So… About that “Ben-Hur” Remake…

Along with this summer’s star-crossed remake of Ghostbusters, 2016’s remake of Ben-Hur failed to challenge its predecessor(s) for the title of “best version” of a revered work. I admit that when the movie was announced, I was in the “no, thanks, not interested” category of movie-goer, being a huge fan of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – my favorite movie of all-time.  When the trailer for the new film came out in early 2016, my position was unmoved. I was discouraged by the amount of CGI work in the trailer, and figured this would be a Ben-Hur for the short-attention-span crowd.

I viewed the movie last night, and I admit that I was wrongly arrogant to think that the movie could not be told another way, or updated for modern audiences. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. It’s not perfect of course. In fact, I thought the writing was a little too loose with modern phrasing, including some particularly groan-worthy lines about being “progressive,” “fighting the good fight,” and “keeping the faith.” But the movie differs from the 1959 version in a couple of key ways, and that’s what I want to write about.

“You can find them… in… the Valley of the… LEPERS!” (Ouch)

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now, because I’m going to talk about the ending of the movie. In the 1959 movie, Messala is mortally wounded in the chariot race, and dies cursing Judah. He spits out the fate of Judah’s mother and sister (they are lepers) as he fights for his last breath. It is a dagger of malice that holds up after repeat viewings. Messala goes to the Underworld with hate in his heart for Judah, who only learns to forgive Messala through the example of Christ. This is true meaning of the story. Judah learns to forgive, after years of hatred for Messala. “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand,” says Charlton Heston’s Judah, as he reflects on the lesson learned through Jesus. The sting of this revelation is that Judah, in the 1959 film, did not learn to forgive quickly enough. His best friend-turned-enemy, Messala, dies before he can forgive him. As human beings we know this particular pain. We have all lost someone at some point, before we could say what we wanted to say to them. But Judah had a lot to say. The moral here is to be quick to forgive, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be forgiven.

The 2016 version of Ben-Hur takes a different approach. In this version, Messala lives.

Why can’t we be friends?

I was surprised to see that he does not die. I expected the same scenes as the 1959 version. In this most recent film, Judah is inspired to seek out Messala after viewing Jesus’s death. He forgives Messala, who is physically broken, and who initially resists him at sword point. Messala eventually breaks and drops the sword as he embraces Judah, also forgiving him for their years-long conflict. When you look at this scene closely, it is actually a throwback to the 1959 quote “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand.” But what makes this scene so powerful is that it is not Jesus who takes the sword from Judah’s hand, but Judah, following the words of Jesus, who takes the sword from Messala. In this way, I think that this remake actually improves upon the 1959 version, because this is not God taking the sword out of a mortal’s hand. This is a man taking the sword from another man, through the example of Christ. God is all-powerful. If He doesn’t want you to have a sword in your hand, He can and will see to it that you don’t. What makes forgiveness the most powerful of all human acts is that it requires humility and vulnerability from both sides. Forgiveness doesn’t originate from a position of power. The lesson of this movie is not just to forgive quickly, but to forgive totally.

What follows in the 2016 film is nothing short of incredible, as Messala is welcomed back into Judah’s family, who all forgive him. Esther forgives Messala for killing her father. Judah’s mother and sister forgive Messala for throwing them into a prison, where they contracted leprosy. To be honest, I felt that this part of the movie, which carries the right message, lacked the dramatic tension of the earlier scene between Judah and Messala. I think this was a missed opportunity for Messala and the others to show their renewed love for each other, and how that came about, rather than have it told to us via Morgan Freeman. Still, it’s rare to see something like this in a movie for modern audiences. I applaud the choice.

After watching the movie, I had a thought related to medieval history, and I’m going to start exploring it. We all know the influence of the Christian faith on medieval Europe. Or do we? The central tenet of Jesus’s teaching is forgiveness, and treating others as you would have them treat you. So why was medieval Europe plagued by cruelty, violence and friction among classes, races, and religions? How could a faith spread like wildfire across a continent, with its central message taking a back seat? Who is actually being faithful, and who is just doing it for show?

If there’s one thing that can be said about the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, it’s that the characters aren’t just going through the motions. The pace might be accelerated, the writing might be a little cringe-y, the ending might be close to ridiculous – but as Mother Angelica once said, “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” I choose to see the miraculous in 2016’s Ben-Hur, and I hope you do, too.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

What Can We Learn About Byzantium from the Strategikon?

I was always afraid to study Byzantium, because of its unjust reputation of complexity and strangeness. The term “Byzantine,” used to describe things that are difficult to understand, perhaps influenced me – too easily – to stay away from it. But when I picked up a copy of the Strategikon, which I encourage you to do, I immediately gained a better understanding of the Byzantine Empire, and its place as a successor to Rome. The Strategikon is a brilliant work, and it hints at many of the attitudes and conditions present in Byzantium at the time of its writing.

The first thing I noticed was pretty easy to understand. The primary tactical change between the military of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Roman Republic and Empire was a shift away from traditional heavy infantry tactics toward moremobile cavalry-based forces that stressed hit and run tactics. There were a number of causes for this shift. At the time that Maurice’s Strategikon was written, infantrymen serving in the thematic armies were responsible for supplying their own equipment, which consisted of light padded armor, wooden shields and a spear and/or bow [1]. Gone were the days of state-provided heavy metal armor, tower shields, and gladiuses of the Roman legions. Cavalry was better supplied, with money for armor and weapons coming from landowning commanding officers [2]. Heavy infantry simply did not exist from an affordability standpoint in Byzantium, and even if it did exist, it would be ill-suited for the type of warfare Byzantium was forced to conduct. The region was was surrounded by enemies and its people lived in a state of near constant warfare, mostly on its own territory. Byzantine lands were better suited for ambush tactics and guerilla warfare than for massed formations of infantry, which required more space and greater numbers to operate effectively.

Byzantine forces were smaller than that of Rome [3] and as a result, they were forced to fight with tactical cleverness and awareness of the landscape. Strategikon contains an entire book dedicated to ambushes. “Well-planned ambushes are of the greatest value in warfare,” it reads [4]. The choice to center the composition of the army to meet hit and run tactics is summarized succinctly in the section on general maxims: “The general would be well advised to have more cavalry than infantry. The latter is set only for close combat, while the former is easily able to pursue or retreat, and when dismounted the men are all set to fight on foot”[5].

The repeated emphasis of the Strategikon on ambush, terrain awareness and mobility implies that the Byzantines felt a need to institutionalize their strategy on defensive warfare, to make sure the multiple, smaller units of their military acted consistently to repel the frequent invasions of larger, offensively-minded neighbors. Constantinople was the premiere city and trade center of its day, and represented a high-value plunder target for the enemies of Byzantium. One of the prevailing Byzantine tactics to protect that great city was to use the rugged countryside of modern-day Turkey its greatest force multiplier.

The defensive-minded Strategikon stresses the importance of avoiding protracted conflicts and pitched battles between armies, which was a trademark of ancient Rome. The Strategikon advises, “It is safer and more advantageous to overcome the enemy by planning and generalship than by sheer force; in the one case the results are achieved without loss to oneself, while in the other some price has to be paid”[6]. Ancient Rome’s greatest victories and defeats were epic clashes of tens of thousands of men on either side. The Punic Wars were a demonstration of the Roman will to grind down its enemies with an avalanche of men and material raised over decades. Byzantium, with its small military, economic strain and enormous list of people eager to kill them, could not afford to lose men and material the way ancient Rome could. The emphasis in the Strategikon of living to fight another day implies that the loss of soldiers was more devastating to Byzantium than ancient Rome.

This attitude is further emphasized by the extensive guidelines in the Strategikon focusing on the armament, training, discipline and organization of infantry and cavalry. The very first paragraph of Book One of the Strategikon mentions the things cavalrymen should be doing to practice their craft [7]. Byzantium had a vested interest in getting the most production and longevity possible out of their soldiers. If one reads between the lines, it is easy to see that the Strategikon is a guidebook for a country under siege.

The work continues ancient Roman traditions in a number of ways as well. There is a very businesslike philosophy regarding the training, management, organization and recruitment of soldiers that resembles the traditional Roman emphasis on practicality. “Make peace a time of training for war”[8] and “courage and discipline are able to accomplish more than a large number of warriors” [9] could easily be cut and paste from the Strategikon to any ancient Roman military manual and no one would be the wiser. There seems to be a continuity of maxims that persist from ancient Rome into the Strategikon. Book VIII bears strong resemblance to Vegetius, with mirroring themes of deception, the necessity of supply, proper behavior of officers and soldiers and picking one’s battles wisely.

Maurice. I have a painting of myself just like this hanging over my fireplace at home.

Do manuals like the Strategikon articulate an official, conscious “doctrine” for the armed forces of Byzantium? In my opinion, yes. Though the authorship of the Strategikon is questionable, if the work is indeed Maurice’s, then we have a military emperor formalizing his philosophy. Imperial communications are usually intended to be followed. If the work is not Maurice’s, then it is still written by someone high up in command with the intent of distributing it to the lower ranks. Byzantium was a literate society. “The fact that the officers in the Byzantine army had to be able to read and write by itself sets it apart from other medieval armies,” says George Dennis of the Strategikon in the introduction [10]. The system for manual distribution exists via the literate commanders of Byzantium. Why require the commanders to be literate if there is no intention to pass written doctrines like the Strategikon to them? The introduction goes on to mention that Maurice was a reform-minded military ruler whose goal was to “put an end to the system of private armies which had prevailed for a century or more”[11].

Furthermore, from a strategic standpoint there is a strong motive for the centralization of the Byzantine military. Byzantium was set on all sides by enemies. In order for the empire to survive, a coordinated, smart strategy needed to be enacted from top to bottom. Byzantium could not afford to lose men, material, commanders or territory. The Strategikon, with its highly detailed scenarios and specific mention of tactical adaptation against various named enemies, lays out a defensive playbook that any field commander can learn and follow. It is a franchise-model system in which the enemies of Byzantium can expect the same type of fight from every commander and every unit that the Byzantines throw at them, regardless of where it occurs. The basic tactical theme of the Strategikon is, apparently, to make the invaders’ lives a living hell until they leave Byzantium.

Regarding the Roman continuity debate, I think the most important thing to remember is that these people called themselves Romans. They could have called themselves anything. Their home territory is a thousand miles from Rome, geographically, and the actual state of Western Rome had been dead for more than 100 years when this document was written. No living person at the time personally remembered the Western Roman Empire, but they felt it was important to share its name. There was an undeniable philosophical, social and religious connection shared between Rome and Byzantium that led Byzantium’s citizens to claim descent from Rome.

One difference that can be seen in the documents of Vegetius versus Byzantium that points to a change in attitude are the number of references to God and Christianity in the Strategikon that doesn’t exist in the earlier Roman work. Though Christianity united West and East, it can be argued that Christianity had a more prominent and central role in hearts and minds of Byzantine citizens and leaders than their Roman counterparts. Maurice’s call to the Holy Trinity in his introduction serves as a good example of that sentiment [12]. There is a level of sincerity there which conveys that the work is not only being endorsed by Maurice, but also by the Lord. Much like the mention of cavalry and training at the opening of Book One, if it’s important, it’s right at the beginning, where you can’t miss it. Otherwise, it would be buried in the middle.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient times to the Present (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 152.

[2] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 12.

[3] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War, 152.

[4] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon, 52.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 80.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., xiv.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Ibid., 8.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

Hannibal and Rome – What’s the Angle for Polybius and Livy?

One of the most important things to keep in mind about many ancient sources is that, frequently, they were written many years after the events described in those sources. This leads to two things: the event described will be flawed in some way – possibly a large way – and the narrative will tell the reader as much about the time of the author as it will about the event in question.

Polybius hung out with some pretty powerful people. How do you think that may have affected his work?

A good example of this are two accounts of the Battle of Cannae and its aftermath, provided to us by Polybius and Livy. In each historian’s narrative, they rightfully praise Hannibal’s tactical brilliance and describe him as a legitimate danger to the existence of Rome. I think that Hannibal’s tactical achievements stand for themselves, and would be apparent no matter who tells the tale. I also think that even though Polybius and Livy contribute to his legend, they do so in a way that speaks for the glory of Rome. By painting Hannibal as a terrible and cunning opponent, Polybius and Livy cast the Roman Republic as a determined and unbreakable entity that can withstand a threat like Hannibal, take on any challenge, and stand the test of time.

Both Polybius and Livy had personal connections to powerful Roman aristocracy. Polybius was the tutor of Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson (by adoption) of Publius Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War. Livy frequented the court of Augustus Caesar and was known in the halls of power at the time. Being close to powerful people, neither writer is motivated to paint Rome as easy to defeat, or the victory over Carthage as anything but a glorious act of national willpower by Rome. Praising Hannibal is in line with this notion. After all, who could defeat the terrible and brilliant Hannibal but the more brilliant and resourceful citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic?

Both Polybius and Livy were writing large-scale histories of the Republic. In telling the story of Cannae and the ravages of Hannibal upon Italy, ultimately their focus is on Roman fortitude and determination – the unbreakable Roman character.

Following his account of Cannae, Polybius brings the reader’s attention back to the real story. “Yet the Senate neglected no means in its power, but exhorted and encouraged the populace, strengthened the defences of the city, and deliberated on the situation with manly coolness. And subsequent events made this manifest. For though the Romans were now incontestably beaten and their military reputation shattered, yet by the peculiar virtues of their constitution and by wise counsel they not only recovered their supremacy in Italy and afterwards defeated the Carthaginians, but in a few years made themselves masters of the whole world.” [1]

Livy also brings the post-Cannae focus back to Roman resilience: “Certainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.”[2]  Livy later praises the Roman civic traits of remaining level-headed and cool under threat of extermination: “… no one anywhere in Rome mentioned the word ‘Peace,’ either before the consul’s return or after his arrival when all the memories of their losses were renewed. Such a lofty spirit did the citizens exhibit in those days that though the consul was coming back from a terrible defeat for which they knew he was mainly responsible, he was met by a vast concourse drawn from every class of society, and thanks were formally voted to him because he ‘had not despaired of the republic.’ Had he been commander-in-chief of the Carthaginians there was no torture to which he would not have been subjected.”[3]

Because the Livy and Polybius make sure the focus is in the proper place, on the glory of Rome, it becomes safe to praise Hannibal. By the time Polybius and Livy wrote their histories, the Carthaginian leader and all his people had long been vanquished. The city of Carthage itself lay in ruin, never to revive. What harm could it do to praise a valorous enemy, who threw his best punch at Rome, but still could not finish the job?

Over the years, the Roman defeat at Cannae remains more famous than the Roman final victory at Zama, where Hannibal ran for his life and lost tens of thousands of men. Why?

The Roman victory at Zama ended in a peace treaty. There’s nothing more to say after that battle, which ended the Second Punic War. Cannae, however, is not the end of the story. It’s the high point of the story, in which Rome’s survival is hanging in the balance. Enter the final act, in which Rome recovers and a hero, Scipio Africanus, emerged. Polybius and Livy take the opportunity to cast Hannibal as the tactically brilliant but doomed villain, who defeated the soldiers of Rome, but not the spirit of Rome.

There are more factors that come into play than just Roman moral fortitude, but it’s interesting that the writers choose focus on this. As an institution, Rome was always very concerned with its image, both to its own people and to people outside of Rome. It was important for the people of Rome to feel as though they came from good stock, that their ancestors were morally righteous and virtuous, worthy of the ancestral veneration practiced in their homes and in the Senate. Livy and Polybius acknowledge that need with their writing, which elevates the idea of Rome. But the nitty-gritty of how Rome won is another story.

The GOAT of transcontinental road-trips involving elephants.

Keeping an invasion force well supplied deep into enemy territory was quite the challenge for any nation in the ancient world, but for Hannibal, it was almost a worst-case scenario. Hannibal’s only hope for resupply would be what he could forage from the countryside or wiggle out of Rome’s shakier Italian neighbors. For supplies to come from Carthage, they would have to come the same way Hannibal came, over the Alps. The sea wasn’t an option. Rome had control of the Western Mediterranean at the time (thanks to the First Punic War), and surely if Hannibal could have launched his invasion by sea, he would have done so.

Resupply would have been essential in a protracted siege of Rome, which had walls, manpower and, most importantly, river access.  Perhaps Hannibal’s best options, strategically, were to either force a political settlement to end the war, or find a way to rally the Italian cities and countryside against Rome.

Communication also played a vital role. It was much easier for Rome to communicate the will of the Senate to its people and nearby allies than it was for the Carthegians to coordinate strategy with Hannibal, across a sea that they did not control.

Surely, if we can see the difficulty/near impossibility of capturing Rome in this scenario, then Hannibal himself could as well. Is it possible, then, that Hannibal underestimated Roman resolve? In that case, the mistake would have been in assuming that the Romans thought like everyone else did. They clearly do not. That was one tough town, and it is a culturally unique element of Romans. The uniqueness of Rome – the things that make them exceptional – are the traits that the people of Rome celebrated most about themselves, and wanted to hear most from their writers and see from their artists. Busts, statues, arches, triumphs, celebratory games, theater, legends, and histories were all dedicated to their city, its heroes and its ancestors. It’s quite the multimedia public relations machine. The extent to which Livy and Polybius contribute to that machine is worth much consideration.


[1] Polybius: The Histories II, W. R. Paton, trans., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 293.

[2] Livy, The History of Rome, Vol III, 22.54.

[3] Ibid., 22.61.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC