Screen Pilates: Pilou Asbæk

Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began in 2011 during Holy Week.    The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone, Barry Dennen, Hristov Shopov, Telly Savalas, Frank Thring, Stephen Russell, Greg Hicks, Cyril Richard, Stephen Moyer, Dennis King, Keith Mitchell, Leif Erickson, Peter Firth, David Bowie, Lowell Gilmore,  Hurd Hatfield, Vincent Regan, Arthur Kennedy, Gary Oldman and Ian Holm may be viewed  here, here, here, here  here , here, here, here, here , here , here, here, here , here , here , here , here , here,  here , here and here.



In Asbaek’s portrayal of Pilate we encounter a hirsute and ruthless Pilate.  In his ruthlessness, the portrayal of Pilate reflects that of the Jewish historian Josephus who lived in the latter half of the first century.  That portrayal has always been at odds with the more nuanced picture of Pilate contained in the Gospels.  I have never viewed these different portraits of the man as necessarily in conflict.  Depending upon events, a man might act quite differently than one might expect based upon their past.  Pilate had two jobs from the Emperor:  keep the peace and keep taxes flowing.  Pilate was inclined to be merciful to Christ until Caiaphas skillfully convinced Pilate that he would accuse him of falling down on both his jobs if Christ were not crucified.


As to Pilate having a beard, most Roman aristocrats were clean shaven at the time, and had been since the end of the Second Punic War, a beard usually being considered a Greek affectation.  It is unlikely that Pilate would have had a beard, especially considering the hot and humid climate of Judaea, but some Romans did have beards, usually as a sign of fashionable youthful rebellion or as a sign of mourning.

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  1. Interesting. One accusation that the chief priests threw at Pilate was that if he released Jesus he would be “no friend of Caesar.” The men appointed by Caesar to act in his name gloried in being titled his “friends.” It was a title for the governor. Not to be “a friend of Caesar” was a death sentence for a governor.

  2. I thought Romans only grew a beard when they went to war?
    It is interesting that ALL of the ancient western civilizations had distinctive beard styles, all captured in art that survived. Even Rome, had a distinctive beard, clean shaven.

  3. Actually it was a war, the Second Punic War to be precise, that made Roman men a clean shaven bunch. The victor over Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, made being clean shaven a major Roman fashion trend.

  4. Jewish men at that time wore beards. Once would think that as an occupier Pilate would want to look as Roman as possible to disassociate himself, as well as his troops, from the occupied population.
    The heavily trimmed fur collar of his cloak seems a bit warm. Maybe Pilate and the garrison were just in from Regensburg, on the northern frontier.
    The film was photographed in southern Italy, Matera, in the winter/spring. My guess the director simply wanted the latest Ben Hur film to have a different look.

  5. “I have never viewed these different portraits of the man as necessarily in conflict. ”

    Netflix has one season of a series called “A.D.” out that seems to do a pretty good Pilate – seems to capture both aspects. He did not seem to have any particular “dog in the fight” with Jesus until Caiaphas forced him to have one.

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