Chapter One Luke
The city began to burn on a quiet hot day in midsummer under the bluest of skies, fanned by dry winds from the northeast. The conflagration had already destroyed much of the capital as it swept from the mercantile district to the imperial city and scoured the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, climbing and rolling over them, lunging into depressions and byways, setting ablaze the houses of rich and poor alike. It had even destroyed several of the emperor’s beloved palaces, which were now nothing more than burnt timber and rubble. In wooden tenements and mansions alike, floors tumbled through floors, windows billowed with tongues of flame. The sky at midnight became a huge vermillion dome with sparks showering from heaven.
This was, many said, God’s revenge on a people who rejected his love.
But I doubted this. Paul had warned us not to imagine I could comprehend God’s plan for his creation, even when catastrophes struck. “We can’t see what God can see,” he said. “One day all will become legible.”
Everything was surely illegible now.
I fought my way through a scrim of hot smoke, past the charred remains of villas and public buildings. Since coming to Rome two years ago, I had made this trek countless times to sit with Paul in his room to take the dictation of his letters, to talk and pray with him, often recalling our decades on the road. He was the great apostle of our Lord, the man who, more than anyone in the Way of Jesus, had understood the meaning of the Christ in this world. He was a man changed forever on the Damascus Road, one who had proclaimed the unfolding Kingdom of God throughout the empire, a Jew preaching mostly to the Greeks, who had joined our circle in increasing numbers.
I had wished that after decades of rough travel, abuse, triumphs as well as failures, Paul could settle for a time. Nero, our grotesque emperor, had for years ignored the Jesus movement, and this had given us a feeling of security. But now he chose to blame us for this all-consuming fire. And why not? We were perfect scapegoats, an eccentric fringe, and few Romans had even heard of us. They would never object to our vilification, nor would they doubt our culpability. Our rude demise would perhaps satisfy their need for revenge.
Carts and barrows passed me, one after another, each loaded with household goods as families beat into the Italian countryside, hoping to slip beyond the circle of their ravaged city. I was headed in the opposite direction, toward the house near the river that Paul shared with our friends, Junia and Josephus. Normally this was an hour’s easy walk. Today I would be lucky to make it at all.
Junia and Josephus were key figures in the Way. As such, they would be among the first taken into custody during any sweep of the city by Nero’s men. I knew as much, but as I pushed through hot flaky smoke, I tried to persuade myself that they would never arrest Paul, a lame old man with poor vision and threadbare hearing. Even if Junia and Josephus had been arrested, Paul would still be at the house, waiting for me to rescue him. I would find him sitting in his room and looking out his window at the plum tree in the walled garden, much as before. He had lived past the time when anyone should consider him a threat.
His legal status remained a puzzle. Was he really free, as we’d been told? Our troubles began in Jerusalem four years before, on a sun-drenched day when he brought a Greek friend from abroad onto the grounds of Herod’s Temple to show him the grandeur of this holy place, which he had visited with his father as a boy and dearly loved. A few days later, a crowd accused Paul of violating Jewish laws by allowing a gentile to step across a forbidden boundary into a place where only Jews could pass. A riot broke out, and Paul was seized by Roman soldiers, who mistook him for a dangerous zealot who had been plotting against Rome. It was all so maddening and complex! After two years in prison in Caesaria, the port city of Judea, the procurator there agree that, as a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to a hearing in the capital before an imperial court. Paul’s escort, the centurion Julius, had become our friend by the time we reached Rome and, to be fair, Julius had tried to warn us that Paul might not actually win a hearing. He had conferred with a friend at the imperial courts, and was told frankly that Paul’s case could only be seen as “a highly technical, incomprehensible, and obviously petty squabble among Jews.” The courts would assume Paul had been sent away by the local authorities in Palestine to rid them of a nuisance. “You should simply disappear into the crowd,” Julius told Paul. “You’re a free man.”
This suggestion only irritated Paul, who wished to justify himself before the law. There was no truth in the accusations made against him in Jerusalem, and it still rankled him that the Jews—his own beloved people—would humiliate him in this way. Was he not a righteous man who loved the Temple with all his heart? “Those who accuse me have no idea who I am, or what I represent! Almighty God speaks to me! They’re scoundrels!”
It dismayed me to hear him talk in this way. That was the old Paul, the fanatic who at times became so obsessed with own righteousness that he lost track of his grand and beautiful vision of God, his connection to the Holy Spirit. He forgot that he did not need to justify himself before the imperial courts or Temple authorities. The only judge that mattered was, of course, Almighty God.
Discouraged though he was, Paul had continued to work on behalf of the Way. He had moved freely among the house meetings in various parts of Rome and surrounding villages, presiding over the sacred meals that occurred on the First Day, offering words of encouragement, cautionary tales, digressions on scripture, and reflections on the meaning of the Christ and his “perpetual resurrection,” as he put it. His mere presence had excited those in our movement, which grew day by day.
“I’m just beginning to understand!” Paul said to me, the last time I saw him, only a week before the great fire began.
“You’re always a beginner,” I said, teasing him.
“A perpetual beginner. Aren’t we all?”
Though his body crumbled in the usual ways, he had retained his voice, a resonant if gruff instrument, which had sounded through the empire. Abundant lung-power fed its amplitude, and he could be heard above any crowd. “Not since Cicero have we had such an orator,” I heard a man say after he addressed a gathering only a few months before the fire. Indeed, Cicero was a figure in Paul’s mind, and I could see the parallels, even if Paul lacked the guile of the famous Roman consul. Though subtle in his thought, he did not possess Cicero’s lawyerly precision, his way of patiently making a case and refusing to wander into byways of reflection. Paul said whatever he thought, whenever he thought it, often with an obscurity that dismayed his listeners. And yet he never purposely deceived anyone.
Now I was desperate to see him, to speak to him, at least one last time. I prayed to myself: Oh Lord our God, protect your great apostle.
The air grew hotter, the smoke thicker, as I walked toward his house, with ill omens along the way. I saw a rat stupefied in the gutter, staring at me with fiery red eyes, with a burning tail. A donkey lay by the road, dead, its hide blackened with soot, its teeth bared and grinning. A vulture lifted from the hot dust with the carcass of a dog in its talons, and it flapped its wide leathery wings over the burning rooftops of government buildings. Abandoned children wandered in the streets, exhausted, unable even to cry, and I had to assume their parents had succumbed to the fire.
Smoke curled around a stone embankment where I crouched to catch my breath and sucked in air through a wet piece of muslin. I watched helplessly as a young man walked without hope into the flaming doorway of a villa, as if unfazed, his arms stretched out with sleeves of fire. He had, I supposed, lost everything already, so losing himself meant nothing. The sorrows in his heart canceled the anguish of his charred and melting flesh. I wondered if, for him, the fires didn’t create a gaudy equilibrium of sorts, an unholy balance of forces.
The firestorm had already killed thousands of Romans, mostly the poorest of the poor, who could not find places to hide or means of escape. From what I heard, the open fields and orchards around Rome had become trampled-over encampments, with thousands of displaced people scrambling to survive as best they could, the more fortunate ones living in tents or makeshift shelters. The army did its best to provide water and food to those in desperate need, but it felt as if nobody were in charge.
And where was Nero in all this? Some accused him of hiding at his summer palace in Actium, paying no attention to our troubles. Others suggested he was in Actium in frightful agony, worried about the fate of his beloved people. Nero was evil, of course, but never stupid. In a ploy to elicit public support, he had set up a shelter on the grounds of one of his few remaining palaces by the river, where bread and water appeared, as if magically, laid out on tables and rationed by soldiers. I shivered to imagine his mind, its recesses and tar-black depths. This was, after all, the man who encouraged and fed the public taste for gladiatorial combat, gratifying their wish to see animals rip human beings into mounds of flesh. He himself often appeared at these contests and cheered on the vengeful displays.
And now he had spread this vile rumor about the Way of Jesus, saying we had lit this fire. And for what reason? Could anyone believe we would do such a thing, or hope to gain anything from the destruction of Rome?
I pushed ahead as best I could through the purple smoke and glitter of sparks, arriving at Paul’s house much later than expected. Two small boys, the children of Junia and Josephus, cowered by the fiery wall of what had been a happy home. Their white eyes drilled through soot-blackened faces. They froze when they saw me, though they had welcomed me into their home countless times in the past two years. How could they imagine I would harm them? Their minds could never fathom the horrors that flared around them and wrecked their lives.
I had a few figs in my sack, and I held them out for the boys. They stared, unresponsive, though I could only guess how hungry they must be, and what terror held them down with its hot thumb.
“Come on, boys,” I said. “I’m Luke, Paul’s friend. Remember?”
As often as I’d come to visit Paul and their parents, I had not quite formed a bond with these boys, not as Paul had. He was good with children, and enjoyed telling them stories of his travels, exaggerating his adventures. He had never encountered “slimy monsters and fire-breathing serpents and bears with lightning in their claws,” as he told them with a straight face, yet he purveyed these stories with relish, even suggesting I should write them down.
“I will only tell the truth,” I said.
This produced deep-chested laughter, even tears, in Paul. “I do love you, dear Luke,” he said. “But what do you mean by ‘the truth’?’”
Did the apostle of our Lord have to ask such a question? Was he pretending to be Plato, the Greek philosopher he admired so much? I must have looked a fool to him.
Occasionally he would do magic tricks for the boys, such as making a flower appear in his ear, which he would then pluck and present to the child who watched dumbfounded. When I asked quite innocently how he did this, he replied without hesitation, “I grow a flower in my ear.”
At last the younger boy, a twig of a child with cropped hair and flinty eyes, took a fig from my hand.
“That’s it! Good boy,” I said. “Eat.”
As he chewed it slowly, the roof of the house fell through with a whoosh and spray of gold-vermillion sparks. The heat of it pulsed. The boy and I locked gazes.
“Where are your parents, son? And Paul the apostle?”
The boy chewed and held my gaze, but no answers came.
“They’re not here, are they?”
“Took them, they did.”
“All of them?”
He nodded slightly.
I knelt before the boy, squaring up to him. “How long ago did this happen? Try to remember.”
My urgency made no impression on him. He simply ate his fig, chewing very slowly. His life had become all cinders, smoke and flame, and nothing mattered now, not even this morsel of nourishment. He and his brother were being licked by the fires of the world, and if their parents failed to return, they would become slaves or servants, at best. More likely, they would starve to death at the edge of the city, becoming one of thousands of unnamed bodies turfed into mass graves at the bottom of the Esquiline Hill or dumped into the Tiber. Many times I had sat on those sad banks and watched miserable scraps of human debris float by on the brown river.
Now the older boy, who had resisted me, stepped closer, and I handed him a fig as well. “Did you see who came?” I asked.
In my heart I knew that something hateful had befallen Paul. I imagined him with Junia and Josephus, all three of them locked in a fetid jail, where they would be tortured and murdered without ceremony. I had witnessed the ingenuity and brutality of Roman torture firsthand, and it was never pretty. Once, on a dusty trail in the provinces of Asia, I had seen a traitor staked out for hours until he died, a fat rusty nail driven through his anus, sticking him to a plank with his belly to the board. And that, unfortunately, was hardly the worst thing I saw.
“Did your parents say anything to you?” I asked the boy.
It was quite pointless, I could see, to persist in this way. The children had no information, and whatever they had witnessed, they couldn’t say. The words would never come. So I put a coin into each of their hands, a weak gesture of thanks.
A thick swirl of ash blew toward us, a cloud of red-hot cinders, and I fell to my knees, sputtering. My face felt on fire, and I couldn’t see. When the cloud passed, I looked up, but the boys had vanished.
I staggered to my feet, rushing into the nearby alleyway between their house and another building. I could not let them go! But another whirlwind caught me with a blast of hot smoke, and I fell to the pavement, and I could not move.
But the boys!
I dragged myself toward an opening in the smoke, leaning into what I thought was the direction they must have gone. But the alleyway branched three ways, and there were flames at the end of each, massive clots of fire. Turning back, I hoped to follow them another way. The streets in this part of Rome all circled upon each other and, at some point, converge. For an hour or more I searched through the smoke before abandoning hope of finding them.
In a quiet spot apart from the fire, near the river, I sat on a rock and prayed. Prayer was my only refuge. And I begged God for guidance. I could not possibly discover a way forward without divine intervention. But I could not bend my will to God’s will, accepting that Paul had vanished, and that I might never speak to him again. Do not let this happen!
It was late afternoon by the time I rose, exhausted, to cross the capital on foot once again. The flames had spread from the slave quarters near the base of the Circus Maximus, where it caused a claustrophobic huddle of human misery. I pushed ahead through the imperial city, where the Temple of Luna was reduced to blackened stones and smoldering char. Vesta’s shrine was damaged too, and flames licked the edges of the Forum.
Was this the apocalypse that Paul had predicted? “He is coming soon!” Paul would tell gatherings in the early days of our efforts. “Waste no time! You might not even get to sleep through the night!”
Many in Rome would not sleep through this night.
Copyright © 2019 by Jay Parini. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.