Fifty sous

Publish date 20-07-2021

by Matteo Spicuglia

Messio was a young man of good hopes. Son of Gaius, of the Fabia tribe, of Berito. Hard life, so much poverty, the hunger that makes you seek redemption always and in any case. Messio was ready for anything: no scruples, no hesitation, no emotion. "I'll do whatever it takes, as long as you pay!" Even to kill? "Of course". At war? "No problem". What's better than the legionary profession to get rich and be someone! You listen to orders, take action, execute, come back, cash in and enjoy it. Ordinary administration.

In that month of March 73 AD, an unmissable opportunity arose. There was a citadel to conquer: Masada remained high on the rock, the Dead Sea in the background, surrounded by cliffs and protected by long walls. It had become the stronghold of the last zealots, those who had not surrendered to defeat, to the fall of Jerusalem, to the destruction of the temple. They were barricaded on the mountain with women and children and the belief that they could make it. However, they had miscalculated because the Roman army did not have the reputation of surrendering. Far from it. Commander Lucio Flavio Silva deployed his best men, those of the Legion X Fretensis: between 6 and 8 thousand soldiers who had already distinguished themselves in the siege of Jerusalem with unspeakable massacres and crimes. Ready to repeat again this time.

Messio knew how to do it and went all the way. First the siege that lasted months, then the final operations. The Romans had managed to build a gigantic ramp to get directly to the gate of the fortress and thus use their war machines to make room. The final assault frightened even the thousand Jews barricaded inside who soon realized they had no more escape. The rebel leader, Eleazar, knew what the treatment would be for fighters, but also for women and children. The massacres of Jerusalem still passed from mouth to mouth. So it was that to avoid the worst, Eleazar deliberated a mass suicide. A direct witness wrote: "They all killed their loved ones on each other, then they stretched out each other next to the bodies of their wife and children and, embracing them, they unhesitatingly gave their throats to those in charge of that sad office".

Masada fell like this. When Messio entered victorious he found only corpses. But he was happy: maximum result, with minimum effort. Now, the best moment would come, that of the pay. He presented himself in command, collected what had been agreed and marked everything on a papyrus. Only in that moment did he realize that something was wrong: «Indemnity of 50 denarii. Barley costs: 16 denarii. Food expenses: 20 denarii. Boots: 5 denier. Leather straps: 2 deniers. Linen tunic: 7 deniers».

The siege had been longer than expected: 50 denarii collected, 50 denarii spent. Zero balance. A rip off. Not even the time to enjoy the victory and satisfaction of the company. Messio got angry, crumpled up the papyrus and threw it on the ground, in the middle of the ocher sand of the now ruined fortress.

Archaeologists found it two thousand years later. An incredible discovery that sheds light on the amount of pay of the exterminators of the time. A fragment that made Messio enter history, but not as he wanted. As a legionary he was chasing glory and success: all that remains of him is the blood spilled and the anger of his gesture as a little man, witness to how useless and atrocious war is. Yesterday like today.


Matteo Spicuglia
NP april 2021


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