Friday, 10 March 2017

Ben-Hur and the eternal myth of the galley slave

Just before he was thrown to the lions, Michael Flynn, Trump’s first choice for national security advisor, likened the newly elected US president to a chariot driver in Ben-Hur. Donald Trump cracking his whip and impelling his team of Republican warhorses ever forward. Given Flynn’s age, he probably had in mind the 1959 movie of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston. Yet his choice of metaphor had to have been swayed by the latest remake of Ben-Hur, released to great fanfare during the 2016 election campaign.
Eager to draw in audiences younger than General Flynn, the 2016 MGM and Paramount coproduction hired director Timur Bekmambetov, famed for such teen flicks as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bekmambetov’s film would be the fifth or sixth adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (and in a trivial coincidence, Lew Wallace was actually a member of the court that tried the persons charged with assassinating President Abraham Lincoln).
Published by Harper and Brothers in 1880, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ went on to become the best-selling book of the 19th century. This novel would inspire a stage play that would run for twenty-one years, and the success of both the novel and play would persuade MGM studios to bank everything on the most expensive and difficult film shoot of the silent movie era. MGM would then remake this same movie on an even more colossal scale in the late 1950s, with the Wyler extravaganza going on to win eleven Academy Awards. Film historians still regularly rank Wyler’s Ben-Hur in their top ten American films of all time.
The proudly Christian producers of Ben-Hur 2016 made no secret of the fact that they were out to attract younger, secular audiences and “bring them to the story of Jesus, bring them to the foot of the cross”.
There was also money to be made.
The marketing machinery of MGM and Paramount pandered to the same Christian audiences who had made Mel Gibson’s gore film The Passion of the Christ such an unexpected hit. The commercials which aired on Christian broadcasting networks highlighted the fact that this Ben-Hur was more heavily inspired by Wallace’s original book. Jesus would even have a speaking role this time round and a higher per-minute-ratio appearance than in Wyler's film. The Christian Right have always viewed Ben-Hur as their own holy relic within popular culture. The 1925 silent movie of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was publicised with the slogan, “The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!” When General Flynn casts Donald Trump in the role of conquering charioteer, it’s also a sly wink to those evangelical Christians who voted for Trump and who watch Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur every Easter when it’s rolled out like clockwork by the television networks.
Ben-Hur 2016 movie poster

The producers of Ben-Hur 2016 expected from Bekmambetov an epic summer blockbuster that would introduce a whole new generation to one of the most famous action-bible fictions. Something bigger than Ben-Hur, so to speak. What they got instead for their $US100 million was a pale imitation of William Wyler’s 1959 classic. Not even a miracle could save it. Panned by critics and shunned by the Instagram generation, it would become one of the biggest box office losers of 2016. In the wake of this disaster, all sorts of critiques and excuses have been offered up, yet one thing has been largely overlooked: the bible angle was never going to bring home the bacon.
Gore Vidal, an uncredited screenwriter for MGM’s 1959 Ben-Hur, saw the writing on the wall. Ben-Hur was never about Christ, he said, but “a tale of war between a Roman boy and a Jewish boy” (Vidal actually wanted them to be homosexual lovers). Wallace may have set out to write Ben-Hur with the purpose of exploring the “religious and political conditions of the world at the time of the Coming”, but his novel took on a life of its own and the end result is an historical potboiler far removed from that mawkish literature of the 19th century which revolves around a Christian conversion.
The enduring success of Ben-Hur has never been about those snippets of Jesus Christ’s life, nor was it ever about the rivalry between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, or Judah’s conversion for that matter. In actuality, it’s always been about those savage customs of the Roman Empire, so cunningly plotted by Wallace and so vividly brought to life on the big screen by filmmakers. Pagan cruelty has been capturing the public’s imagination for nearly 140 years, not Christian values. Like St. Augustine’s reluctant Christian visitor to the Colosseum, who at first closes his eyes to the gladiatorial spectacle but as soon as he does venture a glance is instantly hooked on the sight of blood, Christian viewers and readers have been barely able to contain their enthusiasm for the sadistic elements of Ben-Hur (or for that matter, the blood and guts of Mel Gibson’s bible classes).
All the big budget film adaptations of Wallace’s work have pivoted on two set pieces: the chariot race and the galley-fight. Indeed, these two episodes of Ben-Hur have earned almost permanent places on the fringes of Western culture. Without these two action sequences the story of Ben-Hur would be just a hollow shell. The fame of the original novel also rests heavily on those chapters describing the chariots and triremes. Writing to congratulate Wallace just one month after the book’s release, the Confederate poet Paul Hamilton Hayne, Wallace’s enemy during the Civil War, gushes: “Pages in it have thrilled me through and through … Ben-Hur’s misfortunes, and the disappearance of his family, and the grand sea-fight and its results, struck me especially…”  
It’s the chariots, though, which have always been the most potent marketing tool for the film adaptations of Ben-Hur. The mould was cast in 1925 by the inaugural silent epic, which set up the chariot race as the climax and consigned the crucifixion to the role of sombre epilogue. William Wyler’s 1959 chariot race, shot in 65mm over five gruelling weeks, still holds legendary status in Hollywood today, with George Lucas paying homage to it in one of his more puerile Star Wars sequels. The producers of Ben-Hur 2016 placed their bets on the same horse, putting the chariot race up front and centre on their movie posters, billboards and websites, although adding a few crucifixes in the background for the Bible Belt and Italian markets. At the same time, Bekmambetov was telling journalists that he had filmed his chariot scene in 3D with all the high octane intensity of a Grand Prix race. Jesus meets the Fast and Furious, read the title of one particular movie review.
Yet Charlton Heston, who will always be remembered as the Ben-Hur, was once quoted as saying that the galley scene was the best sequence of the entire movie. Okay, Chuck may have been a gun-crazy NRA stooge, but he still expressed what’s been at the back of many a cinephile’s mind all along (including Oliver Stone, who uses the galley sequence in his paean to professional sport, On Any Given Sunday). 
Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur in the 1959 classic
Despite all the legends about how those chariot races were filmed, it is the sea-fight which has had a far greater and lasting impact on the collective unconsciousness of the West. The main reason for this is that Ben-Hur is one of the few prisms through which the masses have glimpsed the vast history of the oared ship. Modern man has, in the main, forgotten that the world once turned on the blade of an oar. It was Lew Wallace who rekindled dusty memories of ancient history lessons at school; and who opened the eyes of others to a strand of history they never knew existed. Wallace achieved this by breathing new life into the dry descriptions of naval battles scattered through the ancient classics. Our poet from the South, P. H. Hayne, enthuses in his letter to the General: “… nor can I fail to perceive how conscientiously you have worked up all its details. I have learned more (among other things) of the minutiae of the discipline in the Roman navy from your narrative of the sea-fight, and conquest of the pirate fleet, than ever I could gather from the lumbering prosiness of orthodox historians.”
Wallace’s research and erudition shines through his accessible prose, and whenever his research material fails him, his powers of imagination take over with admirable effect. His reflections on the mind-set of the rower may teeter towards the mentality of the galley slave – or more likely for his era, the condition of the African slave – but Wallace nonetheless manages to identify with the feelings of dehumanisation and mechanisation felt by all oarsmen throughout the ages: “…obedient-creatures of vast muscle and exhausted intellects, who lived upon recollections generally few but dear, and at last lowered into the semi-conscious alchemic state wherein misery turns to habit, and the soul takes on incredible endurance.” His lead-up to the sea-fight builds up the suspense nicely while the battle itself borders on the type of sadistic writing Flaubert was accused of: “Ben-Hur knew they were passing through the cloud of a ship on fire, and burning up with the rowers chained to the benches.”
Wallace’s prose and all those subsequent stage and film adaptations brought to the masses a branch of history that had previously been the domain of the educated aristocracy. Wallace accomplished this by taking the revolutionary step of presenting life aboard a galley from the perspective of a lowly rower rather than the conventional viewpoint of omniscient battle tactician. The irresistible vigour and originality of the galley-fight convinced Harper and Brothers to distribute excerpts of these chapters across American schools as a means of whetting students’ appetite for more. Lord Dufferin, a British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and former student at Eton College, where you had to study the ancient texts in original Greek and Latin, was just as thrilled by Wallace’s ‘first-person’ account of life aboard a Roman trireme. He wrote to Wallace in 1882 when the author himself was based in Constantinople as the U.S. minister to Turkey: “My dear General Wallace, – I sat up the night before last to finish your beautiful book, and I assure you I find it difficult to express my admiration for it… Portions of the story are most affecting; and the sea-fight and the chariot-race are wonderfully dramatic. In fact, from beginning to end I read it with breathless interest and delight…” Wallace’s Roman warship had even more of an impact on later moviegoers. The panoramic 65mm cinematic version of Ben-Hur in 1959 blew audiences away. Viewers were able to imagine they were in that cavernous Roman galley rowing alongside Heston. The same can be said for the 3D version of Ben-Hur 2016 (whereas the galley scene in the silent black-and-white Ben-Hur 1925 is just plain creepy).
The ‘galley chapters’ comprise only a fraction of the entire novel, yet they have exercised an inordinate influence on our collective unconscious. As with Flaubert, Wallace believed that an historical novel should be historically accurate. And like Flaubert, who claims to have consulted 300 books in recreating ancient Carthage for his gruesome novel Salambo, Wallace prided himself on his own historical research. “Of the more than seven years given the book, the least part was occupied in actual composition,” he writes in his autobiography. The General didn’t spend those seven years reading the bible; he spent it ransacking libraries for hard historical detail. “After comparing authorities,” he stresses in his autobiography, “I had frequently to reconcile them; failing in that, it remained to choose between them. There is nothing, not even a will-o’-the-wisp, so elusive as a disputed date. Once I went to Washington, thence to Boston, for no purpose but to exhaust their libraries in an effort to satisfy myself of the mechanical arrangement of the oars in the interior of a trireme.”
The 'horator' in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur 

In the century and a half since Wallace undertook his research our understanding of the ancient maritime world has expanded exponentially. And it has become painstakingly clear that Wallace, like Flaubert, got many facts wrong. Let’s merely illustrate this point with some of the most pertinent examples, keeping in mind that we are referring to the book only, not the cinematic versions of Ben-Hur, which would go on to further distort and magnify Wallace’s original boo-boos. 
Quintis Arrius is described as a tribune, yet fleet commanders in Imperial Rome were typically knights chasing promotion, and thus usually called “Prefect” (nauarchus princeps).  The vessel that Quintis Arrius commands in Ben-Hur, the Astraea, is described as a being a trireme. Yet a sea-going flagship during the reign of Emperor Tiberius would have typically been a quinquireme or at least a quadrireme i.e. something grander than a mere trireme. The great crane described by Wallace could only be supported on a ship larger than a trireme and was certainly not designed, or able, to lift an opposing ship into the air. The number of rowing benches in Wallace’s trireme number 120, yet classical triremes typically had 170, one bench and one oar for each rower. More confusingly, Arrius is told that the ship has a total complement of 262 oarsmen, an unnecessary and impossible number for a single trireme. Wallace describes his trireme as being “of the class called naves liburnicae”, but the liburnian was not a trireme: it was a small, fast bireme customarily used for reconnaissance missions.
And the list becomes more and more pedantic.
But the error which overshadows the entire galley sequence is the portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur and his fellow oarsmen as galley slaves. The Romans rarely, if ever, used slaves as rowers on their warships. If there was a shortage of citizen-rowers, the Romans, like other naval powers of antiquity, preferred to employ mercenaries, that is, foreign freeborn rowers. True, slaves were commonly used on Rome’s sea-going freighters and merchant navy. But rarely, if ever, on its war galleys. Slaves might have been readily available, but they were expensive to maintain and the drowning of a slave was actually costlier than that of a mercenary. More to the point, slaves were unreliable and always thinking of escape. They could not be counted on to stick to their oars, let alone drive a vessel with all their might in the heat of battle. It was for similar reasons that the Romans were reluctant to allow gladiators to fight in their legions. For it was nigh impossible to create an esprit de corps with the broken spirits of slaves or condemned criminals. Without a well-drilled rowing crew you could never hope to attain the speed and agility required for ramming manoeuvres. Even on those exceptional occasions when Sextus Pompey and then Augustus drew on the slave class to fill the rowing benches of their warships during the strife of civil war, they made sure to officially free these slaves beforehand. And the Romans were as loathe to use condemned criminals and captives on their warships as they were slaves.
Wallace was obviously aware of the complications arising from having the broken souls of slaves powering a warship. For he tries to get around this quandary by having his slaves chained just before battle. In doing so, however, he commits another anachronistic felony. Battle fleets in ancient Greece, Rome or Byzantium would never chain their rowers, as often enough these rowers, particularly in the Byzantine navy, were expected to double up as warriors if need be. The Romans didn’t even distinguish between rowers and marines – they were all known simply as milites. Wallace understood that free-born Roman citizens manned their own warships in the early days against Carthage, for he writes, “When [Gaius] Duilius won the first sea-fight for his country, Romans plied the oars…” But then he commits the classic error of presuming that condemned criminals and war captives gradually took over the Roman galleys. This did not happen in ancient Rome, but in France and Venice towards the end of the Middle Ages. In the Roman Empire, it was paid provincials and freedmen who increasingly plied the oars of Roman warships.
It seems Wallace’s chain-and-slavery lapse has forever muddied the waters. But there are good reasons for forgiving the venerable General.  
The practice of galley slavery as a governmental institution goes back no further than the 15th century AD. But this was not the view of scholars in Wallace’s time, whose shared opinion was that galleys slaves were as old as the galleys themselves. Nautical studies of the 19th century were tainted by the customs of the preceding centuries, where the use of impressed criminals and prisoners-of-war as slave rowers was most certainly common practice. The use of forçats, the French word for criminals forced to row, was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the 17th and 18th centuries; and this led many an intelligent scholar to tar antiquity with the same brush. Apart from the slave-and-chains motif, there are other telling signs in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ that Wallace had conflated the practices of recent centuries with those of ancient times. The oars of his trireme, for example, are weighted with lead, a custom more suited to the huge, unwieldy oars of Renaissance galleys – oars which were manned by multiple rowers, in contrast to an ancient trireme, which had one rower per oar.
Maritime scholarship in Wallace’s century wasn’t just clouded by the naval traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries; it was contaminated with the errors and misconceptions of a thousand years of misdirected scholarship. The reasons for this are twofold: all the direct evidence for ancient shipping had been swallowed up by the sea or dismantled on shore long ago, while the naval battles described in the classic texts offer few concrete details on how these oared weapons of war exactly worked. When Wallace was researching and writing his novel during the 1870s, the first systematic treatment of the history of the ship was still more than fifteen years away (Cecil Torr’s Ancient Ships); while underwater archaeology was still a sci-fi dream of his French contemporary Jules Verne.
One can therefore readily empathize with Wallace and his exasperating search for reliable library books. It’s actually a credit to his perspicacity that he’s able to portray the oar system of his trireme more or less accurately. No other element of ancient naval studies has proved more divisive than the disposition of the rowers. And yet, it’s tempting to wonder whether Wallace permitted some of these prochronisms to creep into his text under the auspices of poetic licence. For it’s hard to find a more riveting symbol of the powerlessness and humiliation of slavery than a chained rower, especially one vainly trying to break free as water rushes into his sinking ship. It’s certainly a trope that the cinematic adaptations of Ben-Hur have been unwilling to let go of in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary since Wallace’s novel was first published. Each new cinematic adaption seems to take at face value Wallace’s historical research and regurgitates it on the big screen. The 2010 television miniseries Ben Hur is also another slavish reproduction of century-old errors (although the low-budget ramming manoeuvres are surprisingly credible). 
Jack Huston rowing side by side another oarsman on this strange trireme
In terms of pure action, the gothic sea-fight of Ben-Hur 2016 is probably the most thrilling ever filmed. In terms of historical accuracy, it’s actually step down from the 1959 version. Not only is Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) still presented as a pitiable slave chained to his oar before battle, but there is another slave pulling this same oar, as if we’re on a Renaissance-era galley. One might argue that the art directors were aiming for a Roman quadrireme, which had two rowers to an oar on two levels, if not for the fact that their galley interior is festooned with symbolic chains while the actors and production crew in the behind-the-scenes making of Ben-Hur 2016 repeatedly refer to the ship as a slave galley. It’s no coincidence either that their scriptwriter, John Ridley, had just won an award for his screenplay 12 Years a Slave. Bekmambetov’s failed epic is not the only sinner in this respect, though. 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) erroneously portrays the Phoenician and Greek naval contingents of the invading Persian forces as being whipped and shackled to their oars. Then again, this fantastic retelling of the Battle of Salamis also features Greek Fire and a panoply of other anachronisms.          Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy (2004) gives us Homeric ships fitted with what suspiciously look like rams, despite the fact that this most lethal of all ancient naval weapons was not invented until hundreds of years after the fall of Troy. Paradoxically however, Homer’s magisterial works themselves are an ahistorical amalgam of customs and traditions spanning centuries of oral tradition. There appears to be an enduring tradition of superimposing contemporary traits onto the oared ships of previous eras. Virgil is guilty of employing this literary device for his galley-race scene in the Aeneid
Lorenzo A Castro's Battle of Actium

Painters of the early modern period habitually furnished the Greco-Roman myths and ancient naval battles with the galleys of their own era. For instance, Lorenzo A. Castro’s interpretation of the Battle of Actium of 31 BC shows figures wearing 17th century attire among squat galleys resembling the fluyts (Dutch cargo vessels) of Castro’s own age. George R.R. Martin continues this tradition today by cherry-picking naval elements from antiquity all the way to the Renaissance in constructing the monstrous oared galleys of his fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice (that they were dropped from the television series A Game of Thrones is testament to the expense and complexity of filming multi-levelled oared ships). Even so-called serious history books continue to perpetuate the fable of the ancient slave rower. Or they simply thumb their nose at convention: the publishers of Steven Lattimore’s 1998 translation of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War adorned the award-winning book with a Renaissance-era painting of the Battle of Lepanto – a naval battle which took place nearly two millennia after the bitter war between the ancient Greek superpowers of Athens and Sparta.    
The recorded history of rowing is but one long litany of anachronisms.
Yet even Shakespeare himself is guilty of introducing an anachronistic clock into Julius Caesar and billiards into Antony and Cleopatra. Yet unlike Peterson’s Troy, Shakespeare’s prolepses are deliberate. If deployed strategically, an ahistorical device can actually enhance the artistry of the work and prevent it from becoming dated. Anachronism can be used as a tool for highlighting universal verisimilitude and timelessness.  
In rummaging around the libraries of Washington and Boston, consulting any book he could find on galleys, Wallace has inadvertently encapsulated the history of the oared ship in just a few chapters. His pseudo-Roman setting is a springboard for a gamut of other oared eras. The ram of his trireme sounds more like one from the 7th or 6th century BC, not the early part of the first century AD when the three-pronged ram was preferred. The Mediterranean place names – Naxos, Cythera, the Euxine Sea, Alexandria – resonate with the early Greek and Hellenistic histories of oared battles. The religious persecution and enslavery of Ben-Hur evokes the 16th century when French Protestants were sentenced to the infamous slave galleys of that era. Quintis Arrius’s desire to take some of the pirates as prisoner in order to replace his weaker rowers alludes to Christian war captives being impressed into service of the Ottoman galleys and Barbary pirates. The references to Byzantium and the Bosporus, along with descriptions of flaming oil and fireballs, speaks of the Greek Fire of the Byzantium navy which lit up the Dark Ages.
Here we are getting closer to subliminal mechanism of Ben-Hur which has imprinted its galley onto the subconscious of so many unsuspecting readers and moviegoers. Whether on the page and or on the big screen, the Ben-Hur sea-fight provides a thrilling first-person experience of life aboard one of history’s most uncanny ships. At a deeper level though, the sequence adumbrates the largely forgotten history of the oared ship – the dominant mode of war, trade and transport in the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Wallace’s anachronisms are most likely unintentional yet they form the undertone of a premeditated Shakespearean device. Like the maritime artists that came before him and the movie adaptations afterwards, Wallace communicates universal verisimilitude and timelessness through a multidimensional galley. His writing may fall short of the ahistorical grandeur of Homer’s epics and Shakespeare’s histories, yet his galley sequence manages to transcend mere historical fiction to take on the attire of timeless myth. And herein lies the staying power of Wallace’s Roman slave galley.

©Tony McGowan

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