Being a Praetorian Guard is a great honour. Family connections protect us from front line action, though our ranks include seasoned veterans who can sense the slightest security risk.
We mix with the rich and famous, at palace ceremonies and banquets, and at parties thrown by aristocratic families to curry imperial favours. But our house-arrest duties show another side of life.
With prisoners paying to maintain their own prisons, and taxes only spent on guard’s wages, house-arrest was one of Senator Cestius’ better – and best-rewarded – ideas.
Yet I suspect Romans would enjoy more freedom if laws only detained the dangerous or the dishonest, instead of having to permit everything we do.
One old man we’ve guarded for two years has been beaten, jailed and shipwrecked; but this fellow Paul is a wellspring of emotional energy. With rough hands, stooped shoulders and happy face, he attracts visitors from everywhere.
We frisk all his guests; groups or individuals; but he welcomes them as long-lost family: Greeks, Romans, slaves, barbarians, Jews, blacks, whites and every other colour!
Their meals are happy affairs; but silence reigns during prayers, or when Paul begins teaching, to allow scribes to take notes. Their respect, care and encouragement for each other would put our aristocrats’ hospitality to shame.
And his stories leave our veterans’ yarns for dead! He’s shared them with Athenian philosophers - in Greek; he’s confounded Jewish scholars - in Hebrew; and soon he’ll testify here in Rome - in Latin! Many of our squad have taken these stories to heart, and our families are also intrigued by them.
He knows he can’t escape, but he also knows we can’t get away from him either…
Every soldier knows that life is cheap. Governors mix human blood with their sacrifices, and Emperor Nero once turned some religious fanatics into torches so his party guests could more clearly see what they were eating.
But Paul is gripped with an idea that people have value – even slaves and barbarians! Something about his god sacrificing himself; but no gods I’ve heard about would try that. Sacrifice each other? Absolutely! Sacrifice themselves? Never!
My first duty interrupted his writing on some parchment, but he surprisingly smiled: “Welcome Marcellus, fellow soldier!”
“You, a soldier - with no armour?” I scoffed.
“Oh Marcellus, I fight the darkness that traps people’s hearts and spirits, and my God gives me internal armour that matches yours. Ironic, isn’t it, since Rome’s courts deny the Way of Jesus any “religio licita” – or legal religion – status.
“But let me explain…
“Your belt holds your sword and dagger, and it supports your back. Jesus’ truth also gives us endurance: exposing deceit and feeding our motives with integrity, so our walk matches our talk. It frees us to be spontaneous, because we are forgiven.
“That breastplate matches how God’s gift of righteousness protects us for eternal life: securing our vital organs in his goodness, so we don’t have to compete for his attention or try to deny our inconsistencies.
“Your sandals protect your feet wherever you go. Our God is not restricted to specific shrines or holy places. He infuses our contact with anyone around us with his peace, so we may know and spread his fragrance wherever we go.
“Our faith is like your shields: mobile barriers against the smallest missiles from any direction. And like your famous Roman tortoise formation, where you cluster your shields together against ambush, nothing penetrates because we trust each other for protection and for seeing new possibilities.
“God’s helmet fills our thoughts with confidence to seek the best for others and for ourselves, as his love flows through our minds. We seek to honour him above all else, and to serve others; for his salvation keeps our attitudes redemptive and healing - instead of judging - towards them.
“Marcellus, your double–edged sword cuts both ways; like God’s word. It favours no-one, but brings out the truth whenever we have issues to decide, so we can discern his guidance.
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ warned that those who live by the sword will die by it. But his love dissolves fear, and no danger or sword can separate us from him, for we can speak with him all the time.”
He smiled again, and resumed his writing.
My replacements would arrive none too soon, for suddenly I began sensing an uncomfortable weight and weakness in all that I’d so proudly worn that morning from the palace to this humble home.
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