Pontius Pilate ~ Roman Procurator of Judaea

Between either AD 26-36 or AD 27-37 Pontius Pilate was the 5th Governor of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea. During his tenure as Roman procurator(1) (long by Roman standards – governors usually served for about 18 months) Pilate held his office along with 3,000 troops at the palace of Herod at Casarea on the coast, coming only to Jerusalem on special occasions such as major Jewish holidays. Such a position was deemed second class in Roman terms as Judaea was not of great importance. It was however a military title and Pilate did come from a family that had historically resisted Roman rule.
He is known mainly because he features in the Christian bible as responsible for trying and putting Jesus of Nazareth to death. This trial probably took place in the Tower of Antonia near what is now called Via Dolorosa. It is difficult to summarise Pilate’s reign in Judaea because many of the key historical sources are contradictory and are biased. But, he is to be found in the Annals of Tacitus, all four Gospels, Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 3:1, 13:1, 23 and John 18-19 (Holy Bible, New International version) and in the works of both Flavius Josephus (The Jewish WarJewish Antiquities) and Philo of Alexandria (The Embassy to Caligula).

“I am innocent of the blood of this just man.”
“What is Truth?”

Pontius Pilate – biblical quotations

There is a legend that Pilate was born and is buried near the small village of Fortingall, which is near the mouth of one of Scotland’s longest and narrowest glens, Glen Lyon. The belief in this has been influenced from knowledge about local Roman sites, the writings of the medieval historian and chronicler Raphael Holinshead(2) (d.c. 1580) and the discovery some hundred years ago of a large stone bearing the inscription “P.P.”. Various possible scenarios have been recounted over the years, the most common of which suggests that Pilate’s father was a high ranking member of a Roman delegation sent to negotiate with Dun Geal, Pictish leader Metallanus (known also as Mainus and an elected leader of a collection of differing tribal groups). During the negotiations, which went on for some considerable time, a local woman married Pilate’s father and produced a child, young Pontius Pilate who with his mother were removed to Rome.

There is an earthwork camp west of nearby Balnacraig Farm that could have been that of Metallanus. The name Pontius may have been given because of soldiering in the Pontius (Black Sea) region, whilst Pilate could stem either from pilatus meaning javelin or pileus, the felt cap employed by freed-men. This latter root has given rise to another of the Pilate Fortingall legends: in this one he is taken back as a Pictish slave to Rome, earns his freedom and gets his name. The legend of Pilate at Fortingall is embellished even more by the suggestion that he was born under the Yew Tree still to be found in Fortingall. This evergreen tree (Taxus Baccata) is probably the oldest living thing in Europe at some 3,000 years and at its peak in the 18th century a girth of 17 metres. It still exists although it has been extensively damaged in recent years and can be seen in the churchyard at Fortingall. Another town Monikie also claims Pontius Pilate and has a plaque to say this.

Amongst the nearby archaeological sites is to be found a Roman bridge on the south side of the river which is in good condition, and just outside the village the remains of what was thought to be a Roman camp. Recent work at this latter site has suggested that it was actually a homestead from the medieval period. Above the village of Fortingall can be found near the top of Dun Gael a circular Pictish tower.

Unfortunately for the legend even though the Romans invaded England about 55BC, the earliest evidence for them being near Fortingall is Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s military campaign of AD 86 in which the Caledonians were defeated at the battle of Mons Graupius. Roman presence in Fortingall may not have been until AD 209 when the Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus in order to quell a rebellion invaded beyond the Forth and Clyde. This may not mean the end of the legend. It is known that around 10 BC Caesar Augustus did send out negotiators to form agreements with peoples outside the Roman Empire. One such delegation visited the territory controlled by Cunobelinus in southern England. Although the timing of this event supports the legend there is still no evidence to suggest a delegation going so far north or even a credible rationale for doing so. To complicate matters still further a German legend talks of Pilate being born in Germany, studying goldsmithing in Nurembergin and amassing sufficient wealth to establish himself in Rome.

In AD 36 in Samaria a large following gathered at Mount Gerizim around a prophet claiming to be the reincarnation of Moses, and began searching for the sacred golden vessels that had held the Ten Commandments. On the governor Pilate’s orders a thousand soldiers repressed this activity and executed the leaders of the cult. The Samaritans appealed to the Governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius (Pilate’s immediate boss) against what they claimed was excessive inhumanity. He subsequently returned to Rome. The Emperor Tiberius died before Pilate reached the capital and it was to Caligula that he answered.

What happened to Pilate on his return is unclear. Most probably he was allowed to retire. However, there are a number of competing histories of this time. Some have Pilate committing suicide because of disfavour. Some have either Caligula or Nero putting him to death and others that he was exiled to Vienna Allobrogum (Vienne) in Gaul (present day France). There is even a monument called Pilate’s tomb at the bank of the Rhone. The Ethiopian Church says he turned to Christianity and declares him a martyr and a saint (June 25). The Greek Orthodox Church has canonised him. Other traditions see his wife (possibly called Claudia Procula and an illegitimate grand-daughter of Tiberius) as the Christian or that he is buried at Mount Pilatus above Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. And of course the Fortingall legend says that he returned to Scotland under the auspices of Mansateus a son of King Metallanus who had been studying in Rome and converted to Christianity by St. Peter.

1 Some recent archaeological evidence has indicated that Pilate may have actually held the title of Praefectus of Judaea.

2 It was Holinshead’s work the ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland’ that William Shakespeare drew upon in writing a number of his plays.