The Centurion by Arthur Conan Doyle
First published in Hearst's International, Oct 1922
First book appearance in The Unknown Conan Doyle, 1929
[Being the fragment of a letter from Sulpicius Balbus, Legate of the Tenth
Legion, to his uncle, Lucius Piso, in his villa near Baiæ, dated The
Kalends of the month of Augustus in the year 824 of Rome.]
I promised you, my dear uncle, that I would tell you anything of interest
concerning the siege of Jerusalem; but, indeed, these people whom we imagined
to be unwarlike have kept us so busy that there has been little time for
letter- writing. We came to Judæa thinking that a mere blowing of
trumpets and a shout would finish the affair, and picturing a splendid
triumph in the via sacra to follow, with all the girls in Rome throwing flowers
and kisses to us. Well, we may get our triumph, and possibly the kisses
also, but I can assure you that not even you who have seen such hard service on
the Rhine can ever have experienced a more severe campaign than this has been.
We have now won the town, and to-day their temple is burning, and the smoke
sets me coughing as I sit writing in my tent. Put it has been a terrible
business, and I am sure none of us wish to see Judæa again.
In fighting the Gauls, or the Germans, you are against brave men, animated
by the love of their country. This passion acts more, however, upon some
than others, so that the whole army is not equally inflamed by it. These Jews,
however, besides their love of country, which is very strong, have a desperate
religious fervour, which gives them a fury in battle such as none of us
have ever seen. They throw themselves with a shriek of joy upon our swords
and lances, as if death were all that they desired.
If one gets past your guard may Jove protect you, for their knives are
deadly, and if it comes to a hand-to-hand grapple they are as dangerous as
wild beasts, who would claw out your eyes or your throat. You know that our
fellows of the Tenth Legion have been, ever since Cæsar's time, as
rough soldiers as any with the Eagles, but I can assure you that I have seen
them positively cowed by the fury of these fanatics. As a matter of fact we
have had least to bear, for it has been our task from the beginning to guard
the base of the peninsula upon which this extraordinary town is built. It has
steep precipices upon all the other sides, so that it is only on this one
northern base that fugitives could escape or a rescue come. Meanwhile, the
fifth, fifteenth, and the twelfth or Syrian legions have done the work,
together with the auxiliaries. Poor devils! we have often pitied them, and
there have been times when it was difficult to say whether we were attacking
the town or the town was attacking us. They broke down our tortoises with their
stones, burned our turrets with their fire, and dashed right through our whole
camp to destroy the supplies in the rear. If any man says a Jew is not a
good soldier, you may be sure that he has never been in Judæa.
However, all this has nothing to do with what I took up my stylus to tell
you. No doubt it is the common gossip of the forum and of the baths how our
army, excellently handled by the princely Titus, carried one line of wall af
ter the other until we had only the temple before us. This, however, is—
or was, for I see it burning even as I write—a very strong fortress.
Romans have no idea of the magnificence of this place. The temple of which
I speak is a far finer building than any we have in Rome, and so is the Palace,
built by Herod or Agrippa, I really forget which. This temple is two hundred
paces each way, with stones so fitted that the blade of a knife will not go
between, and the soldiers say there is gold enough within to fill the
pockets of the whole army. This idea puts some fury into the attack, as you can
believe, but with these flames I fear a great deal of the plunder will be
There was a great fight at the temple, and it was rumoured that it would be
carried by storm to-night, so I went out on to the rising ground whence one
sees the city best. I wonder, uncle, if in your many campaigns you have ever
smelt the smell of a large beleaguered town. The wind was south to-night, and
this terrible smell of death came straight to our nostrils. There were half a
million people there, and every form of disease, starvation, decomposition,
filth and horror, all pent in within a narrow compass. You know how the lion
sheds smell behind the Circus Maximus, acid and foul. It is like that, but
there is a low, deadly, subtle odour which lies beneath it and makes your very
heart sink within you. Such was the smell which came up from the city to-
As I stood in the darkness, wrapped in my scarlet chlamys—for the
evenings here are chill—I was suddenly aware that I was not alone. A
tall, silent figure was near me, looking down at the town even as I was. I
could see in the moonlight that he was clad as an officer, and as I approached
him I recognized that it was Longinus, third tribune of my own legion, and a
soldier of great age and experience. He is a strange, silent man, who is
respected by all, but understood by none, for he keeps his own council and
thinks rather than talks. As I approached him the first flames burst from the
temple, a high column of fire, which cast a glow upon our faces and gleamed
upon our armour. In this red light I saw that the gaunt face of my companion
was set like iron.
"At last!" said he. "At last!"
He was speaking to himself rather than to me, for he started and seemed
confused when I asked him what he meant.
"I have long thought that evil would come to the place," said he. "Now I see
that it has come, and so I said 'At last!'"
"For that matter," I answered, "we have all seen that evil would come to the
place, since it has again and again defied the authority of the
He looked keenly at me with a question in his eyes. Then he said:
"I have heard, sir, that you are one who has a ftill sympathy in the matter
of the gods, believing that every man should worship according to his
own conscience and belief."
I answered that I was a Stoic of the school of Seneca, who held that this
world is a small matter and that we should care little for its fortunes, but
develop within ourselves a contempt for all but the highest.
He smiled in grim fashion at this.
"I have heard," said he, "that Seneca died the richest man in all Nero's
Empire, so he made the best of this world in spite of his philosophy."
"What are your own beliefs?" I asked. "Are you, perhaps, one who has
fathomed the mysteries of Isis, or been admitted to the Society of
"Have you ever heard," he asked, "of the Christians?"
"Yes," said I. "There were some slaves and wandering men in Rome who called
themselves such. They worshipped, so far as I could gather, some man who died
over here in Judæa. He was put to death, I believe, in the time of
"That is so," he answered. "It was at the time when Pilate was procurator
—Pontius Pilate, the brother of old Lucius Pilate, who had Egypt in the
time of Augustus. Pilate was of two minds in the matter, but the mob was as
wild and savage as these very men that we have been contending with. Pilate
tried to put them off with a criminal, hoping that so long as they had blood
they would be satisfied. But they chose the other, and he was not strong enough
to withstand them. Ah! it was a pity—a sad pity!"
"You seem to know a good deal about it," said I.
"I was there," said the man simply, and became silent, while we both
looked down at the huge column of flame from the burning temple. As it flared
up we could see the white tents of the army and all the country round. There
was a low hill just outside the city, and my companion pointed to it.
"That was where it happened," said he. "I forget the name of the place, but
in those days—it was more than thirty years ago—they put their
criminals to death there. But He was no criminal. It is always His eyes that I
think of—the look in His eyes."
"What about the eyes, then?"
"They have haunted me ever since. I see them now. All the sorrow of earth
seemed mirrored in them. Sad, sad, and yet such a deep, tender pity! One
would have said that it was He who needed pity had you seen His poor battered,
disfigured face. But He had no thought for Himself—it was the great world
pity that looked out of His gentle eyes. There was a noble maniple of the
legion there, and not a man among them who did not wish to charge the howling
crowd who were dragging such a man to His death."
"What were you doing there?"
"I was junior Centurion, with the gold vine-rod fresh on my shoulders.
I was on duty on the hill, and never had a job that I liked less.
But discipline has to be observed, and Pilate had given the order. But I
thought at the time—and I was not the only one—that this man's name
and work would not be forgotten, and that there would be a curse on the place
that had done such a deed. There was an old woman there, His mother, with her
grey hair down her back. I remember how she shrieked when one of our fellows
with his lance put Him out of his pain. And a few others, women and men, poor
and ragged, stood by Him. But, you see, it has turned out as I thought. Even in
Rome, as you have observed, His followers have appeared."
"I rather fancy," said I, "that I am speaking to one of them."
"At least, I have not forgotten," said he. "I have been in the wars ever
since with little time far study. But my pension is overdue, and when I have
changed the sagum for the toga, and the tent for some little farm up Como way,
then I shall look more deeply into these things, if, perchance, I can find some
one to instruct me."
And so I left him. I only tell you all this because I remember that you took
an interest in the man, Paulus, who was put to death for preaching this
religion. You told me that it had reached Cæsar's palace, and I can tell
you now that it has reached Cæsar's soldiers as well. But apart from this
matter I wish to tell you some of the adventures which we have had recently in
raiding for food among the hills, which stretch as far south as the river
Jordan. The other day…
[Here the fragment is ended.]