Costumes from the film Ben Hur at the Debbie Reynolds Auction Breaks Up Historic Hollywood Collection (The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, CA, USA). On the foreground: Costume worn by Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and costume worn by Stephen Boyd as Messala.
After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, his son Commodus commissioned a memorial column depicting the events of the Marcomannic War to honor his father. It’s a fascinating monument to the Emperor, and equally brutal in it’s depiction of the battle on the Danube frontier. It was inspired by the monument erected by Trajan documenting the Dacian Wars (101–102, 105–106) which stands today near Trajan’s Forum in Rome. There are some fascinating scenes of soldiers, barbarians, battles and the like. The most riveting image is the fascinating “Rain Miracle”.
Two famous miracles apparently occurred during the the year of 174 AD against the treacherous Quadi and Iazyges tribes on the Danube frontier. The first incident happened in June and the Iazyges and became known as the ‘Lightening Miracle”. It involved a thunderbolt which came from heaven and destroyed an enemy siege engine. The emperor himself was said to have summoned it. This incident was later commemorated with coin propaganda showing Marcus Aurelius with a thunderbolt in hand.
The other incident in July of the same year did not involve the Emperor directly but one of his generals, Pertinax (yes, the same mis-fortunate who would rule the Empire after Commodus’ death for about 3 months!) and a very intense battle his troops had with the Quadi. The Romans were apparently surrounded and desperately short of water (it was July, of course). A terrible disaster like Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (during Augustus’ reign) loomed. Preventing the Romans from reaching fresh water supplies, the Quadi were prepared to hold back and let the Romans die of thirst. Outnumbered, exhausted and thirsty, the Romans prepared for the worst. Then suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, a rain burst! The thirsty and thankful Romans captures the delicious rain from the sky in their helmets and shields. The gods were on their side! The Roman morale soared as the Quadi initiated their attack, the Roman soldiers apparently gulping water and blood in equal measures. Then riotous lightening strikes and hailstorms rattled the Quadi so much that they fled the field, leaving the Romans victorious. This was henceforth known as “The Rain Miracle.”
Several sources tried to proclaim the miracle as their own, including the Christians (who forged letters from the Emperor to try establish their link), Egyptian mystics, Chaldean priests and representatives of the Roman religion. The figure on the Aurelian column, however, looks like no specific god – it is a hoary looking Nature God with dripping outstretched arms who seems to encompass the carnage of battle around him. It was amazing to see this figure on the column in person!
When in Rome, one must visit the incredible Capitoline Museum. Below are some of my favorite highlights, including the incredible equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius; Commodus as Hercules; the Capitoline Wolf (the symbol of Rome) and the Dying Gaul, and incredibly detailed statue of a barbarian warrior.
While in Rome I also had the pleasure of celebrating Rome 2,772nd Birthday on April 21st! The Gruppo Storico Romano (a historical reinactment troupe) had a ton of amazing activities going on in the Circus Maximus, including a parade by the Colosseum, and a battle re-enactment of Masada/ During this battle re-enactment they played the “Roman March” from “Ben-Hur”, which just gave me chills. It was special – I captured a snippet below on my camera. Where’s Messala?!!
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!”
One of the most famous and haunting tales of the late Roman Empire was the winter of 406 A.D. During this period, the barbarian incursions across the border into the Empire had begun to take their toll. In 376 A.D. the Goth tribes had crossed over the Danube, initially with Rome’s permission, to escape a new threat from the the roving hordes of Huns which had pressured the Goths out of their settlement. After crossing the Danube, this refugee civilization had been cruelly exploited by the Romans, and in turn they took their revenge. In the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 A.D., the hollow shell of the once great Roman military power was encircled by Gothic cavalry and surprised in a terrible defeat. The Emperor of the East, Valens, was killed in the struggle. The next Emperor, the virulently Christian Theodosius, allowed the Goth tribes to settle within the Empire itself. They actually served as a barrier and as troops for the Empire. However, a Visigoth king named Alaric wanted more power, and he took his tribe on a rampage throughout Greece and eventually into Italy. Theodosius’ sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West, were left to deal with the situation after their father’s death. The Master of Both Services (Foot and Cavalry), Stilicho, a German-born Roman officer who wielded inordinate control of the West and Honorius himself, pursued and battled Alaric throughout the Balkans and Italy. Without a decisive battle, however, some even questioned Stilicho’s own loyalty to the Empire. Because of these battles, the critical troop detachments along the Rhine frontier were mostly withdrawn to protect Italy. This left Gaul critically exposed.
Amidst this backdrop came the brutal winter of 406 A.D. A restless hordes of Germanic Tribes (Franks, Burgundians, Macromanni, Vandals, Alemanni) and non-Germanic Alans were poised across the Rhine River from Confluentes (Koblenz) to Rufiniana (Heidelberg), ready to move into more fertile, warmer lands to the south. Their intention was to invade and settle into Gaul, Spain and eventually Africa. When the cold winter froze the river, on December 31, 406 A.D., they crossed and changed the map and history of Europe forever. This was the Fall of the West and the Dark Ages were upon it. Britain was cut off from the Empire, and eventually the entire western Roman Empire came under the dominion of Germanic Tribes. All that Marcus Aurelius and countless other Roman Emperors had fought against in those dark, Germanic forests had been for naught!
“This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered the fall of the Roman Empire in the countries beyond the Alps; and the barriers, which had so long separated the savage and civilized nations of the earth, were from that fatal moment levelled with the ground.” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XXX)
As if to mirror the drama it was meant to portray, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” began filming in Spain during the harsh winter of 1962-1963. Ironically enough, the Rhine froze over this year as well! This was one of the coldest winters in modern Europe. Stephen Boyd lamented about Sunny Spain at the time: “The snow is up to my waist–the temperature is around zero. I could take it if I could wear long underwear buy you can’t wear longies under a Roman toga!” (January 27,1963, Santa Cruz Sentinal) See below for some snowy pictures during this abnormally brutal winter season.
I highly recommend this novel, “Eagle in the Snow”, by Wallace Breem for a great read about the later Roman Empire and the Crossing of the Rhine. The tale follows a no-nonsense follower of Mithras, General Maximus, as moves from Hadrian’s wall to help fortify the town of Moguntiacum (Mainz) and the Roman territory west of the Rhine against the forthcoming Germanic onslaught. It’s a fascinating tale of the new Christian era, the loss of Paganism, and the changing world of the late Romans.
Sweat poured along Livius’ forehead. His heart beat erratically. He drew a deep breath, trying to control the irregular pounding of his heart, the spreading tension in the pit of his stomach.
He shook his head, moving his gaze across the faces of the senators, and they were like faces seen in a nightmare.
He stared at them, his voice lifting harshly, as though trying to waken them from their dream-state of unreality that seemed so serene to them and such a nightmare to him. “Hear me, fathers of Rome. The army is at the gates of the city!”
The faces of the elders remained stolid, impassive. Livius licked his dry lips, ceased speaking. He realized something was desperately wrong, as if all reason and intelligence had been removed from this august body, leaving a motley gang of clowns to simper and giggle.
He glanced around, bewildered…
Livius stared at Commodus. The emperor lounged on the throne, a dreamy, half-contemptuous smile on his face…
Commodus turned suddenly, the wan, lost look gone and his face hard and chilled, unsmiling. He stared across the forum space at Livius.
Livius straightened, his gaze meeting Commodus’. He was ill because for the moment Commodus had won. Even the Roman senate had been perverted, debased, demoralized. They were so spiritless they failed to see they had signed their own death warrants and sealed the doom of their existence.
Commodus gestured toward Livius and from the foyer Cornelius and Praetorian Guards appeared. They marched toward Livius and silence settled across the curia.
Commodus and the senators watched in silent fascination as the Praetorians moved toward Livius. They flinched, startled, when a voice rang out across the chamber, cracking like some dry whip. Even the Praetorian Guards halted, staring at the aged Senator Caecina who had walked down to the place where Julianus and Niger had stood in the center of the forum.
In the chilled silence the old senator surveyed the faces of the other politicians wrathfully, letting his fiery gaze linger accusingly on each man.
His aged voice lashed at them, “What are you? Who are you? What have you let yourselves become? Heirs of a great empire. You have here today destroyed and despoiled your heritage. You are worse than the hordes of Vandals which stand poised to the north! You are worse than all the enemies of Rome who are armed on all our frontiers. You are traitors! Traitors!
“You are traitors, each of you. Traitors not only to your nation–but betrayers of the whole civilized world and of centuries to come. Generation after generation will weep in misery and curse your memory. Cowards! You are cowards! Cowards who did not come forward when Rome called you.”
He moved his bitter gazed across them. He shook his head, “I will not leave to see the horror you have sown, the tumult and convulsive agony that will come after you.”
The Praetorian Guards, prodded by Cornelius, moved in both side of Livius and led him slowly toward the foyer.
Caecina stared at the guards surrounding Livius, heeled around, gesturing at the senate. “I will not live to see it, but you will!” He rocked himself, in terrible mourning, “Some day when the Vandals enter Rome–they will not find a city–only its tomb–for you have today killed Rome. Rome is no more!”
The old man swung around, gesturing at the senators and finally throwing out his arm, pointing at Commodus before the throne.
Julianus was standing a few feet away. He cried out in rage when Caecina pointed accusingly toward Caesar. He drew a dagger from his girdle and sprang suddenly, the knife upraised before the stunned gaze of the senate, and plunged it into the old man’s back.
Caecina straightened, let his arm drop to his side. His gray head twisted, not to see who attacked him, but as if to look one last time upon the place where he had spent most of his long and honorable life. He staggered and fell.
Julianus wheeled around with the stained dagger and stood over the crumpled body. He lifted his voice, shouting, “Hail Caesar!”
There was a hesitation of less than a fraction of a second and the entire senate cried out in answer, acclaiming, “Hail Caesar!”
The Praetorians led Livius through the doorway and out of the curia. He glanced back only once, looking at Commodus. The cheers rang around the emperor, but Commodus, shuddering, was gazing at the dead body of Caecina.
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.