Thanks largely to his reported role in the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, Pontius Pilate has been a perennial source of fascination for writers over the centuries. In this ‘biography’, Ann Wroe sifts the evidence to tell the Roman prefect’s story, from his origins (obscure: he was variously thought to be a Spaniard, a German, or a descendant of the Samnite tribe that originated somewhere south of Rome) to his encounter with Jesus and beyond. And it’s very well done. Although drawing largely on the ancient Jewish historian Josephus to confirm or interrogate what is known of Pilate from the gospels, Wroe enlists a host of classical Roman writers to add ‘period colour’ and give us a fuller, more rounded picture of the time.
But this is the biography of an ‘invented’ man, and by far the best part of the work, in my view, is the way Wroe uses the vast corpus of legendary material as a launch-pad for musings on Pilate’s inner life, his motivations, and the enduring significance of his actions. This rich tapestry includes such delights as an imagined correspondence with his protector and patron, the emperor Tiberius; the Acta Pilati; the Anaphora of Pilate; medieval mystery plays; Coptic legends; enduring stories from around the Swiss Pilatussee – and much more. The result is a hugely satisfying extended meditation on the life, and after-lives, of a man whose career appears to peter out into obscurity after Tiberius’ death. But whatever his earthly fate, Pilate was ever after to be immortalised, variously celebrated (especially in Ethiopia, apparently), pitied, reviled or simply puzzled over thanks to one enigmatic encounter - whose significance for the subsequent history of the world we may doubt the Roman administrator ever grasped. A wonderful read.