A legend has it that the notorious Pontius Pilate was born in Bisenti. Is it just a popular folktale or could there be historic truth to it? A local history enthusiast lays the facts out to prove that it really happened.
Among historic figures, Pontius Pilate, the man who crucified Jesus, is one of the most fascinating because of the air of mystery and uncertainty surrounding him. Wrapped in great infamy, his name is mentioned every day in every Catholic church around the world, yet we know very little of him and his affairs. There are no clear historic records of Pilate before his nomination on the post of the governor of the Roman province of Judea, nothing that could helps us create an unambiguous picture of him. Some even question his existence.
Many locations, most of them in modern Abruzzo, lay claim to being the birthplace of Pontius Pilate based on local legends. Among them all, Bisenti is the place that boasts the most articulate legend, which can be referenced with unquestionable historic facts. This small town on the slopes of the Gran Sasso mountains is where the important settlement of Beregra might have been, located between the Roman colonies of Hatria, the modern day Atri, and Pinna, today’s Penne.
The Pontii were a well-known family of Samnite origin. One of Pilate’s ancestors, Pontius Aquila, a Tribune of the Plebs, took part in the conspiracy that in 44 B.C. resulted in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Like all other conspirators, he was forced into exile, far away from important power games and family ties. For this reason, Pontius Aquila and his family were sent to Beregra, and this is where later, his decendant — Pontius Pilate — was born. It is very likely that Pilate later married Claudia Procula who, according to some historians, lived in the nearby Roman colony of Hatria and might have been related to Emperor Tiberius.
The Governor of Judea
Beregra, where Pilate was born and raised, made part of the Roman district called Palestina Piceni, where middle eastern Semitic people fleeing from the land of Canaan had settled a few centuries earlier. They heavily influenced local traditions, introducing their customs and different cultural aspects, including some elements of their native Aramaic language.
Having grown up in a setting where a middle eastern influence was strong, Pontius Pilate easily beat the competition for the post of Governor of Judea. It is very likely that Emperor Tiberius had no doubts about assigning the job to someone familiar with the cultural sensibilities of the Jews.
It has been said that Pilate’s nomination might have had something to do with favoritism because of his wife’s family’s possible relation to the emperor. However, I would like to believe that Tiberius chose Pilate not as a military figure to enforce strict laws and rigid discipline, but rather as someone who could be an ambassador with an appropriate cultural background, capable of governing efficiently, without delays and misinterpretations.
No historic documents talk about the notorious governor of Judea in depth, but many of them seem to agree that he was bad-tempered, stubborn, corrupt, spiteful, dictatorial and cruel. To know more, we can refer to detailed texts recounting the Passion of Christ such as the Gospels, including the apochryphal ones, which did not make it into the Bible. However, it is important to remember that their portrayal of Pilate was influenced by the prefect’s role in the trial of Jesus and his crucifixion.
From the moment when the notorious prefect was removed from his post in 37CE, there is no more news about him; official historiography was not interested in Pilate and his achievements after that. No wonder different hypotheses and speculations about his fate flourished in the absence of reliable information.
I wrote the book Io, Ponzio Pilato di Bisenti together with Graziano Paolone, my childhood friend. Born and bred in Bisenti, we both love our town and are passionate about its history. After many years of research we wrote the book, as we believed the legend about Pilate being born here and could not accept the scepticism and irony that sometimes accompanied the story. We wanted to demonstrate that, like in many legends — along with elements of folktale — there is a solid historic base.
Brick and Mortar as Proof
For tangible proof of Pontius Pilate’s presence in Bisenti, go to see the qanat water system and the building that locals call “Pontius Pilate’s House.” The qanat is an undeground acqueduct common for middle eastern countries and in Bisenti you will find one similar to the hydro system in Jerusalem, which was built by Pilate with temple money during his time in Judea as governor. Follow the signs for “Fonte Vecchia” and you will arrive at an ancient fountain, constructed as part of the qanat system, which brings water from various sources in the surrounding hills to the town.
So can we say that when removed from his job in Judea, Pilate returned to his homeland and, while awaiting for Roman authorities to decide his future, built there an acqueduct like the one in Jerusalem? It is possible, especially given the fact that the main tunnel of the qanat system in Bisenti runs towards the so-called Pontius Pilate House. The water there is fed into a well, which Pilate used to access fresh water at home and didn’t have to go to the public fountain like the rest of the people in town. In the past, just like today, certain privileges went to people of importance.
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By Angelo Panzone. Translated by Anna Lebedeva
Angelo is a Bisenti local, history enthusiast and the co-author of the book Io, Ponzio Pilato di Bisenti.