‘Ben Hur,’ but Bigger and Better

Adam Kirsch writes in The Tablet:

Captivity, the newly translated novel by the Hungarian writer György Spiró, offers a good reminder not to judge a book by its cover. When I first saw this particular cover, with its black background, stark white typography, and surreally floating sculptured bust, the imagery—combined with the book’s Central European provenance, gloomy title, and Jewish focus—made me think that this would be a brooding modernist enigma of a book, perhaps along the lines of Imre Kertész’s Holocaust fictions. In fact, Captivity turns out to be just the opposite—a sprawling (more than 800 pages), picturesque, old-fashioned historical novel about the Roman Empire, in the showy tradition of Ben Hur and I, Claudius. In fact, both Jesus and Claudius, the main characters of those books, make cameo appearances in Captivity, as do other boldface names of the 1st century CE, including Caligula, Pontius Pilate, and Philo of Alexandria. What sets Captivity apart is that it makes the rare attempt to view all these historical phenomena—from the rise of Christianity to the flamboyant vices of the emperors—through a distinctively Jewish lens.

Considering how little we know about the ancient world in general, the first century CE is a surprisingly well-documented era. In creating his pageant of Jewish Rome, Spiró can draw on the Roman histories of Tacitus and Suetonius, the Jewish writings of Josephus and Philo, and the Christian New Testament—in addition to the Talmud, which preserves many features of Second Temple-era Jewish life. These sources tell us about three distinct Roman cultures, each focused on a different metropolis: the grand politics of imperial Rome, the religious fervor of Jerusalem, and the ethnic strife of commercial Alexandria. Accordingly, these are the cities in which Captivity is set, in the period roughly spanning the death of Jesus, in 33 CE, and the destruction of the Temple, in the year 70.

Our tour guide through these cities and their Jewish communities is Gaius Theodorus—or, to use his Jewish name, Uri. When the novel begins, Uri is a very unpromising young man, living with his poor family in a hovel in the Jewish neighborhood of Rome—Transtiberim, the neighborhood “across the Tiber” from Rome proper. (It’s now familiar under the Italian version of the name, Trastevere.) He is brainy and good at languages, but physically unprepossessing, ugly and scrawny; and his bad eyesight keeps him from doing any useful labor. Still, he is, crucially, a Roman citizen—unlike his grandfather, who had been a slave, or his father, a mere freedman—and this entitles him to free provisions from the government. In this way, Uri helps to provide for his family—both the mother he disdains and the father who disdains him.

From the first chapter, Captivity makes clear that its main concern is not plot or character, but setting. Uri is almost a nullity, an undistinguished person about to be thrust into the wide world, like Voltaire’s Candide. His passivity means that he seldom does anything; rather, things happen to him, and he serves as a fly on the wall during the great historical events he chances to blunder through. Spiró is not particularly concerned even about the consistency of the few character traits Uri is assigned. He starts out weak and myopic, but when necessary he’s capable of surviving harsh ordeals and describing fine details.

Where Spiró excels is dramatizing the world through which Uri moves—its political institutions and social arrangements, its sights and smells. In just the first section of the book, set in Rome, we are treated to gladiatorial combat, a client’s morning visit to his patron, and a brutal public execution. These archetypal scenes of Roman life shock us into realizing the ways in which the ancient world differed from our own—the extreme brutality, the fixed and undisguised hierarchy, the omnipresent corruption.

These features interact to make the lives of all Romans, from imperial courtiers to poor plebs living on the dole, highly insecure. A typical predicament arises when Uri’s father, a middling merchant, is casually asked for a huge loan by Agrippa, a Jewish prince who is the bosom friend of Caligula. Saying no is not an option—in this society, the lower ranks always oblige the higher—and so Uri’s father is forced to go deeply into debt, knowing all the while that Agrippa has no intention of repaying him, and that there is no way to compel him to do so. Later in the book, Uri learns that the whole amount Agrippa borrowed—200,000 sesterces, a fortune—was spent on a single banquet.

Doing Agrippa a favor, however, means getting a favor in return, and what Uri’s father asks for is permission for his feckless son to join a group of Jewish pilgrims traveling from Rome to Jerusalem, bearing the annual tribute for the Temple’s upkeep. (This feature of ancient Jewish life is described in detail in the Talmud’s Tractate Shekalim, which Spiró has clearly drawn on—just as he makes use of the Talmud’s rules about eruvs, and its description of the splendid Basilica in Alexandria.) Though Uri dreads the prospect of leaving home and setting out on a long, dangerous journey, this turns out to be his big break, narrative-wise. He escapes Rome’s Jewish ghetto and ends up visiting two major capitals of ancient Judaism—Jerusalem, the religious center, and Alexandria, the commercial center.

There is always something a little comic about historical fiction that enlists real personalities as characters. The comedy comes from the overdetermination: The only witness to life in Jewish Alexandria that we possess is Philo, the philosopher, and so it is inevitable for Uri to become Philo’s confidant. Likewise, no novel set in Judea in 33 CE is going to miss the chance to bring Jesus on stage, and Spiró does just that. Indeed, circumstances work out perfectly for Uri to be thrown in jail in the very same cell with Jesus and the two thieves on the eve of the crucifixion. But Spiró handles this episode with a light touch—Jesus goes unnamed, and it takes the reader a moment to realize that the middle-aged, balding, puffy prisoner is actually the Christian messiah. Uri himself doesn’t realize this until much later in the book, when the growing cult of “the Nazarenes” has turned Jesus into the Son of God. “I saw him! I spoke with him!” Uri tells his own son, Marcellus, who has converted to Christianity. “He was human just like you or me! … He was a man, a wretched, decent, and honest man like you or me!”

Where another novel—like Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, whose subtitle is “a story of the Christ”—would place this encounter at its center, in Captivity it is just one of many strands that go to make up a complex and thoughtful portrait of what Judaism meant in ancient Rome. If Spiró has a message, it is that Judaism was, and has always been, a diverse civilization, rather than a coherent ethnic or religious identity. Uri’s own family is a case in point: In Rome, he observes, most of the Jewish men came to the city as slaves and either converted to Judaism or married women who did. Uri has no idea what his own ancestors looked like—they could have been German or Greek or African as easily as Judaean.

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