Friday, February 3, 2012


Hello My Friend and Welcome.
If you’ve ever watched the chariot race sequence in the 1959 movie Ben Hur, you’ve arguably seen 17 minutes of the most dramatic movie footage ever shot. Ben Hur was the most expensive film ever made at its time. Costing $15 million and shot on a grand scale, it was a tremendous make-or-break risk for MGM Studios that ultimately saved the studio from bankruptcy. It required six years to prepare for the film shoot with over six months of on-location work in Italy. It featured more crew and extras than any other film before it — 15,000 alone for the chariot race. The scene is made all the more exciting when one realizes that Charlton Heston actually drove his own chariot during much of the filming. Those were the days, weren’t they?
The 1959 movie was the third screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben Hur: The Story of the Christ. It has also been made into a stage play several times. Wallace spent years compiling the research for the book that would become the best-selling American novel of the 19th Century. It was the first book to ever have a single press run of over a million copies and remained the best-selling American novel of all time until Gone with the Wind was released in 1936. Writing Ben Hur also changed its author, Lew Wallace. Somewhat indifferent to religion before writing the book, he said the act of writing Ben Hur produced “a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
A Map of First Century Jerusalem
But putting aside the book’s success, the movie’s enormous scale and its eleven Academy Awards, one still must ask, “How realistic was it.” The plot sends Judah Ben Hur back to the land of his birth where he confronts his old nemesis and former friend, Messala, in a chariot race. This epic chariot race is depicted as taking place in, of all places, Jerusalem. Is there any historical justification for this scene? Could there really have held chariot races in the heart of Judaism and home to the Temple?

The Hippodrome from the South
The answer, in fact, is Yes. There’s very good evidence that such a race could easily have taken place in Jerusalem. In addition to constructing a huge and magnificent palace in Jerusalem, and expanding and completely renovating the Temple, Herod the Great also built a Hippodrome, or racing stadium for the enjoyment of his friends. Despite his claim to be a Jew, Herod was thoroughly Roman in his lifestyle and chariot racing was one of Rome's oldest and most popular pastimes.
Pause occasionally as you read the following description and mentally revisit the chariot race as it was depicted in the movie. Hippodromes were built as a semi-circle with tiers of seats surrounding the U-shaped arena. An elaborate ornamented barrier, the spina, ran down the middle of the course defining the path of the race. Metae, or turning posts, adorned each end of the spina. 

At the start of the race, up to twelve four-horse chariots (quadrigae) lined up at the open end of the U. The charioteers circled the spina in a counter-clockwise path until they completed seven laps. Although they all started together, the ones on the outside would have to travel faster than the others. Like our modern track events, the teams gravitated to the shorter center lane as the race progressed. Mechanical devices known as the eagle and the dolphin were raised to signify that the race had begun, and lowered one by one to signify the number of laps remaining. Do you recall the man in the movie flipping them over as the charioteers roared around the track?

Negotiating with the Owner of the Team
As depicted, the chariot driver typicallydid not own the horses, but like a modern jockey was a hired employee, or slave, of the horses’ owner. Unlike the other sporting events of that day, charioteers did not perform in the nude…most probably for safety reasons and the likelihood of a crash. Racers wore a sleeved garment called a xystis. It reached down to the ankles and was cinched at the waist. Drivers wore a pair of straps across the upper back to prevent the xystis from ballooning up during the race.

Racing chariots were modified war chariots — basically a wooden cart with two wheels and an open back. The most exciting moments occurred at the turns around each end of the spina. This was where most collisions took place. If a charioteer lost control going into the turn, his rig could be overturned  and he, along with his horses, crushed  by other chariots rounding the post. Deliberately running into an opponent was technically illegal, but there was little that could be done in the middle of a race and, like the NASCAR circuit, accidents happened with grim regularity.

An Aerial View of the Hippodrome

Clearly, Lew Wallace did his research well and the writers and directors of Ben Hur followed the historic record. We hope you enjoyed this nostalgic trip back to the era of the MGM movie spectacular. 
We’ll return next Tuesday when we’ll look at a device used by the Roman Army that has been called the Roman Telegraph.
Until then, we wish Peace and Blessings.
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