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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.