A literary sensation in Hungary, György Spiró’s book is a gripping page-turner, a masterful historical epic, and a riotous road novel. Set in the tumultuous first century A.D., the novel recounts the adventures of Uri, a bookish, hapless, young Roman Jew. – Forthcoming from Restless Books.
Frustrated with his feeble-bodied son, Uri’s father sends the young man to the Holy Land to bolster the family’s prestige. Suspected of spying in Jerusalem, Uri is imprisoned by Herod and shares a cell with Jesus (whom Spiró reimagines as a balding, middle-aged man) immediately before his crucifixion. Later, in cosmopolitan Alexandria, Uri undergoes a radical spiritual and carnal awakening before barely escaping a pogrom. Back in Rome, he joins the fight for justice on behalf of Alexandria’s butchered and displaced Jews. The campaign embroils Uri in the murderous, conspiratorial, and sex-fueled world of Imperial politics and gives him a front-row seat to the megalomaniacal reign and downfall of the emperor Caligula.
With the scope and pathos of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, and the sly satire of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Captivity is equal parts Homeric epic, brilliantly researched Jewish history, and picaresque adventure, combined into an unforgettable dramatic tale of fate, family, and fortitude.
[Informed by his father that he is being sent from their Jewish diaspora community in Rome on a religious journey to Jerusalem, bookish teenager Uri hopes he sees evidence of paternal love long withheld because of his poor eyesight.]
“You’re setting off for Jerusalem the day after tomorrow!” Uri woke up with a start. His father was standing over him. Uri raised himself up on his rags, picked up the scroll that had slipped fromhis hand to the floor, and looked up apologetically from where he was sitting. An awkward smile played across his lips, as it did whenever he was caught doing something, and he always was caught, even if it wasn’t anything bad.
His father fidgeted a bit in the gloomy nook, the gray February afternoon throwing light from the yard on his stern bearded features, his prominent cheekbones, his deeply set eyes; the little square thrown onto the wall happened to be gleaming just above Uri’s disheveled, greasy hair. His father was standing there somberly, no longer looking at him but gazing at the yard. He turned on his heels and pushed aside the carpet that hung over the doorway, so forcefully that it conveyed his deep-seated disgust at his son, at his own position, with Creation in general.
Uri had not yet fully regained consciousness; he was merely ashamed of what his father had caught him doing: falling asleep while reading. He had a habit of taking a nap in the afternoon, and even though he had nothing to do and was quite free to withdraw to his hovel and go to sleep whenever he wanted, he felt guilty about it nevertheless. It was as if reading were a penance, a humiliating duty, for some ancient sin that he had not even committed. Yet he liked reading; it was the only thing that he really liked to do.
Scroll in hand, he got up to his feet, stretched his aching back, turned his head around and cracked his neck, shrugged his shoulders repeatedly, bent down, then gazed out the window.
Uri shivered in the damp and chilly darkness of Rome in early February. Images from his dreams were still drifting around in his mind, sinking ever deeper like fish burrowing into the Tiber’s mud and merging with the murky halos in the yard. The dream cannot have been altogether disagreeable, because a pleasant feeling lingered, a hopeful image, though there was no point trying to recall it. It was as though his real living was done in his dreams. There were people sauntering around in the yard, but too far off to recognize; he saw them only in blurred outline. At this hour of the day they were probably women, because the menfolk were still going about their business.
Uri had poor eyes.
His leg was bad too. Ever since he was small, walking had hurt his feet and ankles. His back usually hurt also. His right hip had turned out bigger than the left, but it was his eyes that were plagued worst of all; he was very near-sighted. It had not always been so. Up to the age of ten or eleven he had been able to do all the things the other boys his age could do, but at some point he dropped out of their games, moved less assuredly, squinted, and leaning ever closer to the scroll when he read. It had not bothered him at first, coming on so gradually that he had barely noticed; it was just that he often had headaches.
Eusebius, the teacher who took care of him and ten or fifteen other boys in the house of prayer (that was what the community paid him for), told Joseph that, in his opinion, Uri had poor eyesight. Joseph had protested: no one in his family had poor eyesight, his son included. The teacher just shook his head. Joseph’s first-born was his only son, his wife had not become pregnant again after the second girl was born, so the teacher realized that Joseph was in a difficult position.
That evening his father had interrogated him. “Is it true that you don’t see well?” he asked pointedly. He walked over to the furthest corner in the main room and asked howmany fingers he was holding up. The main room was not all that big, but even so, the hand was a long way off, and it was dim as well. The oil lamp was barely flickering, but it gave off a lot of fumes, and that too was bothersome. Uri sighed and chose at random, “Two.” From the silence that followed, he could tell that he had guessed wrong.
That was when relations with his father started to go downhill.
He had always been the precious boy, the only whole person Joseph had managed to sire. He was the favorite. His father had been proud that his son knew how to read and write before other boys his age; he had boasted about him and had also started instructing him in the logic of business, as if he were already an adult.
His father repeated the experiment half a year later. Uri confessed then that he could not see how many fingers his father was holding up.
“Because you don’t want to see!” Joseph had shouted angrily. That sentence had haunted Uri ever since. From that point on, his father had avoided him. He did not want to see that
his son could not see. Doctors claimed that dried gum from the balsam tree had a beneficial effect on cataracts and shortsightedness, and as Joseph had once traded in, among other things, balsam and dates, and was at that moment still receiving them in shipments from Judaea, he instructed Uri to place over his eyes every evening a poultice soaked in a watery solution of powdered balsam gum. Uri diligently applied the compresses and was nauseated by the smell of the balsam, but his eyesight did not improve. Another six months, and Uri still could not see how many fingers his father was showing. Joseph hinted that he should stop with the poultices, since balsam was expensive.
Uri was relieved and also despondent.
He could read all right; indeed, if he screwed his eyes up tight he could even see further away as well, and if he looked through a funneled hand he could even see for quite a distance, albeit only over a tiny area, but honestly quite a long distance. He tried that out a lot when he was alone, because, bit by bit, he retreated to the little hovel, rarely even stepping out into the courtyard, which he could see quite well, everything being so close. He would stare out at the yard through the cracks between his fingers, which also helped him to see the far-off corners.
It was a spacious courtyard, impossible to tell where it ended; in truth it had neither beginning nor end.
Houses on the far side of the Tiber—the Transtiberim in Latin, though the Jewish population referred to it simply as Far Side, as if they were looking back at themselves with pity from somewhere else, from the true Rome, even a bit disparagingly—had originally been built contiguous with their yards. They had formed a single elongated, complex, erratic, winding system of dwellings and alleys on the old-time Far Side. Because the Jews constructed their houses as they had in Palestine, with the windows and doorways opening only onto the inner courtyard, all that existed to the outside world was an interconnected wall. As a result, what had come into existence was an endless, seemingly impervious single-story zigzagging system of fortifications, spiked at irregular intervals with strong gates, both secretive and exotic to anyone not familiar with this part of the Transtiberim. Yet it was well known that the Jews lived a wretched existence: leprous Jews would beg around the Porta Capena, at the beginning of the Appian Way, for all to see, and many found themselves in that part of town, given that the main gateway to commerce on the southern side of the city was outside the nearby Via Ostiensis. Produce was cheaper there than around the Forum, so half of Rome shopped there. It would also have been obvious that haggard people with stooped backs swarmed around with their pitchers, bearded and in worn sandals and frayed togas: they were going for drinking water because the aqueducts supplied Far Side with polluted water, good for nothing more than irrigation, if at all. Requests had been made from one generation to the next, but they were not granted better water by the City, and in districts that were blessed with a better water supply outsiders had to pay the locals good money for what the latter received free of charge. The water of the Tiber was drinkable in theory, but the Jews considered it unclean, especially when, from time to time, it overflowed with corpses, so they did not drink it or even wash with it. They preferred water from cisterns, and there were some benighted souls who, obeying the religious precepts of their ancestors more strictly than most, considered water from any other district impure, so their families were also prohibited from using it. There might well have been something to it, though, because the water in those lead pipes left a grayish scum on the children’s skin, who turned out slower and dimmer than the others.
Lepers, incidentally, were treated decently; they were not expelled from the community but had a fairly spacious pen designated as their dwelling place, minimal rations were provided, and they counted on tzedakah, or charitable funds, or at least on a charity bowl of victuals for immediate relief, which even the most destitute and needy visitors can count on from a Jewish community anywhere. But because lepers were impure, their family was not allowed direct contact and could only shout to them from a distance, and the afflicted were obliged to smash to pieces the single-use clay vessels provided to them by the community, and, to the great delight of pottery merchants, to bury the pieces three feet underground. That aside, they were free to move around, even go beyond the walls of the Jewish quarter to beg like any other sick person. They too were obliged to go to the house of prayer, but not only were priests forbidden to touch them, they were not even supposed to see them, lest they become unclean themselves, so the lepers had to stand throughout the services in a dark corner that was walled off by planks; they arrived earlier than the priest and left well after. Because there were so few priests, their cleanliness was safeguarded by the most ancient and stringent regulations. As descendants of Aaron, they were sent from Judaea to Rome for the more important festivals to confer blessings, and afterwards they would return to Jerusalem. In the course of time they also sent out a few Levites, who could not themselves become priests but could act as priests’ assistants: it was they who blew the shofar, they who did the singing and played the music, they who collected the taxes. The ritual butchers and slaughterers also came from their ranks, so there were more of them in Rome than there were priests.
Apart from their religious activities, the priestly families and Levites had no say in the life of a community. Unlike back East, the rich and respected families in Rome did not cede important decisions, so many of Rome’s Levites asked to be sent back to Jerusalem, and the Roman municipal administration was only too happy to oblige. In their place, others came from the ranks of the lower priesthood and the lower Levites (for it seems that, even there, not everything went so swimmingly for all priests and Levites), and after a bit of administrative maneuvering they were generally allowed into Rome, especially if wealthy Jewish families vouched for their subsistence. The officials of the magistracy could breathe easily, because they would not be obliged to hand out free grain to the newcomers and their families. After all, people like that arrived with family; indeed that was largely the point of leaving the Holy City and traveling out to the impure diaspora. But after a few weeks or months they would get fed up with the climate in Rome and go back to Jerusalem; then either somebody else would be sent to replace them or not. In time, a few Levite families settled down and got rich, mostly through the ritually pure oil and wine that they imported from Judaea and Galilee.
Rome’s non-Jews were not very interested, to tell the truth, in how the population on the right side of the Tiber lived.
There were many small ethnic enclaves in Rome, and outsiders had no awareness into them, and the Jewish enclave was not among the larger and most important ones either: in a city of around one million, it accounted for no more than thirty or forty thousand, the majority of them the gradually liberated progeny of the slaves who were sporadically carried off to Rome. They did have synagogues, however, twelve of them, one of which was on the Appian Way, where they also had an underground cemetery, a catacomb. Counting on eventual resurrection as they did, they did not incinerate their dead like the foolish Latini. Seven of the prayer houses were along the road to Ostia alone, the thoroughfare by which goods delivered by sea reached Rome by land.
The first of the temples, named for Marcus Agrippa, the Roman potentate who had given patronage to the Jews, was built almost a century before and was still standing. Although Uri’s family did not go there, Joseph had showed it to his young boy, telling him the tale of the first convoy of Jewish captives who refused to work until the Roman slaveholders accepted the Sabbath as the slaves’ day of rest; they would follow the law laid down by their religion at all costs, and they wanted their own temple. A number of them were killed on account of those demands, but even still the rest would not relent. Uri clapped his hands in delight at hearing this, and he resolved to be that brave if ever needed.
He also rejoiced when his father related that the lords had paired their males and females off to boost the ranks of their slaves, but the Jewish men would only go along with it if any non-Jewish women with whom they were designated to multiply first converted to Judaism. Later on, to simplify matters, women were imported from the Jewish part of the empire. Herod the Great, king of the Jews and a friend of Marcus Agrippa’s, established good relations with Emperor Augustus and managed to finagle permission to ship women in to Rome. There were prostitutes and thieves and women with the clap among them, but they were Jewish and there was no need to bother converting them.
Shipping them cost money, however, his father recounted, and that is something that no state power likes. Herod the Great and Emperor Augustus realized that, and before long this fount of women dried up.
Under Roman law, the descendants of slaves were supposed to inherit their master’s religion, but the Jews were unwilling to propagate on those terms, so an exception had to be made. Non-Jewish slaves were not granted the same concessions, so they loathed the Jews, which was nothing new; ever since Alexander the Great conquered the East, non-Jews who lived there had always resented the Jews and the special treatment that they demanded, appealing each time to prerogatives that they had won under Persian rule. It was one thing if they all fell, Greeks and Jews alike, under foreign—Persian—dominion, but another thing altogether if the Jews came under Greek sway but for centuries refused to accept it. Since both the Greeks and the Jews had fallen under Roman dominion, the Jews regarded Rome as a Babylon, paying it homage in practice more zealously than did the Greeks. The female slaves, incidentally, were glad to turn Jewish: they knew that Jews, unlike Greeks or Romans, would never abandon a child. There were even some male slaves who converted, calculating that the Jewish communities would contribute to their manumission, and there were indeed some cases of Jewish converts freed in this manner. The only thing that may have given them pause was circumcision, a painful procedure for an adult, and not without danger. The women, though, were not threatened with clitoral resection, since the Roman Jews did not demand it, so there were droves of Syrian, Greek, Arab, Abyssinian, Egyptian, German, Gallic, Hispanic, Thracian, Illyrian, and female slaves of other origins who became Jewish in Rome, to the greater glory of the One and Only God, giving birth to Jewish children in the zigzag ghetto of Far Side. And since the Transtiberim—which was not even fenced in at that time, already considered part of the city by government bodies, albeit unofficially—was inhabited not only by Jews but also by people of various conquered nations, for the surplus daughters who became Jewish converts it was often only a matter of moving a few houses away, so they were even able to visit their parental households, should they so wish. Not that they had much wish to: their non-Jewish families were generally more than happy to be rid of them, and they made that quite clear. In any case, the women became part of the husband’s family forever, with no ties of any kind to their parents’ family—on that score, Roman and Jewish laws were in accord. A girl who converted to the bosom of the One and Only God could only be thankful that her parents had not cast her out as prey for wolves or men, or strangled her at birth.
That is how a Jewish Diaspora took root in the capital of the empire.
Joseph considered it an injustice that he must live on foreign soil, as technically speaking everyone who did not live in the Holy Land was unclean, and that was a blemish no water could wash away. But, then, it was not the first time this had happened in Jewish history, he said, and he pointed out to Uri that the Roman Jews were much better off than those back home, as they well knew it; they acted rather like a sizable permanent legation in Rome, and if they traded shrewdly, and Rome and Jewry were bounded by ever more threads, as was predestined by necessity, they were only doing what the Creator had seemingly intended them to do.
The winding interior courtyard had originally been a single labyrinthine system. Fortification had arisen spontaneously in the open space—although the wealthiest, as is the custom wherever Mammon is master, were separated from the communal yard with high walls and indeed had special guards to protect them—may money be cursed eternally—especially now, because an ever increasing number of Rome’s Jews were rich, and an even greater number were getting poorer. There might have even been a connection of sorts between the two phenomena.
The original Far Side stood right in the center of the Jewish quarter, with new houses built around it, but in recent years rich entrepreneurs had started building multistory tenement blocks. Joseph feared that, one of these days, their own ramshackle shed would be cleared away, along with the small huts around it, and replaced by four- or five-story buildings. That is what had happened in the non-Jewish areas immediately next to Far Side, where Egyptians, Syrians and Greeks from Asia Minor lived just as wretchedly as most Jews, and they went around the Jewish area just as comfortably as in their own.
The reason the yards had become a single, capricious, erratic space was because, on holy days, Jews were not allowed to wander more than two thousand cubits from their home. A cubit measured roughly forty-five centimeters, but it might be somewhat longer or shorter depending on the size of the forearm, since a cubit was the measure from the elbow to the fingertips. In other words, on holy days Jews were not supposed to go more than a meager half-mile from their home.
And the Jews had lots of holy days, starting with the four main festivals every year, each of which lasted for quite a few days. Then there was the Sabbath, each week from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Even then, people wanted to go more than two thousand cubits, which is only a few hundred paces. They wanted to visit neighbors, to chat and gossip, none of which is prohibited on a holy day as long as no work is being done. Chitchat is hardly working, as the Creator himself is well aware, and he no doubt jabbers with his archangels, since everyone knows he got his own work done in six days. So people joined their yards together, which meant that they were able to cover not two thousand but ten thousand cubits, festival or not, without leaving their own yard, or at least that was what they told their Creator, who had to accept the perfection of their reasoning. This is how the Law was outwitted by the Jews of Rome, much like the other approximately five million Jews in the world at the time; that is to say, they adhered to the Law because they respected it to the letter.
A special ordinance was laid down on this crafty sanction, a joint ruling, with various fine sub-clauses, one pertaining to Rome. It stipulated that the one-time Far Side counted as a single courtyard, and people were allowed to do within it anything they would do in their own home, even on the Sabbath or festivals. There was fierce debate over whether the ruling also applied to new housing constructed outside the walls of Far Side, with some arguing that the whole of Jerusalem counted as one combined courtyard, and it was permitted to deliver certain things within it, even on the Sabbath, whereas others opposed, saying that Rome was not a Jewish city, nor was Transtiberim (or Traseteberin, as they generally pronounced it in those days, with the nasal before the “s” disappearing and the word clipped, the end result being the “Trastevere,” the name by which this district would still be known two thousand years later). The whole of Rome was unclean, Far Side too, according to those who sought a return to the basic principles of the faith, themselves being impure, just like every Jew in the Diaspora. But be that as it may, the inhabitants of the old Far Side continued to reap the benefit of the blessed ruling.
In this labyrinth of a yard that was Far Side, there was no need to resort to that pious deceit that almost every Jew in Judaea committed, before the holy day began, by setting out a meal two thousand cubits away to signal that this was the boundary of a household, so when the holy day was in force they were permitted to go a further two thousand cubits from those provisions. This way, too, they were adhering to the Law—whichever suited them. That trick could not be employed in Rome, because any food left out would have been instantly stolen. The outside world corrupts the inner; intensive Jewish society was wrecked by pantheistic (hence godless) Roman society, and lamentations could be wallowed in on that account. It was typical Latin stupidity that their first emperor was still under the misapprehension that Jews eat nothing on the Sabbath, as if it were a day of fasting! Even after decades this was still raising eyebrows among Rome’s Jews, who prayed on the Sabbath in their houses of prayer and listened to interpretations of the Torah and the scriptures of the prophets, but the essence was nevertheless the communal meal, the costs of which were covered by the communal tax. Festal food could not be skimpy; there had to be meat and wine on the menu, likewise vegetables and fruit, to say nothing of unleavened bread. Poor families would have very little to eat for the rest of the week, but on the Sabbath they could eat their fill, and for free, through the good offices of the community.
The rationale, therefore, for this singular form of architecture may have been primarily religious—to be more specific, an injunction against death by starvation—but neither was the fortified structure entirely irrational.
When the Emperor Tiberius decided, fifteen years before, that adherents to the cult of Isis and the Jewish faith should clear out of Rome, the Roman mob got wind of the news and tried to lay siege to this mysterious system of walls, but because they had no grasp of the whole, they were unable to force their way in. The Jews defended themselves by firing arrows and throwing javelins from the flat rooftops.
They had to leave their homes in Rome all the same, with Joseph fleeing with his wife and three-year-old Uri.
They withdrew to the hill village of Ariccia, twenty miles from Rome, to a stable with a leaky roof. Joseph cleaned out the manure and plowed, his wife strewed straw and litter, and Uri spent the whole day chasing poultry. But six months later, thanks to the kindly Roman notable who was their patron, the freed Joseph being a client, the father and family were able to return to their ransacked, wrecked home.
Apart from the four thousand unmarried Jewish men who were called up for military service and taken off to Sardinia, supposedly to ward off gangs of robbers—though the climate and homesickness finished more of them off—virtually all of the Jews with families drifted back, bit by bit; in total, a couple of hundred were killed by the robbers in the country, and the Emperor Tiberius was no longer issuing such strict edicts.
The houses were repaired, the furnishings slowly made good. Not that there was much to replace, given how poor the Jews of Rome already were.
Uri recalled almost nothing about being dragged away for the first time—only the smell of chicken droppings, his father placing him on his shoulders and carrying him long distances, which felt so good that he would dream about it even now, at the age of seventeen. In his dream, he wished he would wake up to see his father standing above him, saying “Come on, my boy, hop on my shoulders again.”
György Spiró: Captivity
New York: Restless Books, 2015
See our review (2006)
Translated by: Tim Wilkinson
Tags: György Spiró