Spartacus: Proto-Communist and Hollywood Hero?

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Spartacus being crucified. The ancient sources clearly state his body was never found. (PD-US)

Spartacus being crucified. The ancient sources clearly state his body was never found. Sculpture by Michel Lock

‘Who will write our battles and what we won and what we lost and who will tell the truth?”  (Howard Fast, Spartacus)

The story of Spartacus has inspired writers, from the time of the Servile Wars to the present day. Roman writers began penning their version of events from the moment of Spartacus’s defeat in 73 BC until well into the Christian era. From the eighteenth century onward, this rebellious gladiator became a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers and dramatists.

Even in our times, Spartacus has been the source of dramatic action in literature. Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, followed by the Stanley Kubrick 1960 film based upon that work and of the same title, present a historic freedom fighter and proto-communist.

What similarities do the more modern versions of the Spartacus legend have with sources closer to his time? Do all the versions share a common Spartacus, or does each present this near super-hero as a product of the author’s own agenda?

Roman Gladiators Escape from Lentulus Batiates

Both Fast’s novel and Kubrick’s film highlight a revolt of gladiators, led by Spartacus and brought on because of the harsh and degrading treatment suffered by the gladiators at the hands of their owners. In Life of Crassus, Plutarch offers this historic description of a similar revolt: “one Lentulus Batiates trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not from any fault committed by them, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one another.”

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Kubrick’s Spartacus expands upon this revolt, adding the death of the Gladiator Draba as the catalyst. The escape itself and the description of it from Fast’s novel could be lifted straight from the sources, with the slaves arming themselves, as Plutarch describes, with “chopping-knives and spits” from the kitchen/mess area.

Spartacus: A Man of the People

Once out of the ludus, the question remains as to Spartacus’ motivation of changing the Roman world.  Howard Fast presents us with such a Spartacus, modeling the character after what Karl Marx envisaged as “a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat.”

Unfortunately, the ancient sources tell us little about who Spartacus actually was. We do know that he began his life as a free man, not a slave from a long line of slaves, as portrayed by both Fast and Kubrick. According to Florus, Spartacus was a “mercenary Thracian,” enslaved by the Romans because he had become a “deserter and robber.” In Fast’s novelized version of the gladiator, Spartacus is a koru, a product of three generations of slaves, laboring in the hell of the Roman mines. Kubrick, basing his film on the novel, follows suit.

This fundamental change of origin may stem from the idea that an enslaved deserter and bandit would have made a less sympathetic dramatic character than a man born and bred a slave. This slave, despite his circumstances, rose up against the odds and defeated the might of Rome.

For Fast, making Spartacus a mine slave helps identify him with a proletariat oppressed by capitalism. The mines are the perfect place to showcase the evils of Roman “capitalism,” where men are kept naked because “even shreds of dirty cloth cost something,” thus eating into the owners’ profits.

Apart from the fact that Spartacus headed a disparate force of slaves, sources offer little to support the view that Spartacus was an egalitarian. Appian describes the gladiator general dividing his army’s plunder  “impartially,” but is quick to state that as a result, “he soon had plenty of men,” suggesting canny generalship rather than a spirit of equality.

Rising Against Rome: The Slave Army

Soviet poster from 1922 dedicated to the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution. Very much in keeping with Fast's image of Spartacus and his army. Image by Ivan Vasilyevich Simakov PD US

Soviet poster from 1922 dedicated to the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution. Very much in keeping with Fast’s image of Spartacus and his army. Image by Ivan Vasilyevich Simakov

There is further debate concerning the motivation Spartacus may have had in mounting his slave army. Plutarch and Sallust describe Spartacus’s motives as being simply escape, while Florus alone indicates a desire to attack Rome.

In his novel, Fast presents a righteous revolutionary, intent on overthrowing an unjust system and establishing a new order. Kubrick’s film chooses the more innocuous option of wanting to return to his homeland. Both the novel and the film portray the slave army as a united “band of brothers,” diverse in ethnicity, yet united by the common cause of freedom.

The sources, however, tell a different story. All of the historical accounts describe a factionalized army leading to the ultimate failure of the revolt. Spartacus’ camp formed one of these factions, while another, led by gladiator Crixus, refused to follow orders from Spartacus, preferring to “ravage Italy.”

Spartacus: Violence and Retribution

This dissent among the slaves and gladiators resulted in actions that were graphically described by Sallust. The slaves went about the country “raping the young girls and mothers, and others . . .and torment[ing] those who remained in a shocking way with horrible wounds, and sometimes [leaving] their mutilated bodies still half alive.’”

In his novel, Fast takes advantage of these atrocities because they fit his agenda of presenting Spartacus as an underdog hero. He describes a scene in which a fleeing landowner is killed by his own slave. Spartacus does not intervene because the victims ‘had harvested only what they had sown.’  This makes him a champion of the proletariat.

Hollywood of the 1960s, though, did not consider such behavior heroic. Kubrick’s film includes no reference to such events. Indeed, the only kind of vengeance portrayed occurs when two captured Romans are forced to fight as gladiators. Ultimately, this scene has a moral purpose, for Spartacus stops the fight, lecturing the slaves against becoming like their oppressors. 

Spartacus’ Wife: Varinia

Although ancient sources do not name Spartacus’ wife, mentioning her only in passing, both Fast and Kubrick give her a bigger role in the uprising as well as a name: Varinia.

The Varinia that Fast creates is an Amazonian German, a spirited and courageous fighter who stands by her man in battle, becoming a perfect metaphor for the revolutionary female. Kubrick’s Varinia, gentle and passive, is a true Hollywood heroine: The love interest.

1727 version of Plutarch's lives- one of the historical sources for Spartacus and the servile Wars of 71-73BC (Public Domain c/o Wikimedia Commons)

1727 version of Plutarch’s lives- one of the historical sources for Spartacus and the servile Wars of 71-73BC. Image by Plutarch, M. Dacier, Jacob Tonson, et al.

Spartacus in Fiction: Conjecture Picks Up Where History Lacks

The historical sources leave many such gaps, not least about Spartacus himself, his motives and his character. Fiction by necessity has to fill in many of the gaps left by history with conjecture.

There is really nothing in the sources to uphold Fast’s proto-communist or Kubrick’s whiter-than-white Hollywood hero. Both versions of the story of Spartacus pick and choose from historical records, selecting those details that are useful, discarding others and inventing yet more. Ultimately, Fast and Kubrick do not want to tell the historical truth: they are using Spartacus to tell their own story.


Appian. The Civil Wars, Book 1. Accessed Aug 8. 2013.

Fast, H. Spartacus. (1951). Published by H. Fast.

Florus. Epitome of Roman History, Book 2. Accessed Aug 8. 2013.

Kubrick, S. Spartacus. (1960). Film: Universal Studios.

Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 9. Translation by John Dryden. Accessed Aug 8. 2013.

Sallust. Histories, Book 3. Accessed Aug 8. 2013.

Sextus Julius Frontinus. Strategemata, Book V.

Velleius Paterculus. The Roman History, 2.29. Accessed Aug 8. 2013. 

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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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