Petronius and Longinus - what happens to deserting Romans?
The Court Martial of Petronius & Longinus - an Easter Play for 5 men.
By Myles Hildebrand 2012
Legate, Leader of the Roman troops in
an older military man, is in a white robe seated at a small table, looking at
parchments, earthern jug of wine and cup on the table. Some military objects around the table,
possibly a purple cloth. Optio –
his assistant, a junior officer enters with more papers for the table and
carrying a cudgel/thick stick. Jerusalem
They’ve got them ready, Legate.
The deserters. We can give them a fair trial before they are given the fus-tuar-ium by cudgel within the hour. (He shakes his stick happily.)
Legate: (rubs his head with stress and frustration)
I’ve had a bad week. (shuffles papers) I’ve got riots, demonstrations, the clergy are being a pain, someone vandalised their fancy curtain... I tell you, I’m going to destroy that annoying temple one day... we had that big thunderstorm on Friday, people keep feeling earthquakes, and I’ve even got reports of ghosts walking around in the daytime and scaring their relatives... Anyways... who deserted?
A guard of soldiers - they were assigned to guard a rich guy’s tomb for a week and deserted. It’s that Yosef from Harimathea, you know, Ramatha, and he paid well, so I’m a little nervous to tell him the guard deserted and the tomb got cleaned out.
Wait, so HE wasn’t in the tomb?
No, he paid for the body of some crazy street preacher to be put in his tomb, otherwise we’d have just tossed him in the dump. Yeshua something or other?
Didn’t The Big Boss Pilate…
(points his thumb upwards)
let him go on Friday?
No, no, that’s Yeshua Barabbas, the bandit. Don’t worry, we got a plan to get that one back. He’s already had one strike – we can’t be seen as soft on crime.
Yeshua, Miriam, Yosef... its always the same names with these people. So what did we get that one, the dead one, on?
Inciting armed insurrection and blasphemy... one of his guys flipped on him and we found him with a group and they had 2 long fishing knives... so it counted as short swords... so we could make the charge stick. And some of the locals had it in for him too, you know, their blasphemy thing they’re always on us about...
Sigh. You’d think that people with only one god would have few religious disputes. Well, they’ll like us when we win their hearts and minds. In my command, everyone gets a last statement. Bring them in.
Optio leaves and re-enters with First Soldier and Second Soldier , hands lightly bound with rope, and their captain, the Prefect, Captain of the regiment, who holds a spear pointed at them. The Prefect seems to be enraged and eager for the execution, the soldiers are sheepish around him, lean away, and look like they’ve been beaten.
Where are the others? A standard guard duty is 8 soldiers.
They died, resisting arrest.
I thought they turned themselves in.
Hey, accidents happen. They went… crazy…
Legate: (raps the desk with his knuckle)
Let the court martial begin. You two are charged with the crimes of desertion and dereliction of duty, which carries an automatic death penalty, as you have failed in your oath to the corps. How do you plead?
Soldiers look at Prefect first who shakes his spear at them.
First and Second Soldier: (together)
“Uh, guilty Legate.”
Can you give any account of your actions for the record?
The two soldiers look at each other and their Prefect/Captain and recite in unison:
“We were set upon by a large number of armed militia and we ran away in cowardice. We are a disgrace to our unit and are ready to accept our punishment.”
They cast their eyes downward. The Prefect smiles and nods. The Legate gives them a doubtful glance.
“I find your statement less than convincing.
“Well, you heard them. We can have the executions immediately. I will put myself on half-rations as punishment for training such cowards. Thank you for your time, Tribune....”
“Wait a minute.” (looks at the papers before him on the desk)
“Petronius Germanicus, you served with distinction in
where you even received the grass laurel for saving the 3rd legion.”
“And Decanus Titus Longinus, a barbarian, but you have served 19 years faithfully, only 6 years from full citizenship and retirement, respected by all your men under your command in the guard, and you spend your last day on earth lying to your legate?”
“You both have sworn the oath to Jupiter and Disciplina to serve faithfully unto death, and I’ve seen you at the required Mithran sacrifices... and honestly Titus... you sure can roast that sacrificial bull deliciously...”
“Thank you, Legate.”
“So, the facts are, you were posted as guard, 8 of you, to guard a new tomb, for a week...
(looks at Optio, who nods)
“so what happened?”
First Soldier: (unconvincing as a boy lying about being caught raiding the cookie jar)
“We ran away.”
“Yeah, people... with swords....”
“Lots of them.... big swords... dozens.... so we ran...”
“We ran back to our captain to report…”
“Did you fight back?”
First Soldier (together) Second Soldier
“Well which is it?”
Second Soldier: (looks at Prefect)
“We’re not sure.”
Legate: (to Optio)
Optio, have you been to the site?
What is there?
Oh, nothing much, the remnants of their camp which I had brought back here… open land, flowers, tomb with bandages and oil bottles, and some women and men... just hanging out.
But no signs of struggle or bloodshed?
No. No signs at all. Looks like they just ran out and left everything.
I thought you said the tomb was cleaned out.
Well, the body is gone, but the linens and other stuff is still there.
So the grave-robbers only took the body, took the time to strip it down, and left the valuable stuff behind. Those are the dumbest thieves I ever heard of.
(to the 2 soldiers)
Look... you deserted your post, we know it, you know it, and you know we’re going to kill you, but why not spend your last hour in the truth? You swore an oath once, and if you tell me the absolute truth, I swear I will end your life quickly myself… (pats his sword)
Legate raises a stern finger of warning to the prelate.
“I swear by Jupiter and the Emperor your death will be painless – but I want the truth.”
“But I don’t think you can handle...”
“Don’t say anything...”
“Ok, let’s go through the options: you got really drunk, it’s boring on guard duty, I understand, and you all passed out, and someone cleaned out the tomb...it’s ok, others can learn from your bad example.... that’s it right?”
“Ok, so this street preacher hung out with low class women, so one of them comes out to...
bribe you...hey, I understand... maybe the tomb owner changes his mind and asks you get the body out of his tomb... but that was your mistake, because you still will be executed for disobeying …”
“I didn’t happen that way.”
“Shut up, Petronius.”
“Look, I’m not entering Hades with this on my head. When that preacher guy got sentenced by Pilate, I was in the group that... softened him up for execution.”
“Standard practice sir.”
“So, we put one of the imperial robes on him and beat him and…”
“Wait a minute, you put the Imperial colour PURPLE on a criminal and then beat him? What were you acting out?”
“No, not the purple ones, we had a scarlet red imperial guard robe handy, and I got some good licks in
(mimics hitting with a club)
“and he just kept looking at me....”
Optio: (waves his hand dismissively)
“Yes, yes, guilt and regret, a soldier’s life is hard.”
“Well, we took him and the others out to
and the crucifiers do their thing... and you wait... and it takes awhile for them to die... and
“I’d just like to say I didn’t take anyone’s clothes... I just think that’s plebian....”
“Well you stabbed him…”
“Hey, there’s a storm and the earth is doing aftershocks and we’re breaking the legs so they choke faster ..”
“And the guy in the middle is already dead so I stabbed him just to be sure.”
Legate (rubs his head as if has a headache)
“I’m sure these details are fascinating to someone, but could we get on with it....”
“So our guard gets ‘volunteered’ to be on guard duty, for a week, watching over the dead guy in the rich tomb so no one takes anything... and it’s not as good as the barracks but it’s like camping and so days go by and nothing happens…”
“Until someone comes with free wine and a lady and you got drugged and...”
“Well, I was hoping for that to relieve the boredom… but then... um... the stone moved.”
You moved the stone?
No.... took a couple of us to move it and the last thing we’d want to do is get near a decomposing corpse in this forsaken desert... but, I don’t know, the earth shook a bit and the stone rolls away by itself…
“It wasn’t by itself.”
“I’m telling you... I saw a glowing person thing, pushing it.... with one hand… and then it turned and looked at me... and it said, in a deep voice”
(say it like Swartzenegger)
“I just vant to know one ting... which one of you hit heem?”
Second Soldier: (sighs, resigned to his fate, speaks sadly)
I just heard a loud... noise of some kind or other... and there was a light in the cave, I swear a light… and I saw the shadow of the dead guy, all wrapped up…. And then the shadow sat up… so I decided to... strategically retreat back to the barracks and tell the Prelate. I figured the dead guy didn’t need guarding anymore….
I wasn’t looking in the cave…. But I really didn’t like my, or ‘our’ chances against the glowy guy, I mean it could be a herald of the gods, like Hermes, and our contracts don’t say anything about fighting gods. So we all followed our Decanus here back to base.
Everyone pauses in silence.
“That’s…. the…. dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Prelate is making crazy signs at his forehead.
“I tried so hard... I trained them well Legate…. I really did… there was no sign of mental weakness in them before… and I tried to beat some sense into them…”
Legate: (rubbing head as if he has the mother of all headaches)
“I hate this week. I hate this country. I hate these ungrateful people.
(to Optio) Go get some more cudgels.” (Optio leaves)
“You promised a quick death.”
“I owe nothing to a crazy person… or a foolish liar. I... I don’t understand why you would say you retreated from a god in order to cover up your laziness and desertion. It won’t save you from execution. You could have died with the truth on your lips, instead of insanity.”
It is the truth, Legate. I would give anything for it not to be, but it is. I would have fought a dozen men alone for my honor and for my Prelate
(looks at Prelate)
... but some things are bigger than us. Someone at the barracks said this street preacher said his kingdom was not of this world...
I’d vote yes on that.
Optio re-enters with a coin purse, jingling with coins inside.
We got a visit... from a friend.
Well, this day is looking up. A good beating and bribe sure lighten the mood.
Our local friends with all the scrolls... yeah... there’s a story running around that the crucified man came back from the dead and they would really like us to say it was the disciples who attacked the guard and stole the body and that’s why we can’t find it. They want us to say the guards escaped it all.
But they didn’t escape – they’re right here.
Well, they want people to say the body was stolen. They seem really freaked out about it. So we can’t kill them.
But if they let the body be stolen, they must die.
Legate: (*starts counting off on his fingers)
They want us to say that a bunch of losers who only had two sword-like objects last week between them, who couldn’t rescue their buddy from arrest and trial, who don’t have money to buy swords or mercenaries with, they couldn’t get the crowd to release their buddy when they had the chance, that these goofballs took on a Roman guard of 8 men, fully armed and armoured, on open ground, and defeated them, and drove them off, with absolutely NO blood spilt on the ground from either side, and yet, we didn’t punish the guards, with death, which they deserve, because they want the guards to tell the cover story of getting out-done by untrained fishermen?
Optio: (shakes his head)
No wonder the people don`t trust us. The glory of Roman is at stake here.
If we go along with that cover story, people will ALWAYS know something funny went on at that tomb.
It wasn`t funny at the time.
We could still kill these two. Put their bodies in the garden and say the guy’s followers did it. Or the guy was faking death, and he snuck up behind the soldiers and killed them when they were dozing…
Too many people are there now, and they saw the bloodless ground and the empty tomb. We need witnesses to the stolen body story, which means we can’t kill them…. Which would be standard procedure…. They`d have to not tell their stupid rolling stone story again... (shakes his cudgel, then the coin bag at the soldiers.)
I… I can live with that.
You`ll do it somewhere else. You will immediately leave the barracks, take your year’s pay from the paymaster, you lose all your years of service, you will never be a citizen of Rome. We will not pursue you... but I would encourage being elsewhere. You are now an escaped coward….
Thank you Legate. (bows and walks off)
Hey guys, guess what... I actually bravely retreated from fifty fierce mercenaries....
Legate: (to First Soldier)
And as for you…
First Soldier: (he’s silent a moment then crosses his arms in front of himself defiantly)
Glowy guy. Stone moved.
Legate: (rolls eyes)
Well, since I can`t kill you, I`m going to transfer you to Rome for school....
“Aye… gladiator school...”
Prelate leads First Soldier, groaning out loud. Optio hands Legate the coins. Optio smiles.
First execution I ever attended where the condemned lived...
“Or maybe the second? Don`t worry, no one will be talking about this in a week or two... even the ghosts will be forgotten... and all that “love is stronger than hate” stuff never lasts....”
Both walk out.