Robin Hood: The Magna Carta


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In most Robin Hood movies, John is a bad guy because he’s A) hoping to usurp the throne from his older brother King Richard and B) collecting taxes, which is always an evil thing to do in movies. But Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott) takes a totally different approach. The first part of the movie deals with the totally legitimate transfer of the crown from the now-dead Richard to John (Oscar Isaac). John isn’t trying to usurp anything’ he’s the lawful king. And while John wants taxes, his attempts to collect the taxes aren’t really the problem. The problem is that the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) is abusing the authority John gave him because he wants to stir up a rebellion against John. So the film abandons the two standard-issue Bad King stuff that Johns in these movies do. As a result, it has to find other ways to make John a Bad King, as Sellars and Yeatman would put it.


At the start of the film, John’s being a dick. His mother Eleanor discovers his wife Isabel of Gloucester standing outside his bedroom. She’s locked out because John is cavorting inside with Isabella of Angouleme (Léa Seydoux), the niece of his rival King Philip of France. He decides to divorce Isabel so he can marry Isabella. And in fact John did ditch Isabel just after his accession to the throne in favor of Isabella. This plotline, if we want to grace it with such a term, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just there to signal that John’s a Douchebag with a Crown, even before he has the crown part.


King John

Then he starts getting demanding about tax money, and sends Godfrey off to collect some. But the film gets John’s financial situation all wrong. In the film, he just seems to want lots of money because the government is expensive to run. The reality is a lot messier. John’s financial problem most stemmed from the loss of Normandy to Philip in 1204. He spent the rest of his reign trying to raise the money to finance efforts to recover Normandy. So John was, in fact, trying to recover part of his rightful inheritance that had been confiscated from him.

John’s strategy for raising money had comparatively little to do with taxation, and everything to do with what historians term ‘feudal dues’. As King of England, John was the feudal lord of the English nobility; they held land from him as fiefs, and that gave them obligations to him. These obligations were widely acknowledged, but not really codified. Among the rights that it was universally acknowledged a king had over his vassals were

The right to control the remarriage of a vassal’s widow, or alternately the right to charge her a fee to be free from that control

The right to take a vassal’s orphaned minor heirs into wardship, which allowed him to draw revenues from their fiefs until they were adults

The right to arrange marriages from heirs in wardship

The right to demand a fee (called a relief) when a vassal’s heir took over the fief

The right to demand gifts from his vassals for the marriage of his daughters and the knighting of his sons

The right to demand either 40 days’ military service a year or alternately a cash payment (called scutage) to be free from that service

It needs to be emphasized that these practices were entirely traditional, and in England dated back to the Norman Conquest in the mid-11th century. John’s father and brother had regularly demanded these dues from their vassals, and when John demanded them he had as much right to do so as his predecessors.


Only a douchebag sits on a throne like that

What John was doing that was problematic was finding ways to use these rights as money-raising devices to help fund a campaign in France. John took advantage of the fact that these dues were only vaguely regulated. It was unclear just how much of a relief a lord could demand from a vassal’s heir, for example, so John charged aggressive reliefs. He ordered his officials to aggressively exploit the fiefs he controlled through wardship, draining money out of them and failing to maintain the properties adequately. He essentially auctioned off the marriages of heiresses and widows, often marrying below their social station (called disparagement). He declared military campaigns, levied scutage, and then cancelled the campaign. These actions were not illegal, but they were distasteful to many of the nobles.

John’s father Henry II had built up royal authority in part by creating a centralized legal system in which plaintiffs paid the crown money to initiate various legal proceedings in royal court. John found various ways to manipulate the legal system to his benefit. Since it was his court, there was nothing illegal about, for example, imposing heaving fines for small offenses, or re-trying a defendant who had been acquitted, or ordering someone imprisoned without a trial. These were all tools that John used to coerce money or obedience out of various subjects.

What offended John’s nobles was not that he was doing these things per se, but rather that he was doing them more than they considered appropriate, and that he was doing these things against them. After nearly a decade of these practices, John’s barons rebelled and seized London. John, working through Archbishop Stephen Langton, negotiated the Magna Carta, an agreement in which John ‘voluntarily’ promised to abide by various enumerated limits. For example, the Magna Carta specifies the amount of money that can be demanded as a relief. It forbids mandatory scutage, the disparagement of widows, and so on. It establishes rules of due process in the legal system and forbids double jeopardy. And it established that if John wished to impose other financial devices, he would have to get the permission of the men who were going to be paying. In other words, if John wanted to impose taxes distinct from the feudal dues, he had to get permission from the tax-payers first. John hadn’t been collecting taxes at all; he was collecting feudal dues and legal fines. But Robin Hood movies translate the issue to modern audiences as taxes because that’s an issue we can understand.


One of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta

In Ridley Scott’s movie, however, the Magna Carta predates John. It was written by Robin’s stonemason father about 25-30 years earlier, during the reign of Henry II. It wasn’t a practical result of negotiations; it was some sort of political manifesto that articulated Enlightenment ideas about ‘freedom’ and human equality 600 years early. It wasn’t a disagreement about the exploitation of feudal rights; it was an attack on royal authority, viewed as tyranny. Needless to say, this is total Hollywood gibberish. Treating the Magna Carta as a sweeping statement of political rights makes no sense whatsoever and situating it in the reign of Henry II rather than late in John’s reign renders it so devoid of context as to be essentially meaningless.

But the movie does get one thing right. John repudiated Magna Carta the moment he thought he could get away with it, and it remained a dead issue until his infant son Henry III inherited the throne the next year. At his coronation, the infant Henry’s representative swore to adhere to the Magna Carta, thus reviving the arrangement. Subsequent monarchs swore to maintain it, thus embedding it in English legal tradition.

This review was made possible by a generous donation from Lyn R. If you want me to review a specific film, please donate and tell me what movie you’d like me to review, and I’ll do my best to track it down and review it, as long as I think it’s appropriate.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

Dan Carpenter’s Magna Carta is a good introduction to the document and its interpretation.

Robin Hood: The King is Dead


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Fairly early in Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott), King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) gets killed by a crossbow bolt during a siege. When Robin (Russell Crowe) tells a royal official about this, the man replies, “The king is dead; long live the king.” The same thing happens when Robin later tells the Queen Mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins, doing a not too bad Katherine Hapburn impersonation). The sentence gets said, and Eleanor immediately moves to put Richard’s crown on her son John’s head.


“The king is dead; long live the king” is the sort of thing that people say in historical movies occasionally, but no one ever explains what it actually means. The now-standard wording was first used in 1422 in France, but the concept itself dates back further. The phrase encapsulates the legal principle, expressed in French, of le mort saisis le vif, which means “the dead seizes the living”. In this phrase, ‘seizes’ does not refer to grabbing something but rather to seisin, the legal right to possess landed property. The phrase means that the legal title to a property passes from the deceased to the deceased’s living heir at the moment of death. The instant the father dies, his son gains title to his property; there is no period where the property is left legally ownerless.

When applied to a king, the concept of le mort saisis le vif means that the crown and kingdom pass from the dead king to his heir at the moment of death, so that there is never a moment when the kingdom has no king. So the saying is really expressing that “the (old) king is dead; long live the (new) king.”

However, the concept of “the king is dead; long live the king” had not yet been articulated in England in 1199. It was first expressed as a principle in 1272, when Henry III died while his son and heir Edward was out of the country on the 8th Crusade. Fearing a civil war, when Henry died, the Royal Council declared “The throne shall never be empty; the country shall never be without a monarch.”


Henry III of England

To understand why the Council did this, you only have to look at the previous two centuries of royal successions. In 1066, William the Conqueror took the throne of England by conquest, claiming that he had inherited it from his distant cousin Edward the Confessor and that Harold Godwinson had usurped it. In 1087, William was succeed by his son William II Rufus, even though William had an older son, Robert Curthose. Rufus’ claim, as we’ll see, was based on the fact that William I had not been king of England when Robert was born. The fact that Rufus had Robert in captivity at the time also helped the claim. When Rufus died in a hunting accident (or was it?) in 1100, he was succeeded by his younger brother Henry I.

Henry I’s only legitimate son William Adelin died in a shipwreck in 1120, and Henry spent the last 15 years of his life trying to orchestrate the succession of his daughter Matilda. But when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne and spent the next two decades fighting first Matilda and then her son Henry. Stephen finally reached a peace deal with Henry that allowed Stephen to stay king on the condition that he disinherit his son in favor of Henry. In 1154, Stephen died and Henry promptly became king as Henry II.

When Henry died in 1189, his son Richard took the throne. When Richard died, his brother John became king. When John died in the middle of a rebellion, his infant son Henry III was crowned, but it was a close thing because so much of the English nobility was hostile to John. So in 1272, when Henry died, in the previous two centuries there had only been one entirely stable father-to-son transmission of the crown (Henry II to Richard I). The Council articulated the principle of le mort saisis le vif to try to clarify the rules around the crown. Edward didn’t have to wait until his coronation to become king, because that event would be months in the future; rather, Edward was already king without knowing it.

Another Problem
Modern Americans tend to assume that monarchy always follows the rule of primogeniture, that the oldest son inherits the crown. But that’s not necessarily true. Many cultures have used other systems to determine who inherits the crown. The ancient Egyptians had no clear rule at all about which son would become pharaoh. Early Germanic society used a rather loose system in which descent from the previous king was only one of several important factors. It was just as important that the new king be a strong military leader, which means that if the old king’s son was a child he would be passed over for some other relative. Perhaps in a few decades he might assert a claim to the throne, but he wasn’t qualified yet because he was simply too young. In early medieval France, there was a strong tendency for a king’s surviving sons to split the kingdom up, so that each one became a king. As a result, the kingdom would fracture into several temporary kingdoms until one branch of the royal family managed to reunify France by conquest.

In the 11th century, French nobility began to embrace the system of primogeniture as a way to prevent the breaking up of family property between multiple sons (which tended to drive the family into poverty over a few generations). The kingdom came to be seen as something that couldn’t be divided, so it should pass to the oldest son. But what about a case like England in 1087? William the Conqueror was king of England, but his oldest son Robert wasn’t heir to the kingdom when he was born because William acquired the kingdom after Robert’s birth. So it made sense to William I that he should divide his property between Robert, who inherited William’s French territories, and Rufus, who got England.

An even messier issue occurred when Henry II died. Henry had four legitimate sons who had survived to adulthood: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Henry declared his eldest son his heir and had him undergo a coronation ceremony; for that reason the son is often called Henry the Young King. But the Young King died in 1183, while his father was still alive. The system of primogeniture was not yet fully in place. As long as the Young King was alive, there was no disputing that he ought to inherit everything. But now that he was dead, did everything have to pass to Richard, or was there room for Henry to make other arrangements? Ultimately Richard’s political strength compelled Henry to accept Richard as his heir.

But when Richard died, things were murkier. Under normal circumstances, Richard’s heir should have been his younger brother Geoffrey. But Geoffrey had died in 1186, leaving a young son Arthur. Under strict primogeniture, Arthur ought to have inherited from Richard. But Arthur was two generations removed from Henry II, while John was only one generation removed, and the rule of primogeniture was not yet so solidly in place as to exclude John’s claim by proximity to Henry II. Furthermore, Arthur was only twelve years old, while John was an adult.

In 1190, Richard had designated Arthur was his heir, but as he was dying in 1199, Richard declared John his heir, acknowledging that the boy would not be able to stop John from claiming the throne. The idea that the king had to be a strong military leader still mattered and Arthur clearly wasn’t. But Arthur (or perhaps his mother Constance) wasn’t happy with this. Arthur sought support from King Philip II of France, who played Arthur off against John.

In 1202, when Arthur laid siege to Eleanor, Richard and John’s mother, John caught Arthur’s forces by surprise and took him prisoner. In 1203, Arthur died in captivity under mysterious circumstances. There are various stories of what happened to him. Various stories have him stabbed to death by John and thrown into the river or being starved to death. Either way, John’s claim on the English throne was secure.
So when Robin gives Eleanor Richard’s crown and she promptly puts it on John’s head, Ridley Scott is glossing over a whole lot of details and putting an anachronism in her mouth.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

If you want to know more about some of the kings mentioned here, David Douglas’ study of William the Conqueror is as old as I am, but still a very good biography, while Frank Barlow has written a nice work on William Rufus. W.L. Warren has written excellent books on Henry II (English Monarchs) and King John (English Monarchs)For Richard, you might look at John Gillingham’s study of Richard I

Robin Hood: A Whole Lotta Plot Going On


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I haven’t been able post in a long while because my husband and I just bought a house and spent most of last month moving and tackling moving-related stuff. But I’ve finally clawed out the time to tackle a movie, namely Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott). Regular reader Lyn R. made a generous donation to the blog and requested that I review it. So Lyn, this is for you, and thank you again from your donation.


As I’ve already explored, all the evidence points to Robin Hood being a 14th century fictional character rather than a real historical figure. Most Robin Hood films situate the story in the 1190s, at a point when King Richard the Lionhearted is away on crusade. His brother Prince John is making trouble by governing England unjustly and demanding harsh taxation, which forces Robin Hood and his band out of outlaws into resistance against him. Usually, Richard arrives home and puts a stop to John’s hijinks right at the end of the film.

But Ridley Scott’s film follows a very different story. It opens right at the end of Richard’s reign, in 1199. As the film’s prologue text tells us “King Richard the Lion Heart, bankrupt of wealth and glory, is plundering his way back to England after ten years on his crusade. In his army is an archer named Robin Longstride.”

Right away the film is confused about the facts. Richard departed for the Holy Land in 1190, and left for home in 1192. On his way home he was shipwrecked on the Dalmatian coast, wound up falling into the hands of an enemy, and was held for ransom, finally being released in 1194 after a substantial ransom was paid. He returned to his French lands that same year and was back in control of England quickly, although he spent very little time there. So the typical Robin Hood film ends sometimes in 1194 or 1195, after Richard returns to England after his imprisonment.

But in Scott’s telling of the events, Richard (Danny Huston) has apparently spent four years in captivity, based on a comment his mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins) makes to Prince John (Oscar Isaac), meaning he was released in 1196 and then apparently fought his way westward, plundering as he went, which is total nonsense. By 1199, he still hasn’t gotten to England and is laying siege to Chalus Castle in France. Robin (Russell Crowe) has apparently been in his service the whole time, which raises the question of what Robin was doing while Richard was in prison for 4 years. Were he and the rest of Richard’s army just killing time somewhere in Germany? That seems to be what the film intends, because no one in his army has been home since they left, including Sir Robert Loxley (who is NOT Robin Longstride).


Robin fighting in the Siege of Chalus

The film loosely follows the actual events of the siege of Chalus, which was a minor castle held by one of Richard’s recalcitrant vassals. During the siege, one of the cooks fires a crossbow bolt and hits Richard, fatally wounding him. (In reality, the injury itself didn’t kill Richard; rather the wound became gangrenous and he died more than a week later in the arms of his mother Eleanor.) So as a result, most of the movie takes place after Richard’s death during the reign of King John (1199-1216). That alone puts the film in a different category from pretty much all other Robin Hood films I can think of. There’s no Richard waiting in the wings to swoop in and stop John and lift Robin Hood’s outlawry.

After Richard dies, Robin and his friends Little John, Will Scarlett, and Alan A’Dayle (a name that makes me violently stabby, because it’s pretending to be the Irish O’Doyle) decide that they are sick of fighting and want to get home to England, so they desert and ride for the English Channel before the cost of a ship’s passage becomes unaffordable.

But unbeknownst to them, King Philip Augustus of France (Jonathan Zaccai) is plotting with Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), one of John’s henchmen. Not realizing that Richard is dead, they hatch a convoluted plan to ambush and kill Richard and then turn England against the new king John so that Philip can invade and conquer England. This is a stupid plot because a far smarter thing to do would be to capture Richard instead of killing him, and then invade England in Richard’s name, claiming that John is trying to usurp Richard. This is the first, but far from the last, time the film has more plot than it can handle.


Mark Strong as the villainous Sir Godfrey

But Richard is already dead, and instead Godfrey winds up ambushing Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who is taking Richard’s crown back to England. He mortally wounds Loxley but then Robin and his men intervene and drive him off. Loxley makes Robin swear to return his sword to his father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), and then dies. Instead, Robin decides to impersonate Loxley, I think so that he and his men can get free passage to England. They wind up having to deliver Richard’s crown to London, where Eleanor declares John king and immediately crowns him. (In reality, it wasn’t entirely clear that John was the heir. Maybe I’ll do a post on that later.) John, having instantly become a Douchebag with a Crown, decides that instead of rewarding Robin/Loxley with a ring, he will demand that Robin/Loxley go to Nottingham and get the taxes Sir Walter owes him.

Meanwhile, At Nottingham

Apparently Loxley is the Lord of Nottingham, because Sir Walter lives in a castle there. Nottingham itself is depicted as little more than a manor, with a small village of perhaps 200 people outside the castle and the fields in easy walking distance. It seems to have been a great city at some point because there is a massive ruined archway that characters ride through repeatedly.

In reality, Nottingham was a much more substantial settlement. Already by the 9th century it was of local importance, and by the 1080s it had a population of perhaps 1,500 people, making it by medieval standards a modest-sized town. By 1300, it had maybe 3,000 residents.  Additionally, the castle was just plopped in the middle of some fields, which is a dumb place for a castle because it’s not very defensible; the real Nottingham castle is located on a rocky outcropping above the city. So the film’s depiction of Nottingham is entirely wrong.

Robin Hood 3.jpg

Where is there a ruined archway in the middle of the fields?

Marion (Cate Blanchett) is Loxley’s wife, or rather widow. She is the daughter of some minor knight who for reasons never explained managed to marry Robert Loxley, who is clearly an important figure, since he is the heir to a castle and a close confidant of King Richard. A week after the wedding, Loxley left to join Richard’s forces, and Marion has been living, childless, with Loxley’s blind father Sir Walter. As the semi-evil but largely pointless Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen) points out, because she has no children and her husband is thought dead, when Sir Walter dies, she will be penniless because the Crown will claim the castle.

In case you couldn’t guess, THIS IS NOT HOW MEDIEVAL LAW WORKS. As Ranulf de Glanville, the leading English legal scholar of the 12th century lays out in his Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England, when a man marries a women, he is required to give her a dower, property that becomes hers and is intended to support her when she becomes a widow. If Robert did this formally, he would have had to designate a specific property to serve as the dower; if he did not designate a specific property, she automatically gets 1/3 of his property as her dower. The dower property remains in Robert’s hands and out of his wife’s control, but in this case, since he’s out of the country, it would be in Sir Walter’s hands. If Loxley is assumed dead, the dower would now be in Marion’s hands.

Complicating this is the fact that Walter seems to be a vassal of the Crown, although that term is never used. This means that the castle and its manor are probably a fief that Walter holds (enjoys the use of) but doesn’t actually own. When Walter dies, the fief ought to pass to Robert, but if Robert is already dead, it would revert back to the Crown, which still probably has to honor Marion’s status as Robert’s widow and acknowledge whatever dower property she has a claim to. I say probably, because while Robert is the heir, he was never the vassal for the property, so maybe John could be a dick and just ignore Marion’s legal rights. More likely, what John would do is exercise his legal right to control the remarriage of Robert’s widow and sell her marriage to a man who wants to become the new fief-holder. John did that sort thing a good deal during his reign. So Marion would have a problem when Walter dies, because she either has to accept a marriage arranged for her by John or else pay John a sum of money for the right to control her own remarriage. But even if John tries to seize the fief when Walter dies, Marion still gets her dower property and won’t be thrown in a ditch.

And all of this raises the question of why the hell Sir Walter hasn’t remarried to have another son to act as his heir. Apparently he’s surprisingly unconcerned about things like carrying on his family line or taking care of his son’s wife. Given that he was once an extremely important man politically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

To make matters worse for Marion, there are bandits around Nottingham, and Marion is apparently the only defensive force. She knows how to use a longbow (a century before the English adopted that weapons, but that’s the least of the film’s anachronisms), but despite that, at the start of the film, bandits break into the storehouse and steal all the seed-grain, so Marion has no grain to plant in the fields. The local church has grain that has been tithed to them, but the priest insists that that grain goes to the archbishop of York. Why the archbishop of York should have a claim on the grain from the village church of Nottingham is unexplained, since medieval Nottingham was part of the diocese of Lincoln n the archdiocese of Canterbury, but who knows? Medieval clergy just make up the rules as they go, remember?


Cate Blanchett as Maid, err Wife Marion

Enter Robin

Robin and his men show up as themselves, having apparently forgotten that Robin is supposed to be pretending to be Robert to get John’s taxes. Robin turns over the sword and tells Walter and Marion that Robert is dead, but Walter promptly proposes that Robin pull a Martin Guerre and pretend to be Robert. In exchange he will give Robin the family sword.

Are you starting to notice that this film has way too much plot? The film gives Robin not one but two different bouts of pretending to be Robert Loxley. Godfrey has tricked John into allowing him to rampage around England collecting taxes in a brutal fashion in order to incite the barons of England against John. And Philip’s troops have snuck into England to help Godfrey. But William Marshall (William Hurt) has warned Eleanor about what’s going on, and Eleanor convinces John’s wife, Isabella of Angouleme (Léa Seydoux) who is Philip’s niece, to warn John of what’s going on so John can stop it. But John’s a Douchebag with a Crown and doesn’t want to negotiate with his barons. And meanwhile, Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and Robin/Loxley orchestrate the theft of the church’s grain when it is being shipped to York, and then they sow the grain in the middle of the night.

But Wait, There’s More!

As it turns out, Sir Walter knew Robin’s father. How he connects the two men is unclear, given that he can’t see and Robin’s father has been dead since Robin was a little boy (he only has faint memories of the man). Apparently the connection is that both were called ‘Longstride’, because the movie mistakenly thinks that people had hereditary last names in the 12th century.

Spurred on by a clue written on the sword’s hilt, Sir Walter tells Robin that his father was a mason who built a monumental cross in Nottingham. But he was also a political revolutionary who wrote a charter of liberties for a group of barons, the same group who are now rebelling. Why a common stonemason would be able to write or to lead a group of nobles is never explained, and is pretty silly. But it turns out that Longstride Sr anticipated the Magna Carta by about half a century, since he seems to have been active in the 1160s or 70s. Sir William now has the charter, and he sends Robin off to the meeting of the barons and John. So Robin/Loxley proposes that John accept a charter of liberties that will establish equality so that John can be stronger because the people will love him, because 12th century Englishmen think just like 21st century Americans. John agrees and the barons call off the rebellion just in time for Robin/Loxley to lead their troops to rescue Nottingham from Godfrey’s men, who are plundering the village, killing Sir Walter, trying to burn people alive and trying to rape Marion.

When that’s done with, the film still isn’t over. Robin/Loxley leads everybody, including the bandits and Marion and Tuck, halfway across England to Dover, where King Philip’s troops are trying to stage the most absurd amphibious landing in cinematic history. Robin and Marion both suddenly discover that they know how to fight with swords from horseback, so they lead a charge on the beach and foil Philip’s invasion and force him back to France, and everyone lives happily ever after except that John is Douchebag with a Crown and burns the Magna Carta and outlaws Robin Loxley aka Robin of the Hood (cuz apparently Nottingham is in the Inner City) and that’s how Robin Hood became a bandit and almost established American democracy in 1199.

There’s a lot for me to comment on here, so we’ll be dining out on this movie for several blog posts.

This post was made possible by a generous donation. If you have a movie you particularly want me to review, if you make a donation and tell me what film you want me to review, I’ll do at least one post on the film, assuming A) I can get access to the film somehow and B) I think it’s appropriate for the blog. (If there’s an issue, I’ll let you pick another movie.)

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

If you want to know more about Robin Hood, the place to start is J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (Third Edition). It’s a really good exploration of the historical issues with the Robin Hood legend. But if you want to dig a little further, take a look at Maurice Keen’s The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, which discusses Robin Hood as well as several other real and folkloric outlaws.

Ben-Hur: The Chariot Race


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All the many iterations of Ben Hur, up to and including the most recent one (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) have placed a heavy emphasis on the climactic chariot-racing scene. Indeed the first cinematic version, the 1907 silent film, was nothing but the chariot race. The scene has had a strong effect on how racing is presented in Hollywood films. So let’s take a look at Roman chariot racing.



Chariot Racing

The ancient Mediterranean world loved chariot racing. Originally the chariot was a weapon of war, providing a mobile platform from which an archer or spearman could make attacks. Chariot racing probably evolved out of practicing for warfare. The first literary depiction of a chariot race comes from the last book of the Iliad, in which the Greeks conduct a chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus, the fallen lover of Achilles, and the sport is mentioned in later Greek myths as well.

In 680 BC, chariot racing (both two-horse and four-horse teams) was added to the list of Olympic events. A special race-track, the hippodrome, was built to accommodate them. Noteworthy features of the Olympic hippodrome included mechanical starting gates and a series of bronze dolphins that were used to indicate how many laps had been done and how many remained. Whereas most competitors in the Olympics were the athletes involved, so that the man who won the footrace, for example, was the runner himself, the chariot races were different. The competitor was the owner of the horses, and the victory went to him, not to the chariot-driver, who might be a slave of the owner. Since Spartan women were allowed to own property, this became the only Olympic event that a woman could compete in.

It’s clear already in the Iliad that chariot-racing was a dangerous sport; Menelaus crashes his chariot during the race. The teams traveled at a high rate of speed and the chariots themselves were not very heavy vehicles, basically just an axle and wheels with a light frame. The driver essentially balanced on the axle. When the chariots came to the turns at the ends of the tracks, it was easy for the chariot to throw the driver, tip over, or crash into other. The chariots bringing up the rear might collide with or run straight over a crashed chariot, thrown driver, or tripped horse. Injuries and fatalities to both drivers and horses were a common feature of these events.


A modern recreation of a Graeco-Roman racing chariot

Eventually the Romans acquired the sport from the Greeks (as well as the Etruscans, although we know less about Etruscan racing). They began building circuses as race-tracks; like the hippodrome, the circus was an oblong track with a turning point at each end, but unlike the hippodrome, there was a median strip, the spina, that came to be decorated with statues and columns.

The racing itself was much like Greek racing, but there were differences. Although two-horse teams were still raced, the most important races were four-horse teams (and occasionally much larger—10-horse teams are mentioned, but were probably just for demonstrations of skill). Greek races were traditionally 12 laps, but the Romans shortened the race to 7 and later to 5 laps, because they wanted to get more races in during a single day. Instead of holding the reins in their hands, the driver tied the reins to his waist, which meant that if he was thrown from the chariot, he would dragged along unless he could manage to cut himself loose; as a result, drivers carried a knife. The drivers were the competitors (even if they were slaves), so if they won the race, they received the prize money; winning prize money because a way for a driver to purchase his freedom.


A reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, with the spina down the middle

By the start of the 2nd century BC, Roman chariot racing was divided into factions: Red, White, Blue, and Green, with the Blues and Greens being the most important. Charioteers of the same faction raced as a team, so that if any chariot of a faction won, the faction itself won (perhaps a little like the Tour de France today). The job of the lesser drivers was the help the star charioteer win. That opened up a realm of tactics in which lesser drivers supported the lead driver by, for example, blocking other teams from advancing or trying to crash rival chariots. Spectators tended to organize themselves according to the factions, so that they would sit together, cheer for their faction, and occasionally riot if their faction lost. In that sense, they have a lot in common with modern sports fans, who typically have a favorite team that they root for.

Chariot drivers were considered entertainers, just like actors and musicians. Many, though not all were slaves; the cash prizes they won could help buy themselves out of slavery. It is clear that they were very far down the social hierarchy, and they were considered infames, “disgraceful people”; other infames included prostitutes, pimps, gladiators, and soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged. Infames were excluded from many of the legal rights of Roman citizens; for example, they could not give testimony in court, and could suffer corporal punishment for crimes.


A winning charioteer receiving his token of victory

However, although they were socially disreputable people, successful charioteers could still be celebrities and move in very high social circles. Roman society had a rather ambivalent attitude toward entertainers of all types. It accorded them low status and treated them as morally suspect, but it celebrated them for their unusual accomplishments. The rich enjoyed socializing with them and some became romantically involved with extremely powerful people. This somewhat contrary attitude is perhaps paralleled by modern Americans’ fascination with both the glamour of celebrities and the occasionally tawdry scandals they get involved in. The Emperor Nero scandalized Roman society by competing in an Olympic chariot race; he ‘won’ the race, even though he fell out of his chariot and had to be helped back in. The spectacle of the most honored man in the Empire acting as an infamis surely disgusted many conservative Romans.


Chariot Racing in Ben-Hur

When I saw the movie, I was initially skeptical that Jerusalem would have had a hippodrome for formal chariot racing, but in fact it did. The movie exaggerates reality a bit, since Jerusalem’s hippodrome wasn’t carved out of a mountainside, and it wasn’t located just below Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, but those details are just dramatic embellishments. Ben-Hur’s race could have taken place in Jerusalem.


A reconstruction of the Jerusalem hippodrome

But that’s not to say there aren’t problems with it. It’s highly unlikely that the Roman soldier Messala (Toby Kebbell) would have been a champion charioteer. As I noted, charioteers were infames, and most scholars seem to agree that infames were excluded from the Roman army (although surviving law codes don’t actually explicitly say that, so there’s a bit of wiggle room). This version of Messala is struggling to make up for the fact that his grandfather was one of Julius’ Caesar’s assassins, so acting as an infamis is exactly the sort of thing he would have avoided in his quest for respectability. So the whole premise of the original novel is flawed; if Messala isn’t a chariot-driver, there’s no story at all, and if he’s not a soldier, there’s no dramatic confrontation between Roman culture and proto-Christianity. In order for there to be any story at all here, we have to overlook this legal detail.

The film gets the basics of chariot racing right; the chariots used are comparatively light. The one Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) trains in is clearly made of wicker, although the one Messala uses in the race is rather over-decorated and probably too heavy to successfully compete. The film conveys a sense that the drivers are balancing on their chariots rather than firmly rooted. But they hold the reins in their hands, perhaps because tying the reins around their waists would look weird to modern audiences. The race-track has a substantial spina down the middle, complete with dolphins to track the laps.


Messala (Toby Kebbell) and Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) in their chariots

The racers are not, however, organized into factions. There are no Blues or Greens, just eight individual teams all competing against each other. Each driver represents a different ethnic group, so there’s a Persian driver and an Egyptian driver, for example. Judah is the Jewish driver and Messala is the Roman driver, the favorite to win. The race as it’s presented is essentially a way for the Romans to demonstrate their military and cultural superiority over the rest of the world. While that’s untrue to actual Roman chariot racing, it’s not entirely alien to the way Romans thought. Gladiatorial contests were sometimes staged to convey that sense of cultural superiority.

The movie treats chariot racing the same way that movies treat gladiatorial combat, as if killing most of the drivers was a fundamental element of the sport. Throughout the racing scene, the emphasis is on how violent the race is. The six drivers who are not Ben-Hur or Messala all appear to get killed or severely injured during the race, and Messala ultimately loses a leg. When stretcher-bearers are carrying a body off the track, one of them gets hit and presumably killed as well. Many of the horses seem likely to die in the accidents, and one of them gets thrown into the stands, where it immediately starts injuring spectators.

This is surely an exaggeration. Chariot racing was a risky sport, but it wasn’t Death Race 2000. Just like gladiator films, Ben-Hur is presenting an image of Roman sport as being an inherently bloody slaughter as if what the Romans care about is the spectacle of violence and death rather than the competition between skilled athletes.

As Donald Kyle has pointed out in his Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, people have traditionally viewed Greek and Roman attitudes toward athletics in contrasting fashion. The Greeks are viewed as caring about sport (with an emphasis on skill, athleticism, and ideals) while the Romans are presented as interested only in spectacle (dramatic shows, violence, and bloodshed). This is despite the fact that both cultures practiced most of the same forms of athletics. The fact that Greek athletics could be extremely harsh is downplayed. Pankration, Greek all-out wrestling, is one of the most brutal versions of wrestling ever practiced; smashing joints, breaking fingers and toes, outright strangulation, and biting were all legal moves. Chariot racing was just as brutal when the Greeks practiced it as when the Romans did, and yet we associate Greek chariot racing with the Olympic ideal and Roman chariot racing with disregard for human life. In this film, the brutality of chariot racing is a metaphor for Roman brutality toward conquered peoples.

And yet, right at the end of the film, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) makes a rather telling observation to Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). After Ilderim has won the race, Pilate takes note of the way the Jews are celebrating Ben-Hur and essentially says that the race has served its actual purpose of acculturating Jews to the Empire, by teaching them how to love racing the way the Romans do.

While I don’t know of any scholarship on this specific point, it’s a broadly accurate statement. The Roman Empire succeeded in part because the Romans were very good at developing institutions and practices that encouraged conquered peoples to absorb Romanness. This taught conquered peoples to see themselves as Romans as well as whatever ethnic group they belonged to. It gave the Empire a shared set of practices and values that helped hold it together for so long. A passion for chariot racing was certainly something held on long after the Roman Empire had broken up. It was perhaps the favorite sport of the Byzantine Empire for centuries.

I was able to see Ben-Hur because some people very kindly donated to support my blog. If you liked this post and want to help me continue reviewing films, please consider making a small donation.


Want to Know More?

The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is.

Donald Kyle’s Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World looks primarily at Graeco-Roman athletics  and tries to understand them as as sport, rather than just cataloging facts about the various games. It’s a really good discussion of what Greeks and Romans understood sport to be about. Alison Futrell’s The Roman Games: A Sourcebook is a collection of primary sources related to Roman sports, including chariot racing.

Start the Revolution Without Me: Farewell, Gene Wilder


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Like all right-thinking people, I was deeply saddened to learn that comic actor Gene Wilder had died. The news brought back memories of my childhood in the 70s, watching his movies with my older brothers in Milwaukee, the hometown I share with Wilder. Although Wilder’s film career ran from 1967 to 1991, he did his best work in the 1970s, managing to release two of his most famous works in 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.


Wilder in his most iconic role

But of course, what Wilder will always be best known for is his delightfully charismatic performance as Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In some ways it’s an unlikely film. Although it was inspired by the great children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the reason it got made into a movie is that Quaker Oats was looking for a vehicle to promote a new candy bar. Despite having no experience in film-making, Quaker bought the rights to the novel, renamed the new candy bar the Wonka Bar, and filmed the movie as publicity for its launch. That’s right. One of the greatest children’s movies ever was actually a massive exercise in product placement. The Wonka Bar was a bomb; it was released in 1971 and then quickly recalled because of problems with it, and the movie did poorly in the box office, but by the 1980s it had entered the canon of children’s films because of constant showings on television.

Wilder insisted that when Willy Wonka first appears, he seems to be near-invalid, leaning heavily on a cane, until he executes a somersault and reveals that he’s actually in good health. As Wilder realized, that moment would destabilize Wonka as a character, because the audience would never know if he was telling the truth or not. And it works brilliantly, setting up later scenes such as the frightening boat ride he subjects his guests to and even more importantly, the famous “You get nothing!” scene at the end. And the Wonka character plays perfectly to the two halves of Wilder’s screen persona, the calm, gentle, empathetic man and the man teetering on the edge of hysteria and total loss of control. It’s a performance for the ages. It is precisely what the best children’s literature offers, a combination of reassurance and uncertainty.

In contrast, the ill-conceived 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp failed to achieve that same quality because Depp’s Wonka is just weird. The film strips away all of Wonka’s mystery by giving him a complex back-story, father issues, and motives that pulled Wonka down to humanity where Wilder’s Wonka was some sort of supernatural tutelary deity given human form.

But this is a blog about movies and history, and so I want to call your attention to one of Wilder’s earliest films, a little known gem that holds a special place in my heart just beneath Willy Wonka.


Fun and Games with the French Revolution

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin) was only Wilder’s third film, and only his second in a leading role. It’s a parody of films and literature set in the Ancien Regime of 18th century France. It’s only nominally about history, but it’s a glorious romp through a lot of clichés about the French past.


It opens with Orson Welles, that 1970s symbol of high-brow respectability, gazing at a French chateau. “Hello, I’m Orson Wells. It’s lovely, isn’t it? The summer palace of Louis XVI. You know, historians have recently discovered a previously unknown fact concerning this palace, an event that almost changed the entire history of Western Europe. Did you know that the entire French revolution could have been avoided? It’s true. No one knows what took place there. It’s an event of such importance that men of integrity and may I say considerable resources made a film on the subject. It’s a color film, which I am not in.”

The premise of the film is that in the mid-18th century, a traveling Corsican nobleman and his pregnant wife are forced to stop at a small inn so his wife can give birth. At luck would have it, a peasant woman is also giving birth, and both women produce twin boys. Unable to figure out which boys are which, the harried doctor gives one of each set of twins to each father.

As a result, Wilder and co-star Donald Sutherland each play half of two sets of brothers, the cowardly but well-meaning peasants Claude and Charles Coupe, and the haughty, ruthless noblemen Philippe and Pierre de Sisi, the best swordsmen in all of Corsica. Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) is a bumbling king dominated by his wife Marie (Billie Whitelaw) and the ruthless Duc d’Escargot (Victor Spinetti). Louis summons the de Sisi brothers to Paris because he wants them to kill Escargot, but Escargot intercepts the message and uses it to persuade the de Sisis to kill Louis instead. He plans to offer the brothers half of France while he marries Marie and rules the other half.


Sutherland and Wilder as the de Sisi brothers

The de Sisis travel to Paris disguised as peasants, not realizing that revolutionaries, including the reluctant Coupe brothers, are planning to attack the boat they’re on because it’s carrying weapons and ammunition that they need for their rebellion. In the confusion of the attack, naturally the rebels mistake the de Sisis for the Coupes and drag them off to their hidden base while Escargot’s men mistake the Coupes for the de Sisis and take them to the palace.

From there, the Coupes stumble their way through the intrigues of Louis’ court, where everyone seems determined to persuade the Coupes to kill someone else. Escargot is planning to marry Princess Christina of Belgium, because that will give him the Belgian army and allow him to kill Louis, marry Marie, and rule France, but only if Louis’ plan to have Pierre kill Escargot, marry Christina, and use the Belgian army to help him get rid of Marie doesn’t happen first. Marie wants Claude to kill Escargot, marry Christina, use the Belgian army to kill Louis, then kill Christina, marry Marie, and help her rule France. You get the idea.

The characters are drawn with broad strokes and make use of all sorts of tropes from French literature. Whitelaw’s Marie is a sex-crazed woman who is juggling multiple lovers simultaneously, including seemingly the entirety of the palace guard, and Louis is too addled to realize it; in one scene he fails to notice Marie and Escargot making out right next to him in his own bed.

Louis is kindly, but utterly incompetent. In one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, he shows up to a formal ball dressed as a chicken, because, as he spends the rest of the scene explaining to people, he thought it was a costume ball.


Whitelaw and Griffith as Marie and Louis

Escargot is a sneering villain, given to absurd extended metaphors such as “The brains of a chicken, coupled with the claws of an eagle, may well hatch the eggs of our destruction.” And that’s one of the simple ones. Here’s a scene where he verbally spars with the Coupes masquerading as the de Sisis.

The film borrows liberally from historical fiction, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask. It doesn’t particularly care that the Man in the Iron Mask belongs to the 17th century, not the 18th century.

The twin roles of Claude and Philippe allow Wilder to channel the two halves of his comic persona as well as Willy Wonka does. Claude is simply a decent man trying to survive his unusual circumstances, while Philippe is a leather-clad sadist barely able to control himself. Rosalind Knight has a number of brilliant scenes as his desperate, put-upon wife Helene that tell us more than we want to know about Philippe’s sexual habits. “You said we weren’t going to do the Choir Boy and the Monk any more! You said you wanted to do the Woodchopper and the Shepherdess! How many costumes do you expect me to pack?” (Apparently, that costume required her to pack a small flock of sheep.)


Poor Helene!

Start the Revolution Without Me shares a number of qualities with another comic gem from the same period, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both are nominally historic films with the stars playing multiple roles. Both borrow liberally from literature but without much concern for accuracy. Both employ parody of historical documentaries in which the narrator is killed by a character from the documentary he’s narrating, and neither film has a conventional ending. As a result, both wind up using the instability of genre conventions as a key comic tool. It would not surprise me to learn that Revolution helped inspire Holy Grail.

But where Holy Grail is fundamentally absurdist, Revolution is essentially slapstick. There’s a great deal of pratfalling and mistaken identity. The film culminates in a comic chase in which the Coupe brother are trying to flee the palace along with Princess Christina and Claude’s fiancée Mimi (as well as a charter of reform they’ve persuaded Louis to sign), while the de Sisis are trying to sneak into the palace to kill Escargot. At the same time the revolutionaries are trying to storm the palace and Louis and Marie are just trying to survive.

The slapstick element of Revolution hasn’t aged as well as the absurdism of Holy Grail, which is perhaps the reason that the former has faded from the popular mind while Holy Grail has become a classic. But if you’re in the mood to revisit Wilder’s career, you should give it a look; it’s available on iTunes. Even though I’ve seen the film numerous times, re-watching it last night gave me a number of laugh-out-loud moments that reminded me of what a joy Gene Wilder’s best work really is.

Goodbye, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for giving me so many laughs.

If you like this review, please consider donating a buck or two so I can expand the range of films I cover.


Want to Know More?

Start the Revolution Without Me is available on Amazon. While you’re at it, pick up Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory too. There’s also his lovely memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger

Ben-Hur: A Long History


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The new Ben-Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is constantly talked about as a remake of the 1959 version starring Charleton Heston as the title character. But that’s not really true. The reality is that Ben-Hur is a complex enough body of material that it’s almost its own minor genre.


The origins of the film lie more than a century ago, in 1880 when Lew Wallace published his novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s a sprawling novel of more than 500 page that interweaves the lives of Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus’.Iin fact Judah only makes his first appearance in Part 2 (out of 8); Part 1 is devoted entirely to a retelling of Jesus’ birth. So basically, Wallace took the Biblical account of the life of Christ and used it as a background to the life of his hero, with Judah periodically running into Jesus or meeting his followers.

Wallace himself was an interesting character. Trained as a lawyer, he served as a Union general during the American Civil War and served on the military commission that tried the conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination. He supported Rutherford B Hayes in one of the most controversial elections in American history, and was rewarded in 1878 after Hayes’ victory by being appointed Governor of New Mexico Territory. It was during his time in that office that he wrote Ben-Hur (having already written a novel and a play). He also found time to arrange for Billy the Kid to testify in exchange for immunity for his crimes. In 1881 he was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.


Lew Wallace

Sales of the novel were slow at first, but within a few years the novel took off, and by 1900 it had becomes the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It remained at the top of the charts until 1936, when it was knocked off by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Wallace initially resisted allowing the novel to be turned into a play, out of a concern that no one could properly portray Jesus, but in 1889, he agreed to an adaptation in which Jesus was represented by a beam of light. That production was a run-away success, drawing an audience of religious men and women who had previously been uncomfortable with theater for moral reasons. It became a touring show and only ceased to be performed in 1921. The production used a system of horses running on treadmills with a moving background.


Ben-Hur in Films

Given the story’s intense popularity at the start of the 20th century, it was a fairly natural choice for movie-makers. In 1907, Sidney Olcott made a 15-minute silent movie that focused entirely on the chariot race, using New Jersey firemen as the charioteers and horses that normally pulled fire wagons. However, Olcott never bothered to get permission from the Wallace estate, triggering a landmark lawsuit that established that film makers were legally obligated to obtain the rights to any previously published work that was still under copyright. If you’re interested in this version, you can watch it on Youtube.


In 1922, Goldwyn Studios secured the rights to Ben-Hur and made an epic silent movie staring Ramon Navarro in the title role. Filmed in Italy, this version told the whole of Ben-Hur’s story, but stripped out most of the material about Jesus and his followers. It was the most expensive silent movie ever made and when it was released late in 1925, it managed to lose money even though it was a blockbuster (in part because the licensing deal gave the Wallace estate 50% of the profits). The film made Navarro one of the leader Hollywood actors. Its version of the chariot race was highly influential, and provided the template for racing scenes in the 1959 version of the film, as well as the 1998 Prince of Egypt animated movie and the pod-racing scene in The Phantom Menace.

The production was extremely troubled; among other catastrophes, May McAvoy, who was playing Esther, dislocated both her wrists; it was rumored that several extras died during the naval battle scene because they couldn’t swim; and the racing scene involved the death of quite a number of horses. The chariot race drew the whole pantheon of Hollywood royalty to watch it, and if you looked closely, you can see  Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lilian and Dorothy Gish, Sid Grauman, Samuel Goldwyn, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Fay Wray in the stands. If you’re a fan of cinema history, it’s worth reading about the production.


The film is also quite explicit about its pro-Christian stance. It opens with the Nativity. Jesus cures Judah’s mother and sister of leprosy, while Judah attempts to lead an anti-Roman rebellion in the name of Jesus. It ends with the whole Hur family converting to Christianity. Like the stage play, Jesus is never show full-on, and is sometimes represented by a shaft of light.

In 1959, the story got its most famous cinematic treatment when it was directed by William Wyler, with Charleton Heston playing the lead. Like the 1925 version, it was a huge hit, winning 11 Academy Awards (a feat not equaled until 1997’s Titanic). It is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.


But getting the script written was a challenge; it went through 12 different drafts. Karl Tunberg got the script after numerous re-writes and stripped out a good deal of material that had been in the novel, including a substantial chunk of material that follows the fate of the characters after the Crucifixion.

Wyler intensely disliked Tunberg’s dialog, which he felt was too modern, and so he hired Gore Vidal to re-do the dialog. In 1995, Vidal famously claimed that he felt that the dynamic between Judah and Messala only made sense if the two men had once been lovers and that Messala was hoping to get back together with Judah but felt rejected after Judah spurned his advances. According to Vidal, he persuaded Wyler to accept his reading, and told Stephen Boyd, who was playing Messala, to play the scenes that way, but did not tell Heston. When the notoriously conservative Heston learned about Vidal’s claim, he vehemently denied it, but if Vidal’s story is true, Heston wouldn’t have known about it.

Decide for yourself if you believe Vidal’s story.

Regardless of whether Vidal added a homoerotic subtext or not, the film made other changes to the novel. Wallace’s novel is unabashed in its treatment of Christianity being superior to Judaism; the major Jewish characters mostly wind up converting to Christianity after all. Wyler’s version, which was made about a decade after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, was more respectful to Judaism. Jesus’ face is not shown and the actor who played him was not given any lines. Although the ending strongly hints at Ben-Hur’s conversion, it doesn’t make it explicit.

In 2003, Charleton Heston reprised his role in an animated version of the story, produced by his own production company. This version returns to Wallace’ approach to the religious issue. Jesus (voiced by Scott McNeill) is seen and given dialog. Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are both miraculously healed of leprosy, and Messala is miraculously cured of the injured leg he received in the chariot race. Mary Magdalene witnesses Jesus’ resurrection and ascent into Heaven, and the film closes with Judah teaching his children to be Christians.


There was also a 2010 Canadian miniseries of the story, with a cast that included Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston, Ray Winstone, and Ben Cross in supporting roles, but I haven’t been able to find enough about it to know how closely it adheres to the original material.


The 2016 Ben-Hur

I think it’s important to see the 2016 film in this light. Many people who’ve commented on the film seem unaware of any version other than the 1959 one, and consequently assume that the Heston version represents a sort of baseline from which the 2016 version has deviated. In fact, the Heston version is really the outlier. With the exception of the 1907 silent version, which is just the chariot race, most of the other versions have been explicitly Christian in their sympathies, and it’s the Christian element of the story that really attracted its executive producers, Roma “Touched By an Angel” Downey and Mark Burnett. Downey and Burnett have been nicknamed “Hollywood’s Noisest Christians” for their unabashed interest in pursuit of the evangelical film market. They produced the History Channel miniseries The Bible, and they have said they viewed the film as “a story of forgiveness with an underlying story of Jesus”.


Downey and Burnett are Christians, in case you were at all unclear

So the film’s decision to cast Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus and to give him several scenes beyond just the Crucifixion is in fact quite true to the source novel. It represents a movement away from Classic Hollywood’s desire to avoid directly showing Jesus on screen, but that’s a convention that no longer has much force.

Given the explicitly Christian background of this version, it’s perhaps surprising that the script isn’t even more Christian than it is. Until the Crucifixion scene, none of Jesus’ dialog comes from the Gospels, and you might be forgiven for not figuring out that this anonymous carpenter is supposed to be Jesus instead of some New Age political thinker. The film even has a clever twist. Dismas (Moises Arias) is an angry anti-Roman zealot whose attempt to assassinate Pontius Pilate causes the ruination of the Hur family, but at the end of the film he’s one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, the one who declares that Jesus has does nothing to deserve this punishment.


Santoro as Jesus

Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of its Jewish characters is rather awkward. Given the anti-Semitism that was so common in American culture in the late 19th and early 20th century it’s not surprising that the novel and the earlier cinematic versions were so explicitly pro-Christian. The 1959 version, as I noted, downplayed that. But in 2016, having literally all the Jewish characters convert feels rather culturally insensitive.

At no point does the film make any real effort to establish what Judaism involved in this period, except that it doesn’t involve the worship of multiple gods. There are a few minor details in the sets; for example, the individual graves in the Jewish cemetery have small stones placed on them in keeping with the modern Jewish custom of doing just that. But that’s about it. None of the Jewish characters ever does anything that seems distinctly Jewish in either a cultural or a religious sense. For example, there are no shots of the Second Temple or depictions of any Jewish religious rituals, no references to Jewish dietary rules, or anything like that. Combined with the conversions at the end of the film, it seems clear that Judah and the rest of the Hur clan aren’t really Jews so much as proto-Christians.

And perhaps the expanded Christian elements of the film are part of the reason that it did so poorly at the box office. The story isn’t Christian enough to draw a large evangelical audience, but it’s Christian enough that its tenor feels out of step with what contemporary film-goers are looking for. It’s a bit like Toby Kebbell’s Messala, too Roman to fit in with his Jewish adoptive family and not Roman enough to please the Romans he serves. In the end, both Messala and the film failed to win out.

This post was written with the help of generous donations to my blog. If you like it, please think about sending a few dollars my way.


Want to Know More?

The 2016 movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1925 silent version and 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur are. The 2010 miniseries is also available.

Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It’s still one of the 20 best-selling novels of all time.


Ben Hur: A Few Thoughts


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Yesterday, thanks to generous donations via Paypal, I went to see the new Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, based on the novel by Lew Wallace). I’ll get around to writing a longer post soon, but today I’m just going to post a few random thoughts that aren’t enough for an individual post.


Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you intend to see the movie, you may want to do so before reading this. But if you’re like most people and don’t intend to see it, read on!

  1. It’s not a good movie. At 2 1/2 hours, it still manages to be too short. The backstory between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) needs more time than it’s given. The performances are unexceptional; Morgan Freeman delivers his lines as if he’s narrating March of the Jewish Resistance Fighters. 
  2. Apparently 1st century Jewish men dress like 21st century fashion models. In one scene, Ben-Hur appears to be wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt that he just bought from Abercrombie. It’s such a jarring look that I honest-to-God thought that somehow the film had veered into meta-theater by shooting the scene in contemporary clothing. Note to the costume designer: the only Middle Eastern people who wore pants in this period were Persian women.


    See what I mean?

  3. The film continues the Hollywood tradition of having trouble with Roman names. Messala Severus has no praenomen (no private ‘first’ name) for his adoptive family to use; they all just call him Messala. It’s no wonder he never feels like he’s really part of the family; they’re calling him by his last name. And one of the supporting characters is named Druses instead of Drusus. But I suppose we can forgive it, since the characters’ names were lifted from a 19th century novel.
  4. The film also continues the Hollywood tradition of depicting Rome as an evil, oppressive empire that the world would be better off without. The characters spend so much time complaining about how horrible the Romans are, I wanted to shout “but what about the aqueducts?” (Given that the theater was virtually empty, I could have done so with impunity.)
  5. I’ve already commented a little about the naval combat scene. And the full scene holds up pretty well. It does a fairly good job of capturing the realities of trireme combat from the rower’s point of view, and it’s quite an effective scene: claustrophobic, chaotic, and frightening. As I pointed out before, however, by 33 AD, there was no naval combat in the Mediterranean, because the Romans ruled the whole Mediterranean basin. The ‘Greek rebels’ the Romans are fighting in this film never existed, and are invented entirely to provide an action scene in a film that really only gets three of them, as well as to provide a way for Ben-Hur to escape captivity.
  6. Since I’ve complained before about films whitewashing, I feel obligated to say that this film did things better. The performers who play Judah Ben-Hur’s household are actually mostly Jewish or at least Middle Eastern, even if Jack Huston is British. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is played by a Italian-Portuguese Brazilian actor though. Has Hollywood ever cast a Jewish actor to play Jesus?
  7. Freeman’s Ilderim has literally no motive whatsoever. He decides to bet Pontius Pilate a massive sum of money to allow Ben-Hur to race Messala even though Messala is an undefeated champion and Ben-Hur has never been in a chariot race before, and he agrees to cover all bets on the races because the climactic chariot race won’t happen unless he does, but he never explains why he’s doing this, except for a throw-away line that he used to hate the Romans for killing his son, but he’s over that now.

And thank you to those who donated to my Paypal account so I could go see this! If you want me tackling more first-run films, donating is a good way to make sure I do.

Want to Know More? 

The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is

Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

An Open Letter to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson


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Dear Senator Johnson,

In a recent interview, you complained about what you called the “higher education cartel” and called for abandoning the diploma process in favor of a certification process. You cited your past experience volunteering in the Catholic educational system in Oshkosh (the high school system, I assume). And then you said

One of the examples I always used ― if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas. 

I’ve been teaching in the University of Wisconsin system for about two decades, so I guess I’m part of that ‘higher education cartel’, but I think I know a few things about teaching, so let me explain why simply showing documentaries is a poor substitute for having a fully-trained scholar teaching students about history.

Your teaching model relies on a faulty notion of what history is. You assume that history is the study of the facts of the past. In a model like that, the goal of education is to have students memorize those facts so they will ‘know history’. This assumes that the past is just a set of knowable facts, a record of ‘what happened’.

The problem with this model is that historians don’t really study ‘what happened’, because we can’t. Until someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in time and directly observe events as they happen, historians are dependent for our knowledge of the past on the written records left behind by those who were involved in the events.

To use your example from the American Civil War, one of the important moments in the Civil War was President Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address. We possess the text of the speech, so we know what Lincoln said, more or less, but no one alive today was present and there are no recordings of it, so we can’t be 100% sure that he actually said these exact words; perhaps he added something to the speech, or changed some of his words as he delivered it. We can’t know how he said the words, where he paused for effect or which words he gave particular emphasis. The comments that others made about the speech, for example in news stories or private correspondence, might get us a little closer to Lincoln’s delivery, but ultimately, we can’t study the event itself; we can only study the text of the speech as it has come down to us.

That means that historians don’t study ‘what happened’. Instead, we study the written record of what happened, the various surviving documents that can tell us about the events. To be sure, we make use of knowledge from archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, and so on, but what history is as an academic field is specifically the study of the written documents of the past. Historians don’t study the facts of the past; we assemble them from the written record as best we can, and two historians working on the same issue might assemble the facts in very different ways. For example, an historian who is interested in presidential politics might assemble the facts of the Second Inaugural Address in a different way than an historian interested in the history of American slavery would. By asking different questions or putting it alongside different documents, two different scholars could find two very different meanings in the same speech.History isn’t the study of ‘what happened’, it’s the study of how we interpret the documents that tell us what happened.

The problem with written documents is that they have a lot of limitations. Some authors write about things they know little about, while other authors actively lie. Some authors are trying to cover up or justify their own actions. Some authors’ understanding of events is sharply limited by their access to the event, or by the way their culture influences how they think about the event. Some authors are writing years later and may have forgotten things. So historians need to learn to read very carefully, looking for the clues to help us evaluate how reliable the document is, what it might be omitting or getting wrong, and what it can tell us about the intentions of the author who wrote it.


An Example

These skills are far more complex than they might sound. Freshmen college students have a strong tendency to read uncritically, because very few students enter college with highly-developed reading and thinking skills, and it’s my job to help them acquire the basics of those skills. 

For example, I teach Early Western Civilization quite frequently, and when I get to the early Middle Ages, I have my students read the Life of St. Balthild, a 7th century Frankish saint. By this point in the course they’ve already read a little bit about early Christian saints, and had a discussion about the rising importance of virginity as a feminine virtue in Western society. Balthild had quite an eventful life; she started out as a noblewoman, but was taken as a slave and sold to a government official named Erchinoald. According to the author of her Life,

[Balthild] gained such a reputation that when the wife of Erchinoald died, he wished to marry Balthild, that faultless virgin. When she heard of this, she fled from his sight. When he called her into his chamber, she hid herself in a corner and covered herself with bundles of rags so no one might find her. Because she was humble, she attempted to flee from the honor that was to be hers. She had hoped not to get married but to have Jesus alone for her spouse.

Divine providence intervened, and Erchinoald found a different wife. Thus it happened that Balthild, with God’s approval, escaped marriage with this prince, but eventually came to be espoused to Clovis, son of the former king Dagobert. By virtue of her humility, she was thus raised to a higher rank. She was wed to the king by divine dispensation, and honored in this station. She brought forth royal children. These events are known to all, for now her royal progeny rule the realm.

So after being Erchinoald’s slave and would-be wife, Balthild somehow wound up marrying the son of the Frankish king and eventually became queen herself. After her husband died, she ruled the kingdom on behalf of her young son for a while, until she joined the monastic house at Chelles and became a nun. After her death, the other nuns began to claim that she was saint, and the Life was written as part of an effort to establish her in popular imagination as a saint.

But when you read those two paragraphs I quoted, did you notice how the text contradicts itself? If not, go back and re-read it and see if you can find the contradiction. Don’t feel too bad if you miss it; my students never spot it until I point it out.

In the first paragraph, the author claims that Balthild wanted to be a virgin her whole life. In that, she fits into a standard model of female sanctity in that period, which champions virginity as superior to all other possible sexual and social statuses; according to this model, being a virgin is morally superior to being a wife or a widow. And, according to the author, God supports Balthild’s desire to be a permanent virgin by intervening and causing Erchinoald to get interested in some other woman. So Balthild is such a devout Christian that God gives her a small miracle to protect her virginity.

But not two sentences later, God arranges for Balthild to get married to Prince Clovis. Suddenly the text forgets Balthild’s desire for permanent virginity and never mentions it again. God and Balthild apparently change their minds when a prince comes along. So the author of the text makes one claim about Balthild as a way to demonstrate her sanctity, and then drops that claim when the known facts of her life prove inconsistent with that claim. It’s a clever piece of authorial sleight-of-hand; like I said my students never spot it until I point it out. And this isn’t the only time the text does this. The author repeatedly makes claims for Balthild’s intentions and then has to explain away behavior that contradicts those claims. Supposedly as queen, Balthild had a deep desire to become a nun, but then the author has to explain why she stayed on as queen after her husband died; supposedly her subjects loved her so much they refused to let her step down. Then the author has to explain why her subjects suddenly changed their mind and let her become a nun.

Once I get them to see the contradictions, I’m able to have a conversation with the students about what’s going on. That leads us to looking at what the author’s purpose in writing the Life is, namely that the author (possibly one of Balthild’s fellow nuns at Chelles) wants to persuade people to consider Balthild a saint, so she employs a series of standard motifs about female saints (the desire for permanent virginity, the threat to the saint’s virginity, the miracle that protects it, and so on). And she does this despite the fact that Balthild’s life stands in direct contradiction to those motifs; Balthild’s son became king, so she obviously wasn’t a virgin. And that leads into questions of why the nuns decided to promote Balthild as a saint if she wasn’t a good fit for traditional ideas about female saints, which brings up the fact that Chelles stands to benefit in a variety of ways from having a saint buried there. And all of this is just one of the many documents I use in this class.

I use the Life of St. Balthild precisely because it’s a perfect example of why critical reading skills are important to develop. But it’s not an easy lesson. The students are so accustomed to trusting what they read that they struggle to make the simple leap to the idea that the author isn’t being completely honest. Exploring this one document takes at least 20 minutes of class time, often a good deal longer. The better students carry that lesson into the rest of the documents they read, but many of the students seem to forget it the next time we look at a document, so I have to bring the issue up again to help them become more skeptical readers.

It takes a long time for students to acquire critical reading skills and the closely related critical thinking and critical writing skills. When my freshmen leave my Early Western Civilization class, most of them have started to develop those skills, but they are nowhere near finished. The ones who continue on by taking further history classes (and other classes in the Humanities) will graduate college with those skills highly developed. But it doesn’t happen in the course of a single class. It can’t. These are complex skills and they take years to develop, just like cooking, playing basketball, or engineering. They require constant practice, practice that history classes are designed to require.

And they’re not skills students can acquire through watching a documentary, any more than you could become a great basketball player by watching a documentary on the sport. Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War is a wonderful piece of work, and certainly has a place in the classroom. It’s engaging, does a good job of holding the viewer’s attention, and helps convey the idea that history happens to real human beings. But it cannot teach students how to read documents, even though it quotes many documents. It cannot ask them why the author of a letter expressed his or her sentiments in a particular way and then lead a discussion that explores students’ answers to that question. It cannot help students explore what the document doesn’t say and why it might be omitting certain facts or ideas. It cannot get students thinking about how the author’s race or gender or wealth might have shaped what the document says. These are things that are necessary for students to develop those critical skills, and they are things that can only be taught in a classroom with a highly-trained scholar leading the way.

No documentary could teach the Life of St. Balthild the way I teach it, because part of my teaching process is putting a puzzle in front of the students (why does the Life contradict itself?) and then letting them fumble with the possibilities until they start to figure it out. A crucial part of the educational process is letting them wrestle with that puzzle for a while, because it forces them to identify possible answers and then work through them to see whether they make sense or not. They learn more by having to work it out for themselves than if I simply tell them the answer, because simply giving them the answer doesn’t help them develop their critical reading and thinking skills very much.

Why does any of this matter? Why do we need people with highly developed critical reading and writing and thinking skills? I’ve already discussed in a different post the wide range of things that a history student can do with a history degree, but let me talk for a moment about where those skills come in handy. You’re a businessman; I’m sure at some point you must have received a business proposal that looked too good to be true. It’s the critical reading and thinking skills that helped you figure where the proposal wasn’t being honest. I’m sure in your time in politics you’ve learned that politicians often distort or fragment the truth when they give speeches; it’s those same critical thinking and reading skills that help you find the flaws in the arguments you’re being presented with. Or perhaps those aren’t skills you’re good at. Maybe you need to take a few history classes to brush up on them. I mean the kind of history class taught by a professional historian, not the kind taught by someone who just plays a documentary for students and calls it teaching.


Heartless: Vampires, Witchcraft, and Teen Romance in Denmark


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I recently ran across the shortlived Danish tv Heartless (Danish with English subtitles) on Netflix. It was only 8 episodes and I’d read some interesting things about it, so I gave it a try. It’s not a great show, but it has an interesting take on vampirism and part of the show is set in 17th century Denmark, so I figured I’d fire off a quick post about it.


Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) are teenage homeless twins living in Copenhagen, dealing with a dark secret. To survive, they need to steal people’s life energy through kisses. If they take too much, the victim bursts into flames and dies. Sebastian is guilt-ridden over this while Sofie shrugs her shoulders and is resigned to her existence. But Sebastian convinces her that they need to find out why they are the way they are, and their investigations eventually reveal that their mother, shortly after dropping them off at an orphanage, went to Ottmannsgaard Academy, an elite private school (the school prides itself on the quality of its fencing instruction) where she evidently vanished. So they manage to enroll and begin seeking clues. Cue all the usual teen drama angst that one expects at that age: social competition, teen romance, existential angst, and vampiric murder.


Sofie getting what she needs

It turns out that Ottmannsgaard has its own dark history, stemming back to Denmark in the 1670s, when the local nobleman, the weak-willed Count Ottman (Lior Cohen) gets his peasant mistress Ane Sørensdatter (Shelly Jacquline Levy) pregnant. His pregnant wife, understandably pissed about her husband’s wandering eye, evidently leans on the local Lutheran minister to accuse Ane of being a witch (like you do). The count tries to get Ane to flee the area, but she refuses because she’s young, in love, and fated to die for the plot to happen, and so instead she gets arrested, tortured, and sentenced to burn at the stake, even though she’s carrying his child.

The execution succeeds, but triggers a curse that follows the children of both the Countess and Ane (who must have been a witch, because her unborn baby somehow survives her mother being burned to death. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is). There’s a twist of sorts here that I won’t give away, although it’s not a huge one (so don’t get your hopes up).


Jessen as Sebastian

Eight episode of that doesn’t give me a whole lot to comment on. But the show at least gets the witchcraft details in the right ballpark. There were no executions of witches in the 1670s, but there was one in the 1680s (the Rugard Trials), in which Jørgen Arenfeldt, a local nobleman, used his authority as the lord of the manor to imprison, try, and execute a half-dozen women as witches. One of the unfortunate women was named Anne Sorensdatter. In doing this, Arenfeldt violated the law by torturing the women and by prosecuting women who lived outside his jurisdiction. The last execution for witchcraft in Denmark happened in 1693.

So the trial and execution of Ane Sørensdatter could actually have happened in loosely the fashion the series depicts. Like the Rugard women, Ane is subjected to is, I think, supposed to be ducking. As usually happens with this practice, the show misunderstands ducking as a form of torture intended to elicit a confession when in fact it was an effort to obtain objective evidence of witchcraft. But Ane’s ducking is more like just being held underwater rather than being put in a classic ducking stool, so maybe it’s simply supposed to be torture. Torturing witches was illegal in Denmark in this period, but the show doesn’t touch on that, so I think we’re just supposed to understand that early modern authorities were gullible sadists and we’ve moved beyond that.

It’s nice to see a show in which historical research (albeit conducted at the high school level) is actually an important component of the series. Throughout the show, Sebastian is constantly seeking clues to the past, speaking with his history teaching, asking to write his term paper on witchcraft trials, reading old books, and so on. So in a way, the show offers a nice example of the way a historical researcher chases events through the evidence to unravel the mysteries of the past. It’s rather convenient that at key moments he runs into people who just happen to have saved boxes of old stuff for more than a decade and those boxes always have a clue he needs, but hey, it’s a teen drama so I think we can forgive that wild coincidence.

Sofie’s character is handled particularly nicely. As the show goes on, she develops an attraction to the headmaster’s daughter Emilie (Julie Christiansen) who gradually reciprocates her feelings. When the headmaster discovers this, he’s uncomfortable with the relationship, not because of the lesbianism but because he’s suspicious of Sofie’s motives and nature. There’s a very nice scene in which he tells Emilie that he doesn’t care that she might be attracted to women, but that he doesn’t want her involved with Sofie. The show’s treatment of two young lesbians is really refreshing because their lesbianism isn’t in any way the problem in the relationship.


Sofie and Emilie

Heartless is not a great show, either in its treatment of its historical themes or the quality of its teen drama. It nearly got cancelled after 5 episodes, and the network apparently decided to film three more episodes simply as a way to give the story a conclusion. It’s filled with lots of wordless brooding of the kind Scandinavians are so good at depicting but which can get sort of tedious for American viewers. But it captures some of the complexities of teenage sexuality and identity quite well, in which the problems of vampiric existence become an interesting metaphor for the transition to adulthood, and the show doesn’t try to stretch out its central mystery further than the story can support. So if you’re in the mood for a novel approach to vampirism or just want to see lots of Scandinavian teens yearning for what they can’t have, give it a look.


Want to Know More?

Heartless is available through Amazon.

I can’t offer you anything on witchcraft in Denmark, but if you want to know more about witch trials and related matters, a good introduction to the Early Modern Witch Hunts is Joseph Klaits’ Servants of Satan.

Ben Hur: The Trailer


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The remake of Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is opening this weekend, and I haven’t said anything about it on this blog yet. Let’s take a look at the trailer.


The first part of the trailer features a naval battle, and judging from what we see in the trailer, it looks like the film gets the basic facts right. Ancient Mediterranean naval combat relied on galleys that could sail for transport but were rowed during combat. The basic tactic used first by the Greeks and later by the Carthaginians and Romans was to row their ship as fast as possible into the side of the enemy ship and punch a hole in the hull using the bronze prow, which acted as a battering ram. If successful, the enemy ship would start to take on water and sink.

(An alternate tactic was to maneuver alongside the opposing ship and smash through its oars, leaving it crippled and vulnerable to a subsequent direct hit or being boarded by marines.)


A modern reconstruction of a Greek trireme

As a result, speed and maneuverability were the critical traits for Graeco-Roman ships. That’s why the emphasized rowers rather than sails. Large numbers of rowers working in unison could propel the ship faster and more reliably than the wind. But at some point making the ship wider to accommodate more rowers would have made the ship slower in the water. Instead, the Greeks pioneered a technique of stacking decks of rowers one above the other, with the oars being slightly off-set so they wouldn’t get tangled. At first these galleys were biremes (having two decks of rowers), and then triremes (with three decks). The Romans eventually embraced the quinquereme. Scholars argue about exactly how the oars were arranged on a ship like this, but the most common theory was that a quinquereme was not a ship with five banks of oars, but rather a type of trireme with three banks of oars, two of which were manned two to an oar with one bank manned by a single rower. Thus these were ‘five rower’ ships, not ‘five-oar’ ships.


A diagram of how the oars were placed

Rowing a complex ship like this took a great deal of practice, because all the oars had to be moved at the same time; otherwise they would foul each other. The need for complete coordination is the reason that these ships employed a drummer, to help the rowers keep the proper rhythm. A quiquereme is thought to have required 300 rowers, and the Romans found the easiest way to ensure the crews of their ships was to use slave rowers. So criminals could be sentenced to serve as rowers, which is what happens to Ben Hur in the novel and the film.

And that’s exactly what we see in the film (although I suspect the detail of the man tied to the prow of the ship is just made up). So props to Bekmanbetov for getting the tactical details right. (300: 2, I’m looking at you. You were supposed to be using exactly this system, although with free citizen rowers.)

However, there’s a problem. I’m unclear when this version of Ben Hur is set, but the novel and the 1959 version are set in 28 AD and the years just after, since Ben Hur’s life is synchronous with the life of Jesus. However, after 31 BC, the Romans ruled the entire Mediterranean basin, and from that point on down to the late 4th century AD, the only major naval battle in the Mediterranean was during the civil war between Constantine and Licinius in 324 AD. In the late 20s or 30s AD, the Empire was firmly under the control of Tiberius, so there was no one to fight. The Romans continued to maintain galleys throughout the Imperial period, but there simply weren’t any naval battles happening. So I have no idea who Ben Hur’s ship is going up against.

Still, at least it looks like the battle is plausible.

Once I’ve had a chance to see the film in the theater, I’ll have more to say about it.