SUBJECTS — Biography; World/Ancient Rome;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Rebellion;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect.
AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13;
Drama; 1960; 196 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
From 73 – 71 B.C.E., Spartacus led a revolt by escaped slaves that shook the Roman Empire to its very foundations. This movie is a fictionalized account of that rebellion.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1960 Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Best Art Decoration/Set Decoration (Color), Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design (Color); Golden Globe Awards: Best Film – Drama; 1960 Academy Award Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Music.
Featured Actors: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Herbert Lom, Nina Foch, Woody Strode, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, John Ireland, Charles McGraw, Joanna Barnes.
Director: Stanley Kubrick.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
MODERATE. While the movie captures the essence of the times, the historical record is very sketchy and the specific events are fictionalized. There is much fighting and killing but gore raises its ugly head on only two occasions, once when Crassus stabs a rebelling gladiator in the back of the neck and is spattered with blood and once when Spartacus cuts off the arm of a Roman soldier in battle.
There are several distortions of the historical record that should be corrected, especially the impression that the coming of Christianity to the Roman Empire ended slavery. See the Helpful Background section below.
There are no graphic scenes of sexual activity. However, we are shown slave women parceled out to the gladiators for sex and Crassus attempting to seduce his male slave, who promptly runs away to join the rebellion.
This movie has many scenes that are appropriately offensive: scores of captured slaves are crucified along the Appian Way, slaves are flogged, women and men degraded, etc. Slavery is about oppression, exploitation, violence and reprisal.
Few facts are known about the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. Spartacus himself was a captured Thracian soldier (he was not born into slavery as stated in the movie) who had been sent to a gladiatorial school for slaves in Capua. About 70 slave gladiators broke out of the school and set up camp on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. They were joined by about 70,000 slaves fleeing from harsh conditions. They defeated several Roman expeditions, including five Roman armies, and for a time controlled much of Southern and Central Italy. The slave army was eventually defeated and Spartacus killed by a Roman army led by M. Licinius Crassus. More than ten thousand of Spartacus’ soldiers were killed and another six thousand were captured. The captives were crucified lining the 132 miles of the road from Capua to Rome.
There are many fictional characters in this movie. Varinia is fictional. Neither Gracchus nor Julius Caesar had anything to do with the suppression of the rebellion. Cassius was never dictator of Rome.
Many men of the Roman upper class were bisexual. The scene in which Crassus attempts to seduce his slave Antoninus has a ring of truth to it. Roman men also sexually exploited their female slaves. The slaves had to accept their master’s sexual advances or flee. In the movie, after the defeat of Spartacus, his fictional “wife,” the slave Varinia, would have submitted to the sexual advances of Crassus if he had so commanded her. This also rings true.
Slavery was brutal and degrading for most Roman slaves. Many were prisoners of war. The children of these prisoners were slaves for life. Most slaves worked on the land or in the houses of the wealthy as domestic servants. They were considered expendable and little better than cattle or oxen. However, when slaves received manumission they became full Roman citizens. For a description of how former slaves with luck and superior abilities could do well under the Roman system, see The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, by John Dominic Crossman, Harper San Francisco, 1991, pp. 43 – 57.
Toussant Louverture, the hero of the successful slave revolts on the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean, had read about Spartacus.
Another distortion in the movie is the impression that the coming of Christianity put an end to Roman slavery. While modern day Christians abhor slavery, widespread slavery existed during the period when Christians controlled the Roman Empire. In later centuries Christians enslaved millions of Native Americans and Africans. The United States, a country dominated by Christians, was the last major Western society to ban slavery, and then only after a bloody Civil War. Each of the major Western religions tolerated slavery at one time or the other. The Bible required Jews to free their slaves every seven years. Many American Jews who lived in the Southern United States before the Civil War participated in slavery. Muslims were implicated in the African slave trade and also held slaves in past centuries. Muslims and Christians in some third world countries are implicated in slavery trade to this day.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
There were no large scale slave rebellions in the continental United States, although slavery existed for two centuries and subjugated millions of persons. Why was Rome, the mightiest empire the world has ever known, unable to keep its slaves in line while American southerners were able to do so?
A good answer will discuss a number of the following factors: 1) the racial nature of slavery in the United States; 2) the vast cultural differences between the African culture of the newly arrived slaves and Western culture; 3) slaves in the U.S. were not permitted to possess weapons or learn to use them; 4) slaves in the U.S. were not permitted to learn to read or write; 5) by the 19th century, most slaves had been born into slavery and knew nothing else.
2. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a slave for life or even for a day? Would it make a difference if you had a kind and gentle master?
3. How would you feel if you were a slave and the slave owner sold your father to someone living in one part of the country and your mother to someone living thousands of miles away?
4. Compare Roman slavery with the slavery practiced by the American slave states before the Civil War.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues are designed to maximize the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. One concept from The Six Pillars of Character that is raised in this film is Respect (Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone)
1. Is it possible to be a slave owner and to comply with the Respect Pillar of Character? What about a considerate and kind slave master in the American South during the Civil War? See Roots Vol IV.
BRIDGES TO READING
Classical Realm, by Edited by John D. Clare will show your child the significant aspects of Roman life. Charge: Weapons & Warfare in Ancient Times, by Rivka Gonen, is a description of weapons from the beginning of time. Other books recommended for middle school and junior high readers include City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction by David Macaulay.
cohort, stockade, manumission, exile.
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS:
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995;
- Plutarch’s Lives, Crassus;
- The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, by John Dominic Crossman, Harper San Francisco, 1991;
- Rebels Against Slavery: American Slave Revolts by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack, Scholastic, Inc., New York, 1995.