In the summer of 1961, however, Italian archaeologists found a piece of limestone, 82cm wide by 68cm high, in the ruins of a sports stadium in Caesarea, beside the sea. The stadium had not been there in Pilate's time; he had yelled at his gladiators in another place. But the stone bore his name, and much else besides.
Because it is the only artefact we have - the only proof of him, and also the only object we can be sure he looked at and thought about - even the tiniest aspects of it have a huge importance. Until there are more discoveries, this is as close as we are going to get.
So we have the name set in stone, Pontius Pilate. It would have been nice to have the praenomen too, Lucius or Publius or Quintus; although it did not mean much to Romans, it somehow makes them more complete to us. But never mind. We also have his title, Praefectus Judaeae. This is important, and not just because it settles the debate about what he called himself.
The word "prefect" had a military tang to it; this man was not just an administrator or a revenue-raiser, but also, when required, a fighter on horseback on the wilder fringes of the empire. Pilate often looks like an effete lawyer in the endless paintings of the trial of Jesus, but he ended his career in Judea just as a prefect should, commanding cavalry, putting down an insurrection in Samaria with sufficient violence to get himself recalled to Rome.
The chief word on the inscription is something of a puzzle: Tiberieum. It appears to mean a complex of buildings in honour of Tiberius, centring round a temple where his image was worshipped, like the Caesareum in Alexandria. If that is what it was, it is the only one recorded, and Pilate may even have made up the name himself. Suetonius says that Tiberius did not like to be worshipped as a god, but he allowed it in the further-flung bits of the empire. So here is Pilate audaciously, even rashly, honouring his emperor, as both Josephus and Philo tell us he did on other occasions. Was he simply being an arch-sycophant, or did he mean it? Or was he moved by a mixture of both feelings? Whichever it was, it gives a new frisson to the reported taunt by the Jews at Christ's trial: "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend."
The engraving of Tiberieum is evenly and soberly done. Not so the name of Pilate himself. There the letters jiggle up and down, with the Ts and the Is of Pontius Pilatus taller than the rest. The effect is untidy, even light-hearted. This looks like a man who is following a fashion of some sort, but is also confident enough to indulge himself. It looks like a man who might, on some occasions, dance.
It is fairly miraculous that the stone should have survived at all. The sea could have worn the lettering away. The builders who subsequently used it, when the Tiberieum itself had fallen into ruin, could have cut it in such a way that the name was illegible. It might have been thrown away as rubble, never recovered. As it is, it seems almost incredible: our one physical link to the man who, Christians believe, gave the human order that brought about mankind's eternal salvation.
Ann Wroe is the author of `Pilate: the biography of an invented man' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 18.99)