My mother was a real reader. She loved books and we had many boxes and shelves full of hardbacks and paperbacks. Being a woman of great faith, naturally many of her books were of an inspirational nature.
I was fascinated, as a child, with history. My fascination began with the heroic epics of Greece, tales of gods and heroes. From there, I turned my interest to the Roman Empire, and became somewhat familiar with the emperors of the early era, August, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.
We have a heritage of being enamored of royalty. It is part of our collective memory for countless generations. Just look at our devotion to the much berieved Princess of Wales, Diana. Even those of us in the United States, who repudiated the English monarchy over two centuries ago, find ourselves wholly interested in the doings of the current royal family of Great Britain.
These attitudes are not new. As far back as the times of the pharoahs, the masses have been conditioned to accept the monarch as divine. Though we are well past taking our devotions to that degree, we still ascribe to them some importance above the average. We don’t even need to see any virtue in them to maintain our confusion.
Such was my feeling about the emperors of Rome. It was so easy to overlook their numerous faults, because I was star-struck by their power and fame. I believe we also see that attitude in our worship of music and film celebrities.
It was this attitude about the Roman Empire and it’s rulers that made me choose The Robe out of all the books in my mother’s book collection for reading. There was somewhat of an interest in the religious nature of the book, but it was minor compared to my fascination with Rome.
I was not disappointed in the opening pages. The reader is first shown the life of a patrician Roman family, the family of Senator Marcus Lucan Gallio. Through the eyes of his daughter, Lucia, we learn of intrigues in the imperial family related to Gaius, the prince of Rome and chief administrator of imperial business while the old emperor, Tiberius, lives away on the island of Capri.
Principle in the story is the son of Senator Gallio, Tribune Marcellus Lucan Gallio. As with all young men of privelege in that era, Marcellus is martially trained and an officer. His no-nonsense father has instilled in him a disdain for the excesses of the imperial administration of Prince Gaius. At a banquet for the prince, Marcellus grows bored by a long ode to the prince, being read by it’s ancient author. Upon seeing that even the prince himself has fallen asleep, drunken Marcellus bursts into loud peels of laughter.
The treacherous prince, unwillingly to be thusly humiliated, assigns Marcellus to command a fort in distant Gaza. Though it is treated as an honor, the family knows that such an assignment amounts to either exile or death. The fort guards a trade route that is plagued by robbers and zealots, and many Roman officers have perished.
Also prominent in the story is Marcellus’ personal slave, Demetrius. Demetrius was also raised in a family of privelege, in Corinth. His father had spoken recklessly against Rome. Soldiers broke into Demetrius’ home, killed his parents, and took him captive. He was later sold to the Gallio family as a present to Marcellus. Demetrius takes his captivity in stride, since that is the way of things. Because he is well-treated, he maintains a certain loyalty to his young master.
The Robe presents an interesting commentary and study on the subject of slavery. Demetrius is easily the most interesting and endearing subject of the book, because he hates being a slave, but twice turns down an offer of manumission from his masters. It is clear from the story that he does this out of loyalty and love for his young master, Marcellus. Yet, the book does not pretend to condone, in the least, the practice of slavery. In fact, it is the secondary theme of the work, to condemn slavery and give ample evidence for why men ought not to own men.
In the fort at Gaza, life for Marcellus and Demetrius presents a stark contrast to the luxuries of patrician life in Rome and the pleasant diversions of the villa. Most of those in Marcellus’ command are hardened brawlers and he gains actual command of them through a fight with his second-in-command.
The custom of the day, for the fort in Gaza, was to send a contingent of soldiers to the annual Jewish feast of the Passover in Jerusalem. Here, in Jerusalem, we are treated, through the eyes of Demetrius the slave, to a glorious depiction of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Demetrius is deeply affected as Jesus pauses in his march to peer into Demetrius’ soul.
Over the next few days, Demetrius learns more about Jesus and is greatly impressed. His master, Marcellus, is busy with military duties and tending to his duties to the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When Demetrius sets out to find Jesus, he learns of Jesus’ arrest and arraignment before Pilate. He presses forward quickly to find out what is happening, only to discover that his master, Marcellus, received the unhappy duty of commanding the soldiers who were to crucify Christ. Marcellus knows that Jesus is innocent, but proceeds with his duty. His officers insist that he get drunk. A crucifixion is not a job for a sober man, and Marcellus complies. Then, as they cast lots at the foot of the cross, Marcellus wins the toss and the prize of Jesus’ simple homespun robe.
Demetrius is so distraught over his master’s conduct, that he resolves that night to run away to Damascus.
At a banquet in Pontius Pilate’s home, the soldiers are all continuing their drunkenness. As an entertainment, someone suggests that Marcellus, who is deeply brooding over his part in the foul deed of the day, put the spoils of the day, Jesus’ Robe, on.
‘Centurion Paulus wants to see that Robe,’ he [Marcellus] muttered. ‘Bring it here.’
Demetrius hesitated so long that Pilate regarded him with sour amazement.
‘Go–instantly–and get it!” barked Marcellus, angrily.
Regretting that he had put his master to shame, in the presence of the Procurator, Demetrius tried to atone for his reluctant obedience by moving swiftly…
Folding the blood-stained, torn-rent Robe over his arm, Demetrius returned to the banquet hall. He felt like a traitor, assisting in the mockery of a cherished friend. Surely this Jesus deserved better fate than to be abandoned–even in death–to the whims of a drunken soldier. Once, on the way, Demetrius came to a full stop and debated seriously whether to obey, or take the advice of Melas and run.
Marcellus glanced at the Robe, but did not touch it.
‘Put it on!’ shouted Paulus. ‘Here, Demetrius; hold the Robe for the Legate!’ He thrust it into Demetrius hands.
Someone yelled, ‘Put it on!’ And the rest of them took up the shout, pounding the tables with their goblets. ‘Put it on!’
Feeling that the short way out of the dilemma was to humor the drunken crowd, Marcellus rose and reached for the Robe. Demetrius stood clutching it in his arms, seemingly unable to release it. Marcellus was pale with anger.
‘Give it to me!’ he commanded, severely. All eyes were attentive, and the place grew quiet. Demetrius drew himself erect, with the Robe held tightly in his folded arms. Marcellus waited a long moment, breathing heavily. Then suddenly drawing back his arm he slapped Demetrius in the face with his open hand. It was the first time he had ever ventured to punish him.
Demetrius slowly bowed his head and handed Marcellus the Robe; then stood with slumped shoulders while his master tugged it on over the sleeves of his toga. A gale of appreciative laughter went up, and there was tumultuous applause. Marcellus did not smile. His face was drawn and haggard. The room grew still again. As a man in a dream, he fumbled woodenly with the neck of the garment, trying to pull it off his shoulder. His hands were shaking.
‘Shall I help you, sir?’ asked Demetrius, anxiously.
Marcellus nodded; and when Demetrius had relieved him of the Robe, he sank into his seat as if his knees had suddenly buckled under him.
From that moment, Marcellus was a changed man. He lost his mind, though not entirely. His love interest, back home in Rome, one Diana, had pulled some strings with her grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, to bring Marcellus home.
Unaware of how ill their son had become, Marcellus’ family was not prepared for the man they saw when he arrived. He would seem in normal humor, though he looked worn, then would go into a deep trance-like reverie and ask, “Were you out there?”
His mind was reverting to the horrible scenes on Golgotha where he crucified one he knew to be an innocent man. His family decided he needed a long vacation, and he was sent away.
Demetrius had taken such good care of Marcellus after the madness had set in, that Senator Gallio offered Demetrius his freedom, but Demetrius declined.
Away from home, staying at lavish lodgings, Marcellus was no more sane than when he left home. Demetrius had kept the Robe, despite Marcellus’ command to burn it. Touching the Robe was somehow comforting to Demetrius.
After trying many things to get his master’s mind back, Demetrius settled on a plan to have Marcellus touch the Robe. He left it out, in his room, where he knew his master might see it.
Marcellus, in a deep depression over his difficulties, entered Demetrius room in search of a knife with which to take his own life.
Unbuckling the belt of his tunic and casting it aside, Marcellus entered the Corinthian’s small bedchamber, and saw the gunny-sack on his couch. His hands were trembling as he moved forward toward it; for it was no light matter to be that close to death.
Now he stopped! There it was–the Thing! He slowly retreated and leaned against the wall. Ah!–so the ingenious Demetrius had anticipated his decision! He was going to defend his stolen daggers with the Robe! Marcellus clenched his hands and growled. He would have it out with this Thing!
Resolutely forcing his feet to obey, he moved slowly to the couch and stretched out a shaking hand. The sweat was pouring down his face and his legs were so weak he could hardly stand. Suddenly he brought his hand down with a violent movement as if he were capturing a living thing.
For a long moment, Marcellus stood transfixed, his fingers buried in the long-feared and hated garment. Then he sat down on the edge of the couch and slowly drew the Robe toward him. He stared at it uncomprehendingly; held it up to the light; rubbed it softly against his bare arm. He couldn’t analyze his peculiar sensations, but something very strange had happened to him. His agitation was stilled. Rising as if from a dream, le laid the Robe over his arm and went out into the peristyle. He sat down and draped it across the broad arms of his chair. He smoothed it gently with his hand. He felt a curious elation; an indefinable sense of relief–relief from everything! A great load had been lifted! He wasn’t afraid anymore! Hot tears gathered in his eyes and overflowed.
Now freed from his guilt and pain, Marcellus and Demetrius, separately and together, embark on a journey to discover the man who wore the Robe that had so profoundly influenced their lives. The Robe is their story, one of forgiveness and enlightment.
The outward message of The Robe tends to define the mission of Jesus in political terms. When Marcellus decides he is a Christian, he preaches a gospel of “another kingdom” other than Rome. Little is said of the atoning nature of Jesus’ mission, and one might conclude from reading the novel, that the author was unsure of this aspect of the nature of the Savior. Much attention is paid to the idea that Jesus came saying there was a kingdom not of this world and inviting people to come into that kingdom.
Despite the weight given to the political focus of Jesus’ message, the message of the atonement is really the central theme of the book, objectified in the symbol of the blood-stained Robe that freed both Demetrius and Marcellus from their individual slavery. The value in the atonement is more than a mere forgiveness of sins. From the cross, Jesus forgave Marcellus, but the real work was in Marcellus’ which is clearly evident in the story, but not paid the slightest commentary by the author, as it should be.
Of the lessons I learned in reading The Robe, perhaps the most important to me, personally, was in Marcellus’ facing the source of his fear. How freeing it is to confront life’s difficulties head on, to take hold of the symbols of our sins and embrace them responsibly. To let go, we must often first grab ahold. Avoidance never solved anything. I’ve heard it said that in order to face life that we must accept it as inherently difficult. I believe that more than accepting that life is difficult, we must embrace the difficulties that come our way and claim them as our own. In my interpretation, that is what Marcellus did when he grasped the Robe to “have it out.”
In taking hold of our difficulties, we cope with them, rather than avoid them. In that approach lies the elusive solutions, and we are transfixed.
There were other serieses about Mars, Venus, and a few stray science fiction works. Edgar Rice Burroughs was a prolific writer of the kinds of books that kids from my and previous generations loved. I asked if I could read them and my mother seemed excited that I would enjoy them.
I read and read and read them. Back then, if you could read 20 books in a year and do a report on them, you’d get a certificate. I had no problem getting that certificate. I read all of my mother’s Burroughs collection but Tarzan was my favorite.
His life among the fierce apes had been happy; for his recollection held no other life, nor did he know that there existed in the universe aught else than his little forest and the wild jungle animals with which he was familiar.
Did anyone else enjoy these?