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Messala Severus is the main antagonist turned anti-hero of the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and its 1959 Oscar winning epic film adaptaion Ben-Hur as well as its 2016 remake. He is a senior Roman military fighter, who grew up during the lifetime of Jesus Christ alongside Ben-Hur as he was adopted by his own family.
In the 1959 film adaptaion, he was portrayed by actor Stephen Boyd.
Messala's father was once the Roman governor of Judea. As a child and young man, he was friends with Judah Ben-Hur, a member of a prominent Jewish family that lived in the capital. Eventually Messala went to Rome for a military career, while Ben-Hur remained in Jerusalem and became head of the House of Hur after his father's passing.
Approximately 26 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, Messala returned to Judea, as part of a plan by the Emperor to make Judea into a more disciplined and ordered province of the Empire. Messala was delighted when his old friend came to see him, and ordered a solider to treat him with the respect due a Jewish Prince - telling the soldier that Judea was his country before it fell to the Romans.
However the good feelings were not to last. Messala and Hur had a falling out. Messala believed firmly in the power and glory of the Empire, and Hur was equally dedicated to the Jewish faith and the freedom of his people. The two parted ways in anger.
Later, during the arrival of the new Roman Governor Valerius Gratus, Ben-Hur's sister Tirzah goes to watch the Governor's entrance from the roof of the house. While up there she dislodges some roof tiles, which fall by the horse carrying Gratus. Startled, the horse throws Gratus, seriously injuring the man. Messala and Roman troops enter Hur's home and take the family prisoner. Messala goes up on the roof and discovers that it was indeed an accident, that a number of tiles were loose on the roof. Despite this knowledge, Messala decides to declare Hur and his family guilty of attacking the Governor - stating that to condemn an old friend would help to raise his stature and make him feared. Hur is sent to the galleys, an almost certain death sentence, while Hur's mother and sister Tirzah are imprisoned.
Hur manages to survive the next three years on the galley. In a critical battle Hur saved the life of the Roman Counsel Quintius Arrius. Arrius becomes convinced that the young man is innocent of trying to kill the Governor. In gratitude Arrius petitions the Emperor and the Senate to drop the charges, but the Emperor and the Senate would not free Hur outright. What they do however is to give Hur to Arrius as his slave. Arrius then frees Hur, and adopts him as his son. Despite his new found wealth and status in the Empire, Hur longs for home, and with the blessing of Arrius departs for Judea.
Arriving in Judea, Hur goes to see Messala and demands the release of his mother and sister. He tells Messala that if his mother and sister are restored to him Hur will forgo that vengeance he swore he would take against Messala with every stroke of the galley oar he was chained to. Messala tries to stall him by saying that he needs the approval of Gratus to do so, Hur tells him to get that approval by the next day.
Messala's aide is sent to the prison to free the women, but it is found that the two women have contracted leporsy during their long stay. They are freed and the cell is burned out. The two women return to their house one last time, and tell Hur's friend Esther to tell Hur that his mother and sister are dead, not wanting Hur to see them in their current condition, and knowing that under Mosaic law he would have to reject them now. Esther makes up a story that she had seen the bodies of Tirzah and Hur's mother shortly after their initial imprisonment, and Hur storms off in anger.
Hur realizes that the only way to get even with Messala is to enter a chariot race with him. During the race Messala races with a "Pict Chariot" - a chariot fitted with blades on the hubs. Messala is able to use these blades to destroy a couple chariots and force their riders out of the race. When he tries to the same with Hur's chariot, the plan backfires and it is Messala's chariot that is destroyed. Messala is thrown from the chariot, dragged along the ground, and then trampled by another team of horses.
Messala refuses to allow doctors to operate upon him until Ben-Hur comes to see him. Hur does come to see him in the final moments, and before he dies Messala tells Hur that his mother and sister are alive and in the Valley of the Lepers.
After Messala's death, Hur comes to believe that Messala was once a good person who had been corrupted by Rome. As a result he turns against the Roman Empire, asking his adoptive father's friend Pontius Pilate to return a ring to his adoptive father.
In the original novel, one of the chief differences is that Messla does not die in the chariot race. Instead, an attempt to sabotage Hur's chariot leads to the destruction of his own chariot, and Messala is seriously injured in the race. Crippled from his injuries, he is also left in serious financial difficulty due to the bets he had made regarding the outcome of the race. His plans to murder Ben-Hur all go awry, and five years after the race Messala himself is killed by his mistress Iras.