Miles hastatus (spearman) of the Legio Decima Fretensis, stationed in Roman Judaea, A.D. 33

Vere, filius Dei erat iste. —Roman centurion at the crucifixion, noted in Matthew 27:54.

They say he was the King of Jews. In fact
We nailed a wooden title to his cross
In Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. All I saw
Was REX and NAZARENUS, so I guess
He was some sort of troublemaking yid
Who fomented rebellion in a province.
That’s what you get for stepping out of line—
The higher-ups decide you’ve got to go.

Well, who knows… I’m just a legion boot.
Politics is no concern of mine.
I take my orders and I march in step
With everybody else, and thrust my spear
Wherever and whenever Rome commands.

You know the drill—we start with the flagellum.
Thirty whacks with that, the luckless wretch
Loses enough blood to die then and there,
Or else goes into shock and doesn’t feel
The nailing that comes afterwards. It’s meant
As an act of mercy to the man—
Agony’s not the point, but spectacle.
All he has to be is an example
Of what Rome dishes out to fractious types.

He didn’t die. A tough break, to be sure—
We marched him to the execution ground
And nailed him up. It took a full three hours.
I was ordered “Lance him in the flank”
Just to make sure the job was really done.
I felt bad, but we couldn’t wait all day.

A cloud passed overhead that very minute
And darkened things. I don’t know what it was,
But we all felt a momentary chill.
The centurion—a level-headed sort—
Said “Man, he really was a demigod.”
That broke the tension, and we laughed aloud.

He had a few possessions that we took
And shared among ourselves. His seamless robe
Was just too nice for cutting up. We said
“Let’s cast the dice and see who gets the thing.”
I made the lucky throw. So here it is—
Bloody and dirty, but without a rip.
A good wash by a fuller and it’s fine.

Yes, not a rip. And yet some rumor spread
That there was a minor earthquake back in town.
I didn’t notice. But some people swore
They felt a tremor by the Hebrew temple.
Anyhow, the sacred veil was torn—
The one that hides the innermost recess
Where the Jews keep their god in some old box.
What can I tell you? All religion’s cracked.
Mithra, the Delphic Oracle, Osiris…
I’ve seen them every country we’ve been stationed.
Spirits, holy men, and divination
Done up in different wrappings, nothing more.

I’ve served at a dozen crucifixions. Still,
Something about this one sticks in the mind.
It’s not just that it lasted so damned long,
Or noontime darkness, or a minor quake.
He cried out only once, right at the end,
In his own dialect. Don’t know what it meant.
But you could tell despair, incomprehension,
Heartbroken grief as deep as the Dead Sea.
Sure, it’s natural when you face the end
But somehow this was different. Almost like
The whole damned world had sunk in widowhood
And pangs of desolation pierced its heart.

Enough. The sentry’s due for his relief.
I’ve got to watch the main gate till dawn breaks.
More of that hot wine if you please—one cup
To keep the night cold off me for a bit.

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

 

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18 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    What could be more powerful and sobering and appropriate than this for Good Friday morning?
    Thank you Joe for writing it.
    Thank you Evan for presenting it.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      PS I just put down a prayer book before I read this. It was a seamless transition.

      Reply
  2. Shiny Titus

    A very heart touching narrative. Loved every line of it. Just the thing to read on a blessed day like today. Thank you Sir

    Reply
  3. David Hollywood

    There is tremendous functional normality in the reflections of the spearman, which as a reader grounds and challenges our response to the description as being within the realms of a mental and emotional sphere of combined purgatorial guilt for having to acknowledge, through the presentation, that this was not an unusually special event. For the soldier it was just one of lots of routine crucifixions, and which for him in this case included a heightened sensitivity (if that is the word) which was aided by some unexpected environmental occurrences. Stunningly effective poem on this day (Good Friday) of Christian mourning and contemplation. I do not feel better for reading it, but I am glad that I have. Extremely moving. R.I.P.

    Reply
  4. Amy Foreman

    Thank you, Joseph, for this riveting and moving account of the cross from the centurion’s perspective. It is beautiful merely as a reading . . . but even more so to those of us who believe.

    Reply
  5. C.B. Anderson

    Joe,

    It reminds me of something you published many years ago at The Pennsylvania Review (which I cannot seem to find in their archives), but since we are discussing here “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” it bears repeating in unending iterations. How odd it is that I will celebrate Easter with a 17-pound smoked ham I picked up today at Blood Farm in Groton, Massachusetts. This has become a family tradition, and I swear it’s the best damn ham in the universe.

    Reply
  6. David Watt

    Your narrative is truly moving because it is written from the perspective of a flawed member of humanity. We can therefore feel the undoubted mixture of emotions felt by the the centurion.

    Reply
  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind comments, and a blessed Easter to everyone.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Joe,

      Of course, “yid” in stanza 1, line 5 is an anachronism, “yid” being a slang word of modern Germanic origin, derived, I would guess, from the language of German Jews, i.e. Yiddish. This can be forgiven, because it is perfectly understandable in the context of the poem, but I wonder what slang contemporary Romans might have used to identify their Jewish subjects. I’m nit-picking here, but I’m unashamed to give due attention to detail.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        In Latin, a Jew would have been “Judaeus,” but if there were some different slang pejorative it hasn’t survived. In any case, a Roman legionnaire would have spoken not pure classical Latin but ordinary vulgar Latin, of which we have only a limited record. He also likely spoke a basic koine Greek, for use as a lingua franca in the mixed populations of the cities of Roman Judaea. In Greek, the word for Jew would have been “Ioudaios,” pronounced ee-yoo-DIE-os. In both Latin and Greek the words approximate the sound /yud/ or /yid/, so the Germanic “yid” seemed a most appropriate and serendipitous equivalent.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Joe,

      I get your point, and “Yid” is indeed phonetically close to “judaeus.” But how might “Hebe” have worked here? Another pejorative term, of course.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “Hebe” is too slangy Noo Yawkish, and is also rather dated. There is nothing wrong with slang or dated terms, but never use a slang or dated term in a poem if the term calls attention itself as such. You would never use the word “groovy” in a poem, or “Daddy-O,” or “super-duper.” It would be a silly affectation, and a parochialism. The first tells the reader that you’re stuck in the 1960s, the second that you’re stuck in the 1950s, and the third that you’re stuck in the 1930s.

  8. J. Simon Harris

    This is such a great poem. The story from Longinus’ perspective is loaded with dramatic irony, given the biblical perspective. I love how he too witnesses the miraculous events, like the eclipse and the earthquake, and all but dismisses them (although there is some sense that a part of him wants to see the miracle). The centurions laughing at the suggestion of Christ being a true “demigod” is the perfect exemplar of this. You can almost see the mixture of fear and wonder on their faces at the thought, before the first among them ventured to laugh it off.

    Your writing is also superb. The conversational tone fits like a glove for a soldier like Longinus, and it allows the more dramatic lines to really stand out (such as the last two lines in the second to last stanza). Really great work, and so fitting for Easter weekend. Thanks for posting this. Happy Easter everyone!

    Reply
  9. Dave Whippman

    Powerful piece of blank verse about an event that is tremendously significant for many people. You gave it a new take.

    Reply
  10. James Sale

    Great writing and seemingly effortless too, which of course is never the case. The perspective is unusual, and so are the insights which accrue from it; this is real writing and part of that is not just down to the skill, but the fact that this is about ‘something’, although to paraphrase what it ‘says’ is something else entirely.

    Reply

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