Nature, we know, abhors a vacuum. That is a general truth about the nonhuman world. But human nature abhors it at least as much; and, like inanimate nature, it has its own ways of filling it up. It is a sad fact, for instance, that our historical sources are niggardly with information about many interesting people, involved in important events, about whom we want to know much, much more. Ann Wroe has an excellent subject in Pontius Pilatus, the Prefect of Judaea, under whom Jesus Christ was sentenced to the death of a criminal: Pontius Pilate, a name to live in infamy, but a man about whom we are sorely short of reliable biographical information.

Wroe is far from being the first to take on the subject. From the twentieth century alone we have more than twenty books with his name in their titles, from Clarice M. Cresswell, Pilate Gave Sentence (1920) and Lea Gordon, Pilate: A Passion Play (1951), to Michel Fausset, Pilate Pasha (1939), and Ursula Bloom, Pilate’s Wife (1978), not to mention such alluring titles, in their time so snappily up-to-date, as Warren Keffer, The Pilate Papers (1976), Martin Page, The Pilate Plot (1979), and even Vincent O’Sullivan, The Pilate Tapes (1986).

A recent work of straight scholarship is Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998); less straight is the sprightly re-creation of the Prefect’s correspondence by Joerg von Uthmann: Pontius Pilatus, Briefwechsel (Hamburg, 1991). Rumor whispers that certain professional scholars, who should have known better, wrote urgently to the imaginative author, asking to be allowed to read the original texts, which he pretended to be translating. One hesitates even to mention Richard Huggett, Pontius the Pilot: The Best of Catholic Jokes, Wit, and Humour (1986). And we must not forget the novel on Pilate which is being written by the Master in Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita. “Why Pontius Pilate?” cries the demon Woland. “Couldn’t you choose a different subject?”

The desire to know more about every detail of the Passion story began early. In the fourth century Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the first Christian Emperor, went to Judaea in search of the True Cross, and of course she found it. The desire for information did not fail to include the magistrate who had played such a central part. In the eighth century pious pilgrims to the Holy Land were being taken round the building that was supposed to be Pilate’s headquarters, and shown a painting on the wall which was a portrait of Christ, painted on Pilate’s orders. In the late Middle Ages someone forged a police description of Christ, drawn up on Pilate’s orders. It describes his

hair the color of an unripe hazel and smooth almost to the ears; but from the ears down slightly darker-colored corkscrew curls, more glistening, and waving downwards from the shoulders. He wears his hair parted in the center….

In the sixteenth century a Spaniard had great success with forging the judgment actually issued by Pilate with the death sentence.

From the very beginning, the whole business was both driven and muddied by the terrible and fateful question: Who was to blame for the condemnation of Christ? Who, still more pressingly, was to continue to be blamed for the murder of God? Already in the Gospels we can see the desire to place the responsibility, as far as possible, at the door of the Jews. It was the Roman governor who had to pass the death sentence; that could not be denied; but the Gospels present him, on the whole, as trying to spare the prisoner, and as pushed into the condemnation by the Jewish priestly establishment and the Jewish mob: “Then answered all the people: ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children!”‘ (Matthew 27:25). It was better to project the guilt, not onto the Roman state with which the new sect hoped eventually to come to terms, but onto a powerful sectarian rival.

The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, of which fragments exist, and which seems to have been composed in the second century CE, goes further: at first the Jews rejoice in Christ’s condemnation, and then, after his death, “when they perceived how great evil they had done, they began to lament and to cry, ‘Woe unto our sins: the judgment and the end of Jerusalem is in sight.”‘ Pilate, by contrast, is made to say “I am clear from the blood of the son of God, but thus it seemed good to you.” In the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, probably from the fourth century, Pilate is made to deliver to the Jews a harangue about their own scriptures: they were ungrateful to God before, when He brought them out of Egypt, and their rejection of Christ is another episode in the same story. In that work, Joseph of Arimathaea, who buried the body of Christ, speaks of Pilate as “one that was uncircumcised, but circumcised in heart”: in effect, a Jew. Before 200 CE we find Christian writers declaring that Pilate was in effect a Christian. The board on which Pilate had written “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” aroused intense interest. That Pilate refused (“what I have written, I have written”) to put “He (only) said he was the King,” was soon taken to mean that he had really meant exactly what he wrote: this was indeed the King of the Jews, and Pilate was a believer.


That idea was found notably more palatable in the East than in the West. Pilate is actually a saint in the Ethiopian calendar (feast day: June 25). In Egypt he was declared in Coptic tradition to have died as a martyr for the faith. A scrap of papyrus survived, in most romantic circumstances, from the wreck of a ship carrying it back, with many other things, to Britain; preserved in Oxford, it reports Pilate’s profession of faith in the God he had crucified. Ann Wroe opens her book with a beautifully written account of this strange text, its story, and its significance.

Very different was Pilate’s posthumous fate in the unforgiving West. It was unsatisfactory that the Bible does not tell us about his death. Obviously so spectacular a sinner must have come to an appallingly sticky end. And he duly suffers, in a variety of medieval texts, horrendous encounters with an enraged Roman emperor, torture, condemnation to death, crucifixion (sometimes more than once), and suicide. That was not the end of the story. After death his corpse was the sport of demons and the focus of storms and disasters; at first, of course, it was thrown into the River Tiber, the satisfying end proposed for so many unpopular characters in Roman history, from the Emperor Tiberius (“Tiberium in Tiberim!” “Into the Tiber with Tiberius!” they shouted at his funeral), down to Pope Pius IX in the nineteenth century. Then the corpse had to be fished out and passed from one sinister resting place to another, including a spell inside Mount Vesuvius, and finishing up, according to the most generally accepted account, in a lake on Mount Pilatus in the Bernese Alps, above Lucerne. There Pilate’s guilty and anguished spirit would rise and wash its hands, before the horrified gaze of benighted travelers. Those who witnessed that sight were marked for early death.

But a horrid end, even with torments after it, did not satisfy the morbid curiosity and the ferocious demand for justice. It was not only Pilate’s death that cried out to be filled in. What about his birth, his parentage, his upbringing? Obviously they were perverse and monstrous. We find several quite different versions. The most wide-spread is that recorded in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, one of the most widely read and most influential works of the Middle Ages.* There was a king who seduced a girl named Pyla, daughter of Atus, a miller. When she bore a son, illegitimate of course, she named the baby Pilatus, from her own name and her father’s. As a child he murdered his half brother, the true son of the king, and was sent to Rome. There he became friends with the young son of the king of France, and killed him, too. He was sent to govern the intractable people of “the island of Pontus,” from which he got the name Pontius. His brutal methods there endeared him to Herod, who placed him in charge of Judaea; he put Christ to death and came to a hideous end. All this, says Jacobus—who was by no means the credulous idiot he is often taken for—was “what we read in a history, admittedly apocryphal,” about Pilate.

The Golden Legend has very similar tales to tell about Judas Iscariot, for whom the suicide reported in the Gospels was not enough in the way of punishment. He was, as “we read in a certain admittedly apocryphal history,” exposed at birth by his parents, who had received a prophecy of his hideous career, and carried in a basket over the sea to “an island named Scariot.” (Those convenient etymological islands!) He, too, was taken in by a royal family, played with the little prince and murdered him, and fled. He went to Pilate. Not surprisingly, in view of the rather unimaginative similarity of their careers, “Pilate noticed that Judas was a man after his own heart,” and the two villains became hand in glove. One day Pilate conceived a passionate desire for some apples (aha! the reader may think: like Saint Augustine, and indeed like the original Fall of Man), which were in an orchard belonging to Judas’ unrecognized father. Judas went off to steal some for Pilate, met the owner, and killed him. He then married the widow, his own mother. When this Oedipal tale came to light, he became a disciple of Jesus, but a false one, who betrayed his master for money and killed himself in despair. Thus Jesus was betrayed by Judas from greed, and by Pilate from fear.


Ann Wroe has looked into all these stories, and into other material as well. Some said Pilate was a Spaniard, and his house, the Casa de Pilato, is on show in Seville, elegantly decorated with blue tiles. It still possesses the table on which Judas tipped out the thirty pieces of silver, when he vainly tried to ease his conscience by returning the price of blood. Pilate employed an extraordinarily prescient architect: he built him a house in the Gothic and Moorish style which would come into existence a thousand years after his time.

Then there is the question of Pilate’s wife. She appears in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, sending her husband a message not to put Jesus to death because she has suffered alarming dreams on his account. We are reminded inevitably of the wife of Julius Caesar, using her dreams to restrain him from going to the Senate house on the fatal morning of the Ides of March. This is Mrs. Pilate’s sole appearance. What is its significance? It is not easy to tell. Some said that she was a secret sympathizer, an early Christian: in the view of Origen, she was actually the first Gentile to believe. In consequence, some Eastern calendars call her a saint. As with Pilate himself, the Western tradition is less charitable. In the Mystery Plays, exploited to good effect by Ann Wroe, she is richly dressed and voluptuous. Some said that it was not her faith but the devils who had impelled her, for their own dark purposes, as they tried to avert the crucifixion and so disrupt the divine plan for the redemption of mankind:

So Pilate, from a shadow, was given his passionate and colorful wife; and, by logical extension in the Middle Ages, he was also given children…

—usually a boy and a girl. Bulgakov completes the family by giving him a dog, the wolfhound Banga.

Who was Pilate’s wife? Saint Matthew does not tell us. Again that abhorrent vacuum! In the developed medieval version of the story she becomes a great lady, Claudia Procula, no less a personage than the daughter of Julia, the daughter of Augustus himself. She is, of course, a person unknown to serious history. In fact we know nothing of the wife of the Prefect.

In the Gospels, Pilate looks most like a harassed colonial administrator in a difficult province—Ireland? India?—confronted with an inexplicable and ungovernable subject people, and forced to deal with an equally intractable religious troublemaker. Even when he built an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem, the reaction of the people of the province was not thanks but fury: he had used money from the Temple treasury, as he might have done in an ordinary classical city without provoking comment. It is a telling moment when he puts a question to Jesus and gets from him only the reaction, “Did you say this of yourself, or have the Jews put into your head?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate bursts out (John 18:35), as if to say “Do you really imagine that I am at home with any of this alien nonsense?” Then, recovering his patience with an effort, he goes on, “Your own people have delivered you to me: what have you done?”

The comparison is natural with the British Raj. The eminent Italian journalist Giovanni Papini remarked that, had Pilate been English, he would have read Mill and Swinburne, Byron and Tennyson—a comment betraying perhaps little acquaintance with the reading habits of most colonial civil servants (though there was always Macaulay, rereading the whole of Greek literature regularly in Madras). Readers equally addicted to Mill and Swinburne have not been really numerous at any time or place. One does indeed think of viceroys attempting to deal with Gandhi. Wroe makes that parallel; and invokes also the dialogue of Christ and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

The exchanges between Christ and Pilate in the Gospels are haunting in their presentation of the timeless confrontation of humdrum worldly power—in the phrase of Auden, “All that has weight, and always weighs the same”—and something that eludes it, slights it, and escapes its grasp, even when the weight of power is brought to bear on it to the utmost, to the point of martyrdom. “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, then would my servants fight.”

Pilate had met such a baffling problem before. When he first arrived, he set up Roman military standards, inscribed with the image of the Emperor, in Jerusalem. That was normal everywhere else in the Roman Empire; Jerusalem had hitherto been exempt from displaying them. The outraged Jews begged him to remove them. In the end Pilate surrounded the deputation with armed soldiers and threatened to kill the lot of them. They played that intolerable trump card: they offered their throats to the swords. Pilate was forced to climb down. Now it was happening again, but this time it was not even the regular Jewish authorities, enraging as they were, but a single eccentric; and this time, at least according to the Gospel account, it was the Jews’ turn to invoke force. Wroe illustrates the point with an extensive evocation of anti-abortion demonstrators protesting at a clinic:

There is no beating these people, though they seem beatable. The women have soft arms; they wear summer dresses…. Nobody stands directly outside the abortion clinic; that would constitute illegal intimidation…. The police cannot cope with this…. It will happen again tomorrow, and the next day. The mild and defenseless will become possessed of an idea that makes them invulnerable…. The glow of the victor is in their faces.

That is perhaps a rather idealized vision of demonstrators for that particular cause—one remembers that shots have been fired, that some of the believers have chosen the path of Saint Peter, who struck off the ear of the High Priest’s servant Malchus, rather than that of his Master—but the general point is sound enough. Wroe draws another striking modern parallel between Judas Iscariot and a government spy in Castro’s Cuba:

The Cold War saw such Judases everywhere, but now you will most easily find them in a city like Havana, where there is still a sense of people trapped like insects in historical forces larger than themselves. You may not spot him at first. He could be the taxi driver outside the Hotel Nacional…. [But] in the great scheme of things, Pilate and Judas are battling against ideas that will inevitably prevail.

When Pilate confronts Jesus, on both sides utterances are left tantalizingly incomplete, hanging in the air. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “You said it.” The reply is deliberately not self-explanatory: What is Jesus saying; what is he claiming, or refusing to claim? Then there is Pilate’s unforgettable comment, “What is truth?,” to which he does not stay for an answer. Is this an indication of philosophical culture (“I know this is a philosophical chestnut, and I could argue about it if I chose, but I don’t, not now, not with you”)? Or a weary piece of cynicism (“Come on, we both know that ‘truth’ is no more than a conventional term, don’t we?”)? Or a mere explosion of boredom and impatience (“Shut up and don’t waste my valuable time with that kind of talk!”)?

Papini imagined Pilate a Tory, his newspaper The Times; Ernest Renan placed him as a Liberal. Anatole France imagined him in retirement, looking back over his administrative career, and failing to call to mind the case of Jesus at all (“Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth? No, I don’t remember him”). We have seen Pilate in an apocryphal Christian book engaging the Jews in argument on their own scriptures. In the Mystery plays he sometimes claims the pagan culture of the Greco-Roman world (“I made my name among the philosophers!”), but he is mostly presented as a ranting local tyrant, keen on his pleasures. At other times he is a colorless functionary. In the twentieth century there has been a tendency for Jesus to become the radical, the revolutionary political martyr, and for Pilate to be more the fascist thug whom such a conception demands as his opponent; but already in the Middle Ages somebody had taken the step of involving him in the Massacre of the Innocents, which took place thirty or so years before he arrived in Judaea at all. It felt wrong that he should not have been there.

Wroe calls her book “the biography of an invented man.” Pilate really existed, but we know very little about him, and the interest of Wroe’s profound and beautifully written study is largely that of seeing how different times and places have filled in that tantalizing gap. But there is another side, too: the detailed and often penetrating reconstruction of what it was like to be in Pilate’s position, wear Roman dress, be shaved with the razors of the time, serve in the Roman army, gaze out over the ancient city of Jerusalem, still dominated by the Temple, and have to deal with these bafflingly difficult Jews. Ann Wroe has done a great deal of research for this book. She has worked through source material in many languages and from many periods. Her feeling for what it must have been like to live and work in the distant world of Roman Judaea is remarkable: vivid and, on the whole, convincing. We are miles away from the modern novels in which modern characters and modern stories (politicians, drug-runners, private eyes) are simply set down, with a grinding bump, in Imperial Rome. Wroe’s book is a work of real imaginative literature.

It is a pity that she did not take a little more advice from a specialist, who could very easily have saved her from a number of small but embarrassingly revealing slips. That they have survived in a book that has been extensively reviewed and widely read shows, perhaps, a certain reluctance on the part of scholars to take seriously even the very best popular writings that bear on their subject. This is sad, and unjust to a talented and interesting writer like Ann Wroe.

We meet nonexistent classical words: a man on the cross “was corvorum cibia, crow food”; the Latin word is cibus. Of the Latin for “blood,” “the word sanguinis itself was beautiful”; the word is sanguis. A coin of Tiberius would not bear, in Greek, “his title, ‘Tiberius Kaisaros,’ spelled out by Pilate in full.” That is impossible grammar; what it said was “Tiberius Kaisar.” A startling wrong grammatical gender has got through: “accursed tree” appears as arbor malus, but the feminine noun demands the form mala.

Persons, too, can be muddled. The lady of the Imperial house whom the upstart Sejanus aspired to marry was not—of course—“Livia Julia, already in her seventies,” but the sexy Livilla, younger than the grand old lady by two generations. The god who castrated Uranus was not Chronos, personification of Time, but the very different character Cronos. The mythical ruler of the winds was not “Aeolus, king of Thessaly,” the son of Hellen and ancestor of the Aeolian Hellenes, but Aeolus the son of Hippotes, the “sage Hippotades” of Milton’s Lycidas, ruler of a floating island. A bit of versified conversation recorded by the poet Horace, the sort of trivial chat about gladiators between a man and his friend and patron, is translated “Do you think Thraex is a match for Syro the Chicken?” The question was, “Is the Thracian Chicken a match for the Syrian?” What such slips have in common is that they are unnecessary to Wroe’s account. These things need not have been said at all. They are mostly little flourishes, erudite curlicues; and they may make the academic reader purse his lips and raise his eyebrows. And so, she may console herself, the professional scholar has his revenge on a real writer, who has the temerity to write well on his special subject.

This Issue

September 21, 2000