Happy Solstice, or Sol Invictus Day! Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun, was a popular Roman solar deity which gained preeminence in the later Roman Empire courtesy of the Emperor Aurelian (and before him the Emperor Egalabalus). In fact, the first Christian Emperor Constantine initially was a worshiper of Sol Invictus as well. The ‘radiant crown’ of Sol Invictus was transferred to Christ and remained popular with Constantine and Christian Roman emperors thereafter in iconography and coins. December 25th (which used to be the solstice) was the celebratory date of Sol Invictus, and this date is still popular today as it was adopted by Christianity in the late 3rd century. So what other deities and religions were popular during the Roman Empire?
The Imperial Cult
The best way to start describing this cult is by the word Apotheosis, which means to become divine, or to reach divine status. In the summer of 44 AD, after the death of Julius Caesar, a great comet was seen in the sky. Using this imagery his adopted son Octavian (soon to be Augustus) developed a divine cult for Julius Ceasar, including temples and priests. Octavian himself was divi filius (“The son of a deified one”). This concept was common in Greek and Roman religion. Hercules himself had joined the Gods on Olympus after his death, and so did Julius Caesar. Octavian, when he became Emperor (or Princeps of the Republic), allowed cult temples made in the honor of his own divine genius. This genius, or divine spirit, is what was worshiped around the empire. Empresses too and the offspring of the Emperor would also be considered worthy of divine status. Of course this made sense to people in the empire, especially in the East. The Emperor ruled over most of the known world, and anyone wielding such power would of course be divine!
So when Messala tells Ben-Hur that the Roman Emperor Tiberius is God, the “only God” for the power he wields on earth, this is exactly what he means! Failure to worship the Gods of Rome (including the Emperor) is what led Christians into trouble in the 1st and 2nd centuries because lack of worship meant that this person (or persons) did not want to reap the benefits of divine favor to the Empire. It was considered political and social defiance. The Jews, because of their ancient religion, were exempt from worshiping the Imperial Cult and Roman Gods, but the Christians were not.
Some megalomaniac Emperors took this imperial cult worship a step further and declared themselves actual gods (not just the worship of their genius) while they were still alive. Such notables would be Caligula (whose memory was condemned), and Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, who posthumously regained his divinity during the reign of Septimus Severus.
The modest and humorous Emperor Vespasian summed this all up best, I think, with his death-bed exclamation: ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god. ’ (Suentonius, The Twelve Caesars)
The traditional Gods of Ancient Greece were still the most popularly worshiped Gods in the Roman Empire. Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Hera, Artemis, Mars and the like all had temples throughout the Empire in various manifestations. Many Middle Platonist‘s rationalized the worship of many Gods or the properties of God in their various guises or manifestations of the one God Logos, or Truth (see Plotinus, for example). The world is a place teeming with variety, so it makes sense that several aspects of Nature and Human Emotions and Passions are represented by the many Gods of Olympus.
Messala and Ben-Hur remember childhood games when they evoke “Down Eros, Up Mars!” to each other. Mars, or Ares, the God of War, would surely have appealed to a militaristic solider like Messala, as he was the god of strife and war. However it seems Eros, the god of sensual love and desire, could perhaps be the God Messala really wants to summon here?
Messala also offers praise to Jupiter before the chariot race begins. “The Roman people worshiped Jupiter more extravagantly and more frequently than all other gods; therefore, the worship of Jupiter is almost monotheistic. Jupiter was the most powerful and the greatest of the gods so much so that the Romans sometimes called him Jupiter-Optimus-Maximus. The Romans considered Jupiter to be the protecting entity of their empire, and they even believed that Jupiter would provide them with the greatest empire the world had ever seen.” (https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Roman_Culture/Roman_Myths/Jupiter)
Philosophy could sometimes take on the trappings or demeanor of religion as well. If we take Marcus Aurelius, played so brilliantly by Alec Guinness in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, and his Meditations, you can get a glimpse of some of the amazing philosophies of the late Roman Empire. Stoicism, founded by Zeno in Athens in 313 BC, matched the Roman mentality very well. Stoics were seekers after the Unknown God. They believed in Fate and Providence (hence they paid particular heed to Oracles and Omens). The God of the Stoics was the Creator of all Things, and obeyed the ‘natural law’. They valued above all things moderation, courage, justice, prudent self control and practical intelligence. Reason and living in agreement with Nature were the basic tenants of Stoicism. There is a world weary tone in The Meditations, but also hope behind the belief of a coherent, ordered, purposeful Universe.
If then, whatever the time may be when thou shalt be near to thy departure, neglecting everything else thou shalt respect only thy ruling faculty and the divinity within thee, and if thou shalt be afraid not because thou must some time cease to live, but if thou shalt fear never to have begun to live according to nature—then thou wilt be a man worthy of the universe which has produced thee, and thou wilt cease to be a stranger in thy native land, and to wonder at things which happen daily as if they were something unexpected, and to be dependent on this or that. (Meditations, 12.1)
Last but not least we come to the mysterious Roman cult of Mithras, which displayed the Persian trappings of the ancient Zoroastrian God from Persia. The worship of Mithras seems to have come to Rome around the reign of Domitian and continued well into the 3rd century. Like the Eleusinian and Isis mystery cults, Mithraism also maintained secrets oaths and a hierarchy of ascension (seven ‘grades’ of initiation – Crow, Numphus, Solider, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus and Father). The grades of this hierarchy mirrored the regiments and order of an army, so this religion because popular with the Roman troops, especially on the Danube and the Rhine. The cult excluded women. It revolved around Mithras and his ritual sacrifice of a bull (called a tauroctony), as the giver of ‘seed’ and procreation. This sacrifice and be seen in many statues around the Roman world, showing Mithras (wearing a Persian cap), holding a knife and wrestling the bull. Out of the blood from the bull ears of corn or trees can be seen growing from the ‘gift’ of this sacrfice. Because of the celestial aspects of Mithraism, equinoxes and solstices also were important dates of worship including, once again, December 25th, the day if the solstice during Roman times. The ceremonies for Mithras were mostly performed in caves or underground chambers, many of which can still be seen today.
Religion is only obliquely referred to in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. For example, the Emperor is a Stoic; his Greek counselor Timonides is a quiet Christian (he can be seen wearing the “chi-rho” symbol around his neck). However, our hero Livius’ religion is never revealed. In my opinion it’s most likely that Livius would have been a follower of Mithras. As a solider on the Danube, Livius would have been exposed to this religious sect and most of his troops were likely followers as well. Most telling of all, Livius’ friend, the Emperor Commodus, was “admitted among the adept and participated in their secret ceremonies.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra). Once the cult of Mithras found favor in the person of the highest imperial power it truly gained a reputation and following from the common solider to the highest aristocracy. “Until the downfall of paganism the aristocracy remained attached to the solar god that has so long enjoyed the favor of the princes.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra)
“…Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assist others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition.” (http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Mithraism/m_m/pt3.htm)
So Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to everyone out there! And from me, a nod of recognition to the Ancient Gods – whether it be Sol Invictus, Mithras, Augustus or Zeus – as Messala would say, “In the Name of All the Gods!”
Boyd Back to ‘Civvies’
from the Republican and Herald, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1965
GOODBY TOGAS, HELLO PANTS, SAYS STEVE
by Armand Arched
HOLLYWOOD – It’s a pleasure to track down Stephen Boyd on a movie set. The search can take you anywhere from Rome for “Ben-Hur” to downtown Los Angeles for his current “Fantastic Voyage.” But it’s a long time between his Hollywood-made films. And he’s one of those rare guys who’d like to stay at home in sunny Southern California and leave the driving (or flying) to other guys.
The last time we spoke to Boyd on the set of a Hollywood made film was “Jumbo”, on the back lot at MGM studios in Culver City. Since that time, he’s been to Italy (a couple of times), Spain, Yugoslavia, England, Egypt and Ireland.
“It seems I do nothing but travel,” he smiled. “And, as you know, I originally came to Hollywood to make my home here and to work here. But since that time, there’s been an influx over to Europe and unfortunately I’ve been a member of that group.”
Boyd wasn’t kidding about making his home in the sunny Southern California clime. The eligible bachelor, instead of making his pad one of those super-glamor places above the Sunset Strip, chose to buy his own home in the San Fernando Valley where such established family men like John Wayne live. Sure, the house has a pool- he’s a sun-lover. (One of those reasons he left the British Isles).
“I’m a true-blooded American citizen,” Boyd noted (he’s had his citizenship papers over a year), “and also a true- blooded California citizen.” He credits the last status in view of his always-handy golf clubs. Like thousands of Los Angelenos, Boyd is a golf nut. Whenever and wherever possible, he’s out pounding the turf.
“Fantastic Voyage” is a pleasure for Boyd on another count. It gives him a chance to work in civvies for a change. “I’d almost become used to getting up in the morning and putting on a dress- a toga, that is, ” he laughed. “It’s nice to be wearing long pants. I feel like a man again.”
In the film, he plays a secret service man –“a good full-blooded American,” he reiterated. But before this epic, Boyd was again in a toga, or baggy dress, playing “Nimrod” in the biggest epic of them all, “The Bible” by Dino de Laurentiis.
Boyd toils in the Tower of Babel sequences. Although he was again in biblical dress, Boyd admits the film was a great experience.
“But it’s a different-looking Steve Boyd,” he warned. “My make up took three hours every morning– false beard, false eyebrows, false eyelashes, false hair. Everything about me is false – except my heart, ” he laughed. These sequences were filmed outside Cairo as well as in the studios near Rome.
We were talking with Boyd inside the giant Los Angeles Sports Arena. As we looked down from the upper levels at the floor below (being readied for a basketball game that night), it was hard to believe Hollywood’s craftsmen had transformed the place into a Pentagon-type building for super-secret activities of deterrent force of men who could make themselves small enough to enter the human blood stream – of the enemy, that is.
It’s a super-futuristic film, of course. It’s not outer space, we were told, but inner, inner space. Some of the equipment rented is also used in plants doing secret government work. Some of the machines are creations of the 20th-Fox engineers. It’s super-science-fiction stuff.
Talking to Steve and looking down at the floor of the Sports Arena, we wondered if he and pal Charlton Heston could run a chariot race here. “It would be kind small,” he laughed. “If Chuck Heston and I got in here we’d have to expand it five or six times the size. We’re a little too fast for these guys.”
We could testify to that – we once stood on the sidelines of the “Ben-Hur” arena in Rome when they filmed their chariot race and we still shudder, recalling those charging steeds tearing around the track a few yards away from our reporting post.
Yes, we agreed with Boyd, it’s a pleasant change to see him working in civvies – and in modern civilization again.
Anyone who has read this blog may have noticed I have a fondness for Ancient Rome and Greece. And I do – I have studied it most of my adolescent and adult life and is one of my great passions. One of the reasons I got into the history of that period was from seeing movies like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra & The Fall of the Roman Empire when I was a teen. So in honor of all the Romans I love to read about, I thought I would collect a few quotes from Stephen Boyd about Ancient Rome and the famous Romans he studied for many of the roles he played (or would have played). If anyone was born to play a Roman, it was Stephen Boyd.
Quotes about Mark Anthony/Cleopatra
Never was any actor so prepared for a role. I had studied Anthony from every possible angle, reading everything about him I could lay my hands on. (July 11, 1961, Petaluma Argus Courier)
I am interested if Anthony is played as a warrior, as he was in the original script. But I’m not interested if he is only a lover. He can be shown as a warrior making love. But no actor can convincingly play a warrior-like figure as a lover. Marlon Brando found that out when he did Napoleon in ‘Desiree.’ (July 11, 1961, Corpus Christi Caller Times)
She (Cleopatra) was an ambitious housewife who dabbled in politics and who wanted Egypt to share the honors with Rome. So she romanced Ceasar, and they had a child. Then later with Anthony, with whom she had four children.
I love the Mark Anthony role; I believe the film will be a tremendous success. It’s not often you get to play a role summed up in the classic line: ‘Who lost Marc Anthony the world? A woman. (Screenland Magazine, July 1961)
Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon and Marcus Aurelius
And strangely enough, in a flash, the conversation veered off from romance to Stephen’s other interests: the science of cybernetics, self-hypnosis, and then to historian Edward Gibbon and his classic work, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” as well as to the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome! ….But far more goes into a role. He (Boyd) reads everything he can find on the period of the film, particularly if it has an historical background. Before he portrayed the evil Messala, and while he was working on “Cleopatra,” he immersed himself in Roman history. All this scholarly reading paid off, for once again he will be involved in the Roman Empire, but this time on a broader canvas. It was this reading which gave him an interest in the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (Why, even Freud was influenced by him.) (Silver Screen Magazine, April 1963)
Quotes about Rome, Romans and Chariots
I may be tempted to settle down in Rome because I had such a big part in building the place. (September 17,1 1962, Standard Speaker)
Try walking down a street someday and make believe you’re a Roman. You have to walk like a Roman, talk like a Roman and act like a Roman. It’s much harder than just playing a modern man–then, all you have to do is act, but you don’t have to think about your walk or your costume or your speech. (June 26, 1966 Brownwood Bulletin)
Chariot racing cannot be mastered without complete muscular control. Enormous pressures challenge the driver every second of the way. To pull of galloping horseflesh, the weight of the Roman two-wheeler and unpredictable terrain features constantly threaten the charioteer. He must be prepared to react with violent resourcefulness to stay alive. (Salt Lake Tribune Nov 16, 1963)
Stephen Boyd studies his Ancient Romans at the Prado Museum in Madrid before staring the filming of The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Stephen Boyd in Roman costume
Be sure to watch Charlton Heston’s Oscar winning performance as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd’s Golden Globe winning performance as Messala in MGM’s one-of-a-kind biblical epic “Ben-Hur” from 1959. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies , this is now a yearly tradition. It’s so wonderful that more people see it each and every year!
“If there was an Academy Award deserved by any cast member of “Ben-Hur, ” it belonged to Stephen Boyd, playing the villainous Messala who turned his boyhood friendship into a vendetta of hate. Boyd was a near absolute personification of the power which corrupts.
Particularly, Boyd’s performance as the dying Messala spewing out his last arrogance was superb.” (The Akron Beacon Journal, Dec 25, 1960)
“And Charlton Heston is the nominal star of “Ben-Hur”, doing mighty well too. But while Heston get top billing, it’s Boyd who gets the low cooing from the girls.
And he’s way ahead in the all important “word of mouth,” as well he might be, for he’s strong, rugged and handsome in a bristling, masculine way. Of course that death scene- the goriest death scene in movie history, what with Boyd as Messala gasping out his last tortured breath from his mangled body, torn and broken from pounding hoofs and churning chariot wheels in the dust of the hippodrome.
Any any will tell you that as accelerator to a stymied career nothing can match a strongly dramatic death scene.” (Pittsburgh Press, March 09, 1960)
“To wit, the touted chariot race, worth every ounce of its publicity. And, a realistic (with reservations) sea battle between first century vessels. And, the most vivid, most believable death scene (Messala’s, after the race) you’ll see outside of the real thing. Or maybe including the real thing.
Point two, good: there are excellent actors, good actors, capable actors, and a few bad ones. Heston, to me ( a Heston fan) was overshadowed by Hugh Griffith (Arab relief), Jack Hawkins (as Arrius, with dignity almost out of place in this movie), Stephen Boyd (Messala, the noblest Roman of them all), and even Terence Longden (Drusus) in too small a role.” (Clarion Ledger, Nov 11, 1960)
“Much of what happens in the chariot race is pretty bloody too, but you’d expect it although the death of Messala–trampled by several teams when his chariot breaks up – becomes excessively so.”
“Boyd as Messala, however, is the guy who should have won that supporting actor Oscar. He’s a player of real intentisy and much, much better than Hugh Griffith who did win the prize for his role as the Arab owner of Ben-Hur’s horses. Heston, this year’s ‘best actor’, is …quite a charioteer- and when he and Messala get to exchanging lashes while their chariots run side by side, you can barely keep from shouting.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 6, 1960)
“As the power-hungry Messala, handsome Stephen Boyd brings to the character a believable arrogant ruthlessness of the degenerating Roman civilization.” (The Lawton Constitution, Nov 3, 1960)
“In the title role, Mr. Charlton Heston surpasses himself; his Ben-Hur has a regal strength inside and out, the pride and bearing of a prince and warm nature of a man of God. As Messala, the previously practically unknown Mr. Stephen Boyd is superb, handsome, virile, properly arrogant, dedicated to his Emperor and immersed in his dreams of influence. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan 21, 1960)
“Guess I’m in the minority. I found Stephen Boyd a handsome Messala. But stiff, mannered, a posturer, and the only actor in the world capable of over-hamming this superspecial which calls for high-keyed playing.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, Mar 16, 1960)
“…Messala is just about as ornery a cuss as a writer could dream up. He doesn’t bat an eye when he sentences his best friend to the galleys. Nor does he flinch as he condemns his friend’s mother and sister, both of whom helped nurse him through childhood, to prison for life. He is unmoved when, years later, he learns they’re in a leper colony. And in the climactic chariot race of “Ben-Hur,” Messala uses the foulest and most unsportsman-like means at his command in an effort to emerge the victor. In short, he is not exactly the type a girl would want to take home to meet mother.” (Shamokin News-Dispatch, Mar 31, 1961)
“Messala was such a strong, vital character, and I’ve heard so many people say that when he died in “Ben-Hur,” the picture was over. ” (Hedda Hopper, Hartford Courant, July 1, 1960)
“Charlton Heston as “Ben-Hur” gives a performance of utmost conviction and sincerity, while Stephen Boyd as Messala brings to the screen one of the most vital portrayls since Gable’s Rhett Butler.” (Pittsburg Press, Jan 20, 1960)