Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
In Lew Wallace’s novel, as in history, Rome has an ambiguous role. It represents both hostility and opportunity. Its hostility is exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem, the annihilation of the temple, and the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland. Opportunity is exemplified in the empire’s toleration of its Jewish subjects, who flourish in its cities. Ben Hur, the novel’s hero, is a Jew who obtains Roman citizenship and prospers within the Empire. Meanwhile, Christianity spreads rapidly over Roman highways and in the cities.
*Rome. Capital of the Roman Empire. This city, which ultimately will become a Christian Jerusalem in which Peter and Paul will preach and be martyred, is a powerful image throughout the novel. Rome and Jerusalem were founded around the same periods: Rome in the eighth century b.c.e. and Jerusalem about two and a half centuries earlier. One was the City of David, the other, the City of Caesar; Lew Wallace wanted to show both as “Cities of Christ.”
*Holy Land. Eastern Mediterranean region corresponding roughly to the area of modern Israel and Palestine that was the center of many of the stories of the Bible. The region has strong religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In Ben-Hur, the Holy Land is Judea, the home of the Jewish people in general and the prominent Jewish family Hur in particular. For Wallace, the Holy Land has the mixed imagery of birth (of Jesus and of Judaism) and death (crucifixion of Christ and destruction of Palestinian Jewry by the Romans).
The Hur family name means “cave” in Hebrew, and cave images appear several times in the novel, climaxing in the construction of secret underground worship spaces for Christians in the Roman catacombs.
*Jerusalem. Chief city of ancient Palestine whose name means “city of peace.” Since the time of King David, Jerusalem has been the political, religious, and cultural center of Judaism. The Jerusalem of Ben-Hur has been transformed by Roman occupation and has a Roman theater, a hippodrome, and an amphitheater–all of which help make it resemble a Greco-Roman metropolis. Because of this, the city was often known as Antioch Jerusalem (a symbolism not to be missed in the novel). Jerusalem has an ambivalent role in both the life of Jesus and in the novel. It is both home, or a place of allies–but it is also an alien element. The Hur family home, the leper caves, and the court of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate all reflect the ambivalence of the place.
*Antioch. Rich and important city situated on the Orontes River in Syria, some fifteen miles from the Mediterranean Sea, that was the cement holding together the classical world. Antioch was the second-most important city of the eastern Roman Empire, eclipsed only by Alexandria in Egypt. Not only did it command sea lanes to the west and south, it also was the terminus for transcontinental highways to Mesopotamia, Persia, and the East. Antioch attracted a diverse population, including many Jews and Christians. In Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians” in a church founded by Peter, served later by Paul and Barnabas. As in history Antioch serves as a place of transition and maturation for Christianity (a kind of Second Jerusalem for the Early Church), it is also a town of transition for Ben-Hur. Antioch is a place of new beginnings, whether at a well (frequented by Balthasar, one of the Three Wise Men), or the arena, where old enemies can be humbled. The famed chariot race of Ben-Hur takes place in Antioch.