Messala: Roman Villain via Boss Tweed and Billy the Kid

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Messala was the villain of Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). As the novel’s most prominent villain, he is initially responsible for condemning the protagonist Judah to death in the galleys. He does this without a twinge of guilt and hides his crimes behind the cloak of Roman imperial rule, the worst aspects of which he demonstrably represents. Disabled in the famous chariot race, Messala carries on his villainy until his Egyptian temptress murders him, but even then it takes the power of Christ to restore the Hur family at the end of the novel. This paper examines the powerful socionomic forces that helped shape this unredeemable villain in the 1870s when the novel was being written. At the time, villainy was embodied in the United States by Boss Tweed, the prototype of modern political, financial and corporate greed and corruption, and Billy the Kid, a Western outlaw. Wallace knew such villainy first hand as soldier and government administrator and extra-judicially perpetuated it as well. As a major-general during the Civil War, he declared martial law three times. As a judge in two signature trials he was clearly biased. His fictitious Judah was not above reproach as an anti-Roman rebel. In the novel, only the Christ is a positive figure, but he was (according to the novel) inexplicably executed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Real and the Reflected
Subtitle of host publicationHeroes and Villains in Existent and Imagined Worlds
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781848881068
ISBN (Print)9789004403697
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Ben-Hur
  • Billy the Kid
  • Boss Tweed
  • Jesus
  • Lew Wallace
  • villainy
  • Wyatt Earp

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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