Ann Wroe's Remarkable Biography of Pontius Pilate

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Worse still, you can draw strength only from the love you bear for the institution that you serve, from your sense of its tradition, its greatness, its enduring glory. Yet the man who gave you the job is monstrous, as are most politicians: a tissue of lust rising to perversion, insecurity shading to paranoia and self-confidence curdled into megalomania. Your dinner guests gossip of his misconduct. You "listen in the awful, sinking knowledge" that this man has made you what you are, and sometimes his obscenity sickens you...

    Ann Wroe, who edits the American section of The Economist, has written the most remarkable book I have read so far this year: Pontius Pilate (Random House, 412 pages, $25), a biography of a minor politician of the first century. Merely writing the book seems an insuperable challenge. The contemporary written evidence of this man's mere existence might fill three or four typed pages, double-spaced. Even his numerous public works (an aqueduct, military roads and public buildings, all probably padding his pocket?bribes were an accepted prerogative of the job, called unguentaria, ointment money) have vanished. All that remains is a single limestone block found amidst the ruins of Caesarea, bearing a fragmentary inscription with his name and office: PONTIVS PILATVS PRAEFECTVS IVDAEAE.

    Pontius Pilate, fifth Prefect of Judaea, though one of the most famous men in world history, is a difficult subject. As Wroe found, even the evidence of his existence is fragmentary. Though his name has been uttered daily in prayer for nearly 2000 years, even this is a fragment: we do not know his first name, the praenomen, "the name his mother and wife and friends called him by." None of his writings survived even a leaf of a decade's daily reports to the Emperor. He must have made thousands of decisions during his decade in power. We remember only one.

    Flavius Josephus, a Romanized Jew, mentions him not unfavorably in The Jewish War, written four decades after Pilate's departure for Rome. Philo of Alexandria knew Pilate. He savages him in a few pages of his voluminous works. But Philo hated all Romans and the portrait is two-dimensional. Tacitus mentions Pilate once in the Historia. Even that is a fragment: the chapters for the early 30s are missing and may have said much more. Last, the Dead Sea Scrolls call him "the Young Lion of Wrath."

    Starting with these materials, Wroe studied the Apocrypha (the religious works excluded from the official Bible, early victims of consensus reality) and Pilate's hagiographies (the Ethiopians consider him a saint, as the means by which the prophecies were fulfilled and one of the first to believe in the Resurrection: "I believe that you have risen and have appeared to me, and you will not judge me..."). She read the surviving Roman literature from his lifetime or shortly before or after, for a sense of how he would have seen the world; the "fairy tales, legends, travelogues, guidebooks, to follow where his ghost had walked around Europe"; and numerous lives of Christ to see how commentators have seen Pilate over the last two centuries. She viewed or read the modern works in which Pilate appears as a character, including Antonio Ciseri's historicist masterpiece, Ecce Homo, which graces the cover.

    The result is a beautiful, compelling study of the man who ordered the Crucifixion. Pontius Pilate was a professional soldier, probably not much older than 30 when he assumed office, the statutory minimum for a Roman governor. His temperament and character reflect a man not yet smoothed by experience, efficient but not mature, "enthusiastic, sarcastic, nervous, occasionally brutal." The Gospels suggest he had a short fuse. All the sources unite on this: he was a man of action, not reflection. He probably disliked the Jews because they despised him. Even the high priests and Pharisees who dragged Jesus to Pilate's palace in Jerusalem refused to pass its doors, for Pilate and the Romans were unclean. Then there were the rebels, "mavericks, prophets and impostors," the usual cross between bandits, vandals and freedom fighters. Roman policy favored their comprehensive elimination. His predecessor Gratus crucified hundreds; his successor Varus would crucify thousands. Yet, as his foes agreed, he kept the peace for 10 years. The major known messianic disturbance of his rule required only three crucifixions.

    Wroe notes that his clan, the Pontii, was not Roman but Samnite: Italian tribesmen conquered by the Romans in the third century BC. His family was thus probably respectable, but second class, members of the knightly class, special administrators and trouble-shooters, never rising to patrician rank. His cognomen, Pilate, comes from pilatus, "one skilled with the javelin." It meant more than this, of course: his father or he had excelled with a difficult weapon, showing traits of "decisiveness, strength, straightness of aim." Yet, the evidence of his political life shows little of that.

    Perhaps these traits were unnecessary. As Wroe observes, Tiberius preferred unknown quantities in high office. It may have amused him. At best, Tiberius looked for decent behavior and good character. In a pinch, even decent behavior might be dropped: Tiberius appointed Pomponius Flaccus governor of Syria on the strength of a 36-hour orgy, endorsing his commission with: "A good fellow at all hours, day or night!" The Emperor was tall, robust and handsome, slow-spoken, with something of an affected drawl, shrewd, suspicious and devious. He was an alcoholic with a taste for naked swimming-and-sex sessions with minors of both sexes. We are told that some, whom he called his minnows, gave him particular pleasure by swimming up to him underwater and taking him in their mouths.

    The Emperor believed the revelation of his thought a calamity. Dio wrote, "he put many to death for no other offense than that of having grasped what he meant." He trusted no one, and of his 20 or so intimates over his 77 years of life, all but two or three were put to death. In a killing mood, "which lasted for most of the time Pilate was governor of Judaea," he executed people "on the least word of any informer; and informers were everywhere." Perhaps this is why Pilate, as presented by John the Evangelist, flinches when the Jews suggest that if he spares Jesus, "You are no friend of Caesar's." This mediocrity is the hinge of Western history.

    The Evangelists were fond of citing famous events to provide a temporal reference for their story. Thus, at the time of the birth of Jesus, Caesar Augustus commands a census be taken so all the world may be taxed (the head tax, literally "per capita," could be audited only by taking a census). It was unpopular: Copronius, one of the first prefects, crucified Judas the Galilean, a tax protester. So one would remember, or remember hearing from one's father, about the census and then paying the tax. Thus, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest, Herod the king are not merely names or characters in a narrative, but facts. Pilate is even more important, as Wroe observes, "because he stands at the center of the Christian story and God's plan of redemption. Without his climactic judgment of Jesus, the world would not have been saved. Without Christ's death?pronounced by Pilate?there would have been no Resurrection, no founding Christian miracle." She describes the book in her introduction as a collage of biographical scenes, drawing on a diversity of traditions and writings. Perhaps it is now the only way to sketch someone so unknowable. "We long for records, letters, diaries, the memories of friends," Wroe writes.

    As she notes, we cannot presume the Romans to be just like us, save for their clothes and haircuts. We would find them alien. Their sensual appreciation of blood is repellent; their admiration of suicide repugnant; and, as Wroe notes, Marcus Aurelius, among the noblest men who ever lived, considered putrescence a thing of beauty. Yet, we know one thing that intrigued Pilate as it does us. At the trial of Jesus of Nazareth as presented by St. John the Evangelist, the defendant and judge endure a frustrating exchange. Pilate asks direct questions. When Jesus answers at all, he is responding on a different plane. The two men are simply not talking about the same things. At last, Jesus states that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Pilate replies with a question so strange that you know he said it: "What is truth?" Or, in Greek, then still the working language of the eastern empire, "Ti estin aletheia?" Wroe points out the subtle difference. Pilate is speaking of a narrow, particular truth: the truth of facts and testimony and evidence. But Jesus had referred to truth as "i aletheia"?absolute truth. Wroe observes, "Jesus was referring to a truth that was overpoweringly different: as different, Polybius had once said, as when a galley rower, trained on skeleton ships on dry land, suddenly felt in the live ocean the pull of the oar and the craft's response."

    And Pilate? Perhaps, as an academician, he believed the way of wisdom was acknowledging the uncertainty of knowledge, and he felt the claim of Jesus was recklessly certain. Or perhaps, as Kazantzakis wrote, the Roman believed in nothing at all, "neither gods nor men, nor Pontius Pilate."

    What is truth? The question is relevant to his biography, too. In writing the life of a man nearly 2000 years dead, who disappears from the record after his recall from office, one is not transcribing a life. One seeks the truth, or, at least, the truths, with a certain resolute desperation.

    Yet Wroe gracefully presents the alternative theories of Pilate's background (the Italians claim him for a Spaniard and the French and English claim him for a German) and the essential moments in his career without stalling her narrative. Her prose is clear, supple and quite beautiful. She captures the texture of power, particularly the confusion and exhaustion stemming from its exercise, with clarity and common sense. Anyone who has wielded limited authority has been there: to be tired, confronted by someone who wants something very badly, about which you care little save as it may affect your mission, but to grant it is unjust. And yet if you give it to them, they will leave you alone. She brilliantly juxtaposes images spanning two millennia, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to David Bowie, from 19th-century academic painters to modernist playwrights, with a dexterous ease that betrays intellectual power and integrity.

    Pontius Pilate is impressive, concise and fast-moving, with eloquence that naturally flows from the grandeur of her material rather than a rhetorician's self-conscious flourishes. Ann Wroe has not written a book about Pilate but about all our Pilates: how each generation projects on the tabula rasa that is this man our image of how he lived and saw the world. Yet somehow she gives us the sense of "a man actually walking on a marble floor in Caesarea," a narrative pieced from a thousand fragments into the outline of a life.