Theatrical release poster by Reynold Brown
|Directed by||Stanley Kubrick|
|Produced by||Edward Lewis|
|Screenplay by||Dalton Trumbo|
by Howard Fast
|Music by||Alex North|
|Edited by||Robert Lawrence|
|Distributed by||Universal International|
|Box office||$60 million|
Spartacus is a 1960 American epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Dalton Trumbo, and based on the novel of the same title by Howard Fast. It is inspired by the life story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, and the events of the Third Servile War, and stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, Laurence Olivier as Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Peter Ustinov, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Varinia, Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus, and Tony Curtis as Antoninus.
Douglas, whose company Bryna Productions was producing the film, removed original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting. Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked before, was brought on board to take over direction. It was the only film directed by Kubrick where he did not have complete artistic control. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, and President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to view the film, helping to end blacklisting; Howard Fast was also blacklisted, and originally had to self-publish it.
The film won four Academy Awards and became the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios‘ history, until it was surpassed by Airport (1970). In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic has slid into corruption, its menial work done by armies of slaves. One of these, a proud and gifted Thracian named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), is so uncooperative in his position in a mining pit that he is sentenced to death by starvation. By chance, he is displayed to unctuous Roman businessman Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who – impressed by his ferocity – purchases Spartacus for his gladiatorial school, where he instructs trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) to not overdo his indoctrination because he thinks “he has quality”. Amid the abuse, Spartacus forms a quiet relationship with a serving woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons), whom he refuses to rape when she is sent to “entertain” him in his cell. Spartacus and Varinia are subsequently forced to endure numerous humiliations for defying the conditions of servitude.
Batiatus receives a visit from the immensely wealthy Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who aims to become dictator of the stagnant republic. Crassus buys Varinia on a whim, and for the amusement of his companions arranges for Spartacus and three others to fight in pairs. When Spartacus is disarmed, his opponent, an African named Draba (Woody Strode), spares his life in a burst of defiance and attacks the Roman audience, but is killed by an arena guard and Crassus. The next day, with the ludus’ atmosphere still tense over this episode, Batiatus takes Varinia away to Crassus’s house in Rome. Spartacus kills Marcellus, who was taunting him over his affections, and their fight escalates into a riot. The gladiators overwhelm their guards and escape into the Italian countryside.
Spartacus is elected chief of the fugitives and decides to lead them out of Italy and back to their homes. They plunder Roman country estates as they go, collecting enough money to buy sea transport from Rome’s foes, the pirates of Cilicia. Countless other slaves join the group, making it as large as an army. One of the new arrivals is Varinia, who escaped while being delivered to Crassus. Another is a slave entertainer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis), who also fled Crassus’s service. Privately, Spartacus feels mentally inadequate because of his lack of education during years of servitude. However, he proves an excellent leader and organizes his diverse followers into a tough and self-sufficient community. Varinia, now his informal wife, becomes pregnant by him, and he also comes to regard the spirited Antoninus as a sort of son.
The Roman Senate becomes increasingly alarmed as Spartacus defeats the multiple armies it sends against him. Crassus’s populist opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton) knows that his rival will try to use the crisis as a justification for seizing control of the Roman army. To try and prevent this, Gracchus channels as much military power as possible into the hands of his own protege, a young senator named Julius Caesar (John Gavin). Although Caesar lacks Crassus’s contempt for the lower classes of Rome, he mistakes the man’s rigid outlook for nobility. Thus, when Gracchus reveals that he has bribed the Cilicians to get Spartacus out of Italy and rid Rome of the slave army, Caesar regards such tactics as beneath him and goes over to Crassus.
Crassus uses a bribe of his own to make the pirates abandon Spartacus and has the Roman army secretly force the rebels away from the coastline towards Rome. Amid panic that Spartacus means to sack the city, the Senate gives Crassus absolute power. Now surrounded by Romans, Spartacus convinces his men to die fighting. Just by rebelling and proving themselves human, he says that they have struck a blow against slavery. In the ensuing battle, after initially breaking the ranks of Crassus’s legions, the slave army ends up trapped between Crassus and two other forces advancing from behind, and most of them are massacred. Afterward, the Romans try to locate the rebel leader for special punishment by offering a pardon (and return to enslavement) if the men will identify Spartacus, living or dead. Every surviving man responds by shouting “I’m Spartacus!” (an idea from Fast’s novel, not documented by history). As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia between Rome and Capua, where the revolt began.
Meanwhile, Crassus has found Varinia and Spartacus’s newborn son and has taken them prisoner. He is disturbed by the idea that Spartacus can command more love and loyalty than he can and hopes to compensate by making Varinia as devoted to him as she was to her former husband. When she rejects him, he furiously seeks out Spartacus (whom he recognizes from having watched him at Batiatus’ school) and forces him to fight Antoninus to the death. The survivor is to be crucified, along with all the other men captured after the great battle. Spartacus kills Antoninus to spare him this terrible fate. The incident leaves Crassus worried about Spartacus’s potential to live in legend as a martyr. In other matters, he is also worried about Caesar, whom he senses will someday eclipse him.
Gracchus, having seen Rome fall into tyranny, commits suicide. Before doing so, he bribes his friend Batiatus to rescue Spartacus’s family from Crassus and carry them away to freedom. On the way out of Rome, the group passes under Spartacus’s cross. Varinia is able to comfort him in his dying moments by showing him his little son, who will grow up free and knowing who his father was.
- Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
- Laurence Olivier as Crassus
- Jean Simmons as Varinia
- Charles Laughton as Gracchus
- Peter Ustinov as Batiatus
- Tony Curtis as Antoninus
- John Gavin as Julius Caesar
- John Dall as Marcus Glabrus
- Nina Foch as Helena Glabrus
- John Ireland as Crixus
- Herbert Lom as Tigranes Levantus (pirate envoy)
- Charles McGraw as Marcellus
- Joanna Barnes as Claudia Marius
- Harold J. Stone as David
- Woody Strode as Draba
- Peter Brocco as Ramon
- Paul Lambert as Gannicus
- Robert J. Wilke as Guard Captain
- Nick Dennis as Dionysius (credited as Nicholas)
- John Hoyt as Caius
- Frederick Worlock as Laelius (credited as Frederic)
The development of Spartacus was partly instigated by Kirk Douglas’s failure to win the title role in William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur. Douglas had worked with Wyler before on Detective Story, and was disappointed when Wyler chose Charlton Heston instead. Shortly after, Edward (Eddie) Lewis, a vice president in Douglas’s film company, Bryna Productions(named after Douglas’s mother), had Douglas read Howard Fast‘s novel, Spartacus, which had a related theme—an individual who challenges the might of the Roman Empire—and Douglas was impressed enough to purchase an option on the book from Fast with his own financing. Universal Studios eventually agreed to finance the film after Douglas persuaded Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov to act in it. Lewis became the producer of the film, with Douglas taking executive producer credit. Lewis subsequently produced other films for Douglas.
At the same time Yul Brynner was planning his own Spartacus film for United Artists with Douglas’s agent Lew Wasserman suggesting he try having his film produced for Universal Studios. With Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay being completed in two weeks, Universal and Douglas won the “Spartacus” race.
Howard Fast was originally hired to adapt his own novel as a screenplay, but he had difficulty working in the format. He was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklistedas one of the Hollywood Ten, and intended to use the pseudonym “Sam Jackson”.
Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given screen credit for his work, which helped to break the blacklist. Trumbo had been jailed for contempt of Congress in 1950, after which he had survived by writing screenplays under assumed names. Douglas’s intervention on his behalf was praised as an act of courage.
In his autobiography, Douglas states that this decision was motivated by a meeting that he, Edward Lewis, and Kubrick had regarding whose name(s) to put against the screenplay in the film credits, given Trumbo’s shaky position with Hollywood executives. One idea was to credit Lewis as co-writer or sole writer, but Lewis vetoed both suggestions. Kubrick then suggested that his own name be used. Douglas and Lewis found Kubrick’s eagerness to take credit for Trumbo’s work revolting, and the next day, Douglas called the gate at Universal saying, “I’d like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo.” Douglas writes, “For the first time in ten years, [Trumbo] walked on to a studio lot. He said, ‘Thanks, Kirk, for giving me back my name.'”
The filming was plagued by the conflicting visions of Kubrick and Trumbo. Kubrick complained that the character of Spartacus had no faults or quirks.
Blacklisting effectively ended in 1960 when it lost credibility. Trumbo was publicly given credit for two major films. Otto Preminger made public that Trumbo wrote the screenplay for his film Exodus, and Kirk Douglaspublicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus. Further, President John F. Kennedy publicly ignored a demonstration organized by the American Legion and went to see the film.
After David Lean turned down an offer to direct, Spartacus was to be directed by Anthony Mann, then best known for his Westerns such as Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. Douglas fired Mann at the end of the first week of shooting, in which the opening sequence in the quarry had been filmed. “He seemed scared of the scope of the picture,” wrote Douglas in his autobiography; yet a year later Mann would embark on another epic of similar size, El Cid. The dismissal (or resignation) of Mann is mysterious since the opening sequences, filmed at Death Valley, Nevada, set the style for the rest of the film.
Thirty-year-old Stanley Kubrick was hired to take over. He had already directed four feature films (including Paths of Glory, also starring Douglas). Spartacus was a bigger project by far, with a budget of $12 million (equivalent to approximately $101million in today’s funds) and a cast of 10,500, a daunting project for such a young director. Paths of Glory, his previous film, had only been budgeted at $935,000.
Spartacus was filmed using the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format and then blown up to 70 mm film. This was a change for Kubrick, who preferred using the standard spherical format. This process allowed him to achieve ultra-high definition and to capture large panoramic scenes. Kubrick had wanted to shoot the picture in Rome with cheap extras and resources, but Edward Muhl, president of Universal Pictures, wanted to make an example of the film and prove that a successful epic could be made in Hollywood itself and “stem the flood of ‘runaway’ producers heading for Europe”. A compromise was reached by filming the intimate scenes in Hollywood, and the battle scenes, at Kubrick’s request, in Spain. Kubrick found working outdoors or in real locations to be distracting; he believed the actors would benefit more from working on a sound stage, where they could fully concentrate. To create the illusion of the large crowds that play such an essential role in the film, Kubrick’s crew used three-channel sound equipment to record 76,000 spectators at a Michigan State – Notre Dame college football game shouting “Hail, Crassus!” and “I’m Spartacus!”
The battle scenes were filmed on a vast plain outside Madrid. Eight thousand trained soldiers from the Spanish infantry were used to double as the Roman army. Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. However, he eventually had to cut all but one of the gory battle scenes, due to negative audience reactions at preview screenings. So precise was Kubrick, that even in arranging the bodies of the slaughtered slaves he had each “corpse” assigned with a number and instructions.
Disputes broke out during the filming. Cinematographer Russell Metty, a veteran with experience working in big pictures such as Orson Welles‘ The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958) and Howard Hawks‘s Bringing Up Baby (1938), complained about Kubrick’s unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film’s camerawork and disagreed with Kubrick’s use of light. On one occasion he threatened to quit to Ed Muhl, to which Kubrick told him: “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” Metty later muted his criticisms after winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Kubrick wanted to shoot at a slow pace of two camera set-ups a day, but the studio insisted that he do 32; a compromise of eight had to be made.
Despite the film being a huge box office success, gaining four Oscars, and being considered to rank among the very best of historical epics, Kubrick disowned it, and did not include it as part of his canon. Although his personal mark is a distinct part of the final picture, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion he did not exercise such control over one of his films.
The original score for Spartacus was composed and conducted by six-time Academy Award nominee Alex North. It was nominated by the American Film Institute for their list of greatest film scores. It is a textbook example of how modernist compositional styles can be adapted to the Hollywood leitmotif technique. North’s score is epic, as befits the scale of the film. After extensive research of music of that period, North gathered a collection of antique instruments that, while not authentically Roman, provided a strong dramatic effect. These instruments included a sarrusophone, Israeli recorder, Chinese oboe, lute, mandolin, Yugoslav flute, kythara, dulcimer, and bagpipes. North’s prize instrument was the ondioline, similar to an earlier version of the electronic synthesizer, which had never been used in film before. Much of the music is written without a tonal center, or flirts with tonality in ways that most film composers would not risk. One theme is used to represent both slavery and freedom, but is given different values in different scenes, so that it sounds like different themes. The love theme for Spartacus and Varinia is the most accessible theme in the film, and there is a harsh trumpet figure for Crassus.
The soundtrack album runs less than forty-five minutes and is not very representative of the score. There were plans to re-record a significant amount of the music with North’s friend and fellow film composer Jerry Goldsmith, but the project kept getting delayed. Goldsmith died in 2004. Numerous bootleg recordings have been made, but none has good sound quality.
In 2010, the soundtrack was re-released as part of a set, featuring 6 CDs, 1 DVD, and a 168-page booklet. This is a limited edition of 5,000 copies.
Political commentary, Christianity, and reception
The film parallels 1950s American history, specifically HUAC hearings and the civil rights movement. The hearings, where witnesses were demanded to “name names” of supposed communist sympathizers, resemble the climactic scene when the slaves, asked by Crassus to give up their leader by pointing him out from the multitude, each stand up to proclaim, “I am Spartacus”. Howard Fast, who wrote the book on which the film was based, “was jailed for his refusal to testify, and wrote the novel Spartacus while in prison”. The comment of how slavery was a central part of American history is pointed to in the beginning in the scenes featuring Draba and Spartacus, where Draba sacrifices himself by attacking Crassus rather than kill Spartacus. The fight to end segregation and to promote the equality of African-Americans is seen in the mixing of races within the gladiator school as well as in the army of Spartacus where all fight for freedom. Another instance of the film’s allusions to the political climate of the United States is hinted at in the beginning where Rome is described as a republic “that lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery”, and describing Spartacus as a “proud, rebellious son dreaming of the death of slavery, 2000 years before it finally would die”; thus the ethical and political vision of the film is first introduced as a foreground for the ensuing action.
The voice-over at the beginning of the film also depicts Rome as destined to fail by the rise of Christianity:
In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world. “Of all things fairest” sang the poet, “First among cities and home of the Gods is Golden Rome.” Yet even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with the disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in shadows for the event to bring forth. In that same century, in the conquered Greek province of Thrace, an illiterate slave woman added to her master’s wealth by giving birth to a son whom she names Spartacus. A proud rebellious son, who was sold to living death in the mines of Libya, before his thirteenth birthday. There under whip and chain and sun he lived out his youth and his young manhood, dreaming the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die.
Thus, Rome is portrayed as the oppressor suffering from its own excesses, where the prospect of Christian salvation is offered as the means to end Roman oppression and slavery.
The film’s release occasioned both applause from the mainstream media and protests from anti-communist groups such as the National Legion of Decency, which picketed theaters showcasing the film. The controversy over its “legitimacy as an expression of national aspirations wasn’t stilled until the newly elected John F. Kennedy crossed a picket line set up by anti-communist organizers to attend the film”.
Re-releases and restoration
The film was re-released in 1967, without 23 minutes that had been in the original release. For the 1991 release, the same 23 minutes were restored by Robert A. Harris, as were another 14 minutes that had been cut from the film before its original release.
Steven Spielberg gave his backing to the restoration effort and recommended that Stanley Kubrick be informed of the project. Kubrick, who had disowned the film, had nothing to do with the physical restoration of the film, though he gave his approval to the effort; and the producers wanted his final approval of their work. Universal’s negative was unusable because it had been cut twice and the colors were badly faded. Kubrick’s print of the film, which was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, could not be used for the restoration because it was considered archival. The original studio black-and-white separation prints, used as a backup in 1960, were used, though the processing lab had to develop a new lens capable of printing the Technirama frame without losing fidelity. The restoration cost about $1 million.
The 1991 restoration includes several violent battle sequences that had been left out because of the negative reaction of preview audiences. It also has a bath scene in which the Roman patrician and general Crassus (Olivier) attempts to seduce his slave Antoninus (Curtis), speaking about the analogy of “eating oysters” and “eating snails” to express his opinion that sexual preference is a matter of taste rather than morality. When the film was restored (two years after Olivier’s death), the original dialogue recording of this scene was missing; it had to be re-dubbed. Tony Curtis, by then 66, was able to re-record his part, but Crassus’s voice was an impersonation of Olivier by Anthony Hopkins, who had been suggested by Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright. A talented mimic, Hopkins had been a protégé of Olivier during Olivier’s days as the National Theatre‘s artistic director, and had portrayed Crassus in the Jeff Wayne musical album. Kubrick faxed instructions as to how the scene should be played. The actors separately recorded their dialogue.
Four minutes of the film are lost, because of Universal’s mishandling of its film prints in the 1970s. These scenes relate to the character Gracchus (Laughton), including a scene in which he commits suicide. The audio tracks of these scenes have survived. They are included on the Criterion Collection DVD, alongside production stills of some of the lost footage.
The film was first released on Blu-ray in 2010 by Universal Studios. However, this release was panned by critics and fans alike, mainly due to the lackluster picture quality and sound. As a result, this release was highly controversial and did poorly in sales.
In 2015, for its 55th anniversary, the film went through an extensive 4K digital restoration, from a 6K scan of the 1991 reconstruction of the film. The 2015 restoration is 12 minutes longer. The original, 6-channel audio track was also remixed and remastered in 7.1 surround sound. Robert A. Harris oversaw the 2015 digital restoration. The film was re-released to Blu-ray Disc on October 6, 2015, featuring a 1080p transfer of the 2015 restoration in 2.20:1 aspect ratio and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. Special features include a featurette on the 2015 restoration, a 2015 interview with Kirk Douglas, and several features from the Criterion Collection DVD.
The 2015 restoration had originally been scheduled to have its theatrical premiere in March 2015 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but was pulled from the festival, and from a July 2015 engagement in Chicago, because the restoration had not been completed in time. The DCP version of the restoration played at Film Forum in New York City, November 4–12, 2015.
Awards and nominations
In June 2008, American Film Institute revealed its “10 Top 10“—the best ten films in ten “classic” American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Spartacus was acknowledged as the fifth best film in the epic genre. AFI also included the film in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills (#62), AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains (Spartacus #22 Hero), AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) (#81), and AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers (#44).
The movie received mixed reviews when first released; Bosley Crowther called it a “spotty, uneven drama.” Over time, however, its reputation has improved. Critics such as Roger Ebert have argued that the film has flaws, though his review is generally positive otherwise. When released, the movie was attacked by both the American Legion and the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper because of its connection with Trumbo. Hopper stated, “The story was sold to Universal from a book written by a commie and the screen script was written by a commie, so don’t go to see it.”
In the climactic scene, recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate. The documentary Trumbo suggests that this scene was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy Era who refused to implicate others, and thus were blacklisted.
This scene is the basis for an in-joke in Kubrick’s next film, Lolita (1962), where Humbert Humbert asks Clare Quilty, “Are you Quilty?” to which he replies, “No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or something?” Many subsequent films, television shows and advertisements have referenced or parodied the iconic scene. One of these is the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which reverses the situation by depicting an entire group undergoing crucifixion all claiming to be Brian, who, it has just been announced, is eligible for release (“I’m Brian.” “No, I’m Brian.” “I’m Brian and so’s my wife.”) Further examples have been documented in David Hughes’ The Complete Kubrick and Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in Cinema.
Comic book adaption
- List of American films of 1960
- List of films set in ancient Rome
- List of historical drama films
- List of films featuring slavery
- List of films based on military books (pre-1775)
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…it was Otto Preminger, the director, who broke the blacklist months later by publicly announcing that he had hired Mr. Trumbo to do the screenplay
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He recalled how his name returned to the screen in 1960 with the help of Spartacus star Kirk Douglas: ‘I had been working on Spartacus for about a year’
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UPDATE: Because of unforeseen technical problems, Universal’s 4K restoration of SPARTACUS was not completed in time for our scheduled screenings. We will be showing the 2K restoration instead.
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The Death of Spartacus by Hermann Vogel(1882)
|Rebel slave leader|
|Born||c. 111 BC
The area around the middle course of the Strymon
(the modern-day Struma river, Bulgaria)
|Died||71 BC (aged 39–40)
Battlefield near Petelia
(modern-day Strongoli, Calabria, Italy)
|Battles/wars||Third Servile War|
Spartacus (Greek: Σπάρτακος Spártakos; Latin: Spartacus; c. 111–71 BC) was a Thracian gladiator who, along with the Gauls Crixus, Gannicus, Castus, and Oenomaus, was one of the escaped slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical accounts are sometimes contradictory and may not always be reliable. However, all sources agree that he was a former gladiator and an accomplished military leader.
This rebellion, interpreted by some as an example of oppressed people fighting for their freedom against a slave-owning oligarchy, has provided inspiration for many political thinkers, and has been featured in literature, television, and film. Although this interpretation is not specifically contradicted by classical historians, no historical account mentions that the goal was to end slavery in the Republic.
The Greek essayist Plutarch describes Spartacus as “a Thracian of Nomadic stock”, in a possible reference to the Maedi tribe. Appian says he was “a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator”.
Florus described him as one “who, from a Thracian mercenary, had become a Roman soldier, that had deserted and became enslaved, and afterward, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator”. The authors refer to the Thracian tribe of the Maedi, which occupied the area on the southwestern fringes of Thrace, along its border with the Roman province of Macedonia – present day south-western Bulgaria. Plutarch also writes that Spartacus’ wife, a prophetess of the Maedi tribe, was enslaved with him.
The name Spartacus is otherwise manifested in the Black Sea region. Kings of the Thracian dynasty of the Cimmerian Bosporus and Pontus are known to have borne it, and a Thracian “Sparta” “Spardacus” or “Sparadokos”, father of Seuthes I of the Odrysae, is also known.
Enslavement and escape
According to the differing sources and their interpretation, Spartacus was a captive taken by the legions. Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school (ludus) near Capua belonging to Lentulus Batiatus. He was a heavyweight gladiator called a murmillo. These fighters carried a large oblong shield (scutum), and used a sword with a broad, straight blade (gladius), about 18 inches long. In 73 BC, Spartacus was among a group of gladiators plotting an escape.
About 70 slaves were part of the plot. Though few in number, they seized kitchen utensils, fought their way free from the school, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armor. The escaped slaves defeated soldiers sent after them, plundered the region surrounding Capua, recruited many other slaves into their ranks, and eventually retired to a more defensible position on Mount Vesuvius.
Once free, the escaped gladiators chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves—Crixus and Oenomaus—as their leaders. Although Roman authors assumed that the escaped slaves were a homogeneous group with Spartacus as their leader, they may have projected their own hierarchical view of military leadership onto the spontaneous organization, reducing other slave leaders to subordinate positions in their accounts.
Third Servile War
The response of the Romans was hampered by the absence of the Roman legions, which were already engaged in fighting a revolt in Spain and the Third Mithridatic War. Furthermore, the Romans considered the rebellion more of a policing matter than a war. Rome dispatched militia under the command of praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber, which besieged Spartacus and his camp on Mount Vesuvius, hoping that starvation would force Spartacus to surrender. They were surprised when Spartacus, who had made ropes from vines, climbed down the cliff side of the volcano with his men and attacked the unfortified Roman camp in the rear, killing most of them.
The rebels also defeated a second expedition, nearly capturing the praetor commander, killing his lieutenants and seizing the military equipment. With these successes, more and more slaves flocked to the Spartacan forces, as did “many of the herdsmen and shepherds of the region”, swelling their ranks to some 70,000.
In these altercations Spartacus proved to be an excellent tactician, suggesting that he may have had previous military experience. Though the rebels lacked military training, they displayed a skillful use of available local materials and unusual tactics when facing the disciplined Roman armies. They spent the winter of 73–72 BC training, arming and equipping their new recruits, and expanding their raiding territory to include the towns of Nola, Nuceria, Thurii and Metapontum. The distance between these locations and the subsequent events indicate that the slaves operated in two groups commanded by the remaining leaders Spartacus and Crixus.
In the spring of 72 BC, the rebels left their winter encampments and began to move northward. At the same time, the Roman Senate, alarmed by the defeat of the praetorian forces, dispatched a pair of consular legionsunder the command of Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus. The two legions were initially successful—defeating a group of 30,000 rebels commanded by Crixus near Mount Garganus—but then were defeated by Spartacus. These defeats are depicted in divergent ways by the two most comprehensive (extant) histories of the war by Appian and Plutarch.
Alarmed at the continued threat posed by the slaves, the Senate charged Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and the only volunteer for the position, with ending the rebellion. Crassus was put in charge of eight legions, approximately 40,000 trained Roman soldiers, which he treated with harsh, even brutal, discipline, reviving the punishment of unit decimation. When Spartacus and his followers, who for unclear reasons had retreated to the south of Italy, moved northward again in early 71 BC, Crassus deployed six of his legions on the borders of the region and detached his legate Mummius with two legions to maneuver behind Spartacus. Though ordered not to engage the rebels, Mummius attacked at a seemingly opportune moment but was routed. After this, Crassus’ legions were victorious in several engagements, forcing Spartacus farther south through Lucania as Crassus gained the upper hand. By the end of 71 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Rhegium (Reggio Calabria), near the Strait of Messina.
According to Plutarch, Spartacus made a bargain with Cilician pirates to transport him and some 2,000 of his men to Sicily, where he intended to incite a slave revolt and gather reinforcements. However, he was betrayed by the pirates, who took payment and then abandoned the rebels. Minor sources mention that there were some attempts at raft and shipbuilding by the rebels as a means to escape, but that Crassus took unspecified measures to ensure the rebels could not cross to Sicily, and their efforts were abandoned.Spartacus’ forces then retreated toward Rhegium. Crassus’ legions followed and upon arrival built fortifications across the isthmus at Rhegium, despite harassing raids from the rebels. The rebels were now under siege and cut off from their supplies.
At this time, the legions of Pompey returned from Hispania and were ordered by the Senate to head south to aid Crassus. While Crassus feared that Pompey’s arrival would cost him the credit, Spartacus unsuccessfully tried to reach an agreement with Crassus. When Crassus refused, a portion of Spartacus’ forces fled toward the mountains west of Petelia (modern Strongoli) in Bruttium, with Crassus’ legions in pursuit.
When the legions managed to catch a portion of the rebels separated from the main army, discipline among Spartacus’ forces broke down as small groups independently attacked the oncoming legions. Spartacus now turned his forces around and brought his entire strength to bear on the legions in a last stand, in which the rebels were routed completely, with the vast majority of them being killed on the battlefield.
The final battle that saw the assumed defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC took place on the present territory of Senerchia on the right bank of the river Sele in the area that includes the border with Oliveto Citra up to those of Calabritto, near the village of Quaglietta, in High Sele Valley, which at that time was part of Lucania. In this area, since 1899, there have been finds of armour and swords of the Roman era.
Plutarch, Appian and Florus all claim that Spartacus died during the battle, but Appian also reports that his body was never found. Six thousand survivors of the revolt captured by the legions of Crassus were crucified, lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.
Classical historians were divided as to the motives of Spartacus. None of Spartacus’ actions overtly suggest that he aimed at reforming Roman society or abolishing slavery.
Plutarch writes that Spartacus wished to escape north into Cisalpine Gaul and disperse his men back to their homes. If escaping the Italian peninsula was indeed his goal, it is not clear why Spartacus turned south after defeating the legions commanded by the consuls Lucius Publicola and Gnaeus Clodianus, which left his force a clear passage over the Alps.
Based on the events in late 73 BC and early 72 BC, which suggest independently operating groups of escaped slaves and a statement by Plutarch, it appears that some of the escaped slaves preferred to plunder Italy, rather than escape over the Alps.
Legacy and recognition
In modern times, Spartacus became an icon for communists and socialists. Karl Marx listed Spartacus as one of his heroes and described him as “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history” and a “great general (though no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat“. Spartacus has been a great inspiration to left-wing revolutionaries, most notably the German Spartacus League (1915-18), a forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany. A January 1919 uprising by communists in Germany was called the Spartacist uprising. Spartacus Books, one of the longest running collectively-run leftist bookstores in North America, is also named in his honour.
Several sports clubs around the world, in particular the former Soviet and the Communist bloc, were named after the Roman gladiator. Spartak‘s name was chosen in numerous football sides in Slavic Europe.
- FC Spartak Moscow, a football club
- FC Spartak Kostroma, a football club
- PFC Spartak Nalchik, a football club
- FC Spartak Vladikavkaz, a football club
- HC Spartak Moscow, an ice hockey team
- Spartak Saint Petersburg, a basketball team
- Spartak Tennis Club, a tennis training facility
- WBC Spartak Moscow, a women’s basketball team
- FC Spartak Sumy, a football club
- Spartak, a village in Donetsk Oblast
- Spartak Ivano-Frankivsk, a football team
- Zakarpattia Uzhhorod, a football club, formerly known as Spartak Uzhhorod
- PFC Spartak Varna, a football team
- PFC Spartak Pleven, a football team
- FC Spartak Plovdiv, a football team
- Spartak Sofia, a former football team
- FC Spartak Trnava, a football team
- TJ Spartak Myjava, a football team
- FK Spartak Vráble, a football team
- FK Spartak Bánovce nad Bebravou, a football team
In other countries
- Spartak Stadium (disambiguation)
- Barnt Green Spartak F.C., an English football team
- Spartak (Cape Verde), a Cape Verdean football team
- FC Spartak Semey, a Kazakh football team
Spartacus’s name was also used in athletics in the Soviet Union and communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Spartakiad was a Soviet bloc version of the Olympic games. This name was also used for the mass gymnastics exhibition held every five years in Czechoslovakia.
In popular culture
- The film Spartacus (1960), which was executive-produced by and starred Kirk Douglas, was based on Howard Fast‘s novel Spartacus and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The phrase “I’m Spartacus!” from this film has been referenced in a number of other films, television programs, and commercials.
- In 2004, Fast’s novel was adapted as a made-for-TV movie by the USA Network, with Goran Višnjić in the main role.
- One episode of 2007–2008 BBC‘s docudrama Heroes and Villains features Spartacus.
- The television series Spartacus, starring Andy Whitfield, and later Liam McIntyre, in the title role, aired on the Starz premium cable network from January 2010 to April 2013.
- The History Channel’s “Barbarians Rising” (2016) features the story of Spartacus in its third episode entitled “Rebellion”.
- The anime series Fate/Apocrypha contains a fictionalised version of Spartacus, who is summoned into the present day during the Great Holy Grail War, to fight for the faction of Red as a Berserker-class servant.
- Howard Fast wrote the historical novel Spartacus, the basis of the 1960 film of the same name.
- Arthur Koestler wrote a novel about Spartacus called The Gladiators.
- The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote a novel Spartacus.
- The Italian writer Raffaello Giovagnoli wrote his historical novel, Spartacus, in 1874. His novel has been subsequently translated and published in many European countries.
- The German writer Bertolt Brecht wrote “Spartacus”, his second play, before 1920. It was later renamed “Drums in the Night“.
- The Latvian writer Andrejs Upīts in 1943 wrote the play “Spartacus”.
- The Polish writer Halina Rudnicka in 1951 wrote a novel “Uczniowie Spartakusa” (“Spartacus’ disciples”).
- The Reverend Elijah Kellogg‘s Spartacus to the Gladiators at Capua has been used effectively by school pupils to practice their oratory skills for ages.
- Amal Donkol, the Egyptian modern poet wrote “The Last Words of Spartacus”.
- Max Gallo wrote the novel Les Romains.Spartacus. La Revolte des Esclaves, Librairie Artheme Fayard, 2006.
- “Love Theme From Spartacus” was a hit for composer Alex North and has become a jazz standard.
- Spartacus (1954, first staged in 1956) is a ballet, with a score by Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.
- In 1975, Triumvirat reached the apex of their commercial success with the release of Spartacus, a classic “prog rock” album.
- Australian composer Carl Vine wrote a short piano piece entitled “Spartacus”, from Red Blues.
- Jeff Wayne released his musical retelling, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of Spartacus, in 1992.
- In Age of Empires: Rise of Rome Expansion IV Enemies of Rome, 3: Spartacus the campaign has the player fighting against Spartacus’ army.
- In Spartacus Legends, Spartacus appears as an endgame boss.
- In “Gods of Rome“, Spartacus is a playable common character.
- During a controversy over release of documents at the U.S. Senate’s confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Senator Cory Booker said, “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.”
- Historian Barry Strauss On His New Book The Spartacus War(Interview). Simon & Schuster. 2009.
- Plutarch, Crassus 8
- Nic Fields (2009). Spartacus and the Slave War 73-71 BC: A Gladiator Rebels Against Rome. Osprey Publishing. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-84603-353-7.
- Appian, Civil Wars 1.116
- Florus, Epitome of Roman History 2.8.8
- Sallust (1994). The histories. Vol.2, Books iii-v. Translated by McGushin, Patrick. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198721439.
- Annuaire de l’Université de Sofia, Faculté d’histoire, Volume 77, Issue 2, 1985, p. 122. Books.google.com. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
- Strauss 2009, p. 31
- John Boardman, I. E. S. Edwards, N. G. L. Hammond and E. Sollberger, eds. (1982). The Cambridge Ancient History (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521224963. ISBN 0521224969.
- Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library Book 12
- Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library Book 16
- Theucidides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.101
- Tribes, Dynasts and Kingdoms of Northern Greece: History and Numismatics
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Plutarch, Crassus, 8:2. Note: Spartacus’ status as an auxilia is taken from the Loeb edition of Appian translated by Horace White, which states “…who had once served as a soldier with the Romans…”. However, the translation by John Carter in the Penguin Classics version reads: “…who had once fought against the Romans and after being taken prisoner and sold…”.
- The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss, p.11
- Plutarch, Crassus, 8:1–2; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Livy, Periochae, 95:2; Florus, Epitome, 2.8. Plutarch claims 78 escaped, Livy claims 74, Appian “about seventy”, and Florus says “thirty or rather more men”. “Choppers and spits” is from Life of Crassus.
- However, according to Cicero (Ad Atticum VI, ii, 8) at the beginning his followers were much less than 50.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:1.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:1–3; Frontinus, Stratagems, Book I, 5:20–22; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic, p. 109.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:4–5; Livy, Periochae , 95; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116; Sallust, Histories, 3:64–67.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:3; Appian, Civil War, 1:116.
- Frontinus, Stratagems, Book I, 5:20–22 and Book VII:6.
- Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116–117; Plutarch, Crassus 9:6; Sallust, Histories, 3:64–67.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117; Plutarch, Crassus 9:7; Livy, Periochae96.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:7.
- “Spartacus and the Slave Rebellion”. Historynet.com. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
- Shaw, Brent D. (2001). Spartacus and the servile wars: a brief history with documents. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-23703-0.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118.
- Plutarch, Crassus 10:1.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118; Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, “Exercitus”, p.494.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 10:1–3.
- Florus, Epitome, 2.8; Cicero, Orations, “For Quintius, Sextus Roscius…”, 5.2
- Plutarch, Crassus, 10:4–5.
- Contrast Plutarch, Crassus, 11:2 with Appian, Civil Wars, 1:119.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Plutarch, Crassus, 10:6.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 11:3; Livy, Periochae, 97:1. Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion. p. 97; Plutarch, Crassus, 11:4.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 11:5;.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Plutarch, Crassus, 11:6–7; Livy, Periochae, 97.1.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:120; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1.120.
- Plutarch Crassus, 9:5–6.
- Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117; Florus, Epitome, 2.8.
- Plutarch, Crassus, 9:7; Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117.
- Thomson, Ian (31 January 2004). “The black Spartacus”. The Guardian.
Patrick Leigh Fermor hailed L’Ouverture as the “black Spartacus” after the slave who challenged Rome…
- Diken, Bulent (2012). Revolt, Revolution, Critique: The Paradox of Society. Routledge. p. 61. ISBN 9781134005642.
…like the ‘black Spartacus’ Toussaint-Louverture, the leader of the insurgent black slaves who escaped from plantations and defeated the Napoleonic forces in Haiti in 1796-1804, or like the ‘Spartacist’ leaders of the communist revolt in Germany in 1919.
- Douglas Reed (1 January 1978). The controversy of Zion. Dolphin Press. p. 139. Retrieved 21 July 2010.
- Croix, G. E. M. de Ste. (1989). The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780801495977.
- Fowkes, Ben (2014). The German Left and the Weimar Republic: A Selection of Documents. BRILL. p. 71. ISBN 9789004271081.
- Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, volume 24 (part 1), p. 286, Moscow, Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya publisher, 1976.
- “Spartacus — Comic-Con 2009 – UGO.com”. Tvblog.ugo.com. 29 June 2009. Archived from the original on 16 July 2012. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
- “AUSXIP Spartacus: Blood and Sand TV Show Lucy Lawless Sam Raimi & Rob Tapert”. Spartacus.ausxip.com. Retrieved 24 February2013.
- Collinson, Stephen (September 6, 2018). “Booker Releases Kavanaugh Documents But GOP Insists They Were Already Cleared”. CNN. Archived from the original on September 13, 2018. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
- Appian. Civil Wars. Translated by J. Carter. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996)
- Florus. Epitome of Roman History. (London: W. Heinemann, 1947)
- Orosius. The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1964).
- Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. Translated by R. Warner. (London: Penguin Books, 1972), with special emphasis placed on “The Life of Crassus” and “The Life of Pompey”.
- Sallust. Conspiracy of Catiline and the War of Jugurtha. (London: Constable, 1924)
- Bradley, Keith R. Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140 B.C.–70 B.C. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989 (hardcover, ISBN 0-253-31259-0); 1998 (paperback, ISBN 0-253-21169-7). [Chapter V] The Slave War of Spartacus, pp. 83–101.
- Rubinsohn, Wolfgang Zeev. Spartacus’ Uprising and Soviet Historical Writing. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1987 (paperback, ISBN 0-9511243-1-5).
- Spartacus: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 1-4051-3180-2; paperback, ISBN 1-4051-3181-0).
- Trow, M.J. Spartacus: The Myth and the Man. Stroud, United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7509-3907-9).
- Genner, Michael. “Spartakus. Eine Gegengeschichte des Altertums nach den Legenden der Zigeuner”. Two volumes. Paperback. Trikont Verlag, München 1979/1980. Vol 1 ISBN 978-3-88167-053-1 Vol 2 ISBN 978-3-88167-060-9
- Plamen Pavlov, Stanimir Dimitrov,Spartak — sinyt na drenva Trakija/Spartacus — the Son of ancient Thrace. Sofia, 2009, ISBN 978-954-378-024-2
- Strauss, Barry (2009). The Spartacus War. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-4165-3205-6.
- BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time – Spartacus
- Spartacus Article and full text of the Roman and Greek sources.
- Spartacus, movie starring Kirk Douglas and Sir Peter Ustinov
- Spartacus, television mini-series starring Goran Višnjić and Alan Bates
- Starz Mini-Series airing in 2010