Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630
Aelius Lamia, who is sixty-two years of age and afflicted by a discomforting illness, has left Rome to take the waters at Baiae, a seaside resort. One day, having tired of his fellows, he climbs the hill above the town to read De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682), Lucretius’s celebrated treatise on the philosophy of Epicurus. While making way for the passage of a litter bearing a gloomy aristocrat he is astonished and delighted to recognize a man whom he has not seen for twenty years—a man whom he met during an eighteen-year period when he was exiled from Rome by the emperor Tiberius. Although the man in question, Pontius Pilate, does not immediately recognize his old friend, he is quick to embrace him on hearing his name.
Both men have fond memories of the time they spent together while Pilate was procurator of the Syrian province of Judea. In those days, Pilate entertained the exile generously and introduced him to Herod Antipas. On his eventual return to Rome—sanctioned by Tiberius’s successor Caius—Lamia had repaid Pilate’s generosity with a gift of money but completely lost track of his friend thereafter. Pilate, who is now in his seventies, explains that he retired long ago to his estate in Sicily, from which he has now emerged in search of palliative treatment for his gout.
Lamia asks Pilate why he took early retirement from public service and became a virtual recluse. Pilate explains that he was driven from his former position by an unfortunate chain of circumstances. After putting down a Samaritan insurrection he sent the rebel leaders for punishment to the proconsul Vitellius. After the rebels complained that Pilate had provoked their actions, Pilate had to go to Rome to justify his actions. Tiberius died while Pilate was traveling, and the new emperor—swayed by the opinions of his childhood friend Agrippa, a relative and avid rival of Herod Antipas—refused to hear his case, thus forcing his early retirement.
Lamia wonders whether Pilate might not have proceeded more gently against the Samaritans, but the older man rejects the argument. Pilate reminds his friend of shared occasions when they could observe the unreasonableness and obduracy of the rebelliously inclined Judeans. After Pilate laments the terrible injustice of his fate, the men agree to meet for supper on the following day.
The old men continue their discussion by lamenting the fact that Roman society is no longer what it was, having been spoiled by an influx of foreigners and a general decline in standards of dress and behavior. Pilate proudly reflects on various great engineering feats initiated by the emperor Augustus—his great inspiration. He then tells the sad tale of his own attempt to build an aqueduct that would have supplied Jerusalem with fresh water, and how the ungrateful inhabitants of the town forced him to abandon the project. This leads Pilate to rail against the local customs that he had been forced to support, including the prolific and endless demands made on him by the Jews to license the execution of any of their own people who violated their taboos.
Intent on diverting the conversation toward more pleasant topics, Lamia attempts to sing the praises of the women of Judea, extolling their beauty. This calls forth another diatribe from Pilate on the sacredness of marriage and the looseness of the young Lamia’s morals, but Lamia is by now lost in fond reminiscence of a particular courtesan of Jerusalem. Recalling how she eventually forsook her profession in order to follow a young Galilean magician, he asks his friend if he remembers the man, whose name was Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate declares he has no memory of any such person.