The Roman general successfully ends the Third Servile War of 1st century BC Rome; nevertheless, he has a dull love life and the legend of Spartacus will continuously haunt him.
Before diving directly into the process of reading primary source documents and viewing the film Spartacus, it is necessary to provide students with some level of background information on the two. Entire full-year courses can easily be devoted to exploring the documentation behind slave wars in ancient Roman history, or simply exploring the adaptations which resulted from the actions of Spartacus in the Third Servile War. Because History Through Film is a half-year course, however, time must be taken into special consideration. The following information can be used as a quick-guide to the history behind both the man Spartacus and his adaptation into myth.
Ultimately, Dalton Trumbo was given credit for the convoluted, dauntless process of writing Spartacus. The greatest moment of validation, however, occurred on Friday, February 4, 1961. Despite Trumbo’s blacklisted communist status, and crowds of picketing conservatives, John F. Kennedy attended a public screening of the film Spartacus.25 The President of the United States thus placed the final nail in the coffin of the blacklist, modeling tolerance and forgiveness to the entirety of the American public. It seems only historically fitting that Kennedy, the man who ensured Martin Luther King’s safe release from prison, bolstered the Civil Rights Movement, and declared America’s destiny to reach the moon by the end of the decade, broke the binds of the blacklist while watching a film about Spartacus, a fellow historical pioneer of freedom and change.
Although many Hollywood insiders knew of Trumbo’s involvement in the film, Universal Studios still barred Trumbo from entering the premises.23 He was forced to do most of the original writing and corrections blindly, unable to see the actors, costumes, or sets for himself. In many cases, Stanley Kubrick (director), Universal Studios executives, and Kirk Douglas (the actor who played Spartacus) took liberties in changing the script in the middle of filming itself.24 Despite these setbacks, Trumbo advocated for himself through a series of lengthy written reaction reports and clandestine forays into the studio.
If Trumbo was to successfully gain this recognition, he would have to create a film that both appealed to anti-communist ideals and made money for Universal Studios. For Trumbo, failure in meeting these standards was not an option—he stated, “I, for one, would never have been able to work again, and those who did not yet work openly would have even a slighter chance than I of making it.”22 Much like the Spartacus of history, Trumbo was the individual, chosen by fate and driven by tenacity, to lead his “enslaved” Hollywood coworkers out of ideological, political, and social oppression.
Despite this restriction, however, Trumbo continued to write screenplays using a pseudonym, even winning an Academy Award under a fake name. His reputation as a writer grew regardless of his inability to openly take credit for his work. Therefore, when Trumbo was asked to replace Howard Fast in writing the screenplay for Spartacus, he certainly grasped the gravitas of what he was about to attempt—the breaking of the blacklist. This film had the potential to be a major hit, and Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis (producers of the film) both supported the idea of ignoring the blacklist and giving Trumbo his deserved credit.
“The heroes of this story cherished freedom and human dignity, and lived nobly and well. I wrote it so that those who read it… may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong—so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time.”20
In 1951, Howard Fast wrote Spartacus, a novel loosely based on a combination of historical fact and personal experience. Fast actually began to formulate his idea for the book while serving a three-month prison sentence in West Virginia. He had been convicted of being in contempt of Congress after refusing to provide the famously anti-communist House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) with a list of Americans who had donated money to helping Spanish refugees of the Spanish Civil War.18 Personally identifying with what he believed to be the historical motives of Spartacus, Fast wrote a book about an oppressed man who was willing to fight against a corrupt system of government in order to secure his rights to life, liberty, and happiness.
Lenin’s decision to bring up the details of a successful slave revolt at a time when Bolshevik revolutions were providing Lenin with the power to create and control the Soviet Union was clearly no coincidence. The history of Spartacus could easily be perverted to provide Marx, Lenin, and even Stalin with historical legitimacy for their shared communist beliefs.
Rationale: Now that students should be able to discern the differences between primary and secondary sources as well as assess their credibility, they are ready to begin exploring the historical background behind the story of Spartacus.
“History is full of the constant attempts of the oppressed classes to throw off oppression…Spartacus was one of the most outstanding heroes of one of the very greatest slave insurrections…For several years the seemingly omnipotent Roman empire, which rested entirely on slavery, experienced the shocks and blows of a widespread uprising of slaves who armed themselves and joined together to form a vast army under the leadership of Spartacus.”17
To film historians, the 1960 film Spartacus represents both a cinematic masterpiece and a dark period of time for the film industry. The film won four academy awards, made millions of dollars, and birthed one of the most famous lines in film history: “I’m Spartacus!” Despite this illustrious résumé, however, this adaptation of ancient history reveals a great deal more about the time period in which it was actually made. The film represents the end of an oppressive era: the end of the Hollywood Blacklist and then end of a film industry governed by communist fear.
It was not the governing class alone that would react in horror to the prospect of a slave insurrection. Whatever the grievances of men disenfranchised and dispossessed by Sulla, they would have found unthinkable any common enterprise with Thracian or Gallic slaves. It causes no surprise that Marxist historians and writers have idealized Spartacus as a champion of the masses and leader of the one genuine social revolution in Roman history. That, however, is excessive. Spartacus and his companions sought to break the bonds of their own grievous oppression. There is no sign that they were motivated by ideological considerations to overturn the social structure. The sources make clear that Spartacus endeavored to bring his forces out of Italy toward freedom rather than to reform or reverse Roman society. The achievements of Spartacus are no less formidable for that. The courage, tenacity, and ability of the Thracian gladiator who held Roman forces at bay for some two years and built a handful of followers into an assemblage of over 120,000 men can only inspire admiration.