Welcome back to Motion History, my dear readers and commenters. I decided to celebrate making it a full four weeks by mimicking the very first installment, and select a film that's enjoying a re-release: Spartacus. Yes, it's a story that's awfully similar to last week's pick of Gladiator, but why should my columns be exempt from the mania of sequels and remakes?

Plus, I really like gladiators. So do you. Just about every civilization that came after ancient Rome has been obsessed with them. It's a practice that's both barbaric and alluring. We recoil at the idea of men fighting to the death for entertainment; yet we know, deep down, the urge that fueled the practice. You feel it every time you watch a football game, a boxing match, or a hockey brawl. Arguably, we get our real gladiatorial kicks through the movies and video games. We cheer good kills and an artful use of gore. It's not real, so it's ok. (Lest you think I'm getting preachy, you should know I giggle maniacally every time I execute a pixel person particularly well.)

But then there is Spartacus. He seems to balance out our macabre fascination with the Colosseum, and has inspired an awed hero worship that has spanned thousands of years. He's a historical legend and a pop culture catchphrase. But while previous generations poured over Plutarch and Florus for hints of him, we just go to Stanley Kubrick's film. Spartacus has overtaken the source material to the extent that many are shocked to find out Spartacus didn't meet the fate Kubrick ghoulishly depicted for him.

Let's find out what really happened, shall we?

The Film

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a Thracian slave, is working in the Roman salt mines of Libya. We know he's a good guy because he, out of all the other slaves, stops to help an old man who has fallen down on the job. For his kindness, he's whipped, and then condemned to die of starvation. Luckily, Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) shows up looking to to buy a few slaves to turn into gladiators. Recognizing that Spartacus is tough and unbroken, he buys him, and puts him into the grueling training of the gladiator ludus.

Naturally, Spartacus incurs instructor wrath from the get go, but he also befriends his fellow gladiator, Crixus (John Ireland). But their day in the ring draws near, and they're trotted out to be bloody entertainment for Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Oddly, it's not Spartacus who strikes the first blow against Roman oppression but Draba (Woody Strode), who refuses to kill Spartacus and attacks Crassus instead. Feeling put out, the Roman senator buys Spartacus' girlfriend, Varinia (Jean Simmons), as a consolation. Spartacus is furious at the cruelty and callous treatment of the slaves, and he begins an uprising.

He attracts a massive army of followers, and consistently defeats every army Rome throws at him. He takes his people to the coast to meet his Cilician pirates, who he hired to facilitate an escape by sea. But Crassus gets there first, buys off the pirates, and traps Spartacus' army. The rebellion is crushed, but Crassus promises the slaves will be spared if they just identify Spartacus. They all claim to be Spartacus, and are sentenced to crucifixion.

Once Crassus finds the real Spartacus, he forces him to duel one final time, and pits him against his friend Antoninus (Tony Curtis). The survivor will be crucified, and Spartacus manages to kill Antoninus to spare him the gruesome fate. He's crucified on the walls of Rome, knowing his wife and son are now slaves of Crassus. But Varinia winds up back with gladiator owner Batiatus, who takes her back to Gaul. On the way out of Rome, she sees Spartacus, and shows him his son, vowing he will grow up a free man.

The Historical Background

Spartacus' rebellion wasn't the first slave uprising, but the third. There had been two previous -- the First Servile War (135-132 BC), and the Second Servile War (104 to 100 BC). Both occurred in Sicily, and both lasted for about four years. Both won enough battles and caused enough trouble that the Roman army had to come in to crush them, but they didn't particularly trouble Rome. Spartacus' uprising -- generally called Third Servile War, but also referred to as The War of Spartacus or the Gladiator War -- was the first one to seriously threaten Rome. It grew from an uprising of 78 gladiators to over 120,000 men, women, and children.

Though Spartacus has gone down as the ultimate freedom fighter, vowing to end slavery and change Roman society forever, historians doubt he had the lofty goals the movie ascribes to him. No one really knows what the motives of Spartacus were. Was he truly fighting for freedom, or just plunder? There's believed to have been a split in leadership with Spartacus wanting to climb the Alps and escape to freedom, and Crixus wanting nothing more than to continue to loot and plunder. At one point, Spartacus appears to have intended to attack Rome itself, but changed his mind for unknown reasons. Roman historian Plutarch claims all he wanted to do was escape into Gaul, and see his men dispersed to their homelands; historians Appian and Florus insisted the slaves wanted to take Rome.

While Spartacus seems to have been the defacto leader, evidence suggests he wasn't leading a very cohesive group. Other slave leaders are mentioned -- Crixus, Oenomaus, Gannicus, Castus -- and it's not clear whether they were his officers, or if they were leading their own armies within or alongside Spartacus' own.

What is certain is that Spartacus couldn't have picked a better time to stir up the slaves. Unlike the First and Second Servile Uprisings, Rome had its hands full with a revolt in Spain and the Third Mithridatic War. The legions were tied up. Rome also dismissed this uprising as a civil matter, so they sent their militia in. Spartacus proved to be a better and smarter commander than any of those guys, suggesting he had previous experience.

Is It Accurate?

Barring the 1960s costumes (to borrow a great quote from The Sopranos, they didn't have flattops in ancient Rome!), it's not bad. Ok, I'm being kind. It's really not accurate at all.

The real Spartacus is such a mystery that it's understandable that Hollywood has constantly invented their own version. Kubrick's film skips over any origin story for Spartacus, but it's believed that he was a Thracian who had been a Roman soldier. He was sold into slavery either due to desertion or unknown crimes. (You know, like another Gladiator.) Plutarch implies he was merely captured from his Thracian tribe. Interestingly, his is the only account that gives him a wife, who was enslaved with him. Her story is awesome, and slightly familiar to Spartacus: Blood and Sand fans: "It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him."

Spartacus was indeed trained in the ludus of one Lentulus Batiatus. (Only Plutarch gives his name, and notes he was a cruel owner. A nice bit of modern sympathy, whereas Appian and Florus both consider Spartacus to be a crime against nature.) No reason is given for their uprising and escape, but I imagine it was because being a gladiator was intolerable.

Kubrick's film dodges some of the cooler details of Spartacus' campaigns, such as the way he would take towns, and hole up training his soldiers with their newly won supplies. Or his brilliant escape from Mt. Vesuvius. The praetorians trapped him up there, believing they could starve the slaves out. Spartacus shrugged, made ropes out of all the vines and foliage growing up there, and had everyone climb down to freedom. He may have had a vicious streak for revenge. Florus claims he would have captive Romans fight as gladiators for his own amusement, and Appian claims he crucified a Roman prisoner in order to show his own army what fate awaited them if they lost. (The TNT movie Spartacus actually shows him doing this, much to the horror of his wife.) But the film gives him more credit for having a solid plan of escape, whereas the real Spartacus' motives and plans seem to have fallen apart somewhere around those pirates. Eventually, he was pinned down by Crassus and wiped out. But he gave a pretty good fight.

But Spartacus isn't really based on those accounts. (And is, I think, the poorer for it.) It's based on Howard Fast's novel, which emphasized a symbolic Spartacus over a historical one. Fast wrote it in 1951 as a reaction to McCarthyism, and his own imprisonment due to his involvement with the Communist Party. In Fast's hands, Spartacus is the ultimate representation of freedom, an example of how man must always strike back against oppressive governments. His Spartacus isn't really fighting Rome, he's fighting Joseph McCarthy, and Fast actually criticizes his hero in the course of the narrative.

The book implies Spartacus should have taken a more suicidal route and tried to destroy Roman nobility, instead of trying to win his own freedom. It ends with Spartacus as much more of a Christ figure -- if I remember right, there's an old woman kneeling at his cross instead of Varinia, and Varinia essentially "betrays" him by happily hooking up with Crassus. It's a rant of a novel, really. I think the movie abandons all that heavy-handed nonsense, though the "I am Spartacus!" scene was meant to be sympathetic to those persecuted by McCarthy. But it abandons the whole class war angle of Fast's novel (though it does delight in the sleaziness of Roman nobility) and plays down all the socialist messages.

It really emphasizes him as a kind of Christ figure -- especially the way he rises from humble origins, ready to lead the multitudes -- and at the price of historical fact. You see, Spartacus wasn't crucified. Everyone, thanks to Fast and Kubrick, thinks he was. Instead, he died in his final battle with Crassus. Plutarch describes a death that's pretty cinematic, actually: "Spartacus saw the necessity that was upon him, and drew up his whole army in order of battle. In the first place, when his horse was brought to him, he drew his sword, and saying that if he won the day he would have many fine horses of the enemy's, but if he lost it he did not want any, he slew his horse. Then pushing his way towards Crassus himself through many flying weapons and wounded men, he did not indeed reach him, but slew two centurions who fell upon him together. Finally, after his companions had taken to flight, he stood alone, surrounded by a multitude of foes, and was still defending himself when he was cut down."

Appian actually describes it a little differently: "Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain. The Roman loss was about 1000. The body of Spartacus was not found." However, Spartacus' followers were crucified, an estimated 6,000 who survived the final battle. They were set along the Via Appia, a warning to any slave who thought of trying to rise against his owners.

Fast's novel put Spartacus back on the pop culture map, though. He's always been an incredibly resonant figure, providing inspiration to Haitian rebels (Toussaint L'Ouverture was called "the black Spartacus" but one of his opponents) in the 18th century, to German intellectuals, and to Karl Marx who saw him as the ultimate proletariat. Marx's blessing led to quite the Spartacus cult in the Soviet Union as well as in Communist parties all over the world. Even Che Guevara was an admirer of him.

I suspect that Spartacus was made not to show solidarity with McCarthy victims, but to try and "win back" its hero for democracy. I think this is why so much emphasis is placed on Spartacus as a freedom fighter, and probably why he's played by an American. He's more like George Washington that way, fighting against a class-obsessed England. I also wonder if this film wasn't, in some way, meant to comment on or bolster the Civil Rights Movement which was going strong in 1960. Or was its message -- slavery and oppression is wrong -- completely lost on an America who was stubbornly refusing to acknowledge what it had done to one segment of its population?
categories Cinematical