The Robe

Henry Koster’s 1953 biblical epic The Robe tells the tale of Marcellus Gallio. Marcellus is sent to Palestine in disgrace for angering Caligula, the heir apparent to the ageing emperor Tiberius. In Jerusalem, Marcellus is caught up in the last days of Jesus. His final act before being allowed to return to Rome is to oversee the crucifixion where he wins the Robe through gambling. Thus begins the process whereby Marcellus is brought into the Christian fold and wins the final prize of salvation.

The colonial project

Marcallus begins the film as a rich, and louche ladies man, what used to be known as a lounge lizard. He enjoys the profits of a world empire. Amoralistic with touches of human warmth, we first meet him at a slave auction where he bids on two twins. He loses them to Caligula. In response he buys the slave Demetrius, to anger Caligula. Caligula honours the purchase . He does not commandeer Demetrius, but instead sends Marcellus to Jerusalem. His father tells him before he goes that he “will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” He is also warned about fragging, in a prophetic vision of the Vietnam War.

Although the film is based on individual redemption, war forms the back drop. The original novel was published during the Second World War and the film was released at the end of the Korean War. Roman control of Jerusalem is presented as cohesive and militarised.  The soldiers and commanders do not understand the people. A situation which precipitated the First Jewish-Roman War of 66 – 73 CE.

The early post-war period saw a series of colonial liberation campaigns in which former colonies won freedom.  For much of this period, America saw itself as a guarantor of these freedoms. It used military power to ensure that recently decolonised countries did not become recolonised by communist powers. This lead to the entanglements in both Korea, Cuba and later Vietnam. Around the time of the film’s release, America’s slow involvement with Vietnam was just beginning following Viet Minh victory in the Siege of Dien Bien Phu.

Marcellus enlightened understanding of the situation in Jerusalem and the complexities on the ground shows a possible third way for policing the world for democracy which is involved but not prescriptive.

The reality of Roman power in Jerusalem

The film simplifies much of the power dynamics of Roman Palestine in this period. Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, a client king who was able to manipulate Roman politicians to hold onto power. Following Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was split between his children. The largest area Judea was later made into a Roman province, directly ruled by a governor. This province contained Jerusalem and at the time of the crucifixion was overseen by Pontius Pilate. Two other areas continued to be ruled by Herod’s sons, including Galilee.

This simplification has been a recurring theme throughout history, most notably in narratives in the crucifixion scene where responsibility is shifted between several key figures including Judas, the Jewish council, Jewish people at large, Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipater. Indeed, Matthew and Luke describes how the Jewish Council who want to get rid of a troublemaker send Jesus to Pontius Pilate because they do not have power to order the execution of any prisoner. Pilate is reluctant to do this. According to Luke, when Pilate hears that Jesus is from Galilee, he sends him to Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son who ruled Galilee as a client of the Roman state [Luke 23:6-12].

There seems to be a reluctance to hold the Roman authorities to account for the murder of the messiah and so blame is apportioned elsewhere. According to Matthew, Pilate offers the Jewish people the choice to free Jesus and they refuse: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children”. [Matt 27:25] This has been the justification for two millennia of anti-Semitism ever since, even if that was not the intention of the original author(s).

in The Robe Christian groups are formed from a merger of Jewish and non-Jewish groups. St Peter, an important character in the second half of the film preaches to non-Jewish groups in the Catacombs of Rome. This is a highly romanticised account of the heroic first days of Christianity. It also missed much that happened between Christianity leaving Jerusalem and arriving in Rome (if you can describe the process in those terms). The disputes and councils, the letters and community building, the new rules and beliefs. This is the subject of a different film (and blog post), but the cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire helped create this powerful new movement.

The Robe is a moving film which brings the psychological and social complexities of conversion and belief to the fore. It is of its time and produced at a time of political optimism and despair, which is perhaps why of all the biblical epics, The Robe still speaks to us today.