The Evolution of a Gladiator: History, Representation, and Revision in Spartacus

By Hoffman, Carl | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of a Gladiator: History, Representation, and Revision in Spartacus


Hoffman, Carl, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


The revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus (73-71 B.C.) mushroomed into the largest slave insurrection in western history and shook the Roman Republic. But, almost as remarkably, more than 2000 years later, it stormed the popular culture of the Cold War United States with a pair of contrasting representations which recast the uprising in terms of twentieth-century politics. Howard Fast's 1951 novel Spartacus imagined the rebellion as a Marxist war of oppressed proletarians against their decadent overlords. Kirk Douglas's1 1960 film, based on the novel, aimed for a mass audience by portraying the insurrection as a populist episode in the struggle for human freedom. The contrast between these two versions of Spartacus, emphasizing as they do different aspects of the historical record, exemplifies the way that popular interpretations of history change according to their cultural context. The following pages detail the ways that the novel and the film served different thematic purposes in the Cold War United States.2 Spartacus the book, contrasted with Spartacus the movie, reveals the evolution of a gladiator.

History into Fiction, Fiction into Myth

Howard Fast, bestselling author and self-proclaimed "card-carrying member of the Communist Party" (Fast, Being Red 1) wrote the novel Spartacus following a three-month stint in a federal prison camp in 1950. The charge was contempt of Congress, based on his refusal to testify before the House Un-- American Activities Committee. Viewing himself as the victim of an anti-red witch hunt during an era he later dubbed the "small terror" (Fast, Being Red 156) because of its obsessive anti-Communism, Fast inscribed his novel for the purpose of inspiring leftists like himself during times of persecution. His dedication of the book records that he wishes "those who read [Spartacus], my children and others, [to] take strength for our troubled future . . . that they may struggle against oppression and wrong-so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time" (Spartacus v).3

To inspire modern readers, Fast employs two strategies. One comes from his awareness that Spartacus's story had been largely forgotten in the United States of the early 1950s. His first strategy, therefore, involves simply telling the tale of the gladiator and his uprising in a readable, exciting fashion which will gain large numbers of readers from across the political spectrum, and "educate the masses" about this forgotten historical event. The fact that Spartacus has proven an international bestseller for almost a half-century shows that Fast succeeded wildly in this important goal.

Fast's second strategy reaffirmed a longstanding Communist tradition of viewing Spartacus as an early leftist. This second strategy takes "educating the masses" one step further, into leftist mythmaking. Several times in the course of its 360+ pages, Spartacus refers to a past golden age, "where all men and women too had been equals and there was neither master nor slave and all things had been held in common. That long ago was obscured by a haze of time; it was the golden age" (164). The rebellion as portrayed in the novel is an attempt to restore this golden age in the midst of the Roman Republic. In Fast's Spartacus, a multicultural proletariat unites in communistic equality under the leadership of a Thracian gladiator of near-divine heroism and gentleness. Inspired by their leader's example, the slaves pit themselves against an overbearing tyranny whose greatest leaders are cruel and relentless villains, and pay a terrible price. But their struggle is never forgotten.

Analysis of Fast's use of historical documents demonstrates the ways he constructs this myth. Large portions of Spartacus-for instance its description of the conditions of life for gladiators (endorsed by classical historian Keith Bradley), and its recreation of the aftermath of the rebellion (recorded by the ancient historian Appian)-are well-grounded in history and faithful to the ancient sources.

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