“Lucius Vitellius, you honour Petra and all of Nabataean Arabia with this visit.”
“King Aretas, the honour is mine…I just hope you’ll excuse the dust of the journey and my unsuitable attire.”
“A Roman uniform is never out of place, since all the world to the west of us here is Roman. When I look east, to the barbaric Parthians, I know whose influence I greatly prefer. Now, you will take that as an old Arab’s flattery of the new governor of Syria, and perhaps it is so. But be assured, Governor Vitellius, I am always sincere. In part.”
The king gave a shrewd smile.
“Is it just a matter of knowing which is the sincere part, Majesty?”
Now the king broke into frank laughter. Lucius Vitellius went on:
“In this case, Majesty, I am guessing your dread of the Parthians is sincere…and your gladness at Rome’s empire is…somewhat confected?”
“Just so…just so…It all sounds so much funnier when said in Greek. Ah, how I enjoy diplomacy. Did you hear the joke about the diplomat who drowned on the way to Corinth? All the other diplomats said: ‘Hmm, I wonder what he meant by that.'”
Now both were laughing.
“Let me be still more impudent, Majesty – for your mirth. I would rather be clad in bagging cloth than in a toga. That’s why I stayed in uniform. I don’t know how many times I have apologised…and with how many ingenious excuses…for not wearing my accursed toga.”
King Aretas chuckled along, then:
“Well, Governor, while you are with us – and I hope you will stay for a while – we have robes of all sorts for guests. Easy on, easy off, as comfortable as you please. And, in your case, we won’t even try to sell them to you!”
“Well, not straight away…”
Even the king’s daughter, Phaeselis, a mature lady who had been standing to the side and just behind him, joined modestly in the laughter. It had been one of the fastest bondings of potentates ever, but the trader in King Aretas seemed to mesh perfectly with the practical politician in Lucius Vitellius. Diplomacy aside, the King Of Nabataea and the new Roman Governor of Syria liked each other on the spot.
Aretas and his daughter walked their visitor over to a table which had been placed in the middle of the vast room of state which also served as threshold to the royal treasury, set well back in the sandstone cliff. The space was astonishingly cool and still; its natural walls and floor were covered in countless rugs, each an intricately woven tale or landscape. The expected fragrances of myrrh and frankincense were subtle, blended with other less usual spices, to make a fresher atmosphere, a garden of smells which did not cloy or intrude. The main delight, however, was not for the eye or smell but for the ear: tiny fountains and spillways made a constant tinkling music, which seemed to be scaled and varied like the music of instruments.
The three began to enjoy spiced wine and pastries composed mainly of pure nut meat bound with the richest honey.
“So, Governor, you have done us this honour of visiting Petra on your way to take up your new position in Damascus. Might I ask if this was, shall we say, informal on your part?”
“Just so. Emperor Tiberius suggested I take my time en route, visit Caesarea, Jerusalem, the Decapolis…”
“No, not specifically, since it’s out of the way. But Your Majesty still maintains a representative in Damascus, a Nabataean of great local influence there, so naturally…”
“Oh, my ethnarch. He’s a good man. Knows trading inside and out. Keeps order, doesn’t overstep. You’ll find him most co-operative. He even gets on with Jews.”
“And is it so hard to get on with Jews, Majesty?”
“Well…you’ll see. They’re complicated. Hard to please. Even Jews complain about Jews. You’ve heard the joke about the Jew who’d been waylaid by thieves? A number of other Jews saw him in distress and just left him there by the roadside, till a Samaritan finally came to his aid. Of course, the joke goes on longer than that.”
“Are Jews so flint-hearted?”
“Not at all! I find them to be quite the opposite. The point of the joke is that the passing Jews were so utterly bound by Law and Ritual that they could not help without violating something or other. Even those Jews who do not believe in an afterlife of punishments and rewards will debate fiercely the legality of sweetening the breath with a peppercorn on a certain day of the week – as if their place in eternity depended on it. In any case, you’ll find out about Jews soon enough. And about us Arabs. Ah, how pleased I am that you have made this detour to see us. It must have cost you a few days of dust and heat.”
“Well, it just seemed a good idea to me to come visit Your Majesty in Petra, so here I am. Syria has done without me for a good few thousand years. Another week won’t matter. Still, it is an important province, our great buffer against the Parthians, and the emperor does me great honour in the appointment.”
“And as Legate you have power, as I think, above that of others in the region? Above that of the Prefect of Judaea?”
“Oh, I dare say. But I’m a Roman Knight from a family of administrators, and I actually like my inherited vocation. I prefer results to power, efficiency to show. I have no idea if Rome is to be immortal, but capable administrators will keep her healthy for a bit.”
“Good administrators…never enough of them. One can easily conquer tribes and nations, but…”
“But not the boredom of sound, essential routine, Majesty?”
“Just so, Governor. Just so. Here’s to administrators! And to the unsung but all-important conquest of detail!”
Without waiting for servants, the King himself poured out more wine, then raised his cup.
After further snacking and light chat, the King’s daughter enquired:
“Governor, how do you find my father’s kingdom? What preconceptions did you bring, and what impressions will you take away?”
“Princess – I am told, madam, that you now prefer that title – I thought to find a town in the middle of a desert. I have indeed seen desert. But as I approached I found a land green and productive, obviously through art, surrounding a city unique in structure and appearance. As for activity, only Rome compares with the colour and jostle of Petra. Yet here it seems more orderly, more courteous. May I ask how you achieve that?”
“We do not achieve it, Lucius Vitellius. We have always been traders, nothing else, at least till recently. Here all must serve and bend to trade. And water. Like true Nabataeans, we are martial to defend our trade; like true Arabs, we are martial to defend our water. We produce because we can, because we have the riches to green our surrounds. But we have no need to produce. Food and all other goods move toward us from places so remote we cannot name them – though of course we know every stick of every spice tree in southern Arabia, since two spices have been the foundation of our wealth. By contrast, your own city originated with farmers, as I understand, who became soldiers. Trade has been forced on you by your very greatness; so there is tension between classes, between merchants, officials, soldiers, producers. Petra does not permit or need trade. She is trade. Trade is our very breath. Do I explain myself well?”
“Madam, I have heard your intelligence praised in Rome. I see the praise was true.”
“Thank you, Governor. A divorced woman of thirty has little hope of being praised for much else.”
King Aretas cut in:
“Let’s not discuss my daughter’s situation now. I know that the Emperor Tiberius favours her former husband, else the divorce would never have occurred. And, Lucius Vitellius, your loyalty to your emperor is known across the world. You need not fear that we will embarrass you with talk of Herod Antipas. Particularly since it touches on the political…”
“Your Majesty, you may speak as frankly as you please. Politics is no new thing to me.”
“I am happy to hear you say it. There are one or two matters we might go over later. Now, your apartments are in readiness, your guards’ quarters have been well stocked and staffed, just the way Romans like, though I know you may prefer them to make an encampment beyond the city…”
“So soon? But you surely did not get word of our arrival till…”
“My dear Lucius Vitellius, you may as well learn now that Nabataea knows where everybody is all the time – and where everybody is going. If I were to tell you exactly how I knew of your itinerary I would have to question the spies who spy on my spies. With the whole eastern world’s trade routes converging right here we have trouble remaining ignorant of anything. Surfeit of information, that’s our problem! I know you Romans have an informant or two right here in Petra, as well as your official representatives, but you can be sure they are themselves well spied upon. But let’s leave them all to it and take relish in each other’s company. There is much I want to show you and discuss with you once you are refreshed and rested.”
King Aretas pulled some levers and a block of sandstone wall swivelled inward. On the inside of the wall, a passageway carved from the cliff.
“Nobody knows how to move the levers but I and my daughter. I suppose I should tell one of my wives or sons, just in case, but Phaeselis will know what to do in the event of my passing…Now, if you’d like to follow me, Lucius Vitellius. We don’t need a light, as I’ll explain.”
“I’m, er, not supposed to do this sort of thing without my guard…”
“As you wish, of course. But I can assure you nobody in Petra could possibly intend you harm. If anything happens to you, the Romans will just send another governor to Syria – and perhaps even to Petra! No, let me assure you, after Piso’s governorship there, and the tantrums of the current Prefect of Judaea, we greatly prefer to have you as a neighbouring ruler.”
“Well, I suppose…”
Lucius Vitellius followed the King down the passage, which was somehow lit, though there was no smell of torches.
“You’ll note that there is adequate light from overhead. It is achieved by adding mirrors to vents. There are also vents below us, puffing up a little moist air. As you know, Petra has engineers who love water, above all. Judging by the descriptions of your great aqueducts, I’m guessing Roman engineers feel the same.”
“For me, there is no finer sight among the things made by men. When I glimpsed some of your aqueducts, Majesty, I felt more…more in civilisation. An aqueduct is beautiful without show or contrivance. And it is for all, even slaves or beasts.”
“Here we keep no slaves, Lucius Vitellius, but we have poor people, at least by Petran standards. When I erect a monument, I feel like a common king. When I inaugurate an aqueduct or irrigation scheme, I feel like an uncommon man.”
“Like a Philopatris? Isn’t that what they call you? Philopatris: Lover of his country?”
“To be frank, I make them call me that…But there’s some truth in it. Ah, here we are! A perfect spot for a discussion. The light will fade soon, and the outside breeze will drop and the vents will be less effective. But we have a good half hour to be comfortable here.”
They had come to a shallow alcove with lush, broadleaf plants in jars, and a simple but exquisite western-style table and stools upon a single rug. Someone had set refreshments on the table. It seemed so strange to be deep within the cliff, yet to have visibility without the stench of torches or candles.
“Here we can confer, Governor, without being spied upon. Not only do I spy on everyone, everyone spies on me! So I have this little alcove, every inch of which is known to me, inside and out. There is no door for a servant to listen at, no other entry or exit. I might have led you into one of our delicious gardens for a chat – but there are now Egyptians who can understand what one says by the movement of the lips, even from a distance. Have your heard of such a thing?…But sit, sit. Let’s have wine.”
After a brief toast, the King continued:
“Of course, you cannot be sure nobody is spying. But since you are a man who will not utter one word of treason, your virtue makes you safe. You are integer vitae, in the words of your poet Horace, and I’ll not try to corrupt you. Though I am curious as to how a Roman can hold such deep allegiance to monarchy, when your whole tradition is republican?”
“Simple, Majesty. A Roman swears allegiance to a commander. To me, an emperor is a commander-in-chief. What matters is my oath, not the imperial office. There were Vitellii who supported the last of the kings in the old days. Back before we had a republic, the Vitellia Gens actually defended Tarquinius Superbus. It is said they kept their allegiance pure. I hope so.”
“Ah, so Roman…and so admirable. It helps me to understand…But on to our business. You have met my daughter. Does it surprise you that Herod Antipas rejected her to marry Herodias, his niece?”
“It…let’s say it would not surprise me if a man like Antipas clung to such a wife. A decorous but intelligent woman can be such a blessing to a man of state. We Romans don’t admit to relying on our wives. We just do. Princess Phaeselis would have been a great match for any busy man.”
“Exactly! And since my daughter fled back home, I know what a blessing she is to this king. She is at this moment conferring with some other visitor to the city – I know not about what, since she is the only creature on earth upon whom I will not spy – or she would be with us now. So close I keep her! Yet Antipas risked my anger in divorcing her. Why, do you think?’
“Well, I have met the other lady – Herodias – in Rome. She has charms. Her daughter Salome is a merry little thing. Perhaps as a man gets to a certain age…who can say, Majesty?”
“Indeed. But what do you know of Herod Antipas?”
“To be frank, along with Your Majesty he has been the one capable ruler in this region, Roman, Jew or other, since the death of the Great Herod. And he has been more temperate, more measured than his father.”
“I agree. So what is his purpose in marrying Herodias, if we discount love?”
“Well…we cannot discount love – or infatuation, at least…”
“Governor, to understand all this one needs to understand the Jews. Herod Antipas has ambitions. His nephew, Herod Agrippa, also has ambitions. Herod Antipas has succeeded in holding his position of tetrarch by co-operating with Rome and being a little bit Roman. He angers the Jews as little as possible, but that is a lot. Jewish disapproval is easily earned. Herod Agrippa hopes to succeed by being so thoroughly Roman that a new emperor – or even the present one – will be happy to see him ruling some part of the region as a Jew more Roman than the Romans.”
“Majesty, these are normal things in such a large empire…”
“Lucius Vitellius, both men are Jews in their minds. Both are capable, with more virtues than most will give them credit for. Both will find again their religion, their Jewish zeal. There is something about this notion of one single god which inflames even a charming libertine like Agrippa. Especially, perhaps, a libertine. Each of these men aspires to be King of the Jews. Not a client king but a true king. They want it at one another’s cost, at Rome’s cost, at my cost, at any cost. And they are capable of conspiring with Parthia to achieve their ends. I cannot fathom the strange zeal of this race, of these Jews, but I know it all too well. Everywhere in Palestine there is talk of a saviour of the people. Why it should come to a head now, I cannot say. The many wandering zealots are the sparks, but the tinder is the Jewish people. For all their divisions and internal rancours, they will follow someone, and soon.”
“Well, Majesty, it is good that I hear all this, and I shall bear it all in mind. Between you and me, the removal of the Prefect of Judaea is the only direct change I can make on my own…”
“I think even Pontius Pilate knows his brutality, dithering and foolery are soon to end, so you are breaking no confidences there. We all end up provoking the Jews, but that man will give them no respect, even when respect costs him nothing. Why must he provoke in the very ways most certain to inflame? It is my experience that a man who hates Jews is a self-hater. What is needed, Lucius Vitellius, is an authority which understands the world and the Jews.”
“I think I know where this is going…”
“And you would be mistaken. We are Nabataeans. We do not want to rule as others do. We want to give the world our goods and influence only, and take some of its coin. Let Romans rule. But let Rome have a partner in Palestine who is not a rival, a brother race to the Jews, but a race which gives and takes, which compromises not against principle but on principle. Petra is a monument to barter and compromise, things which shame the rest of the world but which are as sacred to us as our gods. I am proposing just, consultative rule by Romans, advised not by an ambitious Herod Antipas or even more ambitious Herod Agrippa, but by me. Unlike so many, I have respect for the Jews. I never want to be far from what some deem their madness. When in their company, I sense that nothing is indifferent, that all things matter, not just commerce and pleasure. I sense…I do not know what I sense. Call it respect for their inner fire. But if Rome is to govern the Jews, let me be frequently in its councils. And I ask but for one thing in return.”
“If you do not want to extend your power over Palestine, what can Rome give you?”
“Water! We are the masters of water, yet we have so little. We want territory along the Jordan River. Just enough of the province of Perea. Never mind those who complain that the river is enemy to irrigation through its violent floods. Petra can find a way. Why, if anyone tried to conquer Nabataea, we would only need a day or two to cut off the water and render all conquest worthless. In perhaps a month we would know how to bring the water back. This palace and treasury hold many of the levers for directing water either into the city or down into untraceable caverns and cisterns.
“Give us river water, Lucius Vitellius! Some would say we are historically entitled…but I find all talk of entitlement idle. One takes or one does not. I tell you now, it is my intention to take. Soon, our armies will press west and seize the territory. Rome must not be alarmed. She must know that Jordan water is all we want. Surely you can see that we are Rome’s perfect complement, her most natural ally. We provide without competing, we want no empire of our own. Rome’s empire is our customer.”
“But the emperor will direct me to join forces with Antipas against you. And I shall.”
“This I understand. But if you could persuade the emperor?”
“What shall I tell him? That you invade but do not like invading? And you are yet to explain to me why the divorce was an ambitious move by Antipas. It makes no sense. I now understand that the divorce has given you a…”
“A pretext! Yes! But consider a few things, Lucius Vitellius. Antipas’ great problem is that he is not a Jew! Or not really. Here one must understand the Jews, and, with respect, neither you nor the emperor can possibly understand them and the obsessions which underlie their zeal, which some may call their fanaticism. The Great Herod was an Edomite, scarcely more of a Jew than I. The wife who gave birth to Antipas was a Samaritan, no Jew at all in the eyes of most. Herod Senior became King of the Jews through Roman power. Nothing about him was Jewish except his scarcely observed religion. Try to follow me, if you will…
“Herodias, through her grandmother, has the blood of the true royal dynasty called Hasmonean. Herodias belongs to the heroic line of the Maccabees. The rebel Maccabees!
“And that is why Herod Antipas divorced my daughter, and why he wedded Herodias. It was because he was half-Edomite, half-Samaritan wedded to a Nabataean. No blood of his own – so he married it!
“And when either Antipas or Herod Agrippa – with a trickle of the true blood, like his sister Herodias – conspires with the Parthians and maybe Armenians against Rome it may be too late to avert war. But at least you will understand then what a world of trouble is contained in those words: King of the Jews.”
Beneath the Great Treasury, a little carved river flowed through an airy sandstone cavern. The cavern was lit discreetly by a few torches.
By the side of the gushing rivulet, two lambskins had been placed. A man, roughly clad, was seated on one skin. On the other, Phaeselis was half-reclined, so that she could trail her fingers in the water.
“I can still offer you no wine, sir?”
“Madam, your water is enough.”
“No food? We have food in Petra which has been approved for the strictest Jews.”
“That would not be me. I am observant, certainly, but I don’t go looking for things not to eat. In any case, Princess, I got some bread and dates as I entered the city. Delicious, like your cliff water. I am full and satisfied. After a desert diet, some barley bread is a feast.”
“And you say that this harsh way of life was forced on you by the first Herod?”
“I suppose so. It started that way. When he took to murdering children I was removed to the wilderness. I was an only son, my mother had me very late in life. The family was always terrified something would happen to me. In any case, I stayed in the desert with shepherds, learned desert ways.”
“You are an Essene perhaps?”
“No, no…I spent time with them. Thought about joining them. But I have a sense…a sense that yet another sect with another charter of laws and rituals is not what Israel needs. The Law as it is is enough. People think I’m this-and-that, but I’m a Jew, and that’s all.”
Phaeselis plunged her hand more deeply into the running channel.
“It’s odd. Water for us is like blood. It runs through the body of our kingdom like blood through veins, measured, confined and precious. You take whole flocks of men and immerse them in the Jordan. To an Arab it is so strange. Then the water flows uselessly to an acrid sea: for a Nabataean of Petra, stranger still…Is this immersion not an Essene practice?”
“Oh, we Jews practise purification by water in many ways. All our sects do it one way or another. I do it too. It’s not to depart from our Law, just to keep things simple for the types of people who follow me. And I’m unlikely to find many people far from the river. The river is there, the people are there.”
“But why? Why do you do all this? I know we have our agreement, but that is politics. Why do you spend your life immersing people in water?”
“Because they are people, and have worth. Most of them are told they are no good by those who are far less good. I want to reverse that. A peasant is told he is a sinner for drawing water on the sabbath. Meanwhile, the tetrarch disposes of you, his worthy spouse, to marry his niece. This is not only against the Law, it is two types of foulness. Yet Antipas is mild compared to his father, who set out to murder the first born male in every family, me included.”
“I was wondering…this immersion practice of yours…”
“Baptism, we call it.”
“This…baptism practise. How if some Greeks, or Romans, or even an Arab desired it?”
“Well…I don’t know. It’s hardly something one thinks about. Although…I have a follower, more a partner now, a remarkable man, who seems to feel that our practices and outlook could be extended in ways that don’t seem possible when first considered.”
“All very interesting. Strange – but interesting.”
The Princess now stood, and her guest did likewise.
“Sir, you know you may have what you like from us, as always…”
“Just the usual funds for the poor and for our operations will do, Princess.”
“Indeed. Well…the time draws near. I have never deceived you of my father’s intentions. Our armies will soon advance to the Jordan. We do not ask for your support. We do not expect you to conspire or betray. Merely make clear to the people of the river that we mean them no harm. All existing property and titles will be secure, bar those of Herod, his cronies and the priests who oppress you. The poor will be assisted and will find employment in our agriculture; your religious practices will find a safe home, though we will insist that you tolerate all other cults. We do not even expect you to condemn Herod Antipas publicly…though I think you have already done that, and Antipas knows it.”
“Herod and many other big-wigs have felt the lash of my tongue. I dare say I will soon feel their actual lashes.”
“Not if our plans succeed. And this remarkable follower, your new partner…is he aware of our plans?”
“Oh, he’s long gone to the north, to Galilee.”
“To talk to crowds, find followers and to baptise. When I say he is remarkable, it is for lack of a better word. He is entirely…new. Yes, that’s the word for him. New. I seriously doubt that he will ever be part of any plans. Or that safety enters his mind. I certainly could not control him even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. He is a northerner himself, by the way, from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth. Isn’t Nazareth the butt of Jewish jokes?”
“Undoubtedly, but my friend does not claim mere descent from the Maccabees. He is just a tradesman, but he can claim descent from David, and thus from Abraham.”
Phaeselis raised her eyebrows a little.
“Really, John…not another King of the Jews!”