A Jewish Slave in the Roman Empire

Yaron Avitov
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A slave pouring wine for his master. A Roman mosaic from the 2nd century, Tunisia.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yaron Avitov

“Ictus,” by Eli Avidar, Prague Publishing House (Hebrew), 339 pages, 79 shekels

In Jewish history, the Romans are thought of as the cruelest conquerors and occupiers of the Land of Israel. They destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple, savagely crushed rebellions – among them those involving resistance at Masada and in the Galilee – and ultimately left piles of ruins attesting to Jewish settlement in the land. Several chapters in this story of the destruction were written from the perspective of Josephus Flavius, also known as Yosef ben Matityahu, the Jewish-born commander of the rebellion in the Galilee who deserted to the Romans. The Jewish people residing in Zion experienced an exile that lasted for some 2,000 years, and many of its sons became slaves. Eli Avidar tells the story of one of the Jewish slaves in Rome, in his new (Hebrew) novel, “Ictus.”

One would expect that an Israeli-authored novel about the Roman era would engage in the Jewish revolt against the Romans, but Avidar chooses to veer away from that subject: His first novel takes place in the Roman Empire at the start of the third century C.E., about 130 years after the Temple’s destruction. The rebellion that takes place in this novel is that of the Dacians and Carpis, two tribes from which sprang the Romanian people of our times. The earlier revolt might have attracted more of the Hebrew reader’s attention, but in this case revolt is not the main story. The core of “Ictus” is the relationship between the Jewish slave and his Roman master, an officer in the Legion, and the book succeeds in attracting our interest and enlivening a period that Hebrew literature barely touches.

Reading “Ictus,” one imagines the sound of the clatter of the swords in the battlefields and the screeching of chariot wheels. All roads lead to Rome, and so does Avidar’s novel. This is a work of historic fiction with philosophical dimensions, which joins a long line of historical novels, or semi-historical ones, that have been published in Hebrew in the past three years and focus on various eras. The majority are debut efforts published by small publishing houses, or self-published books. Among them are Amit Arad’s “Lions of Judea,” which takes place in the days of the Maccabees; Michael Dror’s “The Final Blow,” about the search for the lost treasures of the Temple; Dov Fuchs’ “To See Through Walls,” about the Essenes; and Dorit Kadar’s “Komish Bat Machlafta,” which tells the story of a woman sorcerer during the final years of the talmudic period.

Other novels by better-known authors have also been published in the genre – “Akiva’s Orchard,” by Yochi Brandes, about Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua who was married to Rabbi Akiva; and Ram Oren’s “The Red Scarf,” also about a woman named Rachel, this one a commander in the Bar Kochba revolt.

“Ictus” delves into the relationship between a Jewish slave named Yoir and the Roman officer Yarenis, a brave fighter who is deft with both sword and pen – and who, with the help of his astute slave, manages to rise to greatness and teach innovative fighting techniques that differ from those formerly practiced in Rome. The techniques are designed to respect the dignity of the enemy without seeking to humiliate or torture him. For instance, Yarenis instructs his troops how to put their enemies to death with a single thrust of the sword – a thrusting maneuver called Ictus.

Unique dialogue

Yarenis’ worldview is highly influenced by the Jewish slave, who grew up in a cave under the influence of a well-known holy man in the Galilee. Yoir is a unique character: a slave in body, but free in spirit. Even when he allows himself to be sold into slavery in the hope that this will eventually benefit his family, arriving in Rome as a lowly slave whom almost no one wishes to purchase – he does not forget his Jewish origins. “Rome exists because of its slaves,” he declares at one point.

Previously in the Roman Empire it was forbidden for a slave to speak with his masters, but now a unique dialogue develops between Yoir and Yarenis. The slave enters the young Roman’s life at the latter’s nadir, after the officer is humiliated by being thrown out of a banquet hosted by his stepfather, beaten and bruised.

Yoir, who treats his master’s wounds, is the first person to spot the Roman’s leadership potential. Yoir gradually becomes Yarenis’ tutor, imparting knowledge and a mature worldview that helps Yarenis overcome numerous obstacles in his path. The slave’s own worldview is based on different realms, those which are underground, on the ground, and above on the mountaintops. Yoir predicts that Yarenis will someday climb to the summit of the mountain when his personality is fully formed, but he mustn’t hasten his fate; rather, he must make peace with it.

The story of the slave and master is a variation on that of the biblical David and Jonathan, who were inseparable in their lives and their deaths. The slave and master in “Ictus” go through fire and water together, and their convincing characters are reason enough to read the novel, which succeeds in getting across not only the atmosphere of the times but also, one imagines, the individuals’ way of thinking.

Readers are presented with a credible portrayal of the days of Rome: the political scheming during the tenures of two emperors and the ostentatious drinking parties they organized; military life and battlefield action; life in cities and villages in Rome and other Italian provinces; goings-on in marketplaces and byways, theaters and bathhouses; commerce and architecture; and also marital life and sexual mores. It is easy to see that the author, an ex-diplomat and former diplomatic adviser to the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has learned much about lifestyles in ancient Rome.

The novel develops slowly, as if adapting itself to the rate of progress chariots make on Roman roads. Avidar’s fluency with the nuances of the period is noteworthy, but at times he cannot resist showing off his erudition and tends to deliver overly exhaustive history lessons to the reader. In some of the chapters, Avidar has combined prosaic scenes with arcane historical verses that have clearly not been sufficiently adapted for popular literature – such as his rendering of stories related to the construction of the Colosseum in Rome or descriptions of the institution of marriage in ancient Rome. Likewise, he could have pared down his descriptions of the art of warfare.

“Ictus” combines history with philosophy, the doctrine of warfare with the doctrine of love, cruelty with humanism. It also bears the elements of some sort of spiritual guidebook, in particular those chapters in which Yoir serves as tutor to his master (“You must learn how to conduct yourself, even unconsciously. We never know where the road is taking us”).

The ending is not particularly surprising, since Avidar gradually leads his readers through several scenes – hints strewn in them – toward the crescendo in which the plot is resolved. A distrustful imperial regime that closely watches and eliminates its opponents will not, in the end, hesitate to liquidate even its loyal supporters whom, it deems, may pose an even greater risk than its opponents. Under the rule of paranoid emperors, therefore, anyone who draws too much attention is liable to pay for it with his life.

Anyone who wishes to understand the roots of the savageness of tyrannical regimes in our own times will discover in “Ictus” that those regimes have simply replicated the models of the ancient Roman Empire, which in turn co-opted the savage models of previous emperors while refining and upgrading the level of warfare and savagery. The novel describes numerous stabbings in the spirit of the “Ictus” movement, perhaps too many. But its final thrust is the most painful of all – aimed directly at the heart of the reader.