Marcus Lucius walked into his office, opened the two clasps on his armour and removed the white cloak hanging off his shoulders. Dorian, who until only two years ago had been a slave, approached and quickly, in a well-practised gesture undid the three straps on either side of the front and backplate and then removed the Centurion's expensive armour and carefully hung it on the wooden stand. Marcus gave his servant a nod.
‘Bring us some wine Dorian,’ glancing at the Praetorian standing in the doorway he added, ‘him too.’
Dorian poured two goblets of watered-down red wine, handed one to Marcus then walked over to the Praetorian. When he came back to the table he filled another earthen cup for himself and took a generous swig. Marcus and Dorian had been together in the Eastern provinces for several years and when it was time for them to leave, he set his slave free. Dorian however, had no desire to go back to his native Macedonia; instead, he chose to stay with the Centurion and the legion and followed him to their new posting in Barcino. The truth is, with time Dorian had become more of a confidant and a friend than a real servant. The same could not necessarily be said for the Praetorian soldier gulping down his wine as fast as he could.
‘What is your name Praetorian?’
Plubius Cassius … Centurion.
‘And what brings you here today?’ Marcus already guessed the answer, more than likely he and his fellow soldiers were here to enforce the latest laws of religious compliance laid down by Emperor Diocletian who demanded a return to past Roman glory, and that included strict adherence to the cult of Jupiter and Venus, to name a few. Christians had been tolerated depending on who reigned and above all on their behaviour and allegiance to the emperor. But Marcus knew only too well that lately, fanatical Christians have been making a nuisance of themselves and Diocletian, just like Valerian and others emperors, was going to put an end to it.
‘I have a prisoner sir, a young woman, she was creating problems in front of the temple of Jupiter, something about there being only one god and she refused to sacrifice to the Jupiter.
Here we go again, Marcus thought as he glanced at Dorian who shook his head in a deliberately slow movement. Together during their tours in Phrygia, they had shared many philosophical discussions about religion and the one thing they agreed on was, that neither of them cared much about the gods, no matter which house, sect or cloud they came from.
‘And where is this prisoner of yours.’
The Praetorian pointed down with his fingers towards the floor.
‘Ah, but of course, in the dungeons. Well go and get her then - so we can all see how dangerous she is.’
The Praetorian turned on his heels and left the room. Marcus slumped down on his chair behind the imposing oak table, placed his elbow on the table and sank his chin into his hand. He gave Dorian a sideways look but said nothing.
‘Something on your mind Marcus?’
‘Yes, you're slacking, it’s chilly in here, put a few logs on that miserable fire before the fire itself freezes over.’
‘Oh sorry.’ Dorian jumped up from his chair and went to work, poking the fire with a stick and throwing a few logs on the glowing embers. Immediately the fireplace sprang alive in a shower of sparks and then the wood caught fire and the flames began their slow dance from log to log and then up into the chimney.
Marcus gazed out of the window towards the forest-covered mountains, dark and foreboding. ‘Another damn winter in Barcino,’ he said, ‘can’t wait for spring to arrive and get a bit of heat from that sun.’
‘Well, it’s already February, it won’t be long now…’
‘Hmm,’ Marcus grunted.
But their discussion about the weather in northern Hispania was rudely interrupted when two Praetorian soldiers flung the door open dragging between them a barefoot girl wearing no more than a long-sleeved cotton tunic that did not quite reach her ankles.
The two soldiers placed the young girl in front of the desk facing the Centurion and took two steps back. Marcus looked her over beginning at her bare feet and finally coming to rest looking straight into her dark brown eyes. She had long black hair reaching the small of her back and an innocent-looking face, resting on a slender frame. She was quite pale for a Mediterranean girl. Probably not a farmer’s daughter, Marcus thought.
Dorian was standing to the side of the Centurion’s desk with his arms crossed in front of his chest. ‘So, this is the girl who is going to cause the downfall of the empire?’ he asked with clear sarcasm in his voice.
Marcus couldn’t help an amused smirk when he asked, ‘Yes, and where are her sandals and surely she had a stole.’
The Praetorian shrugged his shoulders, ‘don’t know, maybe in the dungeons or maybe we lost it.’
The second Praetorian seemed to find that funny as he slapped her head hard from behind asking, ‘Yes, where’s your stole little Christian?’
Marcus gave him a meaningful look and then leaned back into his chair. ‘Take off those manacles.’
‘Take them off, sir?’
‘Yes, she’s hardly going to jump on the desk and slid my throat now, is she?’
A moment later the iron manacles clattered noisily on the marble floor and the girl rubbed her painful wrists with her hands but she remained silent.
Marcus addressed the Praetorian who seemed to be in control, ‘What’s the charge?’
‘She was standing in front of the temple of Jupiter arguing with citizens who wanted to enter, telling them that our gods don’t exist, that they are fake and false gods, and that there is only one God, something about a guy called Christ or maybe was it the other one, Jesus, I can’t remember. Whatever it is, she's in violation of our Emperor Diocletian decrees; she’s instigating subversion.’
Marcus leaned forward resting his right arm on the oak table. ‘What is your name girl?’
‘I’m Orelia from Merida, a citizen of Rome.’ She answered surprisingly sure of herself in perfect Latin.
‘Really, are you now?’ and how old are you Orelia?
She looked at the ceiling as if she was trying to remember her age. ‘I’m thirteen years old.’
‘Thirteen,’ Marcus repeated eyeing the Praetorian; he then repeated the figure, this time looking at Dorian who raised his eyebrows while lifting one shoulder as if trying to convey, don’t look at me, I only work here.
‘So what have you got to say for yourself girl? Are you telling people there is only one god? And of course that happens to be yours.’ If Marcus was hoping that she would reconsider her opinion he was going to be disappointed.
In full defiance she proclaimed there’s only one God. ‘Yes, the Lord Jesus is our true God, Jupiter and the others are all fake.’
Marcus closed his eyes and cringed. As far as he was concerned they are all fake gods but in front of the accusing Praetorian that was not the answer he had hoped for.
Of course Marcus and Dorian were perfectly aware of this new religion that had been causing problems throughout the Empire but he decided to see how much she actually knew about Christianity - was she a fanatic or did she just repeat words she had heard in her home?
‘So you are a Christian then right?’
‘And this Christ, or Jesus, where did he come from?’
Again she looked at the ceiling as if the answers might be written up there or maybe heaven itself might present all the answers. ‘From… em, from the east, I think they call it Judea or something like that… he was the son of God.’
‘The son of God?’ Marcus repeated. ‘So let's see, that’s two gods then?’ holding up his index and middle finger.
‘Em, yes, I suppose so, we all have a father don’t we?’ Orelia answered rather boldly.
‘That is evident, at least for mere mortals like us. So, this god of yours, does he have a mother?’
‘Which one?’ she asked confused.
‘The son of course.’
‘Oh yes of course,’ she was eager to answer this question showing off her new found-knowledge. ‘Her name was Maria.’
‘Ah, so Maria is the wife of the other god then.’ Marcus asked knowing the answer full well.
‘No, no, she was the wife of a, uh… a carpenter… I think, Jo something, I can’t remember.’
‘Excuse me?’ Marcus said.
Dorian shook his head with a sympathetic smile. ‘But child, you just said the younger god, the Christ that is, was the son of God and so we would hope that Maria was his wife, but now you’re telling us that she’s not; now she’s the wife of a carpenter. You’re confusing us.’
Perhaps equally confused herself by now, Orelia looked from one to the other and then quickly said, ‘It was a miracle… She was a virgin when she gave birth to the Lord.’
‘I’ll say; that certainly was a miracle now wasn’t it?’ Marcus mused as he placed his elbow on the desk and wearily rested his chin again on his open hand.
The two Praetorians sniggered and then burst out in laughter. ‘Give us a moment with her Centurion and we’ll show her how it’s really done,’ and he made an obscene gesture by rocking his crotch back and forth.
Marcus frowned, ‘Thank you, you two, you’re dismissed, we’ll take it from here, wait outside.’
They waited till the two Praetorian guards had reluctantly closed the door behind them and then Marcus gave Dorian a nod to refill their goblets.
He now placed both his elbows on the table and intertwined his fingers and continued his investigation.
‘Sit down on that chair child. Now listen… do you have any idea how that sounds to the rest of us?’
‘Well first you tell us there is only one God; but then you tell us he has a son who we must assume is then probably also a god, presumably from a union between the first god and a goddess called Maria, right? Or maybe she’s only a half goddess; there again we can’t be sure of that because you said that she was in fact married to a carpenter, nevertheless, she gives birth to a child that in reality,belongs to a god… and she does all of that in spite of being a virgin..? Interesting family… and you think our gods are weird?’
Orelia looked embarrassed.
Listen, child, I’m trying to save your life here but you’re not doing yourself any favours here now, do you?’
Dorian rolled his eyes at the ceiling while Marcus looked at the alcove on the right side of the large fireplace from where a life-size statue of Jupiter had been contemplating the whole scene in silent indifference.
‘He doesn’t look very impressed by your story and Venus is even less impressed,’ he said lifting his chin towards the alcove on the left side of the, by now, blazing fire. Unfortunately, the beautiful stark naked Venus had been fashioned out of cold marble or she may well have slapped a hand on her forehead and slowly shaken her head in utter despair.
‘Now you see, you are very lucky that the Tribune is on tour and you have been brought to my office instead because you see child, we don’t really believe in either god or goddess and I don’t believe in yours either, it’s all just… make-believe and frankly… not worth dying for.’
Full of defiance and indignation Orelia responded, ‘Lord have mercy on them this is even worse, so you are a godless people then, only followers of Satan are godless.’
Dorian frowned, ‘Who? Who’s Satan?’
‘Marcus raised his shoulders and looked equally perplexed. ‘Yes child, what is he?’ Yet another god?’
Orelia looked ill at ease, ‘I’m not sure, but he’s powerful and he rules over everything dark, he’s the enemy of God and those who love God.’
Marcus looked at Dorian and leaned heavily on the table with one arm, ‘So, he’s yet another god then, right?’
‘Dorian nodded, ‘Looks like it, and not a very friendly one by the sound of it.’
‘No indeed,’ Marcus said. ‘So let’s see, we have god the father, a sort of Jupiter. Then we have the son who may also be a god, there again, we are not so sure about that. Then we have a half goddess who may have fathered the child of the real god but we are not so sure about that either because… well, she’s a virgin - and then… we have Satan who clearly is also a god but he doesn’t like the other god very much and so he prefers to dwell in the underworld... have I got that right? Because I'm becoming seriously confused here.’
Orelia gazed at the floor now becoming even more unsure of herself.
‘Listen child, we’re getting nowhere here, in fact you’re digging yourself in deeper and deeper, every time you open your mouth you bring in a new god or goddess and none of them make the Emperor very happy. How can I safe you like this.’
‘I don’t need to be saved, Christ will save me.’
‘Oh really?’ Dorian leaned over her chair coming very close to her face nearly whispering, ‘The last I heard is that “the one they call the Christ” couldn’t even safe himself from a Roman cross nearly three hundred years ago. That’s a long time to be dead so I doubt very much that he will come and safe you today, what do you think?’
Orelia turned to her left and looked at Venus for help while nervously playing with her fingers.
‘It’s not going very well, is it child? Your story doesn’t seem to hold up; something doesn’t quite stick, does it?’
Orelia slowly shook her head while fidgeting nervously.
Marcus got up from behind the massive oak table, walked around and then sat down on the corner of the table with his left leg dangling down in front of the young girl. He gave her a long penetrating look wondering what he should do about her. If he’d set her free it would probably not be long or she’d be in trouble again, but then one never knows – it was worth a try.
‘Now listen carefully child, it is not important who you or I believe or don’t believe in, but I do believe in the Emperor and the might of Rome and if it pleases the emperor that we offer or burn incense to Jupiter, Mars, Venus or Isis, well, then, so be it, that’s what we do… I don’t have a problem with that if that’s what’s needed to keep the empire together and believe me, Orelia, no god is worth dying for.’
He produced a gentle smile and then held out his hand inviting her to follow him towards the shallow alcove where the statue of Jupiter was still observing them with the same expression of cold indifference.
Dorian took two thin sticks from a pedestal and dipped them in a jar of expensive Frankincense. He then held them over on oil lamp, waited till the smoke and scent began to swirl up towards the heavens and then handed one to the Centurion and one to Orelia.
Marcus said, ‘You may not believe in him young girl, but trust me; today Jupiter will save your life.’ So make the right choice because the other option is a slow death and we don’t want that now do we?’ He had already heard about enough Christians who martyred themselves and he half expected her to drop the incense stick. To his relieve however, she placed the smouldering stick in the pot of sand at the feet of Jupiter where several other sticks had already long since burned out, briefly looked up in awe and mumbled, ‘I swear allegiance to the Emperor.’
Dorian and Marcus breathed a sigh in relief.
‘That wasn’t so difficult now, was it child?
Orelia said nothing and just shook her head in agreement.
Like a concerned father Marcus placed a hand on her right shoulder and looked deep into those dark brown eyes, ‘Now listen, I want you to go home and stay out of trouble you understand? Those Praetorians are dying to torture someone to death; more than likely they don’t believe in your or mine god either, they just want to kill someone and make a show of it. So get out of here.’
Marcus gave his servant a nod, ‘walk her off the premises Dorian and make sure the Praetorians don’t see her.’
Just as the two were about to leave the room Marcus called after her,
‘Child, gods and goddesses don’t care whether you live or die or whether you rejoice or suffer, nor will a god or goddess hurt you… but your own mouth will Orelia, remember that, so go home and make yourself scarce.’
Marcus sat down behind his desk and served himself another cup of wine. He glanced out of the window towards the hills and smiled; 'no one would die today' and he raised his cup to Jupiter; 'Well done old man, well done.'
But when Marcus again peered out of the window, he did not notice that Jupiter also peered out of the window and ever so slightly, he shook his all knowing head...
I don’t usually write anecdotes but in this particular case I think I should:
A few years ago, during a visit in Barcelona, my daughter, my wife and I visited, among others, the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, named after a thirteen-year-old Christian girl persecuted and subsequently killed by the Romans during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. When I was standing in front of the crypt, peering down at the imposing sarcophagus, presumably holding her martyred bones I can’t deny that I felt a sensation of awe; cathedrals have been very cleverly designed to have that sort of power over us mere mortals and the story of her martyrdom is enough to put one off one’s dinner… But is it true?
I began to search where the story came from and embarked on a road with a lot of dead ends but no clear exits, more of a labyrinth really. Apart from the myth as written down by the Catholic Church, there is no other evidence; the Romans didn’t bother to record it. Stranger yet, why does this story stand out and why did they only kill a thirteen-year-old girl when surely at that time in history there must have been plenty of other fanatical Christians to choose from? Unfortunately, the records remain silent.
So, my Orelia’s real name was probably Eulalia, at least if the Catholic Church has to be believed; there again it may also have been Aulaire or Aulazia. To add to the confusion both Merida and Barcelona lay a claim to her; or perhaps she is an amalgamation of both, no one is quite sure. Unfortunately, the church has a dubious track record when it comes to creating or inventing saints and martyrs that may or may not have existed. The story of Eulalia however, may well have been based, at least partly, on a real event. She was first buried in the church of Santa Maria de las Arenes and Canonized in 633. In 1339 she was reburied, in a brand new Cathedral named after her in Barcelona; the “Cathedral of Santa Eulalia”. Quite an honour isn’t it? An honour usually only reserved for Popes or martyrs.
The problem with becoming a martyr for Christianity is that it seems to be customary that one first has to die, preferably as violently and obscenely as possible.
Therefore contrarily to my happy ending, (who wants a sad ending) apparently, it did not end very well for her, I will spare you the details but more than likely it will have been a gory spectacle. The question for me however is, Why? What was so special about her? How could a thirteen-year-old be a threat to the Roman Empire? Unfortunately, no Roman records have ever been found to confirm or deny the incident; we only have the myth as recorded by the church.
The problem with the so-called, persecution of Christians is that the Catholic Church has had a bad habit of grossly exaggerating, distorting or even inventing large amounts of casualties; and Hollywood movies have only managed to perpetuate some of the lies. The baffled Romans, however, do have some records of Christians intentionally offering themselves as martyrs, but how many is anyone's guess.
Let’s look at a few facts: Rome, Greece, Egypt and most of the other powers of antiquity where polytheistic, meaning they worshipped a variety of gods and goddesses, it’s a lot saver, after all, if one god or goddess doesn’t bring satisfaction then maybe another one will come to one’s rescue. Rome in particular, was quite tolerant and even reverend towards other religions as long as one also respected Jupiter being their main god. It was not uncommon for the Romans to include other gods and goddesses within their inner circle. Think of Isis, for example, much revered by both the Egyptians and Romans alike. Hadrian had his very own temple to worship her. We are not talking here about the psychopathic Islamic extremist group; had they existed in antiquity, more than likely, that the Romans would have made minced meat of them rather rapidly.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the brand new Christian sect, a direct offshoot of Judaism - and they were, and still are, not very tolerant. Monotheistic by nature, they venerate only one god, although that may be debatable as Centurion Marcus pointed out. The Christians within the Roman Empire may have begun as quite a peaceful sect but that didn’t last long. They flatly rejected the competition and wasted no time in plotting the premature retirement of all other gods and goddesses by any means available including violence. There is little historical doubt that some factions were causing trouble. Radical groups ransacked shrines and temples with the same zeal as Attila the Hun, set fire to them and disfigured the statues of the defenceless gods. Apollo, Jupiter or naked Venus’s were frequently disfigured with the greatest of pleasure encouraged with the battle cry: “Let them perish in disgrace”. That sort of things didn’t go down too well in Rome of course and from time to time, throughout history, the might of Rome lashed out and condemned a number of them to death.
In Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria encouraged a mob of Christians, led by a lector named Peter to murder Hypatia, a much revered Hellenistic female Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician… and a follower of the Hellenistic gods. Not long after they proceeded to destroy the temple and for his troubles, the Catholic Church rewarded Cyril with sainthood; Saint Cyril. So much for the peace-loving portrait the church likes to make us believe.
During a period of about three hundred years, it is estimated that actually, no more than three thousand Christians died at the hand of Romans… or the teeth of hungry lions. The church seems to have highly exaggerated the persecution of Christians by Rome. In fact, during most of that time, Rome was rather reluctant to pursue people for religious offences. Intentional destruction by arson, however, carried a near-certain death sentence; one didn’t have to be Christian to be invited to feed the lions; the law was the same for everyone.
If one compares that to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacres in Paris and throughout the rest of France, where Catholics and Protestant killed each other at a rate of several hundred a day during several weeks then that would make the Romans complete amateurs. It has been estimated that during that short period between eight to fifteen thousand people died courtesy of religious fervour. And we are not even talking about the inquisition and the numerous religious wars. Tolerance was not part of their vocabulary.
So where does all that leave Eulalia? The question is problematic because we only have the story as told by the church and that is not necessarily the complete truth. What did she do to trigger the wrath of a Roman Tribune then in charge of Barcino? today's Barcelona. Did she just refuse to honour Jupiter and therefore insults the Emperor or did she commit a more serious crime? Did she knock off the nose and the arms off Venus or Isis with a sledgehammer and then carved a cross on her forehead? Unfortunately, we can never be sure what she was accused of or what happened to this unfortunate girl. These were dangerous times.
Consequently, I took the liberty to put myself in the place of Centurion Marcus and lead an entirely fictive investigation. In the end, I concluded that she was just a misguided and indoctrinated girl and I sent her home in the hope that she would stay out of trouble... Alas, the truth is probably more sinister; after all, I am a Roman Centurion and I know the cruelties we are capable of.