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Chapter 2

HEROD asked Cypros, ‘Where in the world are we to go now?’

Cypros answered miserably: ‘So long as you don’t ask me to humble myself again by writing begging letters that I would almost rather die than write, I don’t care where we go. Is India far enough away from our creditors?’

Herod said, ‘Cypros, my queen, we’ll survive this adventure as we have survived many others and live to a prosperous and wealthy old age together. And I give you my solemn word that you’ll have the laugh against my sister Herodias before I have finished with her and her husband.’

‘That ugly harlot,’ Cypros cried with truly Jewish indignation. For, as I told you, Herodias had not only committed incest by marrying an uncle but had divorced him in order to marry her richer and more powerful uncle Antipas. The Jews could make certain allowances for the incest, because marriage between uncle and niece was a common practice among Eastern royal families – the Armenian and Parthian royal families especially – and the family of Herod was not of Jewish origin. But divorce was regarded with the greatest disgust by every honest Jew (as, formerly, by every honest Roman) as being shameful both to the husband and to the wife; and nobody who had been under the disagreeable necessity of getting divorced would consider it the first step towards remarriage. Herodias had, however, lived long enough at Rome to be able to laugh at these scruples. Everyone at Rome who is anyone gets divorced sooner or later. (Nobody, for instance, could call me a profligate, and yet I have divorced three wives already and may come to divorcing my fourth.) So Herodias was most unpopular in Galilee.

Aristobulus went to Flaccus and said, ‘In recognition of my services, Flaccus, would you perhaps be generous enough to give me that confiscated money from Damascus? It would almost cover the debt that Herod owes me – the shipping-fraud that I told you about some months ago.’

Flaccus said: ‘Aristobulus, you have done me no service at all. You have been the cause of a breach between me and my ablest adviser, whom I miss more than I can tell you. As a matter of governmental discipline I had to dismiss him, and as a matter of honour I cannot recall him; but if you had not brought that bribe to light nobody would have been any the wiser and I would still have had Herod to consult on complicated local questions which absolutely baffle a simple-minded Westerner like myself. It’s in his blood, you see. I have, in point of fact, lived far longer in the East than he has, but he instinctively knows in cases where I can only clumsily guess.’

‘What about myself?’ asked Aristobulus. ‘Perhaps I can fill Herod’s place?’

You, little man?’ Flaccus cried contemptuously. ‘You haven’t the Herod touch. And, what’s more, you’ll never acquire it. You know that, as well as I do.’

‘But the money?’ asked Aristobulus.

‘If it’s not for Herod, still less is it for you. But to avoid all ill-feeling between you and me I am going to send it back to Damascus.’ He actually did this. The Damascenes thought that he must have gone mad.

After a month or so Aristobulus, being out of favour at Antioch, decided to settle in Galilee, where he had an estate. It was only a two-days’ journey from here to Jerusalem, a city which he liked to visit on all the important Jewish festivals, being more religiously inclined than the rest of his family. But he did not wish to take all his money with him to Galilee, because if he happened to quarrel with his uncle Antipas he might be forced to go away in a hurry, and Antipas would be just so much the richer. He therefore decided to transfer most of his credit from a banking firm at Antioch to one at Rome and wrote to me as a trustworthy family friend, giving me authority to invest it in landed property for him as opportunity should present itself.

Herod could not return to Galilee: and he had also quarrelled with his uncle Philip, the Tetrarch of Bashan, over a question of some property of his father which Philip had misappropriated; and the Governor of Judaea with Samaria – for Herod’s eldest uncle, the King, had been removed for misgovernment some years previously and his kingdom proclaimed a Roman province – was Pontius Pilate, one of his creditors. Herod did not wish to retire permanently to Edom – he was no lover of deserts – and his chances of a welcome in Egypt by the great Jewish colony at Alexandria were inconsiderable. The Alexandrian Jews are very strict in their religious observances, almost stricter than their kinsmen at Jerusalem, if that were possible, and Herod from living so long at Rome had fallen into slack habits, especially in the matter of diet. The Jews are forbidden by their ancient law-giver Moses, on hygienic grounds, I understand, to eat a variety of ordinary meat foods: not merely pork – one could make a case against pork, perhaps – but hare and rabbit, and other perfectly wholesome meats. And what they do eat must be killed in a certain way. Wild duck that has been brought down by a sling-stone, or a fowl that has had its neck wrung, or venison got by bow and arrow, are forbidden them. Every animal that they eat must have had its throat cut and have been allowed to bleed to death. Then, too, they must make every seventh day a day of absolute rest: their very household servants are forbidden to do a stroke of work, even cooking or stoking the furnace. And they have days of national mourning in commemoration of ancient misfortunes, which often clash with Roman festivities. It had been impossible for Herod while he was living at Rome to be at the same time both a strict Jew and a popular member of high society; and so he had preferred the contempt of the Jews to that of the Romans. He decided not to try Alexandria or waste any more of his time in the Near East, where every door seemed closed to him. He would either take refuge in Parthia, where the king would welcome him as a useful agent in his designs against the Roman province of Syria, or he would return to Rome and throw himself upon my mother’s protection: it might be just possible to explain away the misunderstanding with Flaccus. He rejected the idea of Parthia, because to go there would mean a complete breach with his old life, and he had greater confidence in the power of Rome than in that of Parthia; and besides it would be rash to try to cross the Euphrates – the boundary between Syria and Parthia – without money to bribe the frontier guards, who were under orders to allow no political refugee to pass. So he finally chose Rome.

And did he get there safely? You shall hear. He had not even enough ready money with him to pay for his sea-passage – he had been living on credit at Antioch and in great style; and though Aristobulus offered to lend him enough to take him as far as Rhodes, he refused to humble himself by accepting it. Besides, he could not risk booking his passage on a vessel sailing down the Orontes, for fear of being arrested at the docks by his creditors. He suddenly thought of someone from whom he could perhaps raise a trine, namely, a former slave of his mother’s whom she had bequeathed in her will to my mother Antonia and whom my mother had liberated and set up as a corn-factor at Acre, a coastal city somewhat south of Tyre: he paid her a percentage of his earnings and was doing quite well. But the territory of the Sidonians lay between and Herod had, as a matter of fact, accepted a gift from the Sidonians as well as from the Damascenes; so he could not afford to fall into their hands. He sent a trustworthy freedman of his to borrow from this man at Acre and himself escaped from Antioch in disguise, travelling east, which was the one direction that nobody expected him to take, and so eluding pursuit. Once in the Syrian desert he made a wide circuit towards the south, on a stolen camel, avoiding Bashan, his uncle Philip’s tetrarchy, and Petraea (or, as some call it, Gilead, the fertile Transjordanian territory over which his uncle Antipas ruled as well as over Galilee), and skirting the farther end of the Dead Sea. He came safely to Edom, where he was greeted warmly by his wild kinsmen, and waited in the same desert fortress as before for his freedman to come with the money. The freedman succeeded in borrowing the money – 20,000 Attic drachmae: as the Attic drachma is worth rather more than the Roman silver piece, this came to something over 900 gold pieces. At least, he had given Herod’s note of hand to that amount, in exchange; and would have arrived with the 20,000 drachmae complete if the corn-factor at Acre had not deducted 2,500, of which he accused Herod of having defrauded him some years previously. The honest freedman was afraid that his master would be angry with him for not bringing the whole amount, but Herod only laughed and said: ‘I counted on that twenty-five hundred to secure me the balance of the twenty thousand. If the stingy fellow had not thought that he was doing a smart trick in making my note of hand cover the old debt he would never have dreamed of lending me any money at all; for he must know by now what straits I am in.’ So Herod gave a great feast for the tribesmen and then made cautiously for the port of Anthedon, near the Philistine town of Gaza, where the coast begins curving west towards Egypt. Here Cypros and her children were waiting in disguise on board the small trading-vessel in which they had sailed from Antioch and which had been chartered to take them on to Italy by way of Egypt and Sicily. Affectionate greetings between all members of the family thus happily reunited were just being exchanged when a Roman sergeant and three soldiers appeared alongside in a rowing-boat with a warrant for Herod’s arrest. The local military governor had signed this warrant, the reason for which was the non-payment to the Privy Purse of a debt of 12,000 gold pieces.

Herod read the document and remarked to Cypros: ‘I take this as a very cheerful omen. The Treasurer has scaled down my debts from forty thousand to a mere twelve. We must give him a really splendid banquet when we get back to Rome. Of course, I’ve done a lot for him since I have been out in the East, but twenty-eight thousand is a generous return.’

The sergeant interposed, ‘Excuse me, Prince, but really you can’t think about banquets at Rome until you have seen the Governor here about this debt. He has orders not to let you sail until it’s paid in full.’

Herod said: ‘Of course I shall pay it. It had quite escaped my memory. A mere trifle. You go off now in the rowing-boat, and tell His Excellency the Governor that I am entirely at his service, but that his kind reminder of my debt to the Treasury has come a little inconveniently. I have just been joined by my devoted wife, the Princess Cypros, from whom I have been parted for over six weeks. Are you a family man, Sergeant? Then you will understand how earnestly we two desire to be alone together. You can leave your two soldiers on board as a guard if you don’t trust us. Come again in the boat in three or four hours’ time and we’ll be quite ready to disembark. And here’s an earnest of my gratitude.’ He gave the sergeant 100 drachmae; upon which the sergeant, leaving the guard behind, rowed ashore without further demur. An hour or two later it was dusk and Herod cut the cables of the vessel and stood out to sea. He made as if to sail north towards Asia Minor but soon changed his course and turned south-west. He was making for Alexandria, where he thought he might as well try his luck with the Jews.

The two soldiers had been suddenly seized, trussed up, and gagged by the crew, who had engaged them in a game of dice; but Herod released them as soon as he was sure that he was not being pursued and said that he would put them safe ashore at Alexandria if they behaved sensibly. He only stipulated that on his arrival there they should pretend to be his military bodyguard for a day or two; and promised in return to pay their passage back to Anthedon. They agreed hastily, terrified of being thrown overboard if they displeased him.

I should have mentioned that Cypros and the children had been helped out of Antioch by a middle-aged Samaritan called Silas, Herod’s most faithful friend. He was a gloomy-looking, solidly-built fellow with an enormous square-cut black beard, and had once served in the native cavalry as a troop commander. He had been awarded two military decorations for his services against the Parthians. Herod had on several occasions offered to have him made a Roman citizen, but Silas had always refused the honour on the ground that if he became a Roman he would be obliged to shave his chin in Roman fashion, and that he would never consent to do that. Silas was always giving Herod good advice, which he never took, and whenever Herod got into difficulties used to say: ‘What did I tell you? You should have listened to what I said.’ He prided himself upon his bluntness of speech, and was sadly wanting in tact. But Herod bore with Silas because he could be trusted to stand by him through thick and thin. Silas had been his only companion during the first flight to Edom, and again but for Silas the family would never have escaped from Tyre the day that Herod insulted Antipas. And at Antioch it had been Silas who had provided Herod with his disguise for escaping from his creditors, besides protecting Cypros and the children and finding the vessel for them. When things were really bad Silas was at his best and cheerfullest, for then he knew that Herod would need his services and would give him an opportunity for saying, ‘I am entirely at your disposal, Herod Agrippa, my dear friend, if I may call you so. But if you had taken my advice this would never have occurred.’ In times of prosperity he always grew more and more gloomy, seeming to look back with a sort of regret to the bad old days of poverty and disgrace; and even encouraging them to return by his warnings to Herod that if he continued in his present course (whatever it might be) he would end as a ruined man. However, things were bad enough now to make Silas the brightest of companions. He cracked jokes with the crew and told the children long complicated stories of his military adventures. Cypros, who usually resented Silas’s tediousness, now felt ashamed of her rudeness to this golden-hearted friend.

‘I was brought up with a Jewish prejudice against Samaritans,’ she told Silas, ‘and you must forgive me if it has taken all these years for me to overcome it.’

‘I must ask your forgiveness too, Princess,’ Silas replied ‘– forgiveness, I mean, for my bluntness of speech. But such is my nature. I must take the liberty of saying that if your Jewish friends and relatives were in general a little less upright and a little more charitable I should like them better. A cousin of mine was once riding on business from Jerusalem to Jericho. He came upon a poor Jew lying wounded and naked in the hot sun by the roadside. He had been set on by bandits. My cousin cleansed his wounds and bound them up as best he could and then took him on his beast to the nearest inn, where he paid in advance for his room and his food for a few days – the inn-keeper insisted on payment in advance – and then visited him on his way back from Jericho and helped him to get home. Well, that was nothing: we Samaritans are made that way. It was all in a day’s work for my cousin. But the joke was that three or four well-to-do Jews – a priest among them – whom my cousin had met riding towards him just before he came on the wounded man, must have actually seen him lying by the roadside; but because he was no relation of theirs they had left him there to die and ridden on, though he was groaning and calling out for help most pitifully. The innkeeper was a Jew too. He told my cousin that he quite understood the reluctance of these travellers to attend to the wounded man: if he had died on their hands they would have become ritually unclean from touching a corpse, which would have been a great inconvenience to themselves and their families. The priest, the innkeeper explained, was probably on his way to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple: he, least of all, could risk pollution. Well, thank God, I am a Samaritan, and a man with a blunt tongue. I say what I think. I – –’

Herod interrupted, ‘My dear Cypros, isn’t that a most instructive story? And if the poor fellow had been a Samaritan he wouldn’t have had enough money to make it worth the bandits’ while to rob him.’

At Alexandria Herod, accompanied by Cypros, the children, and the two soldiers, went to the chief magistrate of the Jewish colony there – or Alabarch, as he was called. The Alabarch was answerable to the Governor of Egypt for the good behaviour of his co-religionists. He had to see that they paid their taxes regularly and refrained from street riots with the Greeks and from other breaches of the peace. Herod greeted the Alabarch suavely and presently asked him for a loan of 8,000 gold pieces, offering in exchange to use his influence at the Imperial Court on behalf of the Alexandrian Jews. He said that the Emperor Tiberius had written asking him to come to Rome immediately to advise him on Eastern affairs and that in consequence he had left Edom, where he was visiting his cousins, in a great hurry and with very little money in his purse for travelling expenses. The Roman bodyguard seemed to the Alabarch to furnish impressive proof of the truth of Herod’s story, and he considered that it would indeed be very useful to have an influential friend at Rome. There had been riots lately in which the Jews had been the aggressors and had done serious damage to Greek property. Tiberius might feel inclined to curtail their privileges, which were considerable.

Alexander the Alabarch was an old friend of my family’s. He had acted as steward of a large property at Alexandria which had been left to my mother in my grandfather Mark Antony’s will and which Augustus, for my grandmother Octavia’s sake, had allowed her to inherit, though he cancelled most of the other bequests. My mother brought this property as a dowry to my father when she married him, and it then went to my sister Livilla, who brought it as a dowry to Castor, Tiberius’s son, when she married him; but Livilla soon sold it, because she led an extravagant life and needed the money, and the Alabarch lost the management of it. After this, correspondence between him and my family gradually ceased; and though my mother had used her interest with Tiberius to raise him to his present dignity and might be supposed to be well-disposed towards him still, the Alabarch was not sure how far he could count on her support if he became involved in any political trouble. Well, he knew that Herod had once been an intimate friend of the family, and so would have lent him money very readily had he been sure that Herod was still on good terms with us; but he could not be sure. He questioned Herod about my mother; and Herod, who had foreseen the situation very clearly and had been clever enough not to be the first to mention her name, answered that she was in the best of health and spirits when she last wrote. He had brought with him, as if accidentally, a cordial letter from her, written to him just before he left Antioch, in which she included a budget of detailed family news. He handed it to the Alabarch to read and the Alabarch was even more impressed by it than by the bodyguard. But the letter concluded with the hope that Herod was now at last settled down to a useful political life on the staff of her esteemed friend Flaccus, and the Alabarch had just heard from friends at Antioch that Flaccus and Herod had quarrelled, and besides he could not be sure that Tiberius had really written the letter of invitation – which Herod had not offered to show him. He could not make up his mind whether to lend the money or not. However, he had just decided to do so, when one of the kidnapped soldiers, who understood a little Hebrew, said, ‘Give me only eight gold pieces, Alabarch, and I’ll save you eight thousand.’

‘What do you mean, soldier?’ asked the Alabarch.

‘I mean that this man’s a swindler and a fugitive from justice. We are not his bodyguard, but two men whom he has kidnapped. There’s an Imperial warrant out for his arrest because of a big debt at Rome.’

Cypros saved the situation by falling at the Alabarch’s feet and sobbing, ‘For the sake of your old friendship with my father Phasael have mercy on me and my poor children. Do not condemn us to beggary and utter destruction. My dear husband has committed no fraud. The substance of what he has told you is perfectly true, though perhaps he has slightly coloured the details. We are indeed on our way to Rome, and owing to recent political changes we have the most golden expectations there; and if you lend us just enough money to help us out of our present difficulties, the God of our fathers will reward you a thousandfold. The debt on account of which my dear Herod was so nearly arrested is a legacy of his improvident youth. Once arrived at Rome he will soon find honourable means of repaying it. But to fall into the hands of his enemies in the Syrian Government would be his ruin and the ruin of my children and myself.’

The Alabarch turned towards Cypros, whose fidelity to Herod in his misfortunes almost brought tears to his eyes, and asked, kindly but cautiously, ‘Does your husband observe the Law?’

Herod saw her hesitate a little and spoke for himself. ‘You must remember, sir, that I am an Edomite by blood. You cannot reasonably expect as much from an Edomite as from a Jew. Edom and Jewry are blood-brothers through our common ancestor, the patriarch Isaac; but before any Jew congratulates himself on God’s peculiar favour to his nation let him remember how Esau, the ancestor of Edom, was tricked of his birthright and of his father’s blessing by Jacob, the ancestor of Jewry. Drive no hard bargains with me, Alabarch. Show more compassion to a distressed and improvident Edomite than old Jacob did, or, as the Lord my God lives, the next spoonful of red lentil porridge that you put into your mouth will surely choke you. We have lost our birthright to you and with it God’s peculiar favour, and in return we demand from you such generosity of heart as we ourselves have never failed to show. Remember Esau’s magnanimity when, meeting Jacob by chance at Peniel, he did not kill him.’

‘But do you observe the Law?’ asked the Alabarch, impressed by Herod’s vehemence and unable to contradict his historical references.

‘I am circumcised, and so are my children, and I and my whole household have always kept the Law revealed to your ancestor Moses as strictly as our difficult position as Roman citizens and our imperfect consciences as Edomites have allowed us.’

‘There are no two ways of righteousness,’ said the Alabarch stiffly. ‘Either the Law is kept, or it is broken.’

‘Yet I have read that the Lord once permitted Naaman, the Syrian proselyte, to worship in the Temple of Rimmon by the side of the King, his master,’ said Herod. ‘And Naaman proved a very good friend to the Jews, did he not?’

At last the Alabarch said to Herod: ‘If I lend you this money will you swear in the name of the Lord – to whom be Glory Everlasting – to keep His Law as far as in you lies, and cherish His People, and never by sins of commission or omission offend against His Majesty?’

‘I swear by His most Holy Name,’ said Herod, ‘and let my wife Cypros and my children be my witnesses, that I will henceforth honour Him with all my soul and with all my strength and that I will constantly love and protect His People. If ever wittingly I blaspheme, from hardness of heart, may the maggots that fed upon my grandfather Herod’s living flesh so feed upon mine and consume me utterly!’

So he got the loan. As he told me afterwards, ‘I would have sworn anything in the world only to lay my hands on that money, I was so hard pressed.’

But the Alabarch made two further conditions. The first was that Herod should now be paid only the equivalent, in silver, of 4,000 gold pieces and receive the rest of the money on his arrival in Italy. For he did not yet trust Herod entirely. He might have thoughts of going off to Morocco or Arabia with the money. The second condition was that Cypros should take the children to Jerusalem to be educated as good Jews there under the guardianship of the Alabarch’s brother-in-law, the High Priest. To this Herod and Cypros agreed, the more cheerfully as they knew that no good-looking boy or girl in high Roman society was safe from Tiberius’s unnatural lusts. (My friend Vitellius, for example, had had one of his sons taken away from him to Capri, under the pretence that he would be given a liberal education there, and put among the filthy Spintrians, so that the boy’s whole nature became warped. The name ‘Spintrian’ has stuck to him all his life, and a worse man I do not know.) Well, they decided that Cypros would rejoin him at Rome as soon as she had settled the children safely at Jerusalem.

What had made Herod come to Alexandria to borrow money from the Alabarch was the rumour that his freedman had brought with him from Acre of the fall of Sejanus. At Alexandria it had been fully confirmed. Sejanus had been my uncle Tiberius’s most trusted minister but had conspired with my sister Livilla to kill him and usurp the monarchy. It was my mother who discovered the plot and warned Tiberius; and Tiberius, with the help of my nephew Caligula and the stony-hearted villain Macro, soon managed to bring Sejanus to book. It was then discovered that Livilla had poisoned her husband Castor seven years previously and that Castor had, after all, never been the traitor to his father that Sejanus had represented him as being. So naturally Tiberius’s strict rule against the reappearance in his presence of any of Castor’s former friends must now be considered cancelled; and my mother’s patronage was more valuable than ever before. Had it not been for this news Herod would not have wasted his time and dignity by trying to borrow from the Alabarch. Jews are generous but very careful. They lend to their own needy fellow-Jews if they have fallen into misfortune through no fault or sin of their own, and they lend without charging any interest, because that is forbidden in their Law: their only reward is a feeling of virtue. But they will lend nothing to any non-Jew, even if he is dying of starvation, still less to any Jew who has put himself ‘outside the congregation’, as they call it, by following un-Jewish customs in foreign lands – unless they are quite sure that they will get some substantial return for their generosity.

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