by Renny S. Gehman
The scourge lashes; its metal ends whistle in the wind whipping through the Roman courtyard. Lucius whimpers. He wonders if Quintus hears him. He’d only glimpsed his old friend in the crowd when they’d led him out, but he feels his prayers. He knows Quintus is praying for him—but also for Marcus. Marcus—the one who couldn’t see. Marcus Valerius—his greatest regret.
Another strike. Lucius gasps, then grits his teeth, as red blood splatters. His back must look like a large, raw isicia patty. The thought takes Lucius back almost twenty years.
Newly promoted to centurion and clutching his vītis, his centurion’s staff, he’d strolled up the Via Marina into Pompeii, and collided with another soldier emerging from one of the shops lining the street. Both vītēs fell to the ground. Marcus retrieved them, apologized, and introduced himself. Since both were headed to the Forum, they’d walked together. Then they realized they shared more than rank: both were headed to buy some isicia. A chance meeting became a friendship. And when they found themselves assigned to the same cohort, he and Marcus became brothers united by war and loyalty to the Emperor.
Another strike brings Lucius back to his agonizing present. He wonders how long he can avoid screaming. Another. Are his men watching? They’re not his anymore; he’s no longer a centurion. Someone else commands them. Flavius? He hopes it’s Flavius, his newest brother in faith.
Again, he seeks refuge in memories of pleasanter times.
After Pompeii, Lucius was assigned to oversee crucifixions in Judaea; Marcus to guard the prefect, Pilate. Judaea was a hardship assignment, and worse than they’d feared. Lucius dreaded every execution he supervised; the brutality of crucifixion took its toll on executioners as well.
Marcus’ challenge, however, had been political. Pilate walked a fine line between his emperor and the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. Marcus was Pilate’s instrument of peace—a sheathed sword which threatened by its presence. While Lucius fought bloody memories at night, Marcus tossed and turned with frustration.
But one tumultuous Jerusalem Passover season changed everything: Lucius saw Jesus die while Marcus remained at the palace, awaiting orders. The day seemed like any other as his men nailed criminals to their crosses. Most were passive and spiritless, too exhausted from scourging to resist a group of armed, trained soldiers. That day, though, one stood out. Lucius, forewarned by Marcus of the political turmoil surrounding Jesus’ arrest, watched his soldiers lay Jesus on a cross and secure him. Lucius had been fascinated by Jesus’ calm spirit.
His own scream returns Lucius to the present, “Marcus! Stop!” He prays for release—better to die from flogging than in a sack of snakes tossed into the Tiber for treason. Better to die than watch Marcus’ hatred—so different from what Lucius had seen in Jesus’ eyes.
His men nailed the sign proclaiming Jesus “King of the Jews” above his head, while Lucius kept a close eye on the crowd. This group seemed different; their hatred was directed at the bloody figure on the cross instead of their Roman occupiers. Puzzled, he’d turned to watch as they raised the cross when he’d met Jesus’ eyes. He was startled to see, not fear; pain, yes, but not hatred. Lucius struggled to understand what he’d seen, realizing finally it was compassion. The same compassion Jesus showed the thieves on the flanking crosses—even the one who’d mocked him. While his soldiers gambled for Jesus’ seamless robe, Lucius’ gaze returned to the naked man on the middle cross. He listened as Jesus spoke to his mother, and told the one thief that he would join him today in Paradise. Lucius knew the rumors claiming Jesus was the prophesied Jewish Messiah. Yet here he was, dying, asking his god to forgive Lucius and his men because they didn’t know what they were doing. As the hours passed, Lucius realized Jesus was different. That dark afternoon Lucius saw through the mockery to admit…this man was the Son of God.
Again, the whip whistles; Lucius no longer hears his screams. “Marcus, Marcus, please…” Why won’t the Lord grant him his desire? His vision blurs, but he can see Quintus praying at the crowd’s edge. Risking Marcus’ anger, Quintus would stay until…
The days following the crucifixion were hectic for Marcus. He’d struggled to explain to Pilate how Jesus’ body was stolen from a sealed tomb on his watch. Lucius swore Jesus was dead before they’d released his body to Joseph of Arimathea, and one of his men testified he’d thrust his sword into Jesus’ side as confirmation. There’d been no time for the two centurions to talk. Lucius had followed up eyewitness testimonies claiming Jesus was alive and moving from Jerusalem to Emmaus to the Sea of Galilee. Then, he’d met Quintus. Also a centurion, Quintus was older and came to faith during Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Lucius listened, fascinated, as Quintus recounted how Jesus healed his servant—from a distance. Quintus—who was so full of faith that Jesus himself had marveled at him—answered Lucius’ questions, confirmed his observations, and guided him to faith.
The blur becomes a red mist. Is his eyesight failing or are his eyes covered in blood? He remembers how Jesus bled. Lord, how can I reach my friend if I’m dead? Forgive me, Father, for not being a better friend to Marcus.
How Marcus laughed when Lucius told him he believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. “And I suppose he walked on water, too! Next, you’ll claim that Zeus’ thunderbolts are what made the sky darken and the Jewish Temple’s curtain to rip.”
But his laughter faded when Lucius said, “Marcus, I’m telling you. He was different. I mean, I was there…”
Marcus cut him off. “I heard you called him the son of God. Which god? You’re no better than the Jewish rabble.” He’d stormed off, leaving Lucius staring at Marcus’ abandoned isicia. The cooling meat matched Lucius’ increasing chill.
Now the Roman sun scalds his mangled back; Lucius tenses, bracing against agony. But misery feels familiar; Marcus’ scorn had lashed his heart like the whip. He even hears it in the cadence, counting the lashes. “Forty-seven, forty-eight…” Marcus’ voice, counting off the misery of his friend. His former friend.
As Lucius grew in faith, Marcus withdrew, but their duties still forced them together. Lucius continued his prayers for Marcus but met with other believers in their homes. There he heard Peter’s tale of desertion and restoration, gaining hope when he’d learned Jesus’ brothers refused to believe until after the resurrection.
Marcus taunted Lucius with the rumors of a stolen body—until Lucius said, “Your men guarded the tomb, Marcus. So who allowed the body to be stolen? How did they get by your guard?”
For the first time, Marcus placed his left hand on his sword in warning, a gesture Lucius might have ignored if not for the hardness in Marcus’ eyes. Then Marcus turned away. Their friendship survived, but it was never the same.
Lucius spent his remaining time in Jerusalem questioning the disciples, and many eyewitnesses. The more he’d heard, the more he’d believed.
Not Marcus. The more he heard, the greater his suspicions. At first, Lucius thought it was because Marcus was bitter. After all, he’d failed to guard Jesus’ tomb. Lucius understood. Marcus hated being Pilate’s scapegoat. Rome decided to downplay the whole situation in Judaea to avoid adding credence to the Jesus story and assumed official neutrality. That allowed Marcus to rebuild his career.
So Marcus became zealous about controlling riots; he tracked the disciples, disrupted their meetings, and swept up believers when their gatherings incited Jewish reaction.
Lucius begged him to leave them alone. “Marcus, please, they’ve done nothing to Rome!”
But Marcus ignored Lucius’ pleas for restraint, sneering, “You’re just covering your guilt at crucifying someone you think was innocent. Sentimental drivel has no place in a soldier of Rome.” He’d spit on the ground and walked away, leaving Lucius staring helplessly at his back.
That night, he’d shared his concern with Quintus.
“Lucius, you can’t force faith.”
“Leave it alone for a while. The Lord’s in control. Just keep being his friend.
How? Lucius wondered.
Then the three centurions were transferred back to Rome. There, Quintus had suggested they spend less time together to give Lucius more time with Marcus, now the cohort’s primus. Hoping to rebuild their friendship, Lucius offered to serve as Marcus’ second; Marcus seemed grateful.
The noise surrounding him grows. Lucius strains to turn his head, but pain wrenches another moan from his lips. He opens his eyes—and meets Marcus’ gaze. How could his friend look so…happy?
Then Marcus’ lips move. Traitor, he mouths silently.
Lucius’ eyes close again, but this time against a greater agony than the torture radiating from his back.
At first, it seemed Lucius’ attempt to restore their friendship succeeded. He and Marcus were occupied training their men, inspecting arms and uniforms, while Quintus retreated gracefully into the background. He and Lucius only met at worship.
As each day passed, Lucius’ concern increased. At first, it was the rough, brutal tactics Marcus increasingly embraced, his vītis serving more like a cudgel than staff.
“Easy, Marcus,” Lucius objected one morning when Marcus raised his arm for the sixth time. “The men are…” his voice trailed off at Marcus’ sneer.
“You’re just going soft.” Marcus’ tone implied more, but what, Lucius could only guess.
Quintus and Lucius still met for prayer in Lucius’ quarters—only once a week, but enough so Marcus noticed. Marcus never mentioned Quintus except in connection with their duties, but Lucius noticed Marcus’ cruelty spiked when Quintus was involved. Quintus got the worst assignments, the toughest, most impossible duty, and the most useless, disobedient men. Still, Marcus held him to impossible standards.
“Where do you think you are? Back in Judaea?” He gestured at the first line of the Century. “Your men can’t even stand in formation.”
Lucius had spoken up, “Marcus, ease off. There’s nothing…” He’d halted at the Primus’ expression, suddenly perceiving the truth: Marcus was jealous of Quintus. And anything he said would make it worse.
It escalated one night when Marcus overheard Quintus and Lucius praying for him. Marcus exploded.
“Colluding behind my back? Just who do you think you are? I’m the Primus!”
Lucius extended his hand, seeking to ease the tension, but Marcus had slapped Lucius’ hand aside. Lucius suspected only their past kept Marcus’ sword sheathed.
Instead, Marcus turned on Quintus. “You, get your gear.”
Quintus wordlessly followed Marcus’ order.
“Now take it down to the first contubernium’s tent and find yourself a cot. You’re their new decanus.
Lucius sucked in his breath but saw Quintus’ minute head shake and didn’t say anything.
Unfortunately, Marcus saw it, too. He turned on Lucius. “And you, too, out. Rejoin your men.”
The pain from Lucius’ back is overwhelming, but his feeling of failure is worse. Why can’t Marcus see? Why won’t he see? In agony, Lucius writhes against his shackles, Make him see, Lord! He sags and his wrist restraints tighten, cutting into his skin. How can he notice so small a hurt compared to his back? He lifts his head again, trying to see Marcus’ face, wishing he had more time. Lucius wonders when he’ll die. It can’t be too much longer, Father. He’d give his life to save Marcus’, but his death will save no one. Only Jesus can do that.
Marcus had forced their final argument, demanding his entire cohort renew their oaths to the Emperor—not the simple Sacramentum Lucius had pledged before, but the newer version declaring Caesar divine.
“Marcus, I can’t…”
“Address me as Primus, Centurion,” Marcus glared.
Lucius inclined his head. “Primus. I will gladly pledge to Caesar again, but I can’t take the oath that Claudius is God.”
Lucius shook his head, now sure Marcus had done this on purpose. “No, sir. I can’t,” he repeated.
“Traitor!” Marcus’ voice held triumph. “Seize him!”
As his soldiers—not his any longer—had dragged him away, Marcus’ smiling face was all he saw.
His mind struggles to feel, while time seems to expand. Each blow seems longer than the last, as if his body is holding onto the pain. He remembers how he’d struggled during his court-martial to reason with his friend.
“Primus…Marcus…please, you know I’m loyal to the Empire. Why are you doing this?”
“Say the oath. Admit Caesar is divine.” Marcus repeated his demand.
“I can’t. Marcus, please, I’m your friend. Don’t do this.”
His friend’s reply had been to seize Lucius’ vītis from the table and strike him across the face. Then he’d broken it in two and tossed the pieces to the floor. “You are condemned to be scourged a hundred times, tied in a sack with ten vipers, and dumped in the Tiber.”
The last words Lucius had heard were, “Now, get him out of here.”
Lucius again searches with fading eyesight for one last glimpse of his friend; death slides closer. One last prayer for Marcus; one dying wish: Save him, Lord! The whip cracks and he hears Marcus say, “Toss his body in the Tiber, anyway.”
Now all Lucius sees is a growing light. It’s so bright he can barely make out his replacement as he salutes and moves to stand beside Marcus. His men grab Lucius’ arms and legs and begin to drag him away. As the light grows and spreads, Quintus steps out of the crowd to stand at Marcus’ other side. Squinting through the blood and now flaming light, Lucius sees his friend nod. Quintus will continue to pray and labor to bring Marcus to the Lord. The light is so bright, Lucius wonders how the men can see.
Then, the glow resolves into human form. Looking up, Lucius sees Jesus point and hears him say, Look. And then he hears, Well done.
Renny S. Gehman graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Texas in English/Creative Writing at the age of 67—fifty years after she began at Michigan State. She has had articles published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Age is Just a Number, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Today’s Christian Woman, and The North Texas Review as well as Guideposts’ “Angels on Earth”. She is currently producing a series of devotional articles based on the Psalms and posted daily on her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/renny.gehman
Originally from New York City, she now lives in Gunter, Texas, with her husband of 50+ years. She has two married daughters and six grandchildren. In addition to writing, singing in her church choir, and serving as program director for her church’s missions organization, she is the Office Manager for a local landscaping company. She served for many years as a church librarian, managing and helping to computerize collections of over 8,000 volumes and also starting libraries in two churches. She likes to garden, birdwatch, read and cook—when she’s not writing.