A Jew in ancient Rome

‘Captivity’ is a serious, ambitious work, a candidate to become a classic of its kind

Alexandria’s great Jewish philosopher Philo (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexandria’s great Jewish philosopher Philo
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“CAPTIVITY,” BY the prominent Hungarian novelist and playwright Gyorgy Spiro, is at once the most fascinating and frustrating novel I’ve read in a long while.
This kilo of print, which concerns Jews under Roman rule in the 1st century CE, is simply dazzling in its depiction of life in Imperial Rome, Jerusalem and Alexandria.
The frustration occurs because the author has been ill-served by both his American publisher and, so it would seem, by his translator.
Restless Books is a new enterprise headed by the estimable Jewish writer Ilan Stavans.
Be that as it may, between its fairly useless endpaper maps, the text of “Captivity” is riddled throughout with typographical errors.
More on that troublesome translation anon.
The story focuses on a rather feckless and innocuous Jew named Gaius Theodorus, otherwise known as Uri, the grandson of a slave but himself a full Roman citizen. Uri has an ungainly frame and very poor eyesight, both of which make him largely unfit for either physical labor or for learning a craft.
What he can do is read – holding the papyrus close to his nose – and that’s fortunate, for Uri thrives on philosophy, theology, history, poetry, and mathematics. In a perfect world our hero would have lived the life of the mind. But the 1st century was far from perfect, and fate has other things in store for Uri.
For reasons that our protagonist – and the reader – can never quite grasp, at age 17 Uri is attached to a delegation of Roman Jews carrying their community’s annual cash tribute to the Temple in Jerusalem. What ensues is a sentimental education for this highly intellectual but deeply naïve young man. That education continues for several years.
We see his foot-slogging journey from Rome to the ports of Ostia and Syracusa, thence to Caesarea, and on to Jerusalem.
In the Holy City Uri is temporarily jailed, sharing a cell with, guess who, two thieves and a pudgy, balding Galilean who has been arrested for disrupting the money changers in the courtyard of the Temple. It’s crosses for those three, but Uri, after a surprise dinner with Pontius Pilate, is shipped off to a farm community in Samaria. On his way to the village he learns of the massacre of Samarian pilgrims at the foot of Mount Gerizim, where they had gathered because of a rumor that the Ark of the Covenant has been unearthed there. More than once, Uri asks himself, “What is going on here?” The reader asks as well.
Before anyone can hazard a reply, Uri is sent next to Alexandria, which at the time had a Jewish community more thriving than that of either Rome or Jerusalem. Here Uri winds up living in the home of the great Jewish philosopher Philo and becomes a student at Alexandria’s renowned gymnasium.
Life proceeds reasonably well until, in a historic episode that foreshadows another that will come nearly 2,000 years later, the city’s Greek inhabitants institute a pogrom, confining the Jews to a walled-in neighborhood and visiting the most ghastly of horrors upon their heads.
Uri eventually returns to Rome, where he is forced into a loveless marriage. He fathers two sons (and several dispensable daughters) who will have rather shocking lives of their own. Otherwise Uri struggles to survive through the reigns of Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and lesser-known but no less murderous and monomaniacal emperors.
He also witnesses the rise of a Jewish cult known as the Nazarenes.
Such a summary makes “Captivity” sound like a risible combination of Lew Wallace’s “Ben-Hur,” Lloyd C. Douglas’s “The Robe” and Voltaire’s “Candide,” but such a conclusion would be mistaken.
Spiro’s prodigious research into Jewish and classical sources – the writer apparently never disposed of an index card – has yielded a novel bursting with information, insight and ideas. Along with Uri’s life journey we get detailed disquisitions on such matters as Jewish economic and religious life, architecture, banking, shipping, coinage, taxation, feasting, gladiatorial combat, chariot races, statuary, astronomy, agriculture, plumbing, catacombs and burial rites, mosaic tiling, frescoes, war machinery, libraries and a host of other topics.
There is also a great deal on the convoluted politics of the time, much of which baffles Uri – and the reader. One gets the impression that Spiro was so immersed in his research that he took it for granted that others would understand as a matter of course the role of a prefect, a tribune, a legate, a strategos, a tetrarch, an alabarch, and so on. Things aren’t much helped by the appearance of hundreds of characters, historical and fictional, with names like Antonia, Antonias, Antipater, Agrippa, Agrippa II, Agrippas, Agrippina, Appius, Apion, Apollos, Aristopbolus, Annius, Antony, Abdoraxus – and that’s just some of the As.
Then there’s the vexing matter of the novel’s vocabulary. I can’t tell if Spiro is responsible for the jarring contemporary terminology in “Captivity” – and I’m not about to learn Hungarian to decide the matter – but the book is full of words that too often shatter this historical fiction’s otherwise formidable verisimilitude – something like breaking the stage’s fourth wall For example, it’s one thing to tell us that farm workers had a midday meal of unleavened bread dipped in vinegar. It’s quite another to refer to this as “lunch.” Both to the eye and the ear, it seems to me, “lunch” just doesn’t sit comfortably in the ancient world.
Things get worse when we encounter locutions like snack, mafia, clueless, nutcase, nixed, jerk, klutz, comfy, hung up, classy, loser, southpaw, bistro, head case, nifty, loopy, plastered (for inebriated), hotfoot it (for rush), and, um, dickhead. If Spiro truly is the author of such linguistic missteps, his translator should have queried each one – vigorously.
Beyond the language, Spiro also drops information that is of dubious historical accuracy.
Did inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem and Alexandria actually ‘lunch’ on noodles, pasta, oranges and grapefruits? Did they have the concept of zero? Did they sometimes measure in stadia and cubits, but also in feet and pounds? Did they have sesterces and prutahs, but also pennies and red cents? Did they actually know to boil polluted water? Did Romans play chess? Did they ship almonds to Lebanon? Did they really have gunboats? Questions like these, along with the frequent intrusive jolts of modern vocabulary, distracted this reader from Spiro’s equally frequent excursions into provocative and thoughtful matters, like the differing religious practices of Jews in Rome, Judea and Alexandria, their varying statuses as slaves, freedmen and citizens of the empire, their notions of fate and afterlife, the persistence of anti-Semitism, and, most disturbingly, the suggestion that in a complex political and economic world, Jews were often their own worst enemies.
The novel also contains numerous passages of admirable prose. One taste: “He was gripped by an odd sensation: it was as if this miraculous Alexandria, this prodigious, phenomenal city were somehow unreal, as if the worms of evanescence were diligently at work destroying its imperishable buildings, made as they were of granite and marble, as if the parasites of Time, those invisible deathwatch beetles which feed on stone, had already done their damage, all that was needed was a moderately stiff northerly breeze from the harbor and the whole lot would come crashing down. What would be left, he wondered? Perhaps one or two slim books and pallid scrolls, not in the Serapeion – that sturdy, solid fortress would be blown away with the rest – but in a few private collections about which he had no knowledge.”
“Captivity” is a serious, ambitious work, a candidate to become a classic of its kind.
But as noted, in this English version, it’s as frustrating as it is fascinating.