Stanley Kubick's Spartacus

Stanley Kubick's Spartacus

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Stanley Kubick's Spartacus In the 1960 film Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, the character called Spartacus is depicted as a revolutionary who leads an army of slaves against the oppressive forces of Rome during the first century B.C. Though the overall story is true, and most of the main characters are real, the presentation of their character is entirely fictional. Spartacus and the other characters have been split into groups epitomizing good and evil, and the story itself has been vastly romanticized. This essay will address the ways in which the story deviates from reality and finally will show how Kubrick and those before him have used such interpretations as a valuable tool for social change.

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The film begins with Spartacus as a working slave and a narration describing him as a man whose only dream is to abolish slavery. He was then bought by the owner of a gladiatorial training facility and consequently taught how to fight as a gladiator before eventually escaping from this place with the help of fellow fighters. Spartacus was portrayed as a great ideological leader as he gathered many followers and won many battles before being defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus, a character shown to be wealthy, powerful, and heartless. However, this ideology and the good and evil, represented by Spartacus and Crassus respectively in the film, are at best questionable realities when historical transcripts are taken into account.
At no point do any historical accounts mention Spartacus’ motivation to overturn the Roman social structure, but do instead suggest that his compatriots and he were merely attempting to rid themselves of this oppression. While the film correctly shows Spartacus’ will to simply leave Italy and not fight against Rome, it contradicts the importance of this by implying his motivation to rid the empire of all slavery and oppression. While the film also shows a scene where Spartacus makes an idealistic speech during a rather hypocritical moment where his followers are making their captives fight to the death, history tells us that this idealism was not present in his personality. Florus writes of Spartacus, “He ordered prisoners of war that his armies had captured to fight one another around the funeral pyres, hoping to demonstrate, I suppose, that he could expiate all his past shame by transforming himself into an exhibitor of gladiatorial contest” (Florus, “The War against Spartacus,” in A Synopsis of Roman History, 2.8.1-14). The aforementioned scene of the film was also the last we see of this indecent side of Spartacus’ followers, a side that would appear very often within the works of history.
Kubrick’s film shows a strong bond between Spartacus and his followers, to the point where all of his ideals seem to have been effectively passed on to these people. This is shown with great power during the “I am Spartacus” scene. It is obvious to say then that as Spartacus himself was romanticized, so was his relationship with his army, and indeed so was the army itself. With regards to their relationship, it seems that Spartacus did not always have as much control over his army as he may have wished. Plutarch shows this disregard for Spartacus, “…he [Spartacus] thought that it would be the best, indeed the necessary, course of action for the men to disperse to their own homelands, some to Thrace and others to Gaul. But his men, who now had confidence in their great number and had grander ideas in their heads, did not obey him” (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 21.1-4). The unrealistic but unified army portrayed in the film gives the image of a single entity acting as a force against oppression, but this was not all that the followers of Spartacus had in mind.
As tends to happen when people take on those that hold them down, the oppressed often become the oppressors, and Spartacus’ army in reality were no different. Sallust, a historian of the First Century B.C. writes of certain events, “Contrary to the orders of their general, the fugitive slaves immediately began to rape young girls and married women, while others… [cut down] those who tried to resist them and who were trying to escape, inflicting wounds on them in a depraved manner…Nothing was either too sacred or too wicked to be spared the rage of these barbarians and their servile characters” (Sallust, Histories, Book 3, fragments 90-94, 96-102, 106; Book 4, fragments 22-23, 25, 30-33, 37, 40-41). Spartacus’ army in the film were depicted as kind and honest men, and even seen as lovers of art in a scene where the slave character called Antoninus presents many of them with a song which is widely enjoyed. This loveable character was shown many times during the movie, but most prominently at the end, where he and Spartacus were forced by Crassus to fight to the death. Spartacus killed Antoninus (a rather narcissistic move as surely the best solution would have been to kill each other simultaneously) so that he would be the one who had to go through the crucifixion style of execution, hence saving Antoninus from such a dire fate.
The act of sacrifice is a dominant theme in the film and is essential to the idea of Spartacus’ character. Sacrifice is first seen before the revolt when the character Draba, after defeating Spartacus in a gladiatorial battle to the death, refuses to kill Spartacus and instead sacrifices himself by attempting to attack Crassus. It seems to be this selfless act that inspires Spartacus to his actions for the rest of the film. Spartacus also proclaims during the film that everything he has done will be a success if his son can be born free, regardless of whether Spartacus is killed or not. In the final act of sacrifice Spartacus is crucified, bringing obvious resemblances to Jesus and his sacrifice for all mankind. These sacrificial acts are, of course, not historically accurate and are a consequence of Hollywood and the need for a hero. Spartacus was not even born a slave, as suggested, and he actually served in the Roman army before deserting them and being condemned to slavery. Appian describes Spartacus, “… a Thracian whom the Romans had imprisoned and then sold to be trained as a gladiator, had once fought as a soldier for the Roman Army” (Appian, Roman History: The Civil Wars, 1.14.116-21). He also more than likely was killed in battle and therefore would not have been crucified with the others, however the film sufficiently covers this by Crassus telling his people not to let anyone know that it was Spartacus. Most importantly though, all of the characters involved with these sacrifices, Draba, Antonius, and Spartacus’ son, do not historically exist, showing that these ‘made up’ characters were essential to the story being created by Hollywood.
Among several undocumented characters there are two others that are vital to the story of the film. These are Varinia, Spartacus’ lover, and Gracchus, a supporter of Spartacus and an enemy of Crassus. Though Gracchus is probably based on one of the real Gracchus brothers who essentially formed the populares faction of the senate (supporters of reform), they existed over twenty years prior to the events in the film. Varinia was apparently a Briton, which is very unlikely as Rome had not yet entered the British Isles and therefore it would have been very difficult for her to become a slave. Only Plutarch briefly mentions that Spartacus had a wife who was also a slave, but does not mention anything to suggest the great significance that she had in the film (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8-11). This again was merely an act of Hollywood to make a love story out of this event and create an even more favorable opinion of Spartacus.
It is now important to look at the reasons for Stanley Kubricks interpretation of the story of Spartacus and how this played a part in more recent history. Kubrick was most certainly not the first to interpret this story in a way befitting the time; it had in fact been done even centuries before. The film, made in 1960, was very controversial at the time due to the connection between Spartacus and Marxist theory. Members of the crew involved with the movie had been blacklisted during the McCarthy years and the Cold War was at its peak. Karl Marx had been a great admirer of Spartacus and saw him as a great leader and revolutionary against oppression from the upper classes. It is no surprise that Lenin took note of this and also used Spartacus as a symbol of freedom during the Russian revolution, where the poor and needy, led by Lenin, Trotsky, and others, rose to overthrow the oppressive regime of Tsar Nicholas II and his Romanov predecessors. It is easy to say, however, that Lenin, and later Stalin, did not exactly keep to the ideals that were presented by Marx’s Spartacus, and again the oppressed became the oppressors. It was not practice of communism that Kubrick and others were supporting, but the ideals that it spawned from, the same ideals that formed the foundation of the United States. They were, therefore, fighting for freedom during a time where many felt some sort of revolution was needed, and indeed that revolution eventually came.
It has been shown that the film Spartacus far from follows the historical truth, but this does not mean that it should be discarded in any way. Though not the character in the film, the real Spartacus had courage and tenacity and managed to hold off the Romans for three years, an achievement that should not be underestimated. Spartacus is a symbol used by many to represent these traits and has inspired many to overcome adversity. He represents the best in all of us, and the film tells us that we can all be Spartacus. The Greeks and the Romans told exaggerated stories of their Ancestors to inspire citizens and this is no different. Spartacus is our ancestor, our brother, and our hero.

Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 8-11
Appian, Roman History: The Civil Wars, 1.14.116-21
Sallust, Histories, Book 3, fragments 90-94, 96-102, 106; Book 4, fragments 22-23, 25,
30-33, 37, 40-41
Florus, “The War against Spartacus,” in A Synopsis of Roman History, 2.8.1-14
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