Neil Faulkner pays homage to the slave leader Spartacus and the film star who recreated him for a modern audience.
6 February 2020.
History and Hollywood are at best distant relations. Often they are not even on speaking terms. A notable exception is the 1960 epic Spartacus, where Kirk Douglas, who has just died at the age of 103, played his most famous role as the leader of the great slave revolt against Rome.
Let’s start with some ancient history. In 73 BC, in the South Italian town of Capua, some 70 slave gladiators armed themselves with kitchen utensils, killed their guards, and escaped from their training school.
They headed for nearby Mount Vesuvius – looming menacingly over the luxury villas of the rich in the Bay of Naples – and from there they raided the big estates, freed the slaves, and shared out the booty equally.
As news of their exploits spread, others came to join them. When they defeated a detachment of soldiers from Rome, the trickle of recruits became a flood.
The ancient slave economy
By 73 BC, around a third, possibly as many as half, the people in Sicily and Southern Italy were slaves. They worked in mines and quarries, on construction projects, in the arena and in brothels, and as servants in rich households. Increasing numbers were also used to work the land.
Brigaded together on large estates, brutally coerced and overworked, yet often with vivid memories of families, farms, and a life of freedom now lost, they formed a potentially revolutionary class.
Though drawn from all parts of the Roman Empire – a grotesque and fast-growing system of robbery with violence – many were from the East and spoke Greek, and this became the language of slaves generally.
A good number were former soldiers. Others were educated and had worked as professionals or minor officials. Herein lay the basis of political and military organisation. All that was needed to detonate slave revolution was the spark of leadership.
This was provided by the trainee gladiator who had led the original breakout at Capua: a former soldier from Thrace (now Bulgaria) called Spartacus.
The slave revolution
Within a year, the whole of Roman Italy was convulsed by revolt. Tens of thousands marched with Spartacus, from the Bay of Naples to the Po Valley, and several Roman armies sent against them were crushed.
Roman imperialism seemed face to face with its Nemesis. It had transported millions of the victims of its wars to labour as slaves on Italian estates, and now the slaves had turned on their masters with bitter anger. The war had come home.
Traumatised, the Roman ruling class appointed Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest men in the empire, to a special command against Spartacus at the head of a new army of ten legions (50,000 men).
For six months the war raged in Southern Italy, where an embryonic slave state had emerged, in control of several towns. But Spartacus found himself blockaded in the toe of Italy and unable to feed his large following.
Breaking out to the north, the war of movement resumed, until the main slave army was cornered and brought to battle at a place called Petelia in the mountains of Apulia.
The slaves fought with the desperation of the doomed. Spartacus, having killed his horse beforehand in a symbolic rejection of flight, died trying to hack his way through the melee to reach Crassus himself. His body was never found.
The defeated remnants of his army were pushed back into the mountains and destroyed in a vicious manhunt. Some 6,000 of the captives were later crucified along the Appian Way, the road from Rome to Capua, where the revolt had begun two years before.
A symbol of resistance
Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of slave revolution on Haiti in 1794, was dubbed ‘the Black Spartacus’. Karl Marx described Spartacus as ‘the finest figure in all antiquity’. The German revolutionaries of 1919 called their party ‘the Spartacus League’. Spartacus has become an enduring symbol of the class struggle from below.
In 1950, an imprisoned US activist called Howard Fast started writing a novel based on the life of Spartacus. He was serving a sentence for refusing to give the names of other left activists he had worked with in the 1930s.
Fast was a victim of the McCarthyite witch-hunts which destroyed the lives of thousands of activists in the 1950s and made a mockery of US democracy and civil rights. Because he was a blacklisted writer, no publisher would touch his book, so he was forced to self-publish in 1951.
This novel became the basis of the Hollywood sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus, released in 1960. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmonds, and Peter Ustinov, the film is a radical counterblast against an America scarred by witch-hunts and racial oppression.
Not only was the writer of the novel on which the film was based blacklisted, so too was the chosen screenplay writer, Dalton Trumbo, who had been forced to work under a pseudonym for ten years.
Kirk Douglas was among those insisting that Trumbo should be hired, and that his real name should appear in the film credits. It did.
Smashing the blacklist
This was a first – the first time a blacklisted writer’s name had appeared on cinema screens since the witch-hunt began. And it smashed McCarthyism in Hollywood. Democratic presidential candidate John F Kennedy was among those who crossed an ‘anti-communist’ picket line to see the film.
Kirk Douglas, a phenomenally charismatic screen presence, was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who spoke Yiddish at home. His sympathies were with the oppressed throughout his long life. In a 2015 interview, he spoke about the significance of Spartacus for the blacklist:
The choices were hard. The consequences were painful and very real. During the blacklist, I had friends who went into exile and no-one would hire them; actors who committed suicide in despair … I was threatened that using a blacklisted writer for Spartacus – my friend Dalton Trumbo – would mark me as a ‘commie-lover’ and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle.
The film itself was a cry from the heart against contemporary oppression. There is a scene where a black slave is ordered to kill Spartacus during a fight in the arena. In an act of self-sacrificing solidarity, he refuses and is killed himself. No contemporary US audience could have mistaken the reference to segregation and civil rights.
There is another scene in which guards jeer at Spartacus when he is provided with a slave prostitute. He yells at them, ‘I’m not an animal!’ And very quietly she says to him, ‘Neither am I.’ This is about another kind of oppression – also set to explode across America with the rise of the women’s movement.
And of course, there is the scene towards the end, that most famous scene, after the defeat of the slave army, when Marcus Crassus offers to spare the prisoners if they hand over ‘the slave called Spartacus’. And one after the other they stand and bellow back the defiance of the oppressed – ‘I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus! I’m Spartacus!’
You can watch it here.
Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian.