to Yeshua before he left his home this morning. Their home sat on top of the hill overlooking the port, and he and his wife had been living with Cornelius and his wife Valentina for the last two years. He knew he needed to leave before sunrise to reach this place before dawn. The walk started in near darkness, and he used the solitude of walking in the dark to mentally prepare to play the game called “finding the truth,” which was inseparable from being a fair magistrate. During the walk down, he held his wife’s hand, and the two of them prayed that the Messiah would come to them both in heart and spirit, providing wisdom and insight into the affairs of the accused men. They were a team in this, he decided. His wife’s servants carried lots of hot tea and bread they had prepared in the early morning. Once they arrived at court, she gave all but one of her servants the rest of the day off, handing each one a week’s wage in coin to spend in the market and enjoy themselves for their middle-of-the-night shift making tea and bread. Yael promised to find them and join them mid-morning.
Now that everyone was settled and the court scribes had mixed all the ink they would need for the day, it was time to begin. Caleb made a single motion to the guards at the north entrance, and the proceedings began.
The first man was brought before the dias, and he appeared to be in the prime of his life, but he lacked legal representation. Caleb’s men had offered it to him last night, as was the Roman custom, but the man refused. After removing all the shackles, the man began speaking without prompting. Cornelius had trained Caleb about the persona of those who talk and begin to defend themselves without first being prompted or asked, and Caleb knew what would happen.
“Honorable Centurion, let me explain,” the man said as he started his plea. Caleb raised his hand to interrupt, and the soldier beside the man elbowed him to ensure he understood not to speak further.
“First things first. You are in Hebrew land, and we will follow these customs before we start your trial,” he said. He gestured for what appeared to be a female Hebrew slave to pour a cup of warm tea, and she carried it to the accused man. The man held the cup and attempted to speak again, but Caleb raised his hand again,”
Caleb knew the man was cold and would value the warm beverage once he let himself drink it. Caleb had seen how the men who came before the court could ignore hunger and thirst when their lives and livelihood were in jeopardy. He also knew many in line had not slept the previous night and would be fatigued before the trial started. This man nodded and put the cup to his lips.
While he drank, Caleb took a moment to look at their surroundings. Immediately next to the location of this judgment seat was the terminus of the monumental aqueduct that was finally completed. The labor required to construct the aqueduct and the two new roadways most likely brought all those standing accused to this city. These projects took nearly ten years, and the efforts employed thousands of men. Caleb admired the stone towers that held the water above the city. They were auspicious. Fresh and clean drinking water now continuously flowed from the Golan Heights to Caesarea. Caleb had already heard reports from the physicians of increased hygiene and decreased illness in all parts of the city. Valentine’s parents were physicians, and she took ownership of ensuring both Caleb and Yael knew the importance of monitoring the health of the people they now governed. Valentina had mentored Yael, introducing her to all the local physicians, both Hebrew and Roman. She learned how to gauge the levels of disease and pestilence in the Caesarea district.
Few of the men working here were from the region, as the Hebrews were not interested in receiving Roman coins for their labor. There were a few men from the north from Galilee in the desert, as were those from Philippi. However, many were black-as-the-night Egyptians from the Negev and several of the larger, stronger dark-brown Philistines. There were a few pale-skinned Gauls, but they followed the rules and seldom found themselves on trial.
Caleb studied the man’s body language as he finished drinking his tea. The slave girl stood beside him with her head bowed while he drank. Caleb looked at the other men in line, knowing that this man’s outcome would be seen by everyone else and change the flow of the rest of the day’s proceedings. For the man in front of him, Caleb saw that freedom from his chains, combined with the comfort of the warm drink, brought the man down from the emotional edge that all experience as they await trial.
“My wife and her servants made that tea this morning,” said Caleb, using a friendly tone he might use with a family member. The man on trial gave no response. The cups were small, and he gestured for a second cup of tea. The slave girl respectfully filled up his cup a second time. Once he put the second cup to his lips, Caleb began the trial.
“The records before me state that you took something and didn’t pay for it; is that correct?”
Caleb knew better than to use only the report’s contents to engage an arrested man. He sought to know if the man was aware of what he was accused of or if he was in denial of the statements given to him by his crime. Although his questions required only a “yes/no” answer, Caleb knew that most men would offer more details. Above all else, Caleb always hoped the men before he would take the path of humility ahead of any other. Cornelius told him that good citizens can be made in court only if the recipe includes humility. Cornelius also taught him that if no humility could be found, the disposal of his life was the best way to preserve peace in the city. Caleb thought something between these two extremes was possible but would require some education.
Caleb knew that he was neither asking a complete nor honest question. Indeed, the records in front of him said something else. They stated he was arrested three days ago after stealing bread from a shop owner near the arena. It also said he attempted to escape two of Caleb’s soldiers. It also stated that he destroyed butcher scales and two baskets of tomatoes on his path as he ran away from the authorities and the shop owner. If nothing else were true, it is evident that this man was attempting to avoid consequences long before he was arrested. That played a role in Caleb’s questioning.
As the man defended himself with gestures and pleas for mercy, Caleb looked him up and down. He appeared fit and capable of hard work. He could also tell that the man had made money in his lifetime and lost it, as his sandals were of the highest quality, as was the belt around his robe. Those two items are not made at the same shop, so Caleb knew he didn’t steal them, at least not simultaneously. Caleb needed a bit of a timeline that didn’t include what was in the report. He knew the man was guilty. For now, though, he only desired to see the man’s heart and see if he could become a good citizen.
Caleb watched the man intently as he finished the tea and handed the empty cup back to the slave, keen to observe the man’s response to the gift she gave him. He failed to make eye contact with the girl, nor did he offer any words of gratitude for her gift of hot tea. He raised the cheek on the left side of his face and shook his head. He all but knew how this trial would end. Caleb jumped to another question that would give the man a final chance to humble himself. After all, if there is one thing that having a risen Messiah has taught him is that everyone deserves a second or even a third chance. He remembers his teacher telling him something about seven times seventy seven times is how often we should forgive, but that rule doesn’t apply in Rome.
“Take me to the moment that the shopkeeper and my soldiers claim that you took what was not yours,” he said.
“What?” the man asked. Caleb changed the question, thinking that perhaps he didn’t understand him.
“What was happening to you that morning that made the act of taking bread but not paying for it the right thing to do?” Caleb asked. He hoped he would apologize and see that whatever he thought didn’t justify taking from someone else.
“Centurion, I was hungry. I had not eaten the previous day, and this baker had enough food for an entire village.”
Caleb had observed his uncle respond to this sort of response many times. This hungry yet well-dressed man lacked impulse control. His lack of moral education was also on display, as he found nothing significantly wrong with taking a small amount of wealth from someone who could afford to lose a little of it and give it to the poor.
“Where are you from?” he asked. Caleb knew to use only the most basic Greek constructions with those who came here for work, as many barely knew the Empire’s language.
“I come from Thessalonica,” he said. Caleb had heard stories of this place growing up as a boy. Many of his father’s friends would go there to serve the small but growing churches where the Messiah was proclaimed, but Caleb had never been there. He was tempted to begin speaking to the man in Hebrew, the native tongue of both, but he knew this could be problematic for the next 49 men awaiting trial. After all, few could believe that a Roman centurion could also be born a Hebrew.
“My temptation is to allow you to make you pay restitution equal to four times what you stole, as it is written in Hebrew law. This is also acceptable in Roman law.”
“Thank you, sir. I will gladly do it!” the man said, sensing he was about to be set free. Caleb was not so quick to end this man’s trial.
“Cornelius would have cut off your hand,” he said. He needed to let that statement sink in.
“I am grateful for your mercy,” he said.
Caleb raised a finger and continued.
“However, I am greatly concerned about your lack of humility and gratitude.”
He paused to make sure that everyone else awaiting trial was watching.
“Honorable centurion, I am grateful beyond words. You must believe me from every bone in my body!” he pleaded. Caleb raised his right hand and interrupted him. The soldiers guarding him knew that the right hand meant they would strike the man enough to mute him.
“Indeed, every bone in your body is speaking. Grateful, though, you are not.”
The slave girl who had brought him the hot tea was now standing next to Caleb, and she had taken a seat on the dais meant only for Roman citizens in authority. She called for her servant to come to her and donned a pair of pure silver Bengals on each wrist. Each was worth as much as any of these men would earn in half a year. Caleb stood up and placed a robe of pure white around her, adorned with purple. Lastly, he put a silver ring on her finger. The man on trial stood in horror, realizing what he had done. Caleb stepped down from the dias, holding his sword, and walked in front of the man. Caleb towered over him, but he spoke calmly, knowing that 49 other trials would be governed by how this one ended.
“The woman who gave you the hot tea was a member of the house of Caesar, and she is in the family of our emperor. The emblem on her ring shows it. She removed all her royal garbs to serve you tea so all could observe how grateful you are when you know nothing of those who are around you have something you want. Isn’t this what you did when you stole from the shopkeeper?”
Caleb let his words remain in the arena as everyone watched as the woman finished adjusting her clothing. The young maiden Yael had kept with her now brought her their child.
“To make matters much worse for you, this woman is my wife.” Caleb put his arm on the man’s shoulder and twisted his grip on his gladius so the blade was ready to be driven directly into the man’s guts.
“And, she is the mother to my child,” he said.
With that, none of the men in shackles moved, and no sound came from their metal bindings as Caleb continued.
“However, I am increasing your punishment for your lack of gratitude. In addition to paying back four times what you stole, I sentence you to one year working in the city latrines. You will sleep with the lepers and appear before me at the end of that year and tell me what you have learned. Don’t be alarmed, however. Some of the men still in line may be joining you.” He rapidly sheathed his blade, turned and walked back towards his wife.
“Next?” he yelled as he signed the report and handed it back to the scribes to record his verdict.