Not long ago I stumbled upon a book by the late Bruce Chatwin, called What Am I Doing Here, a collection of essays about the most unlikely topics: North African politics, art curation, the experience of nomadic peoples, Peruvian archeology and the like, connected only by a single strand—Mr. Chatwin chose to write about them. Though I knew almost nothing about these topics, each essay was made compelling by the author’s inexhaustible curiosity and, moreover, his superb prose style, at once subtle and surprising. It proved the maxim that a good writer can make any topic interesting.
I was thinking about this remarkable talent of good writers as I coasted pleasurably through Ann Wroe’s wonderful book Pontius Pilate. Though I had seen a copy floating around our offices for a few weeks (it’s recently out in paperback) I had resisted picking it up. While Ms. Wroe is a familiar name (columnist for The Tablet in London, American editor of The Economist), I couldn’t make my way past the subject matter: Who would want to read a book about Pontius Pilate? Too depressing, and besides, what could we ever know about Pilate? It was easy to imagine a dull tome crowded with sentences like “We’ll never really know what Pilate thought, but we can imagine that he probably thought something more or less like this....”
But, as happens too often, this reader was ultimately convinced to open the book by two things—the blurbs and the cover. Of course, any blurb is bound to be adulatory, but admit it: it’s hard to resist a book that The Washington Post called “sublime.” It was even harder to resist the prospect of holding a book whose cover is graced with a beautiful reproduction of “Ecce Homo,” the painting by Antonio Ciseri of a hunched-over Pilate gesturing toward Jesus as a boiling mass of people bays for his blood.
Ms. Wroe’s book is terrific—showing that perhaps you can judge a book by its cover. In it she uses a wealth of sources (including historical documents, archeological evidence, apocryphal writings like the fourth-century Acta Pilati, and the writings of Horace, Seneca and Cicero) to present a likely history of one of the most hated and misunderstood men in history. (The author reminds us, however, that some Christian traditions venerate Pilate as a “confessor” and even a saint.)
The author’s search for Pilate begins by sorting out the hazy origins of her subject (Italy? Germany? Spain?) and offering a fascinating description of what life was like for a young soldier/politician on the rise in ancient Rome. But the highlight of the book is her vivid portrait of life as procurator of backwater Judea. The territory was not, as Ms. Wroe reminds us, a “plum assignment” for an ambitious man. “It was a junior officer’s billet; more experienced men got Syria and Egypt.”
Above all, we get a profound sense of the romanitas of Pilate: how the philosophy, history and manners of Rome dominated everything that he said and did. Pontius Pilate was deeply Roman during a time when Rome was the whole world. This, suggests Ms. Wroe, is one reason why he fundamentally misunderstood Christ. A kingdom not of this world? Not of Rome?
Along the way, of course, we meet Jesus of Nazareth. And we begin to understand what lay behind Pilate’s actions during Jesus’ trial—as well as actions he might have taken behind the scenes. Did he, for example, watch the scourging of Jesus? Gods were thought to bleed watery “ichor,” and Pilate may have wanted to watch for some confirmation that this was a god before him. Overall, the author gives us a peerless explanation of the subtle machinations that ultimately led to the crucifixion.
We are left in this brilliant book with a riveting portrait of a man thrown up against forces and a force that he could not possibly understand. For Pontius Pilate, the truth was Rome and its emperor, Tiberias Caesar. For us, of course, it is quite otherwise.