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Wine vats confirm home of Ben Hur’s nemesis

Claims that a Tuscan villa once belonged to Ben Hur’s arch enemy may have been confirmed thanks to the discovery of 2,000-year-old wine vats.

Stephen Boyd (left) played Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus in the 1959 version of Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston

While Ben Hur was a fictional character created by Lew Wallace in his 1880 novel, his nemesis, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, was a real Roman general. He played a leading role at the battle of Actium and was also a patron of the arts.

As reported by the International Business Times, archaeologists have long suspected that Villa Le Grotte on the Tuscan island of Elba had been the residence of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, but there has been little evidence – until now.

According to Discovery News, archaeologists were excavating an area below the villa when they unearthed five dolia – vats that could hold up to 1,500 litres of wine – with markings to suggest they were owned by the Roman general.

Franco Cambi, professor of methodology of archaeological research at the University of Siena, told Discovery News: “We were looking for ancient furnaces used in the production of iron, but we ended up with a surprising finding.”

He said the wine vases were stamped with the Latin inscription Hermia Va(leri) (M)arci s(ervus) fecit, which means Made by Hermias, slave of Marcus Valerius.

Speaking about the significance of the find Lorella Alderighi, of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, told Discovery News: “Villa Le Grotte is Elba’s most important archaeological site, and this finding adds to its importance.”

A fire destroyed much of Villa Le Grotte at the end of the first century, with materials made from clay preserved, including the dolia.

The tale of Ben Hur was later portrayed in the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston. In it Ben Hur, a Jewish prince and merchant from Jerusalem, is wrongly consigned to the slave galleries by Messalla, a commander of a Roman garrison who was a childhood friend. It is Messalla who races against Ben Hur in what was one of the most lavish stunt scenes to be filmed by Hollywood at the time. Ben Hur wins the race while Massalla is fatally injured after falling from his chariot.

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