Ben Hur and the significance of signet rings.

Although I have always had an interest in reception, it had been the theme of several essays, it was just one of several disciplines that I had accessed in pursuit of my first love – Greek Theatre. Recently I had attended an online course over several weeks entitled ” Cinema and Ancient Greece and Rome” run by Anthony Keen (encyclopedic knowledge). Whilst I didn’t manage the whole course, we moved house during and, downsizing, I managed to fill three skips which took more time than I thought, I did throw myself in and bought all the course films. To be frank I was not a cinema goer but in for a penny…

One of the films which I had not seen, sharp intake of breath, was Ben Hur – the 1959 version with Charlton Heston (I still have not watched the 2016 version either). I actually enjoyed it, although the end went on a tad too long but hey ho. However, there was one scene which literally smacked me in the face and made me sit up. It is where Judah Ben Hur surprises Messala and reveals who he is. Messala is bored and is lazily playing with a whip, when a messenger comes in with a gift and introduces Ben Hur, now a Roman Consul, by his adopted name, given to him by the Consul Quintus Arrius. When Ben Hur steps out of the shadows, Messala immediately recognises him as the man he had condemned to the galleys six years previously. Although Messala recognised him and asked how a galley slave could be a Consul, and this is the part that startled me, Ben Hur strode across to a wax writing tabled and punched his fist down saying “you know his seal don’t you?” The seal was his adoptive father’s signet ring which had been passed on.

It immediately reminded me of two passages I had read in the past:

Marcellus’ ring had come into the hands of Hannibal along with the body. Fearing some trickery might be contrived by the Carthaginian through a fraudulent use of that seal, Crispinus had sent word around to the nearest city-states that his colleague had been slain and the enemy was in possession of his ring; that they should not trust any letters written in the name of Marcellus.

Livy History of Rome 27.28


This was the end of Pompey. But not long afterwards Caesar came to Egypt, and found it filled with this great deed of abomination. From the man who brought him Pompey’s head he turned away with loathing, as from an assassin; and on receiving Pompey’s seal-ring, he burst into tears; the device was a lion holding a sword in his paws.

Plutarch Pompey 80.5

It would appear that this specific scene in Ben Hur is historically accurate as signet ring’s seal could directly represent the wearer. The lengths Crispinus went to indicates the personal, political and military authority of Marcellus’ signet ring. Marcellus’ fraudulent letter was subsequently delivered to Salapia by a single messenger which implies the seal would be recognised by the recipients and therefore acted as the identity of the consul and general. Marcellus’ identity through his seal was geographically widespread as Crispinus had to alert all the nearby city states. Seal images of famous people were widely recognised and those of ordinary people are likely to have been known within their circle or marketplace. Crispinus’ warning suggests that in normal times any order or command in a letter with Marcellus’ seal would have been executed. Whether the encounter between Hannibal and Salapia occurred as described is unclear. Livy was writing two hundred years after the event and his sources are not known. However, as Livy wrote with a pro-Roman success bias and as a conservative traditionalist, there would be elements of status and discipline that would have been credible to his Roman elite audience. Signet rings would have identified their wearers to specific groups and that the seal image carried the Roman virtue of fides: reliability, good faith and trustworthiness. Pompey’s ring carried the same attributes of identity and was recognisable to Caesar but further, it seems that it could also represent the essence of Pompey causing Caesar to burst into tears.

Whilst the 1959 film portrayed the signet ring in a historically accurate way the 2016 does not seem to. As I mentioned I have not seen this but, looking at various scene extracts, the meeting has dispensed with the ring scene entirely preferring to rest recognition on Ben Hur’s sword and visual recognition. Why is this, what has changed between 1959 and 2016? Was the audience more historically aware in 1959? Certainly, to me (an it is important to know it me and my thoughts) the 1959 is a better scene but that is probably because I believe it is more accurate and I want a bit of that in my reception.

These are the questions I will be pondering in pursuit of my renewed interest in Reception Studies.


4 comments

  1. That’s a great scene. The best part for me is how Messala’s eyes don’t leave Judah’s to inspect the seal as proof–both out of shock and a knowledge that their conflict has moved well beyond any such deception.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for the comment and aplogies for the delay in replying (I am new at this and have changed the design a few times!). I hadn’t noticed the (lack of) eye contact before and you are right it conveys a definite realisation.

      Like

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