Delving into “The World of Ben-Hur”

A new book by Mike Aquilina examines the history behind the classic novel and its numerous film adaptations.

For many people, the name “Ben-Hur” immediately conjures up images of Roman chariot races, Arab sheiks, treks across the desert, dozens of oarsmen propelling Roman warships, and—again—chariot races in Roman amphitheaters. It may bring to mind the intense visage of Charlton Heston, or the stunning music of Miklós Rózsa, or the sprawling set pieces of Golden Age Hollywood. For devoted cinephiles, perhaps images of the 1925 silent film version suddenly spring to mind. And this summer brings us a new film adaptation of the story.

But a question arises: how accurate and authentic are those films’ portrayals of the story’s time and place? Author Mike Aquilina has written a book examining the history behind this epic tale, which was first published as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace in 1880.

Aquilina’s book, The World of Ben-Hur (Sophia Institute Press), is not a review of any of the three films, nor is it a review of the source material. Rather, it is an extensive examination of the setting of the story, and it casts a careful and critical eye on Lew Wallace’s depiction to assess its veracity.

While Aquilina, throughout his book, does make reference to the famous 1959 William Wyler film, he usually does so to note points of contrast or contradiction between the film and the source novel. Aquilina’s main focus is the Wallace novel, and he goes to great pains to demonstrate (and even mirror) Wallace’s method.

Aquilina gives a detailed and thorough account of how Wallace came to write the novel in the first place, and this in itself is a rather remarkable and exciting tale. A Union general during the American Civil War, Wallace’s military career was all but destroyed as the result of an apparent miscommunication with General Ulysses S. Grant during the Battle of Shiloh, which caused Wallace and his troops to miss the bulk of the battle. However, Wallace would not be remembered for his military career or tactical blunders; rather, he would be remembered as one of the most prominent American authors of the 19th century. In fact, his novel would eventually outsell Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, becoming the best-selling American novel of the 19th century.

Wallace wrote Ben-Hur initially in an effort to buoy and solidify his atheism, which in itself was an oddity at the time. He worked meticulously, researching every element—sometimes traveling all over the northeast simply to track down a single practical detail about the structure of a Roman trireme—and this at a time when libraries were anything but common, and searching them anything but easy.

Unceasingly slogging through the minutiae of life in Palestine during the Roman occupation, and devouring everything he could on Jesus Christ and his followers, Wallace went from being an atheist, to being indifferent about God’s existence, to being a bona fide believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

It is Wallace’s meticulous and dogged research that Aquilina lauds in his book, and which he mirrors in his own research. Not only does Aquilina extensively vet and closely examine Wallace’s portrayal of the world which Judah Ben-Hur inhabits; he also pulls from contemporary writers, such as Flavius Josephus, the writers of the Gospels, and Roman historians, to cull whatever knowledge he can regarding that world.

Aquilina rivals Wallace in his determination to get every historical detail correct. Additionally, the attention he gives to Wallace’s historical research provides an insight into the world of the novel, including recognizing the liberties Wallace decided to take, and the ways in which his pre-existing notions may have influenced how the novel plays out.

One of the main takeaways from The World of Ben-Hur is that the novel Ben-Hur is a masterwork of historical fiction, recreating a world so vividly real that 2,000 years later readers can almost hear the merchants’ voices, taste the wine, and smell the desert air. In light of the release of the latest film adaptation of the story, Aquilina also makes clear that film adaptations must necessarily take certain liberties with the novel; viewers desiring a better understand of the novel Ben-Hur need to understand Lew Wallace and the world he recreated.

Aquilina identifies several important components of Ben-Hur’s world which must be grasped in order to have a full and proper appreciation of the story. These include the Roman Empire; Roman Judea, the political world inhabited by Ben-Hur; Jesus Christ and the unspeakably profound effect he had on Palestine and the Empire; the making of martyrs in post-Ascension Christianity; Ben-Hur’s imprisonment on the sea, and whether or not such punishment was meted out by the Romans; slavery in Roman circles; leprosy; and the gladiator games and chariot races.

The approach and focus of this book are interesting, as The World of Ben-Hur is ostensibly a companion to the latest film adaptation. But it is written with the goal of deepening one’s knowledge of the novel on which the film (and its predecessors) is based. Aquilina, an expert in the history of early and patristic Christianity, succeeds in his work, and this is a book that should serve not only fans of the films or novel, but anyone interested in the historical context of the earliest days of Christianity.

The World of Ben-Hur
by Mike Aquilina
Sophia Institute Press, 2016
Paperback, 168 pages

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About Paul Senz 136 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.