In the 1960 film Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, the character called Spartacus is depicted as a revolutionary who leads an army of slaves against the oppressive forces of Rome during the first century B.C. Though the overall story is true, and most of the main characters are real, the presentation of their character is entirely fictional. Spartacus and the other characters have been split into groups epitomizing good and evil, and the story itself has been vastly romanticized. This essay will address the ways in which the story deviates from reality and finally will show how Kubrick and those before him have used such interpretations as a valuable tool for social change. The film begins with Spartacus as a working slave and a narration describing him as a man whose only dream is to abolish slavery. He was then bought by the owner of a gladiatorial training facility and consequently taught how to fight as a gladiator before eventually escaping from this place with the help of fellow fighters. Spartacus was portrayed as a great ideological leader as he gathered many followers and won many battles before being defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus, a character shown to be wealthy, powerful, and heartless. However, this ideology and the good and evil, represented by Spartacus and Crassus respectively in the film, are at best questionable realities when historical transcripts are taken into account.
At no point do any historical accounts mention Spartacus’ motivation to overturn the Roman social structure, but do instead suggest that his compatriots and he were merely attempting to rid themselves of this oppression. While the film correctly shows Spartacus’ will to simply leave Italy and not fight against Rome, it contradicts the importance of this by implying his motivation to rid the empire of all slavery and oppression. While the film also shows a scene where Spartacus makes an idealistic speech during a rather hypocritical moment where his followers are making their captives fight to the death, history tells us that this idealism was not present in his personality. Florus writes of Spartacus, “He ordered prisoners of war that his armies had captured to fight one another around the funeral pyres, hoping to demonstrate, I suppose, that he could expiate all his past shame by transforming himself into an exhibitor of gladiatorial contest” (Florus, “The War against Spartacus,” in A Synopsis of Roman History, 2.8.1-14). The aforementioned scene of the film was also the last we see of this indecent side of Spartacus’ followers, a side that would appear very often within the works of history.
Kubrick’s film shows a strong bond between Spartacus and his followers, to the point where all of his ideals seem to have been effectively passed on to these people. This is shown with great power during the “I am Spartacus” scene. It is obvious to say then that as Spartacus himself was romanticized, so was his relationship with his army, and indeed so was the army itself. With regards to their relationship, it seems that Spartacus did not always have as much control over his army as he may have wished. Plutarch shows this disregard for Spartacus, “…he [Spartacus] thought that it would be the best, indeed the necessary, course of action for the men to disperse to their own homelands, some to Thrace and others to Gaul. But his men, who now had confidence in their great number and had grander ideas in their heads, did not obey him” (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 21.1-4). The unrealistic but unified army portrayed in the film gives the image of a single entity acting as a force against oppression, but this was not all that the followers of Spartacus had in mind.
As tends to happen when people take on those that hold them down, the oppressed often become the oppressors, and Spartacus’ army in reality were no different. Sallust, a historian of the First Century B.C. writes of certain events, “Contrary to the orders of their...
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