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Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

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