Spartacus the legend
Spartacus was a Roman slave who led what was probably the most important revolt against Roman power ever. He managed to mobilize thousands of salves who actually threatened the Roman Empire at the time until the brutal Crassus crushed the revolt with his well organized forces and ended up crucifying over 6000 slaves on the road to Rome, Spartacus included.
Spartacus was an important icon for dissent against the Roman Empire for several centuries and he has been mentioned in foklore and stories many a time. Of course the historical record sometimes gets tainted yet the story is pretty much consistent over the years. Nothwitstanding all this, some accounts and films have taken considerable liberties with certain facts and this is quite obvious in the classic Kirk Douglas film of 1960 which is constantly cited as the best version of the story ever.
Differences between the historical record and the film
The 1960 film directed by Stanley Kubrick has remained iconic in that it manages to lend colour and humanity to the Spartacus legend although it is obvious that there are considerable differences between fact and fiction, the story is rather blurred anyway. Firstly, it is not clear if Spartacus was actually working in what is now modern day Libya at the time, it was probably more Carthage or modern day Tunisia. The storyline also changes considerably when Spartacus becomes a gladiator although that is unclear even in the original history. It is however generally agreed that Spartacus was a gladiator for some years and a very successful one at that.
The love equation
Love stories in films obviously take on a lot of added intricacies which are normally inserted to increase its appeal. Spartacus is no exception and with a sensual and attractive actress like Jean Simmons, the plot is there for the taking. However it was not known if Spartacus had a wife and the whole sequence when Spartacus discovers his wife and falls in love with her is most probably made up. The powerful final scene when Simmons holds up her baby and tells the dying Spartacus on the cross that he will carry on his legacy is most certainly an invention but it obviously makes for powerful theatre. The same goes for several passages in the film where Simmons is involved and where her character Phrygia is much more powerful than what it would seem to appear. Comparisons with Aram Khachaturian’s ballet on the Spartacus subject are instructive here although this work keeps much more to the historical record than the film.
This initially appears to be quite correctly structured yet there is a lot of doubt on how Carssus and Pompey actually conducted the battle. The slaves who are a grossly unorganized and undisciplined lot are given far more credit than what is due to them in the initial battle scenes where they appear to be routing the Roman forces. This was evidently not the case as the well disciplined legions, particularly those under Pompey would have made short work of any rabble and the result was probably total annihilation which resulted in the end but it has to be said that the slaves never stood a chance. The scebes where most of the slaves lie wounded are also undoubtedly over dramatized and milked for the viewer’s benefit.
Some other inacurracies
Although Crassus was undoubtedly a cruel and brutal man, some of the scenes in the film are mere fabrication. The one where the despot is watching a gladiatorial contest which Spartacus loses and where he cuts off the head of a black warrior who hurls a dagger at him is obviously fiction although the slave would have been undoubtedly put to death in no uncertain terms.
Spartacus is also depicted as a kind and moralistic man in the film when he was actually quite a ruthless man although that is of course open to debate. We have already discussed the love scenes but the relationship with Spartacus and his commanders is also fraught with inaccuracies although again this is denatable as nobody knwos the real story of the Thracian slave much.
Conclusion – fact or legend?
Spartacus was definitely an important figure in the history of the Roman Empire and served as a beacon for liberty issues under this despotic tyranny. Films obviously have a certain amount of artistic license so they are allowed some differences to the historic plot of their subject and Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ is definitely no exception. However when the whole context is taken into equation, the historical inaccuracies pale into insignmificance with such a powerful movie that has remained the seminal film about the subject for over half a century.
Spartacus, review from the Internet Movie Database (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054331/