Spartacus: the history, the book, the movie.

--Prince George Citizen  November 17, 2018

KD cast Spartacus 1960

The story of Spartacus has become known throughout the world.

Spartacus was from Thrace, now the northeastern part of Greece, and born in the early part of the first century BC. After deserting from the Roman Legions, he was captured and sold as a slave. Given his strength and fighting prowess, he was sent to a training school for gladiators near Naples. At some time during the training, Spartacus led the other gladiators in a revolt against their owner, captured sufficient arms and armour for his small band, and encamped on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. As other slaves joined up, he, along with two others, were elected leaders.

In what historians call the Third Servile War, Spartacus defeated a Roman Army sent to put down the revolt. Another army was sent out from Rome and it too was defeated. Word of the revolt spread and other slaves and peasants flocked to join. All in all, Spartacus' army swelled to an estimated 70,000. After a winter pause, the Romans sent another army to end the revolt. After an initial success, they too were defeated and Spartacus turned his army north, towards Rome itself.

The threat to Rome was real. Forty thousand troops were mustered to fend off the rebels. Part of this force was defeated but Spartacus was forced to turn south. When he and his army arrived in southern Italy he decided to start a further revolt in Sicily and made a bargain with some local pirates to move part of his force to the island. The pirates took his money but refused to sail. The rebel force was now trapped - the Roman army on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Mobility was gone, the rebels under siege.

Suffice to say, the army of slaves and peasants was not up to this kind of warfare. One group after another fled. Finally, Spartacus launched an attack and was soundly defeated. He was killed in the final battle. Those captured and not killed - over 6,000 of them - were crucified along the Appian Way, the road that led to Rome.

The story of Spartacus is contained in several Roman histories written at the time and has long been used as a tale of rising against oppression.

Howard Fast was a successful American novelist. Starting in 1933, he produced many wonderful historical novels, most based on American history. Conceived in Liberty, The Last Frontier, Citizen Tom Paine', and Freedom Road were only a few of the well-written and very popular Fast books. But Fast had been a self-acknowledged member of the Communist Party in the U.S. and was summoned to testify before Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950.

Asked to name those who contributed to a fund for orphans of parents who died in the Spanish Civil War, he refused. Fast was sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court and blacklisted by publishers. That meant even though his books had been very patriotic and popular, no publisher would dare publish any book written by him as the Red Scare swept America. It was a time of witch-hunts and civil rights abuse. To express any politically left-wing thought was to risk termination from any job, public or private, with little chance of getting another. McCarthy made Hollywood a special target for his many accusations.

In his later autobiography Being Red, Fast wrote of his experiences during these dark days. Again and again publishers would refuse to even consider any book or even any article written by him. As a way of expressing his turmoil in what he hoped would be a manner acceptable notwithstanding the blacklist, he seized upon the tale of Spartacus. He "brooded" about the book while serving his prison sentence, writing it after his release. Denied a passport, he could not visit Italy and had to rely on travel books on the country to describe where the events took place. It was submitted to publisher after publisher. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had told publishers not to print anything written by Fast no matter how good it might be. While many editors praised the book privately, none would dare to publish a book written by a blacklisted author. =Nor would any bookstore dare to sell such a book even if it was published. =The blacklist was a powerful force in the early 1950s.

Although funds were tight, Fast and his wife were determined that his new novel would reach the public. They had a flyer prepared and distributed that by mail or in any place that would permit them - bookstores, coffee shops, drug stores, five and dimes, anywhere. The book was offered for $2.50 and would be mailed to any purchaser directly by Fast. Five thousand copies were privately published and sales went through the roof. In short order, the book was reprinted seven times in four months as sales soared. Each was marked "PUBLISHED BY THE AUTHOR, BOX 171 PLANTARIUM STATION, NEW YORK CITY". It was not until 1958 when Crown Publishers would take the book to the general public.

One of those who bought a copy was the actor Kirk Douglas (the father of Michael Douglas). Knowing how difficult it would be to produce, Douglas personally bought the screen rights from Fast and hired Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screenwriter, to write the screenplay. Like Fast, the screenwriter had served time in jail for his views and had been forced to write under assumed names to survive (he had written the screenplay for the film Exodus under an assumed name). Douglas insisted that he be given full credit for the movie. In those troubled times that was risky. No studio would consider distributing the film until Douglas presented Universal with signed contracts with major film actors of the times - Curtis, Ustinov, Simmons, Olivier, and Laughton - each of whom had agreed to perform in the film at some considerable risk. A blacklisted composer, Alex North, was hired to develop the soundtrack music using an odd assortment of ancient instruments. The movie opened on Oct. 7, 1960.

Upon release, the film Spartacus drew big audiences but was also picketed by those who regarded it as yet another "Red" movie from Communist Hollywood. Then President-elect J. F. Kennedy crossed a picket line to see the picture (of course, many of those manning the picket lines thought Kennedy was a Communist too). At the Oscars, Spartacus received six nominations and won four. In following years, the original film was reissued with substantial additional scenes that had been cut from the released version.

When Crown Publishers reissued the book and Universal released the movie, blacklisting was effectively over. The movie is even today rated amongst the best ever made, the book remains in publication, and a TV series, an animated version, a sequel (Son of Spartacus), and a ballet by Khachaturian have followed.