“I am to be present at the execution,” Cassian stated casually, picking at the cluster of grapes. His tone implied that it meant nothing more to him than the weather. The two days that had gone by since the announcement was made did nothing to move him to pity over this poor Christian.
Aquilus stopped pacing before his father and stared at him for a moment, gawking. “A life is to be lost this afternoon. It is more than betting on a horse in a race.”
Cassian shrugged indifferently. “A Christian is not to bet money on, son,” he sighed. “Yes, a Roman citizen is a shame to lose, but the quicker we root out these cults, the stronger our empire will be. In the grand scheme of things, I find this to be a minor step, though it be in the right direction.”
Aquilus sat across from his father on the reclining sofa and leaned in, earnest as a great teacher of Greece. “Pater,” he said in a low voice, “killing our citizens is not a good direction. We are only weakening our empire.”
Cassian raised a brow as he popped a sweet grape into his mouth. “You sound like one of those Christians already,” he chuckled. “Ah, Aquilus, one day, you’ll understand. You aren’t an emperor yet.” He hefted himself off of the lavish couch and stretched his arms. “The Prefect Thracius ordered your presence as well.”
Aquilus felt his stomach drop. Of course that was what Thracius demanded. He was right not to trust him; this prefect was skeptical of him, and he was about to test his loyalty. Such acts were acts of hatred.
“So he did,” the young man muttered in a windy growl. He avoided his father’s gaze.
He heard a certain sympathy in his father’s sigh. The elder crouched down before Aquilus with a hand on his shoulder.
“I was rather squeamish going to the Circus for the first time, as well,” he said, as if to help. “That was why my father brought me when I was much younger than you. To give me a stomach of a strong bronze. I should have brought you when you were my age.” He stood again. “Either way, life is what it is. But don’t you see yet?” A certain grin splayed across his face. “Prefect Thracius has told me in confidence that you will come to great things. He was impressed greatly by you.”
Aquilus said nothing but lowered his head.
How was it that such attention was agonizing? Most men in his rank and in the eyes of the prefect would murder if it meant obtaining a promotion. They would leave their wives to marry into an advantageous family if it meant they could be a caesar for a lifetime. They would throw themselves into certain death if it meant surviving to become emperor.
How did it happen that all these fortunes landed on the one man who wanted none of it?
“Well?” Cassian prodded. “We must leave if we are to get a seat in the Prefect’s box.”
Said as though it was nothing yet again. Aquilus was concerned by his father’s indifference towards everything, yet contempt for everything. Would he no longer be indifferent if he had announced his faith? Would he no longer be indifferent if he knew Flavia was barren?
Cassian left the lounging room, only as Flavia entered through the opposite door from the garden. Her eyes met Aquilus’ and she smiled slightly. She took her seat beside him and touched his forearm.
Not much was salvaged from their shaken lives. As Aquilus grew distant, Flavia did not dive in to catch him. They only attempted to pretend nothing was happening.
All could be hidden under a thin sheet. All could be forgotten behind a sheer curtain.
“Are you well?” she asked quietly. “You seem as though you are encountering a panther, bristled and ready to run.”
Aquilus relaxed his shoulders and leaned back. Flavia ran her fingers through his hair. He brought his gaze to hers in a reluctant path. “I’m supposed to go to the Circus with my father,” he confessed. “The prefect shows interest in me. No doubt he’s trying to test me.”
Flavia’s eyes struck open in horror and she pulled away. “To see the Christian?” she breathed.
She turned away slightly and covered her mouth with a hand. In a brisk movement, Flavia shook her head. Her earrings quietly clattered. “I can’t imagine-” Again she met his gaze. “Aquilus, I will come with you.”
“No,” he snapped, with no hesitation. He stood and made for the door. He didn’t want to discuss this. How could he imagine allowing his wife to witness this cruelty?
His option was to run.
Flavia shot up and stopped him. “Aquilus, listen to me; I need to see who this is. This world is crumbling and too many are being slaughtered as if it’s their fault. I know many Christians; I want to know who it is.”
“I don’t want you to witness this,” he said in his defense. “I’m forced into this. You have your innocence. Keep your eyes pure for me.”
Flavia looked down at her sandals. “Please, Aquilus,” her voice was distorted in panicked tears. “They’re my friends.”
Aquilus hesitated for a moment.
He couldn’t fathom how Flavia would fare at the Circus. Starved lions appearing from under the ground, the crowds chanting for blood, the inevitable dismemberment… He shuddered.
“No,” he said quickly. “And that’s the last I’ll hear of it.”
She was about to protest, but he left the room entirely.
The Circus Bella Palestinae was better to look at from a distance.
Aquilus knew the rock in his stomach would not leave for the entire day. How could he forsake his conscience as easily as this? Perhaps it would have been more productive if he stood against his father and told him of his faith.
He sighed out heavily as he guided his horse into the shadow of the mammoth establishment. No, nothing could be done. Not yet, anyway.
The Circus was almost full already. The party of horses that fought against the pulsing crowds carried the Prefect Thracius forward. Commoners knew better than to stand in the way of the decorated soldier and his company, of which included Aquilus and his father. The man got what he wanted and, being the representative of the Caesar, hosted the execution. His box awaited him, as the common folk waited anxiously for the bloodbath.
Aquilus had to find a way out before it happened.
“Your Excellency,” he called to Thracius. The prefect did nothing to acknowledge him. Still, he pursued it. “Perhaps I should man the entrance of the box? No one could be too careful, and there may be a chance of rebels against you.”
“Legate,” he growled back, “are you implying I have not made the precautions?” He didn’t look back, but raised his voice for it to carry behind him.
Aquilus wished Thracius hadn’t. He humbly shook his head. “My apologies, Your Excellency,” he muttered.
The prefect repositioned himself on his horse, still facing forward with the confidence of a god. He leaned back slightly to be heard better by his subordinate. “Aquilus Aurelius,” he began slowly, “I want you to be at my right side during the occasion.”
Aquilus’ heart thudded in that moment. How could God betray him so? To first force him to view abomination, and secondly, put him in celebration of pagans? To be celebrated as a pagan?
This time, Thracius glanced towards him with a glint of hatred in his eyes. What he said next was a paradox. “I admire you greatly, Legate. If you sit beside me, Fate will shine on you.” He cocked his head back to face forward. “I had a dream last night. Jupiter himself came down to me, demanding by prostration. I obeyed, as any Roman would, but he did not praise me. Instead, he came down upon another soldier, a Legate of Palestine. Said he was for great things.” Again, he turned his attention to the prince. “I looked behind me, and you walked ahead of me.” He grunted. “You’ll become something greater than a prefect, Aquilus, and I plan to take you there.”
Aquilus was sick to the stomach by this praise he did not want. Not to disrespect the prefect, he nodded. “My gratitude, Excellency.” He swallowed loosely and let out a cough. He did his best to avoid the usual acknowledgement of a god, being something as simple as ‘glory to Jupiter’. Hopefully Thracius wasn’t looking for it.
The prince prevailed a lengthened scrutiny before the prefect went back to his business.
If it wasn’t known to be a place of blood, the Circus was a jewel among deserts. Rather remote from the city, as they were surrounded by Jews, the massive amphitheatre was chiseled from quarries of rose marble. Clay tiles of red blazed the color of the games across the partial roof, and bathed the shadow in an apt shade of dried red. Thracius gave up his stallion to a Circus slave, as did his company, as the crowds made for the massive public doors of Tyr cedar. The prefect, however, followed his own path lined by personal slaves to an impressive wing adjacent to the theatre and scaled the marble steps to a higher story. Aquilus had no choice but to follow.
It was made apparent to him that this private, quiet end of the theatre was the prefect’s viewing box. As they came to an end of colorful halls, they again met the sun, now inside the walls of the Circus Bella.
The panorama was impressive; from the shaded terrace lined in shining ivory, he could see the entire arena. Besides the center of the grounds being a coaching apartment, topped with an obelisk equipped with jars of water to signify laps for a race, the arena was bare sand. Two trap doors were laid in the grounds on either side of the obelisk. The benches surrounding the arena could seat three thousand, at least, he estimated.
Still, Aquilus could not understand his bad fortune. He felt extremely ill in his stomach as he gingerly sat himself on one of the sofas underneath the shade canopy.
“You’re pale as Venus,” Pompeius was curt to say. He adjusted his belt surrounding his bloated stomach and took in the view. “Is this your first circus, Legate?”
Aquilus rubbed his forehead and leaned back slightly. “The heat is unbearable,” he moaned. “Is it always this dry in the Bella?”
The old commander huffed at him. “You can thank your Jerusalem for that,” he growled. “In the lovely Italia, in Rome, the wind is pleasant and the sun is warm, not incessantly beating down on my poor complexion, as here in this cursed outback. The circuses are almost never too hot or dry. No sand to kick up into the air. And shall I compare the buildings? Almost all new back in the homeland. Well-kept, too. Everyone in Italia understands the meaning of good architecture, unlike many of these Jews and the such. And the women are fair and gentle, not dark and tasteless.” He grimaced in distaste. “Alas, I’m not created for Palestine.”
Aquilus rolled his eyes. “I said nothing of women.”
Pompeius laughed in a staccato outburst. His belly jiggled like a fattened cow. “Ay, no Palestinian seems to be so interested in talk like this. Especially those who have never left their home.”
“I have left home, Commander,” Aquilus calmly countered. “As far as the coasts of Gaul.”
“Gaul,” Pompeius spat. “We can have Gaul if we want it. They’re no threat to us. What I want more is that Druid land in Britannica.”
When Thracius appeared, they silenced, while the cheers of the crowds ensued. There seemed to be no empty seat. The silence was absolutely gone as the onlookers begged for blood to be spilled.
God, deliver me from my enemies.
Aquilus felt as though he himself was to be executed. The knot in his stomach grew unbearable, and he leaned forward to calm it. This was not entertainment; it was torture broadcasted.
“Allow in the prisoner,” the prefect bellowed, his voice carrying to the depths. Aquilus would not be surprised to hear the victims of fiery Gehenna cry out in reply.
The shouts of delight and anticipation only grew. Aquilus could not see from where he sat, as the box seating stood above the large door that had opened, but the crowds began to jeer and throw profanities into the air.
Pompeius moved from the prince’s side and leaned over the balustrade of the box to see the victim.
He let out a small grunt.
“By Hades, it’s Captain Scaevola.”
That was it. Aquilus snapped up from the sofa and crossed the box in a stride. He leaned over as far as he could go to get a clear image below him.
Out of the door below, the mane of curly hair appeared. The serene green eyes of the Vesus looked up into the box, inevitably locking a gaze with the prince. Aquilus dreaded the look of betrayal in him, but what he anticipated didn’t cross Scaevola’s face.
The condemned man smiled.
Scaevola was haggard now. No doubt a bad night in prison created the skeletal face. His defaced tunic was torn and ragged, and his sandals were half broken. The way he was forced in by the soldiers made it clear that his legs were not solid beneath him. As he presented himself in the arena, Aquilus observed the lash scars on the back of his legs.
Others were shoved out with him, in all colors of skin, from prisoners of war to traitors, but the prince only noticed the captain of the Thirteenth Legion. The arrays of black men, dark-haired Jews, and commoners of Latin background all were forced into their deathbeds, with only cries of bloody delight as their last taste of life.
“Did you know of this, Prefect?” Pompeius inquired. His initial surprise was gone and he crossed his flabby arms over his chest indifferently.
Thracius nodded as he reclined on his sofa. He wasn’t in uniform today, but in a lounging robe and blue linen. He seemed very relaxed in such a setting, especially for having the screams for sport in the background.
“Rather a quick event,” Thracius replied. “He came to me refusing the act to find the Christian household, and so I had him tried for insubordination.”
“Insubordination is twenty lashes,” Aquilus hissed as he turned to the prefect, “not execution in the Circus.”
Aquilus was shocked. His laugh was like the depths of Gehenna rumbled up in protest to the mortal world. The sudden outburst frightened him.
“I understand that,” he said after he righted himself. “Even I understand that, Aquilus Aurelius. That was when the Jews came in.”
Aquilus slowly frowned. “What about the Jews?” he asked, quiet now.
Thracius met his eyes squarely. In a moment, he stood and sized himself against the prince. Standing taller than Aquilus added to the prefect’s undermining presence.
“Scaevola was given say at his tribunal, to tell us why he refused his orders. He told us flatly that he was a Christian, and so after his court-martial two nights ago, we gave him over to the Sanhedrin. Given this man had been a believer in our own gods before the switch, they only wanted to see him die rather than allow him to teach other Jews.” He shrugged. “Since the matter was out of the Sanhedrin’s hands, they put him in ours.”
Pompeius smiled down at the victims. “Along with prisoners of war,” he said giddily, “a Christian will be eaten. This is going to be exciting.”
The Sanhedrin. All that coursed through his mind was Eiran.
Did he know of this?
He had to know.
The prince backed away from Thracius as a lamb would retreat from a lion. His head pointed downwards, he stepped away from the sofas. “If you’ll excuse me,” he muttered, “I’ll be going.”
“Hold on,” Thracius called. With no hesitation, Cassian stood and caught his son by the shoulder, holding in him an encouraging gaze.
Aquilus was feeling worse than ill. He needed to leave. However, the way his father looked at him, pleading him to stay, made him grudgingly relent to him. He turned his head to meet Thracius in his periphery.
“I asked you to be my right hand this event,” he indulgently reminded him. “If you would, I could make great things of you.”
Aquilus swallowed and again looked to his father. “What were Scaevola’s last words to you? In the tribunal?”
Thracius huffed. “Well, nothing intelligible. Said something about being proud to give his life for his faith…” He waved it off with a short hand movement. “All that Christian delusion.”
Christian delusion? How could one die for the sake of their delusion? No man could carry a delusion to his death.
His father drew close to his ear. “Aquilus,” he whispered, “this is crucial to your career. Stay put.”
“What if I don’t want this?” he whispered back, meeting his father’s gaze.
In this instant, it was impossible to distinguish their similarities. They were entirely different people, and Cassian noticed it for the very first time.
Cassian was Roman; Aquilus was Palestinian. Cassian acted as a pagan; Aquilus was more like a Jew. They were separated by a curtain of country, of affiliation, and in the moment, even Cassian feared all this was true. His son’s eyes burned with a passion he only beheld in Hadassah’s. An expectancy he only beheld in his son’s friend, Eiran. A dignity he only beheld in the Jews he had known.
This made Cassian step back, eyes set confusedly on Aquilus.
“This is an order, Aquilus Aurelius,” Thracius barked.
The prince balled his hands into fists.
“Come back here, Aquilus,” Thracius growled. “Come and see what happens to those who defy their fathers.”
Help me, God, he prayed, deliver me from these pagans! Deliver me from this evil!
God did not hear his prayers.
Pompeius took Aquilus by the arm and sat him on the viewing sofa. After forcing the prince to sit, he held his shoulder firmly to keep him from standing.
Thracius then presented himself to the masses, who all cheered at the sight of him. He was a sight to behold; making himself into a god, Thracius had anointed his hair and placed on it a ceremonial laurel. The rings on his fingers glistened under the hot, bright, Palestinian sun and blinded Aquilus as he raised his hands.
“Let in the animals,” he declared.
Civil persecution of Christianity wasn't brought into practice until the reign of Emeror Nero (64 A.D., four years later than where the story is currently). Even though civil persecution is in near future for Christianity in the story, the Christians were still dealt with by the Jews. I needed reasons for the execution of Scaevola (a convert to Christianity from Vesus paganism) so I added unusual circumstances for the sake of the story.