“The cage of the visible”: György Spiró’s Captivity*
Captivity’s captive is the son of a Jewish silk-importer in first-century Rome, and a freeborn Roman citizen. A petty bourgeois, in effect. His civil name is Gaius Theodorus, but he is known to intimates – and to us – by the Hebrew name Uriel, meaning “the Lord is my light”. The Lord is a crepuscular light, in this case – and finally, a black darkness. For Uriel is born cripplingly short-sighted, and dies blind. In György Spiró’s hands, this is most definitely symbolic.
We first encounter Uriel – fondly contracted to “Uri” – as a lanky, ugly, and reclusive boy of seventeen in the late winter of 35 CE, as his father shakes him awake on a cloud-dimmed afternoon. We lose sight of him in the last days of the year 70 – a cataclysmic year in which Jerusalem is captured by Titus, and Herod’s Temple is razed – as a collapsing lung lurches him out of a deep sleep. Uri dies alone, we surmise from Captivity’s last paragraphs, shrieking for air in a barren room. Yet he dies, as he was born, a Roman citizen – and, as such, free.
Occasionally a prisoner and a fugitive in Captivity, Uri is never a slave. But he is always a captive – so Spiró’s title conveys – in the sense that no one is ever “free of what he has been born into”. What Uri has been born into is Rome. And no less fatefully, he has been born into the Transtiberim (now Trastevere) – the imperial city’s fourteenth regio, and, for many centuries, its Jewish quarter. Captivity narrates Uri’s odyssey from the Tiber’s squalid left bank to the city’s pagan core, the “true Rome” – where he dies – after sojourns in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Naples. He can only cross the Tiber after he has crossed the Mediterranean.
Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome
Uri’s first release from the Transtiberim provides the novel’s opening, in February of 35. His father has just stood surety for a colossal loan to Agrippa (Iulius Agrippa I), a pretender to the Herodian throne in Jerusalem and a favourite of the future emperor, Gaius Caesar (Caligula). Uri’s fate is thus bound up with Agrippa’s – one “King of the Jews” – not by privilege, but by the assumption of a crushing debt. His connexion to Jesus of Nazareth – another “King of the Jews” – will be no less stifling. But first, Uri must get to Jerusalem.
It is Agrippa’s debt, contracted at Rome, that lands Uri in a holding cell on Jerusalem’s temple mount, along with Jesus and a pair of bandits on the night before they are crucified. For Agrippa names Uri one of the Roman Jewry’s delegates to the Temple at Passover of 35. Crucially, however – and for reasons that are never disclosed – Uri’s name is not inscribed on the delegation’s letter of passage. Due to this discrepancy, he is seized in the holy city and held on suspicion of acting as Agrippa’s spy. Uri is not a spy, but misimpressions and pointless delegations drive Captivity’s plot.
After his eventual release – marked by a lavish supper with the garrulous prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, and the urbane tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas – Uri becomes apprentice to the Temple astronomers in Jerusalem. A short time later, they send him to the Lighthouse of Alexandria as a “moon courier”: he is carrying official calculations of the date of Israel’s cultic New Year. Once in Alexandria, Uri asks what happens if a moon courier is late. “Nothing”, the Alexandrians reply. He has travelled to Jerusalem as a supernumerary delegate, and to Alexandria as a superfluous courier. His fate is decided by what he is not, by his superfluity.
In Alexandria, Uri is still not acting as Agrippa’s spy – but rumour has it that he is, and this makes all the difference. He is introduced as such to Philo of Alexandria – a Platonic biblical commentator, and, in the course of time, a Jewish legate to Emperor Caligula. He becomes Philo’s amanuensis in the winter of 37, and remains in Alexandria until “the Bane” – a historical massacre of thousands of Alexandrian Jews by Greek and Egyptian mobs in the summer of 38 CE – has passed. In the wake of the Bane, Uri crosses back to Rome.
Uri’s father has died in his absence, and his “idiot mother” has contracted his engagement to a surly, slow-witted girl he will never love. Agrippa’s debt is his only inheritance. Uri marries, as he must. His bride’s name, inauspiciously, is Hagar. She gives him one son, Theophilus, whom he adores; and another son, Marcellus, whom he detests. Daughters are also born, but they are as joyless to Uri as his wife.
Both of Hagar’s sons cruelly disappoint. Uri’s golden boy, Theo, is enslaved, castrated, and kept as a catamite in the city of Pompeii. What is worse, Marcellus hangs around the paternal house in Rome spouting the doctrines of a disconcerting new sect. Marcellus’s saviour – it comes out – passed a night in prison with Uri in Jerusalem. They both find this irritating. Uri, because it is true; and Marcellus, because it could not possibly be true. Incidentally, both are right.
History and Counter-History in Captivity
In novelistic terms, Jesus is a fat man with thinning hair and a greying beard who is crucified – after his night in Uri’s holding cell – in the year 35. And in novelistic terms, Uri’s son Marcellus is a fool for disbelieving it. Captivity is not simply a novel, however, or even a historical novel. It belongs to a subgenre which can be called a historicist novel, and which dates back to the first half of the nineteenth century – probably originating with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Captivity is cut from much the same cloth as later, more erudite novels like Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885) and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951).
Spiró’s evocation of imperial culture in the Mediterranean Basin is spectacularly real, and on the whole, meticulously historical. He adheres to his sources. He works up many of Captivity’s scenes straight from first-century documents which could be cited by chapter and paragraph. It is not outré, then, to analyse Captivity in historical terms. And it is precisely in his depictions of Jesus and Pontius Pilate that Spiró abandons his sources. Since all of Spiró’s critics have missed this, it is worth glancing at his sources.
The modern scholarly consensus is that the crucifixion occurred on 7 April 30. The University of Edinburgh’s professor in Christian origins, Helen Bond, is sceptical, however, and has recently argued that “all that the evidence allows us to claim is that Jesus died … between 29 and 34 CE”. Bond locates a 34 CE crucifixion at “the very margins of possibility”.1 But in any case, it is certain that Jesus was not crucified as late as 35 CE. In historical terms, then, Jesus could not have shared a cell with Uri in 35.
Spiró not only mishandles the historical Jesus, however. He discards the historical Pilate. The Roman prefect first appears in a soft-lit scene, without being named, 80 pages into the novel. And 600 pages later, Uri is complaining that Philo’s Embassy to Caligula – which Uri reads in autograph, at Philo’s bureau – sets Pilate in a harsh light. This complaint reflects a modern scholarly controversy. But whatever Philo’s biases, his Embassy contains our only contemporary profile of Pilate (apart from the canonical gospels, for which Spiró has no use). In order to conjure Captivity’s Pilate, then, Spiró has to traduce his first-century sources.
Spiró is most displeased by the fact that Pilate led a massacre at Mount Gerizim (in what is now the West Bank) in the year 36. Flavius Josephus relates this in Judaic Antiquities XVIII. And as a consequence of this bloodbath, the imperial legate of Roman Syria, Lucius Vitellius, deposed Pilate in the last days of 36 (or the first of 37) and sent him back to Rome. In historical terms, this is incontestable; but apparently – for Spiró – it is also intolerable. Thus, at the midpoint of Captivity, he inserts an alternative history of the Gerizim massacre. Since the historical reports of this massacre are unknown to most of Spiró’s readers – and for that matter, to most of his critics – this counter-historical subplot of Captivity palms itself off as historical.
Spiró has Uri traverse the killing fields in Samaria, and hear first-hand accounts of how Roman legionnaires butchered hundreds at the base of the mountain. The Roman troops had “come from the north”, Spiró has his ‘eyewitnesses’ testify, “from Antioch via Galilee”. In other words, the offending troops were not Pilate’s – who would have marched up from Caesarea in the south. Spiró imagines that the Roman legate in Syria ordered the mass slaughter at Mount Gerizim, and then connived with the priestly class in Jerusalem to have Pilate take the fall. This fanciful conspiracy becomes a structuring motif of Captivity. “Poor Pilate”, Uri sighs at the novel’s midpoint; and he is still snivelling over the prefect’s “downfall” at the novel’s close. This is tedious.
In his more stoic moods, Uri murmurs to himself – quoting Pindar – that “Man is a dream of shadows”. Captivity is a vast, pitiless, immersive, and vividly translated dream of shadows. Uri’s near-blindness mutes even the novel’s most light-struck scenes into an umbrageous, impressionistic haze. At his first launch on the Mediterranean, for instance, he half-shuts his eyes to sharpen his perception:
It was a steely blue with white flecks. Somewhere far off glistened the green-brownish colours of a line blurring the horizon, like a mosaic studded with granules – that might be dry land.
It is unexpected, but not unbelievable, that Uri’s last and most lucrative trade – after stints as a vase importer, balsam trader and mosaic layer – is that of a proto- pointillist painter. The dimming of his eyes heightens Uri’s devotion to what he calls, early on, “the cage of the visible world”.
By Captivity’s end, Uri is eyeless. His life has become a dream without shadows – and also, without light. It is sad to recall how Pindar’s Eighth Pythian Ode continues. “Man is a dream of shadows, but when some splendour falls upon him from God, a glory comes to him and his life is sweet.” Captivity is splendid, but its god never shines.
* György Spiró, Captivity. Translated by Tim Wilkinson, Restless Books, 2015.