György Spiró

November 13, 2015 
The following is from György Spiró’s novel, Captivity, set in the first century A.D. Born in 1946 in Budapest, dramatist, novelist, and translator Spiró has earned a reputation as one of postwar Hungary’s most prominent and prolific literary figures. He teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures.

At first light on Sunday the ship was loaded, along with the galley slaves, with all sorts of precious cargo, half of which were luxury goods that the rich of Judaea craved, their wives especially: oils, paints, and balms with which it was the latest fad to daub the body in Italia; caskets of jewels; small mirrors; little jars. There were also medicinal herbs guaranteed to cure all manner of ills, either moist in barrels that kept them fresh or in sacks, dried and powdered: rejuvenating salves, aperients to loosen constipated bowels, emollients to calm loose bowels, remedies to inhibit hair loss or counter balding, potions to regrow split nails or banish pimples and warts—all in copious quantities.

The other half of the cargo consisted of Sicilian wine and sizable sacks of almonds. Before now, Uri would have been unable to conceive of that amount of almonds. He had eaten them once before: the roast fish at his bar mitzvah had a thin sprinkling of roasted almonds.

Uri himself also carried a number of smaller parcels over the plank onto the skiff which plied between the ship anchored in the bay and the shore; squinting sideways, he marveled meanwhile at the slaves, who, without a word of complaint, carried barrel after barrel, their eyes dull, apathetic, as if they were oxen or mules driving a mill. When they had finished, they seated themselves in comfort, insofar as their chains permitted; they were chained together in groups of ten, thanks to the newfangled Roman decimal system, which the Jews of Judaea had also adopted, so it seemed the chain gang was an Italian product. It was obviously more comfortable if the shackles were not unfastened when they prayed. Uri got to thinking whether it was pleasing to the Lord to be prayed to by people who had been clapped in irons, although of course He must have gotten used to that sort of thing down the millennia.

The slave driver and his assistant arrived and doled out the rations into small dishes, which were produced from under their leather-belted tunics. The slaves slurped greedily and dug into their food with dirty hands. Uri wondered what he would do if he had been born a slave; he would die of hunger if he could not wash his hands.

I didn’t say goodbye to Aaron’s slaves, it crossed Uri’s mind, and he felt an unpleasant twinge in the pit of his stomach. What must they have thought of the delegation? What had his grandfather, Thaddeus the slave, thought of masters?

When the sailors, sleepily, tottering, put in an appearance, the captain, who had not been with them at the brothel but had celebrated the Sabbath together with the slaves and some of the slave drivers, issued the order to set sail. Uri wondered if a wench had been rowed out to the boat for him, or maybe he had a male lover among the slaves.

The travelers were dead tired by the time they came to say dawn prayers, bowing to the prow of the boat in a southeasterly direction, or rather, more to the east. The stem had an odd appearance; the curved beams on the two sides were arched gracefully toward each other and upward, as if seeking each other out proudly at the front, yet they met merely in a stubby, thick stump. Uri gazed at the stump with tightly screwed eyes before gradually realizing that a figurehead of some kind must once have been placed there, a god or goddess, as was customary on Roman ships, but when it was bought by Jews they had it sawed off. They circumcised the ship, thought Uri sardonically, before chiding himself.

The ship had been late, waiting for a consignment of balsam that had not arrived in time for some reason. They had also been waiting for a substantial cargo from Galilee, and things from there were always delayed; people there were never in a hurry. The timber had been loaded a long time ago, but balsam now fetched a high price, so it was worth waiting for it.

The captain had also heard about there being a demonstration of some sort at the stadium in Caesarea, but that had not been organized by local Jews; they were very sober-minded and calm and had nothing to do with it. These were people from Jerusalem, not in the hundreds or thousands, just a few dozen angry vagabonds; they had come to no harm and had gone home peacefully. That was not the reason for their being late; it was because the balsam had not arrived.

The ship was pervaded with the aroma of balsam. Nauseated by it, Uri tried vainly to rid his nostrils of the smell. Their quarters were in the belly of the ship, but the dreadful stench there proved, if anything, even more penetrating, so he went up on deck at the stern, sat down with his back against the wall of the bridge, and went to sleep, seated in the open air.

He woke up to find his hands were freezing and felt a tickle. He grabbed and got a yelp in response. He opened his eyes to see a squat, short-legged, short-coated, odd-looking, long-snouted, light brown dog leap away. It came to a stop about three feet away and watched expectantly. Its legs were not just stubby but also bowed, and its long tail whisked right and left. Uri had not had much to do with animals, having at most had to chase away cats, of which there were a great abundance in Rome; a few of the residents of Far Side had kept goats and sheep, out of respect for tradition, but only a few, because there was nowhere to graze them.

“He’s called Remus,” said in Aramaic a sailor who had just shinned down one of the masts.

“So was his mother Romulus?” Uri quipped back good-naturedly, now that he could speak in his family’s secret tongue.

The sailor didn’t get it, however, and he shook his head and vanished.

Uri clucked at the dog and called out its name, whereupon the dog wagged its tail even more enthusiastically, padded over toward Uri, and looked at him even more expectantly. Uri slowly opened the hand that had been licked and stroked him. The dog allowed him, indeed pushed his muzzle vigorously under Uri’s hand so that he would go on stroking him; not being able to do so himself because of his short legs.

Until the time for prayers came around again, Uri stroked the sleeping dog nestled on his lap.

Remus was not the only dog on board; there were eight or nine of them, the precise number varying depending on which sailor was asked. They were used to hunt any rats and mice that pillaged the freight. All were short-bodied, long-nosed dogs that could wriggle through gaps—the smaller the dog, the better. In fact, they were hunting dogs, specially bred by the Romans and very useful, because they did not have to be fed, only allowed to work and given water now and then.

Wherever Uri went, Remus was sure to follow. He formed the view that the dog knew him better than his human companions, recognizing that he was a reliable and affectionate person. Or did loneliness have its own aura? Was that what the dog smelled?

Countless leather bottles of water, along with dried figs, salted raw fish, smoked fish, and dried fish had been stocked for the crew and passengers, along with several hundred pounds of unleavened bread, baked in thicker portions than matzos generally were. Uri grew tired of the monotonous diet by the first evening; they were taking water to sea, taking fish to sea. It seemed the Creation had not been devised to absolute perfection.

With a favorable northwesterly wind to fill the sails, they forged eastward and later northeastward. The captain said that in the spring it was always better going from Syracusa to Caesarea than the reverse. The slaves, who rowed on the lower level of the bireme, the upper level left empty, were being given a break. Uri looked down on them. They were lying, chained to each other, naked in the gloom of the ship’s belly. Light and air they got from above, from where they could be reached by clambering down a ladder, except that the ladder was pulled up right then. It was only let down when the armed slave drivers took victuals down to them, with the ladders being pulled up after them once they’d scrambled up with the vessels of excrement. One of the slave drivers was always down there with them to control the rhythm of the rowing; he was now resting alongside them—that being his occupation right then. Slave drivers were relieved, not so the slaves.

The long oars had been drawn in. There were something like forty down below. One of the drivers noticed that Uri was looking at the slaves with interest and straight away began explaining to him in Greek that the oars that were located on the upper bank were much longer, and there were twenty of them.

“We rarely use them,” he said, “because it’s harder to row with them. They’re saved for big storms, and then they are not to move the ship forward but to stabilize it. That is when the best oarsmen are directed to the upper level.”

He was a bald-pated, muscular man, who was beginning to get paunchier from leading a comfortable life. Uri found the heavy jowls and chops, the sycophantic currying of favor, distasteful, but he was grateful that here was someone from whom he could gain information.

“How does one become a slave driver?” he asked. 
The man was surprised.
 “You need merit and a dose of luck,” he said.
 “Could a more profitable, less dangerous occupation not be an option?”
 The driver was astonished at first, but then he had a moment of realization and broke into a broad grin. 
“I’m happy to be a slave driver, sir. Before that I worked in the galley down below for eight years.”
 Uri looked at the reclining bodies below.
 The slave driver was also a slave, only he had been promoted to leader.
 The driver stood humbly waiting for any further questions, bending forward intently to catch even Uri’s sighs.
 “Are they lashed?” Uri queried, indicating them below with a nod.
 “Yes,” said the driver. “The language of the scourge is all they understand.” “Were you beaten?”
 “And how! It was the only language I understood.”
 “And did you hate the people who beat you?” 
“You bet! And they hate me now that I have become a slave driver. But while I was a galley slave I paid no thought to the possibility that those who were my slave drivers hated me. Now I know they did, because I also hate them. That’s how it has to be, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to lash them.”

Uri turned away and looked out to sea with narrowed eyes. It was a steely blue with white flecks. Somewhere far off glistened the green-brownish colors of a line blurring the horizon, like a mosaic studded with granules—that might be dry land. They were not yet far from the shore.

“We hug closely to the coast of Italia to start with,” said the driver politely, “then we cut across and sail by the Dalmatian coast to the Greek islands until we touch Crete, after which we sail on further to the Syrian coast, where we veer left. If we get a favorable wind we won’t stop till we get to Crete. Three weeks for the whole voyage, if not less.”

Uri looked at the driver’s ear—or rather the piercing in it, which had closed. I should have spotted it earlier, he thought.

The slave driver’s presence was onerous but at the same time disturbing.

“Were you born a slave?” he asked.

“No, not at all, sir,” the driver protested. “We Jews, don’t you know, are not born slaves.”

Uri, shamefaced, stayed silent. He had no idea how things were in Judaea.
“I had a family, even had work,” the slave driver said. “I was a carpenter, but the devil got into me, and I killed my wife and her mother; I smashed their brains in with a hatchet. I also wanted to kill my children, the devil had such a hold on me, but I was wrestled to the ground. The court sentenced me to servitude for life. Though they would have been entitled to have me stoned to death. I’m grateful to the court, sir, because they spared my life, though of course I have the added punishment that until the end of my days I shall grieve my unhappy little ones, six of them altogether, who are left to fend for themselves in the world without mother and father…”

Uri was nauseated to hear the slave driver’s willing confession, though he had no idea quite why. Maybe the tone in which the man had told the tale was somehow disgusting.

“When you became a slave did it not enter your mind to kill yourself?”
The driver was brought up short, surprised by the question.
“No, sir,” he said after a pause. “It never entered my mind. I was possessed by the devil. He did what I did, not me. I can’t help it, sir. It was the demon that they punished, not me. The demon has left me since then, I have the feeling, but I am being punished because I let him take hold of me…That’s my crime, sir: I was not watching out for the devil, and allowed him into my soul.”

Uri looked at the slave driver’s troubled eye. He was looking into the distance past Uri’s unpierced ears.

“You know that you will never be able to be free,” said Uri.

“Is it worth living in slavery?”

“I don’t know, sir,” said the driver, his voice recovered. “A person doesn’t think; he lives.”

“Something must keep you going, all the same,” Uri insisted.

“That could be, sir. Indeed, it very likely does. But as far as killing myself is concerned, there wouldn’t have been the means to do so. But then again, it didn’t even enter my head. When the slave drivers started to lash, and they started at once so that I’d know my place, all that I had in my mind was that one day I would be a slave driver. I would be a slave driver and repay with interest. Not to them, that’s not possible, but to the oarsmen. And I pay it back now. Yes, sir, that’s how it was. And that’s how it has turned out, sir.”

Uri screwed his eyes up. The slave driver was standing in front of him. If I were to slap him across the face, thought Uri, no one would chide me, and he wouldn’t dare hit me back.


Both of us are identical creatures of God, and yet not the same. What exactly did the Creator have in mind?

“That is what drives them as well,” the driver said, gesturing down toward the slaves with his head. “You can’t row year in, year out, without a person wanting something. They want to become drivers—all of them! If not now, then next year, in ten years, twenty years. Because being a slave driver is good: better to beat than be beaten. To thrash someone is freedom itself, sir. Anyone who doesn’t want that, and doesn’t want it hard enough, is dead in a few weeks— even the strongest of men, if he does not want at any cost to become a slave driver. If the spirit of revenge does not live in him.”

Uri turned away again and looked at the sea. If he looked to the left, he could still see the greenish-brown spots of the coast, and if he looked to the right, the steely blue of the sea. Who would ever suppose that at the far end of the endless expanse of water lay Africa?




From CAPTIVITY. Used with permission of Restless Books. Copyright © 2006 by György Spiró.

More Story
A Brief History of Religious Toleration With this summer’s  Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, the liberal notion of toleration seemed to win the day. However,...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.