‘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.”
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.