I'm reading Josephus' The Jewish War, as you do. I love the bizarre intrigues of the Herod family and the hugely inflated numbers of people involved in everything, although the battles and the long list of forgettable names kind of lose me. Most of all I love this story, about a Roman general called Petronius who has just become my hero of the week.
In 37 AD the Roman Emperor Tiberius died and was succeeded by his adopted grandson, Gaius Caligula. Not much good could be said of Tiberius but at least he was not completely crackers. Caligula on the other hand was as mad as a cut snake and poor Petronius, as the chief imperial administrator in the Middle East, was now required to do whatever this madman said.
Josephus takes up the story.
Gaius Caesar's accession to power so completely turned his head that he wished to be thought of and addressed as a god, stripped his country of its noblest men, and proceeded to lay sacrilegious hands on Judaea. He ordered Petronius to march with an army to Jerusalem and erect his statues in the temple: if the Jews refused them, he was to execute the objectors and enslave all the rest of the population.
What will Petronius do? Will he obey, and bring about the pointless deaths of thousands of Jews who will give their lives to prevent this sacrilege? Or will he disobey, and add his name to the long list of high-ranking Romans Caligula has summarily executed? He reluctantly sets out with his army and the offending statues, but when it comes down to it he has no stomach for the slaughter of innocent people.
The Jews with their wives and children massed on the plain near the city, and appealed to Petronious first for their ancestral laws, and then for themselves. He yielded to the demands of such a formidable crowd, and left the army and the statues in Ptolemais.
Faced with an impossible situation, Petronius does what any good public servant would do - he calls a meeting. Here he explains the threats that Caligula has made and mounts the argument that everyone else has statues of the Emperor in their temple, so why not the Jews? It looks positively disloyal.
In reply the Jewish leaders plead their laws and ancient traditions. Petronius responds:
"Quite so; but I too am bound to keep the law of my sovereign lord: if I break it and spare you, I shall perish as I deserve. It will be the Emperor himself who will make war on you, not I. I am subject to authority just as you are."....The Jews replied that for Caesar and the people of Rome they sacrificed twice a day. But if he wished to set up the images in their midst, he must sacrifice the whole Jewish race: they were ready to offer themselves as victims with their wives and children.
Many of the sorry parade of cruel, corrupt Roman officials who appear in Josephus' account would have been all too ready to accept their offer, push on regardless, win the favour of Caesar and get their hands on the wealth of those they killed. Petronius was different.
This reply filled Petronius with wonder and pity for the unparalleled religious fervour of these brave men and the courage that made them so ready to die. So for the time being they were dismissed with nothing settled.
Poor Petronius! He is walking a tightrope, trying to save his own skin and the skins of his subjects at the same time. He has not managed to negotiate his way through the impasse, and he is not prepared to achieve the goal through mass slaughter. His next strategy is to delay. He sends them away, does nothing, then brings them back for more talks. Over what sounds like a long series of meetings he cajoles, reasons and threatens, all to no avail. But although he threatens, at no point does he use his military might to force the issue.
Another of his qualities as a skilled administrator is that he doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture.
Nothing he could think of had any effect, and he saw that the land was in danger of remaining unsown; for it was the seedtime, and the crowds had wasted seven weeks in idleness. So at last he got them together and said: "it is better for me to take the risk. With God's help I shall convince Caesar and we can all breathe again: if he is exasperated, I will gladly give my life for so many." Then he dismissed the throng, who offered many prayers on his behalf.
Like our best public servants, he has compassion. He neither wants to slaughter his people, nor allow them to starve. In the end, he does that most difficult thing for a public servant to do - he takes a risk. He tries to change his boss's mind. He will need every one of the prayers of that throng because his boss is a raving homicidal lunatic, but he would rather take the risk than watch innocent people die. He knows that at least he has bought some more time - it is a long way from Antioch to Rome when all you have is horse- or wind-power.
The story has a happy ending, though it is a close thing.
Gaius replied in no gentle terms, threatening Petronius with death for his slowness in carrying out his orders. But as it happened the messengers who carried this reply were held up for three months by storms at sea, while others who brought news of Gaius' death had a good voyage....
Gaius Caligula was replaced as emperor by the eminently sane Claudius, and the madcap scheme was quietly dropped. Petronius got to go back to doing his job, no doubt aided by the ongoing prayers and respect of the subjects he had saved from slaughter.
Our public servants are fortunate enough to not risk execution for failing to carry out their masters' often silly and occasionally disastrous commands. They can be sacked, though, and replaced with more compliant servants. Still, they have the same resources Petronius used to navigate this situation. They can consult and negotiate before they act. They can delay and buy themselves time. When all else fails, they can risk their own necks in an attempt to make their bosses see reason in preference to carrying out policies that will cause real harm.
If they are skillful enough, better times may come around before the fatal commmand has to finally be obeyed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Caligula's reign lasted just on three years....