Before diving directly into the process of reading primary source documents and viewing the film
it is necessary to provide students with some level of background information on the two. Entire full-year courses can easily be devoted to exploring the documentation behind slave wars in ancient Roman history, or simply exploring the adaptations which resulted from the actions of Spartacus in the Third Servile War. Because
History Through Film
is a half-year course, however, time must be taken into special consideration. The following information can be used as a quick-guide to the history behind both the man Spartacus and his adaptation into myth.
The Spartacus Controversy
In both the academic “worlds” of ancient historians and film historians, the name “Spartacus” evokes feelings of both respect and controversy.
To ancient historians, the slave uprising led by Spartacus in 73 BC is one of the most violent and most famous revolts in the known history of humankind. Despite this lofty distinction, however, we really don’t have a completely reliable, documented history of the events concerning Spartacus, his slave revolt, and the vicious punishment which followed. Our ignorance caused by the patchy collection of primary source documents which have survived the 2,090 years since the Third Servile War, this lack of reliable information is not aided by the film adaptations of this period. Over the years, the story of Spartacus has found itself twisted into frescoes, mosaics, marble sculptures, oral histories, and more recently films, television series, and even video games. This poses a dilemma to many historians: should a line be drawn between the actual man Spartacus, and the adapted hero Spartacus? And if so, where should this line be drawn?
To film historians, the 1960 film
represents both a cinematic masterpiece and a dark period of time for the film industry. The film won four academy awards, made millions of dollars, and birthed one of the most famous lines in film history: “I’m Spartacus!” Despite this illustrious résumé, however, this adaptation of ancient history reveals a great deal more about the time period in which it was actually made. The film represents the end of an oppressive era: the end of the Hollywood Blacklist and then end of a film industry governed by communist fear.
In ancient Rome, the story of Spartacus was already pieced together by a number of history’s greatest founding fathers, including Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Appian, Paterculus, Florus, Frontinus, Athenaeus, and Orosius.
The level of credibility with which each of these historians wrote can be (and often is) debated at length, but from these sources, one can begin to reconstruct a sketch of Spartacus the man.
The story of Spartacus’s birth, childhood, and youth have all been lost to history. Even what we know of his ethnic origins and hometown are called into question by different interpretations of Greek translations. Sallust and Livy, however, both contemporaries of Spartacus, seemed to agree on a number of basic facts about his actions. Both men cite Spartacus as a “leader” of 74 gladiators who escaped from a gladiatorial school in Capua, gathered a mass of slaves as followers, and eventually “waged a major war against the Roman people.”
The most detailed account we have of Spartacus’s exact actions in this war come from Plutarch, a historian who wrote of Spartacus’s actions nearly 180 years after the Third Servile War took place. While his writings should be taken with a grain of salt, they still provide a highly entertaining and informative glimpse into the strategies of both Spartacus and his foe Crassus. He describes Spartacus with an almost resigned sense of respect, maintaining from the beginning that the gladiators were “compelled to engage in gladiatorial combats, not for any crimes they had committed but because of the unjust behavior of their owners.”
Spartacus and his fellow fighters used “kitchen knives and cooking skewers” to make their daring escape from gladiatorial bondage before defeating major Roman commanders and escaping across the Alps.
While Spartacus at that point wished for everyone to return to their homelands, his men wished to instead “pillage Italy far and wide.”
Plutarch then goes into detail about the cat and mouse chase between Roman general Crassus (who was chosen by the Senate to protect Rome) and Spartacus. In the end, after a series of elaborate strategic battles featuring dramatic deaths, cowardly retreats, and cartoon-esque traps, “Spartacus stood alone. Surrounded by a great many of the enemy, he was cut down while defending himself.”
Brief Account of the End of the War in 71 BC
adds that Crassus “defeated Spartacus...along with sixty thousand of his men.”
During the Age of Enlightenment (predominantly the 1700s), the story of Spartacus reemerged from the coffers of Roman history. To many Enlightenment philosophers who believed in liberty and a government based on social contract, Spartacus appeared to be their perfect poster child: a slave rising up alongside progressive brothers for the noble cause of achieving freedom from a corrupt government. By 1760, Spartacus even became the subject of an entire 5-act play by Bernard Saurin which opened at the Théâtre Français in Paris. Nine years later, Voltaire himself described the Third Servile War of Spartacus as “a just war, indeed the only just war in history.”
It is easy to imagine the shouts of “Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!” declared by French revolutionists in 1789 were partly inspired by Saurin and Voltaire’s public analysis and adaptation of the story of Spartacus.
The following century, Spartacus would again be adopted by another radical political movement. In 1865, Karl Marx completed a personality quiz given to him by his daughter and listed Spartacus as his hero.
In a letter from Marx to Frederick Engels, Marx even describes Spartacus as “one of the best characters in the whole of ancient history” and “a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat.”
In Russia, Lenin would carry on this story of Spartacus to suit his communist agenda, stating that:
“History is full of the constant attempts of the oppressed classes to throw off oppression…Spartacus was one of the most outstanding heroes of one of the very greatest slave insurrections…For several years the seemingly omnipotent Roman empire, which rested entirely on slavery, experienced the shocks and blows of a widespread uprising of slaves who armed themselves and joined together to form a vast army under the leadership of Spartacus.”
Lenin’s decision to bring up the details of a successful slave revolt at a time when Bolshevik revolutions were providing Lenin with the power to create and control the Soviet Union was clearly no coincidence. The history of Spartacus could easily be perverted to provide Marx, Lenin, and even Stalin with historical legitimacy for their shared communist beliefs.
However, the connections between Spartacus and communism did not end with Lenin.
Adaptations in Film and Media
In 1951, Howard Fast wrote
, a novel loosely based on a combination of historical fact and personal experience. Fast actually began to formulate his idea for the book while serving a three-month prison sentence in West Virginia. He had been convicted of being in contempt of Congress after refusing to provide the famously anti-communist House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) with a list of Americans who had donated money to helping Spanish refugees of the Spanish Civil War.
Personally identifying with what he believed to be the historical motives of Spartacus, Fast wrote a book about an oppressed man who was willing to fight against a corrupt system of government in order to secure his rights to life, liberty, and happiness.
When Fast tried to publish his novel, however, he was denied by eight major book publishers due to his status as a blacklisted communist writer.
This concept of a blacklist was not limited to the world of literature—in 1947, the HUAC began to investigate what they saw as evidence of Communists slipping propaganda into films being consumed by the American masses. After a series of hearings, ten “witnesses” and members of the film community, identified as the Hollywood Ten, were imprisoned after they refused to testify. In order to protect themselves from future allegations, executives in the film industry formed their own blacklist of nearly 500 actors, writers, producers, and directors who would be barred from any aspect of cinematography.
In Howard Fast’s dedication of
, he seemingly foretells the “troubled future” of a turbulent political era soon to come within the United States, stating:
“The heroes of this story cherished freedom and human dignity, and lived nobly and well. I wrote it so that those who read it… may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong—so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time.”
The “oppression” of Communism by government officials only grew more fervent throughout the 1950’s, with suspected spies being executed, duck and cover cartoons hinting at feasible nuclear attacks, and McCarthy-ist witch hunts presuming to be the law of the land.
It was in this very political climate that the 1960 film
was born. With only one viewing, this movie could simply be regarded as a secondary source based loosely on ancient history. However, by considering the writer as well as the time-period in which this movie was created,
serves as a primary peek into the time-period in which it was born.
The script, based on Fast’s novel based on history, was written by Dalton Trumbo, despite his blacklisted classification as a member of the Hollywood Ten. In 1947, Trumbo refused to testify to the HUAC about his political beliefs in Communism. Because of this, Trumbo was forced to spend 11 months in jail. Along with nine other defiant directors and screenwriters, Trumbo was also henceforth barred from involvement in the Hollywood film industry in the hopes of shielding the American populace from subliminal, subversive communist ideals.
Despite this restriction, however, Trumbo continued to write screenplays using a pseudonym, even winning an Academy Award under a fake name. His reputation as a writer grew regardless of his inability to openly take credit for his work. Therefore, when Trumbo was asked to replace Howard Fast in writing the screenplay for
, he certainly grasped the gravitas of what he was about to attempt—the breaking of the blacklist. This film had the potential to be a major hit, and Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis (producers of the film) both supported the idea of ignoring the blacklist and giving Trumbo his deserved credit.
If Trumbo was to successfully gain this recognition, he would have to create a film that both appealed to anti-communist ideals and made money for Universal Studios. For Trumbo, failure in meeting these standards was not an option—he stated, “I, for one, would never have been able to work again, and those who did not yet work openly would have even a slighter chance than I of making it.”
Much like the Spartacus of history, Trumbo was the individual, chosen by fate and driven by tenacity, to lead his “enslaved” Hollywood coworkers out of ideological, political, and social oppression.
Although many Hollywood insiders knew of Trumbo’s involvement in the film, Universal Studios still barred Trumbo from entering the premises.
He was forced to do most of the original writing and corrections blindly, unable to see the actors, costumes, or sets for himself. In many cases, Stanley Kubrick (director), Universal Studios executives, and Kirk Douglas (the actor who played Spartacus) took liberties in changing the script in the middle of filming itself.
Despite these setbacks, Trumbo advocated for himself through a series of lengthy written reaction reports and clandestine forays into the studio.
Ultimately, Dalton Trumbo
given credit for the convoluted, dauntless process of writing
. The greatest moment of validation, however, occurred on Friday, February 4, 1961. Despite Trumbo’s blacklisted communist status, and crowds of picketing conservatives, John F. Kennedy attended a public screening of the film
The President of the United States thus placed the final nail in the coffin of the blacklist, modeling tolerance and forgiveness to the entirety of the American public. It seems only historically fitting that Kennedy, the man who ensured Martin Luther King’s safe release from prison, bolstered the Civil Rights Movement, and declared America’s destiny to reach the moon by the end of the decade, broke the binds of the blacklist while watching a film about Spartacus, a fellow historical pioneer of freedom and change.