Chapter 1 – Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Palestine
There was no wind and the fog was thick upon a calm sea. Then from the midst of the fog, a ship emerges like a ghostly apparition. The ship was a Roman galley, a long warship propelled by three rows of oars along the length of its beaten up hull. It had two masts but the sails were furled because of the lack of wind. Protruding from the bow just inches above the waterline is a bronze-sheathed battering ram. The ship was silent except for the usual background sounds made by almost 200 rowers and the vibrating taut ropes that holds the masts up. Then from the stern, a loud horn sounded with two short burst and a long steady blow until it faded down. From a distance another horn blew, then another even farther, several more but fainter. There were other ships out there in the fog communicating their location. As the sun rose higher, the dense fog dissipated and more ships became visible. It was a fleet of twenty ships of varied sizes three of which were of the heavy trireme galley warships.
On the prow of the first galley, stood a man in his late thirties. He was clearly a military man. His armor with its chain-link suit and six intricate molded circlets embedded on his leather-strap vest indicates that he was not a low ranked legionary but an officer. Point of fact, his helmet with its white horse-hair plume arcing left to right says that he is a Centurion of senior standing which elevates him to be in command of three cohorts which makes up of 900 men. In the Roman Legion, a regular Centurion whose helmet would have either a red horse-hair plume or red feathers would only command of about 100 men. To this soldier, it also means his elevated rank points to a special assignment. And it is to this special assignment that he was focused on, deep in thought… in the past.
It was 2 months ago, in the garden of his father’s estate some 30 miles south of Rome overlooking the sea, that a modest ceremony is being held for him.
“It has been bequeath to Centurion Cornelius Metellus the advance rank of Primus Pilus for his successful and long service with the 9th Legion who vanquished the Basque marauders in northern Spain,” his father read the scroll with his chest puffed up high in pride. “No father can be so proud.” He held up the scroll again and sighed.
As the family and relatives retreated back into the coolness of the house, his father led Cornelius to a corner of the pavilion next to a babbling fountain.
“Well, my son, you have gotten your wish after all.” Cornelius’ father said quietly. “Palestine!” He said regretfully.
“Originally, father, it is called Judea. Palestine which means the land of the Philistines was the name originally given by the early Roman conquerors to mock the Judeans some forty years ago.”
“You sound like Jacob your ol’ tutor,” his father chuckled quietly. “Speaking of which…” His father then turns towards a large column engulfed with clinging vines. “You can come out now, Jacob, from behind that pillar where I know you were hiding.”
A short gray-haired bearded man dressed in a long brown homespun tunic gingerly stepped away from the ivy covered pillar and slowly approached them then bowed before them. “Forgive me, master, but I felt that I should be close by…”
“Yes, yes Jacob,” his father said, laughing out loud. “I was about to tell him.”
“Cornelius? It was strongly suggested to me…”, he gestured to Jacob whose head is still bowed on the ground. “…that you must not journey to the most eastern edge of our vast empire lacking knowledge of what you’ll need to be successful in your venture there. Your esteem teacher of many years felt that since he is a Jew after all that you would need his vast…,” he gestured with hands spread far apart rolling his eyes up. “…wisdom.”
“Frankly, Cornelius, If I were you…”, winking at him. “I wouldn’t take him at all!”
“Oh Master!” Jumps up on his feet.
His father laughed out teasingly, “It’s true. When I first rescued you from the debtor’s prison in Athens some 30 odd years ago, even after I paid for your debts, you had the audacity to ask if I would also purchase back all your books as well. You were not a very good slave. To this day, I still wonder if I invested wrong.”
Jacob’s face had that dramatic expression of dejection. Of course, Cornelius heard this same story repeated so many times.
“It was your good fortune that you were classically trained in Greek. For if it were not so, I would never have kept you and trusted you to the education of all my children.”
Cornelius remembered too well how Jacob would teach them Greek history, literature and the language itself, but he would also regaled them with fantastic stories of his people and their relationship with their one God. Though his siblings were entertained by his stories, it was Cornelius who wanted to learn more. So, after gaining his father’s permission, Jacob started to teach him first Hebrew so that he can delve into very same books that his father had purchased back from the debtors. The books were actually a cherished and revered collection of holy script of the Israelites that dated back thousands of years. These Scriptures were usually restricted to the priesthood. When Cornelius asked him, how was it that Jacob had a copy for himself. Jacob told him that the he was once a scribe, a member of the priesthood charged with the copying of the Scriptures. Since there was no more Synagogue in Athens back then, he kept them.
His father placed his hand on Jacob’s frail shoulder. “I will truly miss you around here.” He then turns to his son. “Cornelius. The paperwork is complete. Jacob, as requested, is now legally your bond servant.”
“Father… thank you”, Cornelius was not altogether surprised. He and Jacob often spoke of it. When Cornelius found out about 2 Legions being formed to bolster the already exhausted and dwindled 12th Legion at the region of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. He put in his papers to join them. Jacob, on the other hand, wheedled and cajoled his father to accompany him back to his homeland.
“Come now, Jacob. Leave us alone for awhile. We have much to discuss.”
Jacob smiled and bowed. Then he shuffled back to the house.
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