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  • Writer's pictureNijay K. Gupta

STRANGE ENCOUNTER–Episode 2 | “Who is Greater than Jupiter?”

This short-form fiction series is set in Rome in the late first century AD. You can read the previous episodes by clicking the link below.


“You can really work wonders with that rag, darling!” Anna beamed, as she examined Felix’s handiwork in the tavern. 

Felix had worked all the way across the tavern, section by section. He groaned as he got up from his knees, stretched, and looked around with pride and a bit of relief the work was almost done. 

Decimius came out from a backroom. “The lovely Anna. Are you going to sing for our customers tonight? They miss you!” Anna and Felix both shuddered; Decimius had a way of twisting a friendly statement just enough to sound creepy and awkward. Decimius winked, which didn’t help. Anna quickly turned away and changed the subject. “The place looks great, ready for business again. I wish I could be here, but as you know, Decimius, my cousin got me a good job helping her make amulets and jewelry of the goddess Fortuna. After Caesar put up that Fortuna statue by the Circus Maximus [Rome’s chariot race track] a few months back, everyone walking the streets of Rome wants Fortuna souvenirs. Speaking of which, I need to head over there.” She kissed Felix goodbye and walked out of the door onto the road.

Felix cleaned off his hands and began to sweep the floors just as customers started to come in, looking for a bit of warmth and a drink. As the tavern filled up, Felix helped to serve drinks and deliver food to tables. As the evening turned late, about an hour before closing time, Hermes walked in. Felix noticed for the first time that Hermes walked with a bit of a limp. The limp  seemed to bother Felix more than Hermes. Every new detail Felix observed left him more interested in Hermes. Who was this man? And why did he intrigue Felix so much? 

Hermes walked straight past Felix and went to the very back of the tavern to talk to Decimius. Their conversation seemed very serious. Felix couldn’t make out what they were talking about but he knew the look on Decimius’ face—he was excited, but trying to hide it. Hermes handed over some coins to him before sitting down at the nearest table, and Decimius disappeared into the backroom. 

“Can I get you anything?” Felix asked, startling Hermes a bit. He didn’t normally take drink orders, but he wanted an opportunity to ask about the private conversation. 

“I wouldn’t turn down some wine, it’s been a long day.” Hermes stretched his arms a bit, and Felix remembered that he and Marcus spent the day carrying clothes, furniture, and kitchen utensils upstairs into his apartment. 

Felix dashed away and came back with the wine. 

“This one is on the house.” Felix set the wine down with a warm smile, and then proceeded to sit down right next to Hermes, a little too close. At first Hermes was surprised, but then he smiled back and made more room. Hermes drank some wine and sighed with satisfaction. 

“Well, what gods would you want to drink to? We can go classic— ‘Jupiter, Best and Greatest!’ Can’t go wrong with the King of the gods.”

Hermes was staring down at his drink, apparently lost in thought. Felix was was lost in thought too, but he was staring at Hermes trying to figure out how to politely ask what the private conversation was all about. 

“So…” Before Felix could get more words out, Decimius walked over to their table with a large amphora [a clay vessel for storing liquid]. Decimius set it down next to Hermes and gave him a nod, as if to say their business was concluded. Hermes nodded back. Felix knew there was wine in that amphora. 

“Are you having a party?” Felix asked with a chuckle of curiosity.

“It’s a special gathering. At a friend’s house,” Hermes answered, matter-of-factly.

Felix now felt embarrassed that he might be prying. In order to change the subject, he poured a cup of water for himself and thought they should make a toast. He raised his cup, but still didn’t know what to toast to. There was a small Fortuna figurine on the table—Anna made several small clay figures for most of the tables, as practice for her cousin’s business. 

“Let’s toast! I wish you well here in our humble insula. Hail, Fortuna [Good Luck!]!” With that, Felix raised his cup, took a big gulp and slammed the drink on the table, maybe a little too hard, water splashed all over, a few drops found their way to Hermes. 

Hermes didn’t move. “I don’t believe in luck.” 

Without thinking—without knowing he was entering a bit of a philosophical conversation—Felix chimed back, “No harm in honoring Fortuna, right? We all need a little extra help from above.” Felix’s eye happened to catch an exposed part of Hermes’ scarred arm. Immediately Felix thought to him, What if Hermes is talking about his bad luck in a fight? Was I being too insensitive? Hermes tried a different tactic to ease what he felt like was tension.

“Well, what gods would you want to drink to? We can go classic— ‘Jupiter, Best and Greatest!’ Can’t go wrong with the King of the gods.” Felix knew that people had their preferences and favorites when it came to gods, but everyone honored Jupiter. Jupiter binds all Romans together.

“Jupiter isn’t ‘Best’ or ‘Greatest.’” Hermes said with an air of certainty, and a bit of a cynical bite. 

Felix was in shock; he’d never heard anyone talk negatively about Jupiter. This made Felix very uncomfortable, even a little bit angry. This fire just happened—who knows if it was divine wrath for someone’s offense against the gods? Felix felt that this conversation was entering into dangerous territory and he didn’t want any part of that. He anxiously looked for a way to get out of the conversation and, to his relief, he got just the interruption he needed.

Hermes stood up suddenly and looked towards the entrance. Marcus had walked in and it was clear now that Hermes was waiting for Marcus’ help to carry the heavy amphora. 

Felix wanted to end their conversation on a lighter note. “Hello Marcus, how’s your arm? [Marcus didn’t answer.] Are you heading out to a party now? It’s quite late.” Felix gestured towards the windows, to the pitch black outside. 

“Thanks for the wine, Felix.” Hermes left a small tip on the table, and Felix ran to open the door while the two men carried the amphora out into the darkness. 

Felix stood there, mulling over the brief conversation. Hermes’ statement was odd, and troubling, who dares question Jupiter? But there was a kindness hidden beneath Hermes’ gruffness. Hermes just didn’t seem like the type to flippantly mock the gods. And if those scars were the marks of a Roman soldier, surely he would know better than to insult Jupiter, protector, guardian, and Savior of Rome.

His mind started to wander again, Hermes’ defiance now felt more like a riddle: who is greater than Jupiter? 

“Felix, you should get back to work!,” a familiar voice forcefully whispered to him from nearby. It was Zoe, a slave-girl belonging to Decimius. She cleaned tables and was forced to flirt with customers to keep them drinking. She hated her work (who wouldn’t?), but she appreciated that Felix always treated her kindly and talked to her like a real human being. So, Felix took no offense at Zoe barking at him. 

She added, “If the boss catches you daydreaming again, he’ll…”

“...Fire me again…I know…” Felix said, finishing her sentence. As he scanned the room both looking for Decimius (phew, he was busy talking to a rich customer) and for work to be done, Zoe picked up Hermes’ tip and tucked it away for herself as she cleaned the table. 

Felix spotted a broken plate nearby; he walked over, knelt down and started to pick up the pieces. His mind started to wander again, Hermes’ defiance now felt more like a riddle: who is greater than Jupiter? 

This short-form fiction series serves as a companion to Dr. Nijay K. Gupta’s book Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling. Stay tuned for Episode 3: “What Hope Do I Have Now?”


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