Spartacus is a 1960 epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick (replacing original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting; therefore this is the only film over which Kubrick didn’t have complete artistic control) and written by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the novel, and the screenplay for, Johnny Got His Gun), based on Howard Fast‘s 1951 historical novel of the same name. The story is inspired by that of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient, republican Rome, resulting in the Third Servile War.
The film stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, with Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and John Gavin. Both Fast and Trumbo, being avowed leftists, were blacklisted, the former having to self-publish his book, and the latter being one of the Hollywood Ten.
Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It had been the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history until Airport surpassed it in 1970.
Spartacus is a hero to communists and leftists in general, for how his slave uprising against the Roman ruling class has inspired the socialists of today to foment revolution against the capitalist class of the modern world. Karl Marx praised him, his namesake was given to the German Spartacus League of 1915-1918, and the failed German communist revolution of January 1919 was called the Spartacist uprising.
Other examples of art and popular culture inspired by Spartacus include a 2004 miniseries starring Goran Višnjić in the title role, and a ballet of the same name, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954 and first staged in 1956; some of the music of this ballet was used in the soundtrack to the Penthouse production of Caligula in 1979.
To get back to Fast’s novel and the 1960 film, we immediately notice how differently both treat the subject matter of the story. The characters of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier), Lentulus Batiatus (Ustinov), Varinia (Simmons), and Gracchus (Laughton) are all shared in both the book and the film, and apart from the basic history of the slaves’ failed uprising against Rome, the telling of the story differs wildly between book and movie.
The novel tells the story of Spartacus in a piecemeal fashion, given from the points of view of the various characters after Spartacus’ death, while the film tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way. The gladiatorial fight between Spartacus and Draba (played by Woody Strode) is generally similar, and the scenes of Crassus and Varinia, him frustrated in his efforts to win her love, and of Gracchus’ plan to steal her and her baby from Crassus and to give them their freedom, are essentially the same, though they differ greatly in the details.
A crucial difference between novel and movie is in the presentation of Spartacus’ death: in the book, he dies in battle (as affirmed by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus, though Appian also reports that Spartacus’ body was not found), whereas in the film, Spartacus is crucified.
Indeed, the sight of Spartacus chained to a rock to starve at the beginning of the film, his punishment for having bitten the leg of a Roman soldier, hamstringing him, is a parallel of his crucifixion at the end of the film. This parallel gives the story a sense that it has come full circle: his suffering is at its greatest at the beginning, with him as a slave lugging heavy rocks on his back from the mines in Libya; just as his suffering is at its greatest also at the end, with him hanging in excruciating pain.
In the novel, in chapter three of Part Two, is a vivid description of hell on Earth, a hell for slaves mining for gold in the unbearably hot desert of Nubia. To make matters worse, children are needed when the veins narrow “deep inside the black rock escarpment.” (One is reminded of Congolese children today, mining for the cobalt we use in our cellphones.) Spartacus is among “one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert…” (PDF, page 55)
The film’s beginning is the equivalent to this chapter, the opening scene only briefly depicting the suffering of Spartacus and his fellow slaves in Libya, rather than Nubia. The chapter captures, with great intensity, the misery and despair of the slaves as they work, virtually without rest, from early in the dawn ’til the dusk. “Their skins are patchworks of black dust and brown dirt…” (PDF, page 57). Many slaves die from these back-breaking work conditions.
There’s a brief moment in the early morning, before the sun is fully risen to beat its oppressive heat on the slaves as they go to work. “In this single hour of the day, the desert is a friend.” (PDF, page 61). But only for that cool hour.
In the film, Batiatus arrives, discovers Spartacus, and saves him from his chaining to the rock to have him trained as a gladiator. Batiatus is a lanista, the owner of a school for gladiators. Spartacus is about to be pampered, a whole new experience for him that includes baths and massages, and a girl for a mate (in the novel, he’s mated to Varinia, rather than merely teased with her and denied her, as in the film; PDF, pages 78-81, 83).
Still, there is no happiness in being trained to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the ruling class. The fighting of gladiators to the death is perfectly symbolic of how the ruling class has always divided the people from each other, making them fight each other instead of fighting their oppressors. Their sense of alienation is well displayed in the scene when Spartacus asks Draba his name, the latter telling the former it isn’t wise to know the names of, or to become friends with, those they will have to kill, or be killed by, in the arena.
Though Draba has said this, he still doesn’t want to kill a fellow gladiator for the sport of rich Romans (who in the film are Crassus, Marcus Glabrus [played by John Dall, who incidentally also played chief psychopathic killer Brandon Shaw, in Hitchcock’s Rope], Helena Glabrus [played by Nina Foch], and Claudia Marius [played by Joanna Barnes]; but who in the novel are two men named Caius Crassus and Marius Bracus). So at the end of his fight with Spartacus, having won, Draba refuses to kill him, to the annoyance of their Roman audience, and instead he hurls his trident at them, only to be speared in the back himself. Nonetheless, Draba’s solidarity with Spartacus has inspired the surviving gladiator.
Added to this sense of solidarity, as a cure for alienation, is Spartacus and Varinia falling in love. She gets naked for him when he first meets her. He doesn’t think of her as a mere sex object, though: “Spartacus saw her and loved her, not for her nakedness, but because without clothes she was not naked at all and did not cringe or attempt to cover herself with her arms, but stood simply and proudly, showing no pain nor hurt, not looking at him or at Batiatus, but contained within herself, contained with her eyesight and her soul and her dreams, and containing all those things because she had decided to surrender life which was worth nothing any more. His heart went out to her.” (PDF, page 80)
In the film, Batiatus and Marcellus, the gladiators’ trainer (played by Charles McGraw) lecherously watch the couple, hoping to enjoy seeing them have sex; but Spartacus, furious at their lack of respect for his and her privacy, shouts at the men that he is not an animal. She, still naked, says she isn’t an animal, either. He naturally agrees with her, unlike the two voyeurs.
The love he feels for her, especially when he learns she has been sold to Crassus and therefore he’ll never see her again, is the final straw that drives him, followed by the other gladiators/slaves, to bring about a spontaneous rebellion. (The sight of Draba’s hanging body is also a major provocation for them.)
In the novel, this rebellion isn’t quite so spontaneous. There is discussion among Spartacus, Crixus the Gaul (played by John Ireland in the film), and Gannicus (played by Paul Lambert in the film) about whether they, as gladiators, should consider themselves friends (PDF, page 111). Thus the seeds of solidarity among slaves have been sown. They know that the Thracians call Spartacus “father” for all the love he’s shown his fellow slaves. He hints at a plotting of a rebellion when he says he’ll fight no more gladiators, and that he, Gannicus, and Crixus “will know what to do when the time comes to do it” (PDF, page 115).
In the film, Spartacus just spontaneously kills Marcellus by dunking his head in a pot of soup and drowning him in it. After having had to endure his trainer’s taunts for so long, he surely relishes killing the man. As we know in the modern world, though, revolutions cannot be so spontaneous: meticulous planning, theory, and organization are indispensable, as is the ability to intuit a revolutionary situation.
To get back to the story, though, more and more slaves join the gladiators’ rebellion, and Spartacus’ plan is for them all to go south to Brundusium and pay to have pirates’ ships take them out of Italy and to their home countries. Along the way, he is reunited with Varinia.
The Roman Senate is growing alarmed at the escalation of events, and Glabrus is to lead his cohorts to fight and subdue the slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus has found himself a handsome boy slave named Antoninus (Curtis), who is gifted at singing and reciting poetry.
In a scene originally censored by the prudish Production Code, Crassus is given a bath by Antoninus. The former asks the latter (with the voice of Anthony Hopkins in the restored version) of his sexual preferences, using indirect, symbolic language. Crassus asks the youth if he eats oysters, symbolic of female genitals; then he asks if Antoninus eats snails, symbolic of male genitals. Crassus considers these preferences a matter of taste rather than of morality; he then confesses his own eating of both oysters and snails, indicating his bisexuality.
The point to be made here is that Crassus is obviously trying to seduce the boy; how many slaves, male and female, were forced to perform sexual favours for their masters? In the scene previous to this one, Gracchus and Batiatus have a discussion alluding to the enjoyment of female slaves, in Gracchus’ case, to the point of him not even wanting to get married.
After Crassus’ bath with Antoninus, the former walks out, followed by the latter, to an adjoining room looking out across the river to the city of Rome. There, Crassus tells Antoninus of the greatness of Rome, and of how how one’s attitude towards her should be.
Crassus, in describing Rome’s greatness, is given a line that is an allusion to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, complaining to Brutus about Caesar, says, “…he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” (I, ii, lines 135-136). In Spartacus, however, Crassus says this to Antoninus of Rome: “There is the power that bestrides the known world like a Colossus.”
What’s interesting in these two variations on the quote is that the first refers to Caesar, while the second refers to Rome, personified as a beloved woman, a man’s mistress. Young Julius Caesar, recall, is in Spartacus, played by John Gavin (who incidentally, in the same year, played Marion Crane‘s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho). Later in the film, Crassus tells Caesar of his fear of him, an allusion to how Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey would form the First Triumvirate, and Crassus and Pompey would lose to Caesar’s rising power.
Indeed, the fear of republican Rome becoming a dictatorship, something Gracchus will fear of Crassus’ rising power towards the end of Spartacus, is a fear Brutus and Cassius would have of Caesar, which they would use to justify assassinating him. Crassus’ name fortuitously sounds like a pun on Cassius, hence what’s so intriguing about the allusion to Shakespeare’s play as put on Crassus’ lips. He fears Caesar’s rise as Cassius would decades later.
That Crassus’ absolute rule over Rome would come in association with the defeat of Spartacus’ army is also worthy of comment. In the modern world, many right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships came into being after the crushing of proletarian attempts at gaining power: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. The ruling class makes a masquerade of democracy when times are good; but if threatened, that same ruling class ends the masquerade and rules with an iron fist, as Crassus does.
In his speech on Rome to Antoninus, Crassus speaks as if everyone, including such members of the ruling class as himself, must make himself a slave to his beautiful mistress and goddess, Roma. In implying that he, too, is a slave in this larger sense, Crassus is rationalizing the whole slave system to the youth. He’s also implying that, in serving Rome, Antoninus must serve Crassus all the more faithfully and devotedly.
It is at this point that the boy sneaks away without Crassus knowing. Antoninus, of course, will join Spartacus’ army, eager to learn how to fight. The youth will endure the indignities of slavery no more: Crassus’ designs to enjoy Antoninus for his sexual sport, combined with this mad notion of enslaving oneself to a lofty abstract ideal such as Rome, are too much for him.
In today’s world, the global proletariat has its own political ideals to which it is expected to enslave itself: the “rules based international order,” the “free market,” or simply neoliberalism, are all ideals that we wage slaves are expected to grovel before, never questioning the source of our oppression.
On their way to Brundusium, the slaves enlist the help of a Cilician pirate envoy named Tigranes Levantus (played by Herbert Lom). Gracchus bribes the pirates to get them to take the slaves out of Italy, so that, fearing Crassus’ rise to power, he needn’t fear the slave crisis being exploited by Crassus to justify his making a dictatorship of Rome.
Still, Crassus bribes the pirates better, and they end up betraying Spartacus et al. When Tigranes returns to tell Spartacus the evil tidings, then offers him and the other slave leaders a chance to escape and live like kings in other countries, Spartacus tells him to go away. Opportunism has no place in a sincere struggle to be free.
At an earlier point on the way to Brundusium, Glabrus’ cohorts camp one night and, contemptuously underestimating the slaves, see no need to set up a proper perimeter of fortification around the camp, so the slaves can easily infiltrate it and massacre most of the men in the cohorts. This incident is based on the disastrous military leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber against Spartacus on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
In Fast’s novel, Varinius Glabrus, as he’s called, is “vain, rather stupid, and politically dependable.” He’s killed with all the other men, all except one frightened, shamefaced soldier, who tells Gracchus and the rest of the Senate about the massacre (PDF, Part Five, chapters iv-vi). In the film, Marcus Glabrus is the one to explain his incompetence to the Senate, and he is sent out, disgraced. Crassus, his friend, leaves with him, pretending to share in his disgrace, but as Gracchus knows, Crassus will return, stronger than ever.
To get back to the part when Spartacus knows that he and his comrades cannot escape by sea, he knows their only way forward is to confront Crassus and his army, and thus to head back to Rome. His army is an impressive one, by the way, including women fighters, as we can see in the movie, extraordinary for one made back in 1960.
Here’s the thing: to be truly free, one cannot just run away from one’s oppressor–one must confront him and fight him. At the end of Fast’s novel, Varinia and her baby escape to live in a village near the Alps; but Roman soldiers go up there to enslave those villagers who can’t pay the high taxes, and her son, after she’s dead, has to fight these Romans just as his father, of the same name, did. (PDF, page 272)
In the film, the final confrontation happens, and it’s a nasty fight, with Spartacus’ army sending out rollers of flames to attack the Roman soldiers with. Much of the violence of this scene, with bloody stabbings and Spartacus’ hacking off of a Roman soldier’s arm, was originally censored out of the film, as with the ‘oysters and snails’ scene, because of the negative reaction of the preview audience.
By the time all of this has happened, Spartacus has already gotten Varinia with child, and when the slaves have been defeated, she has given birth to it. Crassus and Batiatus find her among the bodies of the fallen slaves, and Crassus wants her and the baby to be taken to his home. He especially wants to find Spartacus, to destroy the legend of the slave.
Why is it so important to Crassus to destroy the legend of Spartacus? Because, though the slave leader and his army have been defeated, their brave example will inspire thousands of future slaves to revolt one day. And where Spartacus has failed, any of the subsequent attempts may prove successful. That’s what Crassus is afraid of.
The Romans offer to spare the lives of the defeated slaves if they identify which man among them, living or dead, is Spartacus. They all respond with the famous repeated shout of “I’m Spartacus!” (a quote referenced and parodied in many films, including That Thing You Do!, and even Kubrick’s next film, Lolita), starting with Antoninus, who has prevented the real Spartacus from identifying himself, then dozens of men in his army shout it, in loving solidarity with their leader, who is moved to tears by their love.
This surviving love and solidarity is what is so threatening to Crassus, then the richest man in Rome. The slaves know they have lost…for now, but the hope of future success still burns like a flame in their hearts, and Crassus will have to find a way to extinguish that flame.
In our modern world, the Crassuses of today have been hard at work trying to extinguish the flame of hope that a socialist revolution will replace the capitalist hell we live in now. This story, as written by leftists Fast and Trumbo, was meant as an allegory for our times today; the master vs. slave contradiction of Spartacus is meant to represent the bourgeois vs. proletarian contradiction. And just as Crassus wants to destroy the legend of Spartacus, so do the bourgeoisie want to destroy the legend of Marxism-Leninism.
Imagine if, after the crushing of the Communards and the Paris Commune, that socialists had just given up! Of course they weren’t going to do that: instead, they worked hard to understand and learn from the errors that the Communards made.
Similarly, though a ruthless campaign of anti-communist propaganda (which I refute here, as in other posts) was doused here, there, and everywhere to extinguish the fire of socialism in the twentieth century, and that propaganda was a huge factor in the defeat of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, we today shouldn’t listen to the capitalist lies that “socialism doesn’t work” and “TINA.” Instead, we must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century and revive the hope that yes, another world is possible, that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.
To give a sense of how Crassus can be seen as an ancient version of a capitalist, in Fast’s novel, there’s a scene with him giving some women a tour of a perfume factory he owns. The scene at first hardly seems relevant to the life of Spartacus, but at the end of it, we can see Fast’s intentions (PDF, Part Six, chapter x).
Crassus speaks of how he makes much more of a profit with such businesses as his perfume factory than he could ever make in such wars as the Servile War. Furthermore, his workers in the factories aren’t slaves, so he needn’t feed or house them. Since they are free, he imagines he needn’t fear an uprising among them (PDF, page 221).
The bourgeoisie today, right-wing libertarians in particular, are fond of saying that if workers don’t like their jobs, they are free to quit, leaving their ‘poor, suffering’ bosses to have to find replacements. It may be relatively easy to quit when the economy is good, but not so when the economy is bad, as it is now, the worst it’s been since…forever, it seems.
Fast often refers to Romans as being on the dole, but this doesn’t change the fact that Rome was as brutal an empire as any. As an allegory of today’s world, his novel depicts Roman imperialism as paralleled (though assuredly not equal) with British and American imperialism. Romans being on the dole is to be paralleled with the welfare capitalism of the UK and US of the prosperous postwar years when the novel was written and the film was made. Welfare capitalism–at a time when the US and UK overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil, or when the US overthrew the government of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 for the sake of the United Fruit Company–is still capitalism…it’s still imperialism.
To get back to the story, though, Crassus has Varinia and her baby live with him. He’s captivated by her beauty, as well as puzzled with why such a beauty would remain in love with a lowly slave like Spartacus. None of Crassus’ wealth can lure her heart away from the father of her child and over to the man who has defeated him. But of course, Crassus’ defeat of the man she’s loved will ensure that she’ll never love Crassus…except that narcissistic Crassus will never accept her attitude.
What’s significant about the scene with him and her at dinner at night, in his attempt to woo her (recall that this scene is in Fast’s novel, too–Part Seven, chapter v), is that we see a kind of reversal of the roles of slave and master. He serves her food: squab and honey, a piece of melon, and a cup of wine, He has her wear a heavy necklace, once owned by a Persian queen. He doesn’t command her to eat–he invites her.
This reversal of roles suggests Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic, in which each tries to achieve self-recognition through the other. We’ve already seen the death struggle in the form of the battle in which Crassus’ army has defeated that of Spartacus.
Now, if all of the slaves are killed, then self-recognition through the other cannot be. The “I’m Spartacus!” shout of so many of the slaves, ensuring their collective crucifixion to a man, is nonetheless troubling for Crassus, not only because their defiant spirit will inspire other slaves, but also because their collective death means none will be left to give him and their other Roman masters the recognition they crave.
Crassus tries to get that recognition through Varinia, who coldly refuses to give it to him. Lacan said that man’s desire is the desire of the Other: to have the Other desire him, and to be recognized and acknowledged by the Other. Crassus’ desire is Varinia’s recognition, which she will never give him.
In Hegel’s myth, after the master has achieved dominance over the slave, a contradiction arises in how all of the slave’s work, producing so many things, gives their creator the recognition he craves, meaning he no longer needs it from his master; on the other hand, the master, having grown dependent on all of the slave’s productions, becomes subordinate. In Varinia’s case, her baby can be seen to symbolize the slave’s creations; similarly, her insistence that she nurse her own baby without the need of a slave-nurse to do it for her shows her self-emancipating agency.
Crassus’ frustration grows when he brings up Spartacus, who she insists was just a simple man, not a god. That she can love such a humble man is wounding to Crassus’ pride in the extreme. His implied threats to her baby’s life show, ironically, how defeated he really is. Since he owns her, he could simply rape her; but he wants her to love him, and he can never make her do that.
Another fascinating paradox occurs later, when Spartacus and Antoninus are made to fight each other to the death, the victor to be subsequently crucified. Since crucifixion is one of the worst, most painful ways to die, a death by stabbing is far preferred. So both men would kill each other…out of love…to spare the loser of the fight from suffering the agony of the cross.
Spartacus wins, and though neither history nor Fast’s novel have him die by crucifixion, the film has him die this way. Such an alteration naturally makes him into a Christ-figure, one who dies so future generations may live, that is, his sacrificial death will make of him a martyr who will inspire future slaves–including present-day wage slaves–to continue the struggle and, we hope, liberate us all for good.
Now, Fast’s novel gives extensive discussion of all those slaves crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where Batiatus has trained the gladiators. One gladiator/slave rebel whose crucifixion is given especial focus is a Jew named David. As he hangs in agony and despair on his cross, he ruminates over his mostly unfortunate life. (PDF, Part Six)
Fast divides David’s life into four parts: first, “a happy time of not knowing,” then, a time “full of knowledge and sorrow and hatred,” next came a “time of hope…when he fought with Spartacus,” and finally, a “time of despair,” when “their cause was lost” (PDF, page 212).
The difference between the times of not knowing and of knowing weren’t really those of happiness vs. unhappiness, but rather those of naïvely not knowing of the evils already present in the world, back when David was a child, and of when he became a man, had his eyes opened, saw the difference between the rich and the poor, and finally realized the world’s evil (PDF, page 190). Such a realization would have been especially poignant for David when he saw his father crucified for his involvement with the Maccabean rebellion (PDF, page 192).
Though Fast, having published Spartacus in 1951, wouldn’t have known at the time of the growing despair of socialists since the dissolution of the USSR (in fact, sadly, he came to believe the lies Khrushchev spoke about Stalin in his “secret speech,” and broke away from communism), still, David’s despair on the cross, and the length of his unhappy life, can be seen to allegorize the despair of any leftist revolutionary whose cause has failed, including the fall of the Soviet system.
We leftists in today’s world were once wide-eyed and naïve, like David as a boy, blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Then we grew up, put away childish things, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and underwent our Fall into a knowledge of those evils; and accordingly, we felt the pain, the sorrow, and the hatred of those evils. Then there were those of us who were old enough to remember the era of the Soviets, and how their influence even softened the blow of capitalism with the welfare state; we experienced a time of revolutionary hope, like David’s hope as he insists on standing beside Spartacus in battle (PDF, page 200). And finally, our time of despair has been from the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and the ensuing rise of neoliberal capitalism from then to the present day.
The suffering of David on that cross, one of the longest and most painful ways anyone can die, is a perfect metaphor for the long, drawn-out pain we on the left have felt as we watched Clinton gut welfare, Dubya start the “War on Terror,” Obama continue and expand Dubya’s policies, Trump lower the already-low corporate tax rate even further, and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices so Roe vs. Wade could be overturned, and Biden provoke Russia and intensify nuclear brinksmanship.
We’ve watched this slide into imperial tyranny (as did Cicero of republican Rome degenerating into the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus; Cicero, who appears in Fast’s novel as an ambitious, upwardly-mobile writer of a monograph on the Servile Wars [PDF, Part Four, chapter i], but not as a critic of the power structure that would eventually have him killed), and we see no way out of the present situation. But recall the end of the movie, when liberated Varinia shows crucified Spartacus their now-freed baby. This child personifies our hopes of a revived revolution, which just might happen as the Western empire is crumbling.
We hang on the cross in agony, like Spartacus, but that baby of hope is alive and free. Instead of letting our heads droop down in despair, let’s keep our eyes on that baby.