Thursday, December 6, 2012

December 6

 For Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb,
And the children of Daraa, Syria

Varus, old boy, it's been a dreadful year,
A dreadful decade; three sons all turned traitor
(That bitch's kids and scheming Antipater)
Those Persian spies, sedition far and near,
And then this endless, torturous disease --
Seized on by those revolting Pharisees
Who dared to challenge me: King of the Jews!
(With pus and gout it's hard to still look regal.)
...They soon were caught, of course. How odd they'd choose
To perish over one more Roman Eagle.

And that insidious December plot
Hatched by the rebels down in Bethlehem.
Of course we made short work of most of them,
But captured the ringleader kids and brought
Them back; it wasn't hard to make them sing.
I knew it -- treason, and some upstart king
They'd schemed to crown! What, Varus, was my error?
I, I, their cherished monarch, who rebuilt
Their Temple; kept them safe from crime and terror!
(I hope, before they died, they felt some guilt.)

…They'll have their new king ere the year is out.
Worms gnaw my flesh, the bitter end now nears;
Fool Antipater in his dungeon cheers,
And in the streets deluded masses shout
For some long-promised Savior of their land --
(On them you'll have to use a heavy hand).
Now go: find those the people most esteem,
Bring them to Jericho; they'll share my doom,
And all shall see the tears for me that stream
In loud lament. And write upon my tomb,

Here lies King Herod, Great Basileus:
Famed, feared, much honored, and much loved by us.


Historical notes:

Varus: Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC to 9 AD), a Roman general under Emperor Augustus, was most famous for losing three Roman legions in the disasterous battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Before this unfortunate end to his career (and life), however, Varus served as governor of Syria during the last years of King Herod's reign, and was known for his harsh rule and heavy taxes. When messianic anti-Roman revolts erupted after King Herod's death in 4 BC, Varus did indeed "use a heavy hand", crucifying over 2000 Jews in retaliation. 

King Herod's sons: King Herod had at least nine sons, and five daughters, by eight different wives. His family, though large, was not a happy one: he executed his own wife Mariamne I in 29 BC, as well as her two sons in 7 BC and his first-born son Antipater in 4 BC (shortly before his death) on charges of attempting to murder him. By his death, the royal succession was in such a mess and Herod had changed his will so many times, that Caesar Augustus point-blank refused to confirm it, instead splitting up Herod's kingdom between three of his remaining sons.

King Herod's disease: Nobody is quite sure what King Herod died of, but the symptoms sound atrocious: worms, incontinence, gangrene, fever, itching and bad breath to boot. Some experts suspect kidney disease complicated by Fournier's gangrene.

The Pharisees and the Roman Eagle: In the last months of Herod's life, a group led by two prominent Pharisees -- named Judas and Mattbias -- took advantage of Herod's illness to pull down a Roman Eagle he had set up over the front door of the Temple in Jerusalem (contrary to Jewish religious law). They were caught, sentenced to death and burned alive.

King Herod's last wish: King Herod did indeed command, in his last days, that "all the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation" be brought to Jericho and imprisoned there, to be slain after his death so that there would be loud displays of weeping. Fortunately, the final part of this wish was not carried out and the men were instead freed.

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