BMCR 2007.08.59

Spartacus: Film and History

, Spartacus : film and history. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2007. x, 267 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1405131802. £19.99 (pb).

[Authors and titles of articles are listed at the end of the review.]

I thought I was becoming a little bored with Spartacus until I read this book. Following in the wake of his collections of articles on the movies Gladiator and Troy (both Blackwell, 2004 and 2006 respectively), Winkler has produced a volume on the film Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. Because the film is now nearly 50 years old, the result is rather different from the two previous books but will be no less useful for students of this genre of film. There are discussions on the making of the film, the aims of those involved, the historical (in)accuracy, the portrayals of Spartacus and Crassus, the ideology found in the film, and its reflection, distorted or otherwise, of the events of the first century BC and the Cold War during which it was produced. Two essays from the original souvenir programme are reproduced with editorial comments. Extracts from main ancient sources which mention Spartacus are included at the end.

Some might argue that the history of the making of the film is more entertaining than the finished product. Of particular value are the two articles by Duncan Cooper (‘Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Film’ and ‘Dalton Trumbo vs. Stanley Kubrick: The Historical Meaning of Spartacus’), which contain fascinating results of his research into the battles behind the scenes to produce the film as it exists today on DVD. Cooper’s contributions reveal much about the political situation in Hollywood in the late 1950s, a period of history almost as polarised and divisive as the first century BC. His knowledge of the film is unsurpassed and what he has to say will affect your viewing of the film forever.

The two other items which stand out, but for different reasons, are the essays reproduced (with helpful editorial comment) from the original souvenir programme book for the film. The first of these (‘Spartacus, Rebel against Rome’) is an amalgamation of two versions of an essay written by C. A. Robinson Jr, who in 1960 was Professor of Classics in Brown University. This should be read alongside Winkler’s article at the end of the volume, ‘”Culturally Significant and Not Just Simple Entertainment”: History and the Marketing of Spartacus’. The arguments between the publicity side of the production company, represented by Jeff Livingston and Stan Margulies, and Professor Robinson on the other hand, illustrate very neatly the divide still observable between popular views and those of the academics.

Winkler in his introduction makes this point: ‘But the consensus of modern historians about Spartacus’ goals is significantly different from what the legendary or cinematic Spartacus wants to achieve’ (p. 11). Winkler quotes long passages from Erich Gruen and Keith Bradley, which state categorically that Spartacus and his followers wanted to escape slavery and nothing more; there was no larger aim. This does indeed reflect the consensus among modern historians but I remain to be convinced that there is much to debate here. What seems a much more interesting issue is that, whatever the slaves may have wanted or intended, and this is surely irretrievable now, the effect of their rebellion may have been larger than their individual aims. This in any case would seem to be the approach of the ancient sources who saw the slave wars as far more threatening than scholars do.

For instance, Livingston wanted Robinson in the programme to suggest that the revolt helped to end the Roman empire (‘If you feel that Spartacus’ revolt contributed to the downfall of the great Roman Empire, please emphasize this’, quoted p. 224). Naturally Robinson refused to write such rubbish. But cheap laughs at the expense of the nonhistorian surely miss the point. If one substitutes ‘Republic’ for ‘Empire’ one not only reaches a far more sensible suggestion, but one put forward by many of our ancient sources themselves. No innocent reader could reach this conclusion with only the sources reproduced in this book, or from Brent Shaw’s similar collection of passages in translation ( Spartacus and the Slave Wars, Bedford, St Martins, 2001), as the extracts are all out of context. However, once they are read in their original surroundings, the views of people like Appian and Florus are clear: for them, the slave revolts were not simply an effect, but also a cause of the disintegration of the Republic.

One danger of discussing a historical film is an unconscious slippage from referring to the man as depicted by our original sources to the character on film or vice versa, so that sometimes it is not clear which Spartacus is being referred to. For instance, Winkler’s claim at the end of his earlier article (‘The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus‘) that ‘Like Spartacus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed by evil forces. But all three conquered death and became mythical icons of just causes. Their souls keep marching on.’ may have some validity with regard to the man portrayed by Kirk Douglas, since the revolutionary content was so reduced by the film, but none to the historical figure, however one might view him. The parallels simply are not there since Kennedy and King were both assassinated. Spartacus was killed having formed an army in order to fight against the Romans. He is either more of a criminal or more of a hero depending on your political persuasion, but he was an open enemy of the state.

Tatum’s article (‘The character of Marcus Licinius Crassus’) is a refreshing shift from the focus of Kirk Douglas’ character to that played by the glamorous Laurence Olivier. As he points out, the character in the film is not that found in the pages of Plutarch or Howard Fast, but one could argue that nevertheless the film is faithful to Plutarch in a broader way, since Crassus’ function is to be the main contrast with Spartacus. (‘Crassus’ character, although animated by Laurence Olivier’s compelling performance, is, in the end, simply Spartacus reversed’, p. 142). With his English accent and bisexuality, Crassus represented degeneration and helped audiences, at least in the US, know where their sympathies should lie.

My only criticism of the book is that the computer programme that created the bibliography seemed to have a problem with edited volumes so that they were listed under their titles and not their editors. The illustrations, mostly stills from the film and the posters, are not the usual ones but an excellent selection and well reproduced. There is much more to this book than I have discussed here and it made me remember why I found the subject so fascinating in the first place. This volume is invaluable for everyone interested in epic movies, the Roman Republic, the Cold War or the process of the appropriation of rebels.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Martin M. Winkler

1. Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Film: Duncan L. Cooper

2. Dalton Trumbo vs. Stanley Kubrick: The Historical Meaning of Spartacus: Duncan L. Cooper

3. Spartacus, Exodus, and Dalton Trumbo: Managing Ideologies of War: Frederick Ahl

4. Spartacus: History and Histrionics: Allen M. Ward

5. Spartacus, Rebel Against Rome: C. A. Robinson, Jr.

6. Training and Tactics = Roman Battle Success: From Spartacus: The Illustrated Story of the Motion Picture Production

7. The Character of Marcus Licinius Crassus: W. Jeffrey Tatum

8. Roman Slavery and the Class Divide: Why Spartacus Lost: Michael Parenti

9. The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus: Martin M. Winkler

10. Spartacus and the Stoic Ideal of Death: Francisco Javier Tovar Paz

11. “Culturally Significant and Not Just Simple Entertainment”: History and the Marketing of Spartacus: Martin M. Winkler

The Principal Ancient Sources on Spartacus

1. Plutarch, Crassus 8-11 and Pompey 21.1-2

2. Appian, The Civil Wars 1.14.111 and 116-121.1

3. Sallust, The Histories 3.96 and 98 (μ 3.64 and 66 (McG)

4. Livy, Periochae 95-97

5. Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History 2.30.5-6

6. Florus, Epitome of Roman History 2.8 (3.20)

7. Frontinus, Strategies 1.5.20-22 and 7.6, 2.4.7 and 5.34

8. Orosius, History against the Pagans 5.24.1-8 and 18-19