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In ancient Rome, during the eighteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, military tribune Marcellus Gallio goes to the slave market to purchase a pair of Macedonian twins. In the market, Marcellus witnesses the attempted escape of an educated Greek, Demetrius, and helps the slavemaster capture him. While waiting for the market to open, the womanizing, cynical Marcellus is delighted to be approached by Diana, a former childhood playmate who, since being orphaned, has been Tiberius' ward. Diana, now a self-assured young woman, reminds Marcellus of his long-ago promise to marry her, and Marcellus jests about honoring his pledge. Marcellus is less amused by Tiberius' intention to marry Diana to his nephew and heir, the corrupt Caligula, whom Marcellus detests. When Caligula arrives, he is angered to see Marcellus, and slyly expresses his ire by having his henchman, Tribune Quintus, outbid Marcellus for the twins. Infuriated, Marcellus then outbids Caligula for Demetrius. After Caligula storms off, Marcellus has Demetrius' chains removed and orders him to report to his steward, Marcipor. When he returns home, Marcellus is upbraided by his father, Senator Gallio, who is trying to reinstate the Republic in Rome and worries that Marcellus' feud with Caligula is undermining his efforts. Marcellus shrugs off his concerns, as well as those of his mother Cornelia and sister Lucia, but Caligula's power is soon felt when Marcellus receives a notice that he is to leave immediately for the dangerous garrison at Jerusalem, in Palestine. Before Marcellus' ship sails, Diana comes to pledge her love and state that she will intercede on his behalf with Tiberius. Much to his surprise, Marcellus returns her feelings and asks her to wait for him. While riding to Jerusalem, Marcellus is told by Centurion Paulus that it is Passover, a Jewish holiday, and also that the Jews are awaiting the arrival of their Messiah. They spot a group of people surrounding a man riding a white donkey, and when Demetrius joins them and exchanges gazes with the man, named Jesus, he is deeply moved and believes that Jesus wants him to become his follower. As time passes, Marcellus spends his days and nights in drunken revelries, ignoring his duties. One day, however, Paulus informs him that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, has ordered Jesus' arrest. Because Jesus has so many followers, the arrest must be made quietly, so Marcellus gives Paulus money with which to bribe someone to betray him. Having overheard the conversation, Demetrius spends the night searching Jerusalem, hoping to warn Jesus, but no one will believe him because he is a Roman slave. Finally, Demetrius comes across one man who painfully informs him that Jesus has already been betrayed by someone too weak to believe in him. As the man walks away, his shoulders slumped as if bearing a heavy burden, he tells Demetrius that his name is Judas. After Jesus is sentenced to be crucified, Demetrius pleads with Marcellus to speak on Jesus' behalf, but Marcellus insists that Roman law must be upheld without question. Soon after, Pilate tells Marcellus that he has been summoned to Capri. The troubled Pilate orders him to crucify Jesus before he leaves, and Paulus taunts him about driving nails into a man's flesh. As Jesus is carrying his cross on the road to Cavalry, Demetrius attempts to stop a soldier from beating Jesus when he falls. Demetrius himself is knocked unconscious, and when he awakens, he runs to the site of the crucifixion and, grief-stricken, stares up at Jesus. Demetrius is then ordered to bring Jesus' robe of simple, homespun cloth to the soldiers, who are playing dice behind the cross. After Marcellus wins the robe, a great storm of thunder, lightning and dust begins, and Marcellus approaches the cross. He is horrified to get some of Jesus' blood on his hands, and becomes even more frightened when the dying man whispers, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In town, a rainstorm begins and Marcellus orders Demetrius to cover him with the robe, but as soon as the cloth touches him, Marcellus cries in agony that it is burning him. Taking back the robe, Demetrius calls Marcellus a murderer and curses him, then runs away. Soon after, on the boat journey to Capri, Marcellus irritates the crew with his constant nightmares about nails being driven into Jesus' hands. Upon his arrival, Marcellus warns Diana that he has been driven mad by his experiences. When Marcellus appears before Tiberius, the soothsayer Dodinius theorizes that Marcellus has been bewitched by the robe, and that only by destroying it will he be freed. Moved by his affection for Diana, Tiberius gives Marcellus an imperial commission to find the robe, and so Marcellus returns to Palestine. There, Marcellus, traveling as a Roman merchant in search of homespun cloth, journeys through the countryside. At the village of Cana, Marcellus is surprised when village elder Justus shames his compatriots into returning a portion of the overly generous sum with which Marcellus bought their cloth. Marcellus is intrigued by Justus' quiet authority and learns that he was a friend of Jesus, as were many in the village. Justus describes some of the miracles peformed by Jesus and that evening, Marcellus meets Miriam, a crippled woman whose embittered heart was transformed by Jesus. Marcellus angrily rejects the villagers' statement that Jesus arose from the dead, and confesses to Justus that it was he who crucified Jesus. Justus reveals that he was already aware of Marcellus' identity, and informs him that they have all forgiven him, just as Jesus has forgiven him. Soon after, while trying to convince Marcellus of Jesus' love and power, Miriam tells him that one of his disciples, Simon, known as Peter, "The Big Fisherman," has arrived, along with his Greek companion. Marcellus confronts Demetrius, who attempts to persuade Marcellus that his guilty conscience, rather than the robe, has caused his madness. When Marcellus accidentally touches the robe, which had been kept by Demetrius, he impulsively clutches it to him, and overcome, realizes that he is no longer afraid. Soon after, Marcellus meets Peter, and during a gathering at the square, Justus begins to preach. Just then, a battalion of Roman soldiers, led by Paulus, attacks, and Justus is felled by an arrow. Marcellus commands them to stop, citing his imperial commission, but Paulus informs him that Tiberius has died and that Caligula is now emperor. Desperate to help his new friends, Marcellus accepts a challenge from Paulus and bests him in a swordfight. The Romans withdraw, and later, when Peter invites Marcellus to join him and Demetrius in spreading Jesus' teachings, Marcellus pledges to serve Jesus. Back in Rome, Diana appears before Caligula, who reprimands her for living with the Gallios and not visiting him in the year since Marcellus disappeared from Cana. Much to Diana's horror, Caligula informs her that Marcellus is now a Christian, which makes him a traitor to the Roman empire. Diana refuses to believe him, and so Caligula takes her to see Demetrius, who has been captured and is being tortured in the palace dungeon. After Diana flees and tells Marcipor about Demetrius, she realizes that Marcipor is also a Christian and begs him to take her to Marcellus. Marcipor then takes Diana to the catacombs in which Marcellus and his fellow Christians are hiding, and the couple joyfully reunites. Marcellus shows Diana the robe and tries to tell her about Jesus' teachings, but she remains skeptical. She is upset that Marcellus insists upon rescuing Demetrius, but he assures her that he owes his friend far more than just his life. Marcellus and his companions succeed in rescuing the badly injured Demetrius and take him to the Gallio home. There, physician Marius can do nothing to help Demetrius and warns Marcellus that he will soon die. Peter arrives, however, and through the strength of his prayer is able to revive Demetrius. Although Gallio is glad that Marcellus is alive, he is deeply hurt by his conversion to Christianity and renounces him. While Marcellus is taking Demetrius back to the catacombs, they are pursued by a group of soldiers, and Marcellus confronts them alone so that Demetrius can escape. After Marcellus is captured, Diana visits him in his cell and pleads with him to deny Jesus in order to save himself, but Marcellus tells her about the people of Cana, who never denied Jesus, despite the grave danger of being his followers. Marcellus is then put on trial for treason before Caligula and the senators, and admits to being a Christian. Caligula scoffs at Marcellus' assertions that his king is the King of Heaven, who believes in love, mercy and charity above all else. Angered that Diana still prefers Marcellus to himself, Caligula has his minions call out for Marcellus' death, but Marcellus refuses to renounce his allegiance to Jesus. Diana, moved by Marcellus' passionate beliefs and disgusted by Caligula's tyranny, choses to die with Marcellus. As they walk together, Marcellus is acknowledged by his repentent father, and Diana gives the robe to Marcipor for safekeeping. Serene in their convictions, Marcellus and Diana then go hand-in-hand toward their fate.