In the Summer of 73 BC, a slave revolt broke out in the gladiator school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua, south of Rome. Leading the revolt was Spartacus, a Thracian shepherd who had served in the Roman army. We don't know why or when he was enslaved, or selected for gladiator training; once source says he deserted and became a bandit. In the film, he declares he is the son and grandson of slaves. There are no surviving contemporary records. Except for a few pages in Plutarch's life of Crassus, written a century later, and odd scraps of information in other Roman historians (Sallust, Appian, Frontinus) we know very little about the Third Servile War. This was an episode educated, slave-owning Romans wanted to forget.
Stanley Kubrick's film is a flawed masterpiece; a visually stunning work of intense emotional power, a hymn to the ideals of freedom and human dignity. It may be very bad History by the standards of your university Classics department, but by Hollywood standards, it is epic storytelling.
The slave revolt spread like wildfire. From their base on Mount Vesuvius a multi-national army, trained in gladiatorial tactics, smashed one Roman army after another, freeing the oppressed and sharing plunder equally. The fearful Roman Senate gave supreme command to the ruthless and decadent Marcus Licinius Crassus, who promised to hunt down and destroy the slave army.
Seeking to escape by sea from Italy, the slaves were betrayed by the Cilician pirate fleet, and slaughtered in a final battle. Crassus gathered the surviving prisoners and promised freedom to any slave who would identify Spartacus. In a scene that has inspired generations of schoolboys facing collective punishment, and terrified generations of Assistant Principals, man after man stands up to shout, "I am Spartacus!"
Crassus ordered all the survivors to be crucified. Crassus' bitter political enemy, the populist Senator, Gracchus, secretly arranged the escape of Spartacus' wife and child to freedom, Keeping Hope Alive.
The climactic battle scene, filmed with some 10,000 extras, including 8,000 Spanish Army troops, may be the best depiction of Roman legions in action that we are ever likely to see. It clearly inspired George Lucas' computer-generated Imperial robot army in Star Wars: Episode 1 (just as the pod racer sequence in that film is a deliberate homage to the chariot race in Ben Hur.)
Kubrick was brought in to rescue the film when original director, Anthony Mann, proved unable to get along with star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas. ``I tried with only limited success to make the film as real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus,'' Kubrick told an interviewer, years later.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an idealist caught up in the naive left-wing politics of the 1930's had been "blacklisted" (banned from working in Hollywood) along with nine other writers who refused to cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950's. He was obliged to work in secret, barred from the film set and locations. Every scene, every idea, and at times, it seemed, every word in the screenplay was bitterly contested between Trumbo, Douglas, Kubrick and the studio executives. Film historian Duncan Cooper has documented the struggle between the concept of a "Large Spartacus" who fights for a transcendent vision of human brotherhood and liberation, and a "Small Spartacus" who leads a doomed jailbreak by a bandit gang on a race to the Sea. Trumbo sought to glorify the slaves as noble workers, escaping oppression to build a sort of tribal communism. "Kubrick," Cooper argues, "wanted to graphically illustrate the violence, brutality and corruption of both the masters and the slaves." The resulting compromise satisfied no one, but when Trumbo's name appeared on screen in the credits, despite a threatened boycott of the film by the American Legion, the "blacklist" was broken.
Most details of costume, military equipment and interiors in the film are meticulously accurate; at $12 million ($70 million in current money), Spartacus was the most costly Hollywood production of its era. When we see Olivier and Douglas on horseback in the film, they ride without stirrups (unknown in Europe before the 6th century AD; something most "Sword and Sandal" epics ignore, because riding without stirrups is a challenging skill and falling off horses can hurt your expensive actors.) You have to look very closely in distant group shots of riders to see the stirrups. For me, the most striking historical anomaly in the battle scenes was the total absence of missile weapons: javelins, archers and slings. This was probably a safety issue; the late Francisco Franco may have been reluctant to have his elite Fascist infantry exposed to barrages of flying sharp pointy things. There is no historical evidence for the huge flaming rollers that the slaves launch against the advancing legionaries; but the shots are visually spectacular and hey, film is a visual medium.
Although Spartacus speaks of "a new kind of army, trained as gladiators," the actual slave army we see in the battle scenes is mostly equipped with thrusting spears, a few pitchforks and an occasional axe. A few carry Thracian peltast shields, many bear captured Roman armor and weapons. Remarkably, we see armed women standing in the battle line beside their menfolk; this was something that horrified the Romans, and was played down in the script, but Kubrick kept the shots in the film. Women warriors often fought in Germanic and Celtic tribal warfare; Caesar noted in his memoirs that many of the ex-slaves who joined Spartacus were Cimbri; a Celtic tribe conquered by the Romans a generation earlier.
The slave girl, Varinia, gives her homeland as Brittannia. Say what? No Roman army set foot in England until Caesar's expedition of 55 BC, and the province of Brittannia was not conquered until 60 AD by the Emperor Claudius. In a kitchen scene at the gladiator school we see Varinia dumping a basket of zucchini into the soup cauldron, a vegetable like others of the squash family, unknown in Europe until Columbus brought seeds from the New World. (Ditto for those enormous spaghetti squash mounted on posts that Spartacus' cavalry use for sword practice.)
The film makes frequent references to huge sums of money expressed in sesterces; which is how Romans reckoned. But the audience gets no sense of the cartloads of bagged silver coins these sums represent. Gracchus pays two million sesterces to free Varinia, hefting a jingling sack onto his desk with each hand. Even in gold, which wasn't coined at Rome at this period, that sum would be 160 kilograms - about three times the slim girl's mass. He instructs Batiatus to flee with the girl and her newborn to his cousin, the "governor of Aquitania" which would not become a Roman province until after Caesar conquered it some twenty years later.
Avoiding too obvious a parallel to Jesus' crucifixion, the movie Romans strap Spartacus to his cross, although Koestler argues, with harsh irony, that Crassus "by no means devoid of humane considerations, had chosen the method of nailing, which tended to hasten death, rather than the customary stringing up." The historical sources all agree that Spartacus was slain in the final battle with Crassus; his remains too badly mutilated to identify.
Rome in the first century BC, like early 19th century America, was a republic of slaveowners. But Southern plantation owners realized slavery was a "peculiar institution," they had to defend against challenges from a vigorous Abolitionist movement. The issue of slavery tore the American republic apart in a bloody Civil War. But in all the literature of classical antiquity, you will search in vain for any suggestion that slavery was morally wrong.
Romans viewed slavery as part of the ius gentium, the law of nations. Some philosophers taught that it was wrong to mistreat slaves, but none ever called for the abolition of slavery. It was common to reward loyal slaves with freedom after years of service, but no one ever proposed freeing all the slaves, everywhere. For Romans, to say slavery was evil would be as irrational as a modern American saying electricity is evil. It was a basic part of the environment of everyday life. Every literate Roman grew up in a household full of slaves; the tutors who taught children were usually Greek slaves.
Roman slavery was based on power, not race. The Romans enslaved people they conquered in war, and viewed this as a humane alternative to extermination. There was a distinct hierarchy of slaves. The most valuable were skilled managers, technicians, secretaries and accountants, often Greeks, Egyptians or Jews. Domestic or household servants came next -- second or third generation slaves were particularly valued because they had greater emotional attachment to the family. Farm hands were often treated brutally; valued lower than the livestock they tended. Even lower were slaves toiling under dangerous, often toxic conditions, condemned to the mines. In the film's opening scene, Spartacus is rescued from certain death in the mines of Libya when Batiatus, impressed by his animal fierceness, buys him for the gladiator school. At the very bottom came the gladiators. Gladiators were branded on the thigh to mark their permanent degraded status; a scene powerfully depicted in the film. Even if a gladiator survived the arena and was freed by his owner, he could never become a citizen.
Kirk Douglas, though in superb physical condition, was 42 when Spartacus was filmed. Gladiatorial combat was a young man's game; few survived past their thirties. Tony Curtis was 35 (his character, Antoninus is described as 26); not the most credible Greek boy-toy for a wealthy Roman aristocrat, partial to both snails and oysters.
"Could we have won, Spartacus?" Tony Curtis asks Kirk Douglas, near the end, as they wait for death. The answer is ambiguous: "When one man says 'No, I won't!' Rome fears," Spartacus replies.
The Roman republic in 71 BC was already dying, but the core values of Roman society were intact: seriousness (gravitas), respect for tradition (pietas), loyalty (fides) and personal courage (virtus). It would take centuries of imperial corruption, decadence, self-indulgence, capricious tyranny, Praetorian anarchy and, ultimately, state-controlled "Christianity" to erode that fundamental character structure. Hannibal marched up and down Italy for fifteen years (218-203 BC), annihilating one Roman army after another; the Romans doggedly outlasted him. A complex civil war (88-82 BC) tore the Republic apart, Rome survived. Spartacus won nine battles in three campaign seasons, but he mostly fought second-stringers; the veteran legions were tied down by serious wars in Spain, the Balkans and Anatolia.
Spartacus could only "win" by storming Rome herself, and besieging the walled city was a prospect even Hannibal shrank from. After Rome was sacked by the Gauls in 390 BC, the inner "Servian" walls were built from immense blocks of volcanic stone; sections still stand today. Some of the seven hills, like the Capitoline, were virtual stand-alone fortresses. With enough stored grain for years, the City remained impregnable, until Alaric in 410 AD gained entry by treachery. Without siege artillery or the means to build it, Spartacus never had a chance.
On one level, the sub-text of the film is appropriate to the America of the 1950's: those who fail to conform will inevitably be crushed under the iron heel of authority. On another level, it forshadows the America of the 1960's, with a message that the thirst for freedom in the human heart is unquenchable.