Salvation by The Beam
Misadventures in Ancient Italy
Author’s Note: I am writing part of this post while on muscle relaxers and pain killers and feeling a bit loopy (pulled a muscle in my back, please say a prayer for me). If therefore this article gets a bit weirder than usual, let us all agree to blame the drugs.
Long ago in a world not so far away Rome came into conflict with Alba Longa.
Like Ross and Rachel from Friends, Alba Longa was then one of Rome’s on again off again frenemies. Both cities were of nearly equal size and strength and both were constantly vying with each other for control of the Latin speaking portions of Italy. Culturally and linguistically, the two had much in common. So much so that it was decided that settling their differences through outright war made little sense. In all other matters they were allies and, should they clash spears, regardless of who one both cities would be weaker after all the bloodshed. That would open them both up to an attack from outsiders. From creepy, weird people with strange gods who spoke strange, non-Latin languages. And honestly, what could be worse? I mean, can you imagine being conquered by someone down from France who spoke… GASP… proto-Celtic?
You know, eww. Irish people.
It was decided therefore that their differences would be resolved by recourse to Champions, which was not an uncommon decision in the ancient world. And really, if we’re honest, that actually makes the Ancients seem rather civilized.
Imagine it. Really. Imagine if instead of letting around 3% of the world die in WW2, the belligerent countries had instead simply all agreed to send a handful of their toughest men to hash things out in the arena. Five big Germans named Hans. Five Frenchies armed with tactical baguettes. A handful of John Wayne type Americans wearing cowboy hats. Some Japanese with samurai swords and a couple of English blokes with monocles that liked to box with their hands upside down. Sure, on the surface putting a bunch of men in a circle and watching them fight to the death might seem a bit barbaric, but certainly it would have been less so than the war we fought instead. As it happens, bloodsport is always the answer.
That my friends was the basic idea of Warfare by Champion and, if ancient sources are to be believed then people of the past were often far more level-headed about resolving their differences than we are. Not seeing the enlightened 20th century wisdom of blowing up a few continents, The Ancients would sometimes engage in this kind of proxy fighting. You bring your best guys, we’ll bring ours, and let’s just settle it that way. We can skip all the slaughter and all of us be home by dinner? Deal?
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Now I should tell you that modern historians, people who think their job is to be professional killjoys and to over-analyze cool stories into non-existence, are mostly of the consensus that Warfare by Champion rarely if ever actually happened. They tend to think it was mostly just a poetic contrivance, a literary device intended to make the histories of war and battle more personal and gripping to the audience. You know, if told straight just about any war story is mostly going to be about masses of nameless men dying face down in the mud and it’s hard to really care about that. But! With the right amount of poetic license, you can change that. Give it some Pop! Some Pizzazz. You can take that tired old tale of soldier 73,257 getting pointlessly impaled and turn it instead into a tale of personal courage and martial skill with a beautiful golden hero squaring off against the other side’s hideous orcs! So it is that despite numerous cultures across time writing about Warfare by Champion, most academics today are inclined to dismiss it.
Me, personally… I’m not so sure. To my mind it is simply to frequently cited to be based on absolutely nothing. There are attestations of Champion Warfare during the Crusades for example, and in the Celtic epics, and of course famously in the Bible, when Goliath challenged anyone from the Tribe of Israel to come out and fight him to determine which nation would be the slave of which. Hector and Achilles fighting alone in single combat beyond the walls of Troy also comes to mind, as do the numerous similar scenes in the Chinese “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” or the Indian “Mahabharata.”
But no. No. “FAKE!” Cries the modern historian from behind his dusty glasses. His weak body tensing as he shouts every more angrily the words “MADE-UP!”
So, maybe it’s fake.
That’s what the experts would say.
Then again, today’s historians are the kind of nerds who decided “Corded Ware Culture” was an improvement on the name “Battle Ax Culture.”
So why are we listening to them?
Anyway, all those caveats aside, according to the ancient historian Livy, this particular Warfare by Champion between Rome and Alba Longa actually happened, or, at the very least, was believed by some to have actually happened. You see it just so happened that in each city there was a set of male triplets of roughly the same age. On Rome’s side there were the Horatius brothers and on Alba’s the three brothers Curiatius. These six young men were offered up by the waring cities as a kind of sacrifice. A means of avoiding greater bloodshed. They would fight to the death, and even the victors likely be maimed, but it would avoid a greater civilizational conflict and spare many lives. They were in a real sense each of them Christ figures, if you know, Christ had been trying to stab people.
Decked in their respective cities’ finest arms and armor and surrounded by spectators, the pair of triplets fall at each other viciously and initially the fight goes very poorly for the Romans. Though all three of the Curiatius triples are injured in the opening blows, two of the three Roman brothers are killed dead. Spear through the neck. Dagger through the eye. Publius, the last surviving member of the Roman side, was at this point the only one of the six still whole in body but, injuries or no, a three-on-one fight is seldom favorable odds. Thinking quickly, Publius feigned cowardice and turned to run and the three Curiatius brothers gave chase. For the length of about two football fields they ran but, just as Publius had planned, the various injuries of his opponents made each of them run at vastly different speeds. Publius turned and found that the three brothers were now separated by many yards, the most injured in the back, the least at the forefront, and the one with intermediate injuries in the middle. Quickly Publius changed tack and attacked them, now able to briefly fight each injured man one-on-one. The first brother went down to his spear and the second soon followed. The third brother, now wise to the deception but too badly hurt for hope of escape, stood his ground and fought bravely, but ultimately fruitlessly.
Spear point pierced his breastplate.
The last of Alba Longa’s Champions went down. Rome was victorious and Alba Longa had to submit to Roman rule.
Naturally the Romans held Publius as a hero. As he strode home that evening at the head of a great throng of men all singing his praises and cheering his name, Publius was no doubt of a mixed mind. On the one hand he had just lost his two brothers and, perhaps, just killed for the first time. A sense of sadness and melancholy must surely have been walking with him. On the other hand he was now a Hero’s Hero, and the life of a victorious Champion is a good one. Riches were waiting for him at home as well as all the women a young man’s heart could desire. Yes, he must have been walking home that evening with a feverous mixture of grief and elation that most of us will never know.
But it was all to be cut brutally short.
By a woman no less. And isn’t that always the way?
On Killing Your Sister
You see, Publius had been one of three, yes. But they were not his mother’s only children. No. They had a sister. A young, beautiful Roman girl who, as Fate would have it, had been betrothed to one of the Curiatius boys her brother had just killed. Like most in those days their’s was an arranged marriage, her parents and the patriarch of the Curiatius clan having both decided that the two would be a good match. Nonetheless, she’d loved him from the moment she’d laid eyes on him, and his feelings for her had been the same. They spent every free moment they could together, playing at all the trivialities of young love and rejoicing in one another’s bodies. She’d knitted him a cloak and told him it would bring him luck and that she hoped to see him wear it on their wedding day. And now, standing at the city wall awaiting the approaching throng, she saw her brother Publius.
Her brother with that very cloak, draped across his back.
It was too much.
At the sight of her fiancé’s cloak and armor in her brother’s arms she fell to her knees in wailing tears. The girl tore at her hair and rent her clothes and pounded her fists in vain against the dirt for loss of her first love and future husband and father of her now forever unborn children. How could he have done such a thing? What cruel fate was this the gods had given her? That her own brother, a man she’d loved since childhood, should take from her her heart’s desire?
What fate indeed.
For Publius was revolted. Here was his sister, mourning the loss of an enemy more than the loss of her own brothers. What betrayal! Not only against countrymen but against family. Had she no tears for her mother’s sons? Instinctively, with no warning that would have offered by-standers time to dissuade him, Publius drew his sword and ran her through.
This was rather shocking.
Especially to her.
The girl gasped. The tears suddenly stopped streaming from her eyes as she looked down in shock at the piece of metal protruding from her abdomen and then up into the cold eyes of her brother who had murdered her. Her body tremored. As the blood left it the legs began to give way. Who was this man? This man she’d played hide-and-seek with in the garden. This man who’d killed her lover and had now sent her to join him.
Briefly it crossed her mind that for that she might be thankful.
Then with a slump of dead weight she fell, the sword from her brother’s hand falling with her as she went.
All of Rome was shocked.
Staring at the judgmental eyes all about him, without a hint of indignation Publius pointed down to the newly made corpse of his sister and declared, “So shall every Roman woman perish who mourns a foe.”
Contrary to how it was all going to work out in his mind, this declaration did not in fact absolve the young man from legal trouble.
“I am the Philistine champion, but you are only the servants of Saul. Choose one man to come down here and fight me! If he kills me, then we will be your slaves. But if I kill him, you will be our slaves!” — Goliath
No, in fact the Romans were appalled.
Again, barbaric as the ancient world could be they weren’t animals. Murder, especially murder of near-kin, was simply unforgivable. Such a man had to be hanged. More than that! He had to be tortured and then hanged. But they were all in a bit of a bind though because mere moments before this particular murderer had saved their entire people from enslavement, defeated their enemies, and guaranteed them hegemony over the whole of the Italian peninsula. In a very real sense they owed him their lives. It seemed inappropriate to jail or execute such a man and yet at the same time it seemed inappropriate not to. Well, the whole affair quickly became one of those hot button political issues nobody wanted to touch and the king of Rome dug up some old law of dubious relevance so he could get out of judging the case. He declared that he could, in fact, delegate his judiciary responsibilities to two respectable men of the city, and he did so, and those two men very quickly likewise found a legal loophole to offload their responsibility onto the people at large. Nobody wanted to touch the case. Let the mob figure it out.
So it was.
A people’s court was declared and Publius’s fate was now more or less up for popular vote. As must always be the case in a Democracy, recourse to logic or reason was summarily defenestrated, tossed out the window, and the whole thing broke down into one big emotional appeal.
Did they have room to emotionally appeal.
For the Defense Attorney in this case was none other than Publius’s own father, patriarch of the Horatius clan. With tears in his eyes and fire in his heart the old man stood up before the tumultuous crowds and promptly threw his daughter under the bus. “She deserved it!” he claimed. “A traitor to Rome! Had I been there I’d have asked the crowd myself to do no less to her than what my son did!”
I dunno. Maybe not.
Look, what would you have done? Is this not an impossible position? You woke up that morning and you had four children. If you agree that your son is guilty you will go to bed that night with none. I’m sure he loved his daughter, yes but… she was already dead. There was no saving her. But his son… his last remaining child… he might be saved. If only he could convince the crowd. If only he can take away their sympathy for his daughter. If only he could perform well enough…
So he performed.
By God with all his might did he perform.
After making his case the father broke down and wept. He bawled. Not unlike his daughter hours before he tore at his hair and his clothes and pleaded with the crowd not to take his only remaining child from him, he who had already given them two to keep Rome free.
Like I say. Impossible situation on all sides.
The mob acquitted.
Not without conditions.
In order that the blood-guilt be atoned for in some manner, the Horatius clan was made to vow that they would offer expiatory sacrifices for the dead eternally, until the end of time, and a large wooden beam was laid across the street and the young man Publius was made to crawl beneath it with a bag over his head. The Sororium Tigillum it was called. “The Sister’s Beam.” Generations came and generations went and the Sororium Tigillum remained, eventually coming to be upkept at public expense as a reminder to the people of the episode, eventually becoming a site sacred to Juno.
Isn’t that a better story than you’d get out of a modern historian? Half-way through they’d pause and try to force you to listen to a diatribe about the tax rate on bananas and how that caused class-inequality which lead to a workers revolt which sparked the yada-yada-yada who cares.
To be worth telling history has to be about people, not “trends and forces.” Ancient History is human.
Even if it’s not true, it is.
Now, if you’re like most people I’m guessing the bit at the end what with the crawling under the beam to atone for murder seems a bit confusing. We are largely unaccustomed to rituals of atonement. In fact, modern people often don’t really even believe in guilt, so we’d have to start there if we want to understand the Roman mind. Today everything is pathologized. Everything is an illness. The average man on the street today is likely to believe, deep down, that people who do bad things are just sick in the head, or at the very least victims of circumstance. People can’t simply be murderers anymore. No. They have to be psychopaths. They have to have an illness. Similarly, nobody’s a “vagrant” anymore, they’re “unhoused,” they’re people that have been failed by “The System.” Or you know, people can’t simply be thieves wanting free stuff, theft has to be “the voice of the voiceless” or some other such thing, fighting back against “systemic injustice.”
Well, if we admit there’s some validity to all that, can we also admit that sometimes perfectly sane, perfectly privileged, perfectly well-fed people… sometimes just do evil. Of their own free volition. Can we admit that sometimes people… just do bad?
I’ve met many people who can’t admit that. If they did it wouldn’t fit in their worldview. They think that people behaving anti-socially is ipso facto proof of some kind of mental illness, as though it’s irrational or “mentally ill” to want to put one’s on benefit or desires before the benefit of everyone else. Modern people don’t know how to account for evil, and by the same token have no idea how to account for guilt.
The Ancients did though.
They may have been weak on mental illness, but they understood guilt.
Rituals for the removal of guilt, the removal of sin, abounded. All over the world, from Trinidad and Tobago to Timbuktu, societies have devised methods for reintegrating guilty parties back into the good graces of the tribe. It was a necessity. Things used to be a lot more lawless and things happened. If you just executed or exiled everyone who ran afoul of the law you’d rapidly lose a lot of your young, productive population. You could maybe jail them, but jails, especially for small towns or nomadic tribes, are expensive and impractical. At the same time though you also couldn’t just pretend they’d not done something worthy of reprimand. There had to be a system in place for such people and cultures around the world came up with interesting methods.
In the Bible of course the most common ritual employed for such purposes was Scapegoating. In this practice a priest would take a goat (yes, a real, actual animal) and symbolically place a person’s guilt on it. After this the animal would either be killed directly or else driven off into the wilderness to be eaten by predators. By this method the goat dies on behalf of the offending party.
The goat dies for you.
And today… we think that’s weird.
Like I said, it’s not clear to me what people today think Guilt is but back then it was an exceedingly straightforward concept: Guilt was a debt. It was something you owed. Guilt was a negative entry somewhere out there on your cosmic ledge, that great Excel Spreadsheet in the Sky of all your Rights and Wrongs visible only to God. Today maybe we’re more inclined to think of guilt as purely emotional, or maybe as a state of being… but I think we’re unlikely to frame it in terms of economics.
Transactions however, are spiritual things, and the notion of debt far preceded the notion of denarii or dollars. You can see this for example in The Ten Commandments. Have you ever noticed that all of them… every single one, is some variation on the theme “Thou Shalt Not Steal?”
Stephen King pointed this out in “The Stand” I believe. Good book. Probably his best.
Murder? Well that’s the stealing of a life. Adultery? Stealing of a wife. Coveting is the desire to steal and idolatry the theft of honor and worship rightly due to God given unto something else. Likewise if you do not honor your father and mother you steal from them, for they sacrificed much to bring you into the world and raise you. If you bear false witness you rob people of The Truth.
Transactions are spiritual and Justice is giving to each what he deserves.
Sin therefore, ultimately, is always a form of theft.
Sin is something you owe.
It’s a debt. A karmic debt.
Hence the Lord’s prayer is most accurately translated as “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” All that modern language about “forgive us our trespasses” and so on in my opinion greatly misses the point. It renders the atonement process mostly nonsensical to us today. I mean, “a trespass”, whatever that even is, how could you amend it? Are we talking about walking unauthorized on someone else's property? What gives? And, if we are, can I un-walk over the place that I have walked? No. And besides all that, trespassing is mostly a victimless crime. I walked on your land when you weren’t there. Okay? Sue me. What’s the big deal. Trespassing in the modern usage of the term is both inconsequential and un-rectifiable. How then is it a good word for speaking about sins?
But a debt?
Modern people understand a debt.
A debt can be paid and, most importantly, from a theological perspective, a debt can be paid by anybody, not just the offending party. If your son gets a speeding ticket you can pay it for him. Everyone agrees. It is universally acknowledged that it actually doesn’t matter who pays to atone for such an infraction, so long as the payment is in fact made. So we have at our disposal a ready-made model for the forgiveness of sins that is easy to understand and maps onto our lived experience with The Law but for some reason have decided that the word “trespass” is a better alternative.
Well, that’s modern theologians for you. I suspect they just favor the bigger words so they can sound smart.
The point is though that the Israelites had a ritualistic method for atoning for guilt and that the Romans did too.
And the interesting thing is that Jesus used both.
Atonement (At-One-Ment, Yes it Literally Means This)
Anyone who’s spent time in Sunday School will by this point readily understand the connection between The Cross and the Scapegoat. Blood for blood. A debt to be paid. Penal substitutionary atonement.
Mankind, in the aggregate, has committed great sins. The war, the rape, the lies, the greed, the theft, the genocide, the anger, the backbiting, the gossip, the jealousy, the adultery, the infanticide… The list of our sins is long. The amount of suffering we have caused, not only to other people but to animals, plants, the Earth itself and to the angels… who can count it? And for all that, karmically, from the perspective of Justice, of debts to be paid…
We deserved death.
Our species deserved death.
How can God be Judge and not balance the Karmic Records? Must not every debt be paid? Ever wrong atoned for? Punishment was required. The Law of Karma demanded it. But… He being merciful, and unwilling to let his children suffer the just deserts of their own evil, decided to pay that karma for us. Taking on the Death on our behalf.
Blood for blood.
God himself became the scapegoat and, in that moment, felt the full weight of every single act of evil that Mankind would ever commit and suffered for it all. It was so frightening and terrible that God had to reject himself and turn his face away, for Christ did not cry out in vain that his Father had forsaken him. With his death Jesus made peace. Paid the debts. Balanced the cosmic ledger.
But what about The Beam?
Submission to God
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Jesus, Matthew 11: 28-30
The story of Publius and The Sister’s Beam makes a lot more sense when you understand the context. For many generations at that time, warfare around The Mediterranean had been harsh and brutal. Army conquered army, spear clashed against shield, and swords pierced the necks of men otherwise covered in bronze. Sometimes these battles were fought to the bitter end, one side completely obliterating the other in something of a small scale genocide. More often though, once it was clear which side was going to prevail, the losers would surrender and agree to live at the cost of becoming the slaves of the conquering army. Not ideal, obviously, but better than death, at least to some. It was a tough call though for Rome, you see, tended to impose rather harsh humiliations on its conquered foes.
For example, there was a period of time there where it was common Roman policy that the soldiers were allowed to rape, murder, and otherwise plunder a captured city for a period of exactly one day after it was taken. Twenty-four hours. No rules. “Hey boys! Go wild!” The Romans took it a step further however (look, you can’t create a global empire by being nice, just ask the U.S.A.). Not content to merely rape and kill and pillage, newly conquered slaves had to be humiliated. The Romans felt it necessary to impress upon their captives, in a raw and visceral way, their newfound status. Freemen no longer, they were stripped of their clothing and forced to march, one-by-one, beneath a makeshift Yoke.
Now the tradition probably began with a real, actual yoke, like the kind used for Oxen, but, overtime, likely because a real yoke was seldom on-hand, the “yoke” became a thing made by the tying together of three spears.
The idea was of course to psychologically reduce the men to the level of animals. They were henceforth beasts of burden, like oxen, and considered to be worth about as much. They were no longer fit to own property or to vote or even, in some cases, to have wives. They were oxen. They would toil in the field until the day they died.
“Passing Beneath the Beam” then became a euphemism for humiliation and Publius, by being forced to pass under such a beam was, like a new slave, spared his life but reduced in status. This was seen as going a good way towards the alleviating of his bloodguilt and, by submission to this humiliation, he gained some atonement with the community. It really was sort of a “We’ll let you live…dog!” sort of thing. Overtime, perhaps because of the story of Publius, the “passing beneath the beam” of a conquered army came to serve a dual purpose. One, as said, humiliation, but two, it came to also function as a ritual of forgiveness. These men had just been fighting you, after all. They’d likely killed many of your comrades, your fellow Romans, your friends. They had blood on their hands but, by agreeing to pass beneath the beam… they sort of paid for it. They gave up a part of their life, their honor, their respect, in some cases even their ability to sire progeny, to atone for the lives they had taken.
Blood for blood.
Life, for life.
That was the idea anyway.
And by Jesus’ time when Rome was near its zenith that ritual would have been well known. We can’t be certain of course that Jesus had this practice in mind when he uttered the words I quoted above but, personally, I think it’s likely that he did. He was after all, setting himself up as King. King of Kings in fact, a charge for which the Romans would eventually kill him. In contrasting his yoke to the yoke of the Romans he was asking people to submit and humble themselves to himself instead of to Ceasar. To Heaven instead of to Worldly Power. Like Ceasar he too was offering a means of forgiveness… but one which ended with you being a servant of God instead of a servant of Rome.
For my part I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the man who started this tradition was named Publius. I don’t think anything’s a coincidence. Publius… a name so very close to the word “Public”, to the word “People”. Such a thing can hardly be an accident. The People, The Public, Mankind… We can be forgiven all our wrongs if only we will humble ourselves before the proper King. The King who paid the price for our transgressions himself. Who balanced our Karmic Debts.
The King who became the scapegoat for all our sins.
Amor Vincit Omnia.
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