by Gordon Braden
Roman History at the Movies
At the end of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), the mortally wounded Maximus (Russell Crowe), having killed the psychopathic emperor Commodus in gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum, speaks to the suddenly silent crowd: “There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realized. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.” Marcus was the previous emperor and Commodus’s father; Maximus is referring to a conversation with Marcus (Richard Harris) early in the film, where in his tent on the frontier Marcus had voiced his unhappiness both with Commodus as his imperial successor and with the Roman Empire itself. Marcus then asked Maximus, his greatest general, for “one more duty” after his own death: to serve as “Protector of Rome” and effect a momentous change in the capital city. “There was once a dream that was Rome,” he said, and charged Maximus to use his office “to give power back to the people of Rome and end the corruption that has crippled it.” Maximus asked for no more explanation. A previous scene had floated the report that sentiment for going back to the preimperial system of the Roman Republic was afoot among the senatorial order (“Rome was founded as a republic,” according to one senator, stirringly if inaccurately), and Marcus shortly tells Commodus, “Rome is to be a republic again.” This news moves Commodus to patricide. The mood at the end of the movie strongly implies that the hero’s redemptive death in the arena secures the compliance of all involved finally to bring this restoration about, as Rome—literally, if the evocative final image before the credits is supposed to be a sunrise—enters a new day in its history.1
A certain vagueness here has something to do with this ending’s being, even by the creative standards of historical fiction, radically counterfactual. Historically, we are at the point that Edward Gibbon chose as the natural beginning for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Hollywood condensed his title for its previous film about the death of Marcus Aurelius, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The Republic was not restored at the death of Commodus in ad 192, nor was any such attempt made. Within six months, two new emperors were installed and murdered; there followed the eighteen-year reign of Septimius Severus, who stayed in power by giving the Principate a military cast beyond anything it had seen before. If it is, in some historical sense, morning in ancient Rome at the end of Gladiator, the dream being realized has to do with Maximus’s valor as “a soldier of Rome” (as he is hailed at his death), not his commitment to republican government. Some critics indeed see the film as being cryptofascist in its import.2
This distortion mirrors a distortion in the opposite direction in Gladiator’s most important cinematic predecessor, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). A voice-over at the start of that movie informs us: “The age of the Dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for the event to bring it forth.” Near the end of the film, after the defeat of the slave revolt, the victorious general Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) not only orders the crucifixion of six thousand surviving rebels but, assisted by the young Julius Caesar, makes his move against Roman citizens as well. Summoned to a meeting with Crassus and Caesar in an ominously darkened senate house, the populist senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) is informed about “the new order of affairs”: “The enemies of the state are known. Arrests are in progress; the prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled. Tomorrow they will learn the cost of their terrible folly, their treason.” Gracchus is told that his own name heads the list; he returns home to prepare for suicide. When Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) shows up there with Spartacus’s wife, Varinia (Jean Simmons), dangerously spirited away from Crassus’s house, he confirms, “They’re arresting everyone.” In the film’s last scene, Batiatus and Varinia leave Rome at dawn through the Appian gate, but they have a tense moment getting through a military checkpoint. We are left with the strong impression that the Roman Republic has now come to its end, supplanted by a totalitarian regime on the twentieth-century model.3
Generating that impression involves significant deviation not only from the historical record but also from the 1951 novel by Howard Fast on which the film is based (and which is historically accurate within much narrower limits than the film attempts to be). The final suppression of the slave revolt in 71 bc was brutal enough as far as the slaves were concerned—the figure of six thousand is well attested—but it is not known to have been accompanied by widespread proscriptions against others. Caesar (born 100 bc), though politically active at the time, was not involved in these events (and is not a character in Fast’s novel); as a character in the film, he does not make much of an impression (the casting of the bland John Gavin in the role is one of the movie’s weaknesses) and seems to be there for his value as one of the few figures from Roman history with secure name recognition among the general movie audience. He directs the audience’s mind forward to his own imperial career, when he ruled as Dictator for four years and set the stage for the imperial regime that his nephew Octavius consolidated in 27 bc. (It was Octavius who first established the Cohortes Urbanae, apparently what is meant by the Garrison of Rome that figures in the political maneuvering in the film.) No dictatorship came in 71 bc; in the novel, Rome returns to business as usual, if a bit angrier and meaner than before. The historical Crassus found himself not in a position of political dominance but embarrassingly outshone by Gnaeus Pompeius (known in English as Pompey, and briefly mentioned in the film), who arrived at the final battle at the last minute but managed to secure the official Triumph back at Rome (Crassus had to be content with an Ovation). Political combat within the institutions of republican government resumed. If the end of Gladiator is anachronistically rosy, the end of Spartacus is anachronistically dark.
These are nevertheless not equivalent distortions; the conclusion of Spartacus does not so much evade Roman history as telescope it. Rome had by 71 bc known proscriptions such as those Crassus institutes in the movie during the civil wars of Marius and Sulla, and it would know them again in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination (and several times later under imperial rule). In retrospect, the establishment of the Principate followed from political dysfunctions in the Republic that were already at work at the time of the slave revolt, and the film’s historical prolepsis simply accelerates what came to seem inevitable. Doing so, moreover, helps secure Spartacus’s place as the sword-and-sandal epic with the most interesting and provocative political story to tell. In linking the end of the Republic directly to the destruction of Spartacus’s army, the film shows Crassus successfully manipulating a public emergency as a way of settling old political scores with a coup d’état tricked out as a conservative restoration of order.
The film’s politics have long been a focus of attention. With a script by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, based on a novel by a former Communist (both Trumbo and Fast served jail time for their failure to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee), the finished film was the object of an attempted boycott by the American Legion and others. The decision by Kirk Douglas, whose production company made the film, to give Trumbo screen credit (he had started work under a pseudonym), combined with the movie’s success at the box office, effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist and earned those involved a small but real place in American political history. (When I went to see the rereleased film in Los Angeles three decades later, the local crowd applauded when Trumbo’s name appeared in the opening credits.) But internal worries about the film’s political coloration had already had their effect and, together with other troubles on the set, helped generate a famously vexed production history involving constant changes in the script (with Trumbo being only one voice among several), reshoots after the first rough cut, and at least two rounds of surgery after a preview showing. The 1991 restoration put back several minutes of excised material, but the film still shows the effects of numerous unharmonized changes of direction.
There is plenty of lore about the arguments and personality conflicts involved in the making of Spartacus, but the publicly available information is incomplete and sometimes contradictory; it is usually difficult to be sure who was responsible for what in the final product. The fullest document is Trumbo’s written response after viewing the rough cut, where he records his disagreement with numerous things he saw. What he disliked (not all of it evident in the film as we have it) is presumably the doing of others, of whom Kubrick and Douglas would have been the main voices—although Kubrick and Douglas had their own conflicts, somewhat less reliably documented (in his memoirs, Douglas categorizes Kubrick as “a talented shit”). Kubrick, working for the only time in his career without central decision-making authority, fulfilled his contract but afterward effectively disowned the film (although he cooperated in small ways with the restoration). Politically oriented critics now tend (with varying degrees of friendliness) to see the story as that of a potentially strong Marxist agenda progressively addled by Hollywood temporizing and big-budget confusion.4
I argue here that—against these odds, and for all its unevenness—the film as we have it has an underappreciated coherence in its picture of Roman politics, as well as a perhaps surprisingly distinguished filiation reaching back to Plato’s model of the tripartite soul.
Gladiators and the Platonic Soul
There is a scheme to the plotting of Spartacus that seems to have evolved in stages without being any particular person’s idea, although it has the advantage of pivoting on Olivier’s performance, one of the film’s steadiest strengths. It is related to the defining premise of the generally downscale genre of the gladiator film. A flurry of these films were made quickly and inexpensively in Italy in the early 1960s for dubbed export; they provide a bridge of sorts between Spartacus and Gladiator by exploring plot devices by which gladiators could play a significant role in ancient history. For instance, in Gladiators Seven (1962; I sette gladiatori with an Italian sound track, Los siete espartanos with a Spanish one), an outlaw team of gladiators travels to Greece to help Sparta throw off Roman domination and reestablish its reputation as the preeminent site of soldierly virtue. The imaginative allure of such interventions has some tenacity; in the summer of 2005 the ABC-TV miniseries Empire dramatized Octavius’s accession to the imperial crown through the previously unrecognized assistance of the gladiator Tyrannus, whom Julius Caesar had freed from the arena to serve as his bodyguard. Spartacus deals with the only such story with serious historical warrant, but it also explores another level on which the uniquely Roman sport of gladiatorial combat is related to Roman politics: they mirror each other.
Sport and politics mirror each other not just in the general sense of being combative and lethal but specifically in their organization as oneon-one contests (paria). The usually nonlethal athletic contests in ancient Greek society that occupied roughly the same place that gladiatorial shows did for the Romans included some paired events (such as wrestling), but most Greek sports involved the simultaneous competition of a wider field of contestants. Gladiatorial fighting, in contrast, was from its origins predominantly a business of matched pairs—two men out to kill each other. One of the historical distortions in Gladiator is the general impression of gladiatorial combat as a kind of team sport, a nasty version of American football; there is no proper one-on-one contest until Maximus faces off with Commodus at the end. Spartacus, however, keeps the focus on paired combat very sharp and dramatizes it with particular force. One of the most powerful scenes in the film—and one in which Kubrick’s directorial hand seems to be at its firmest—comes at the private gladiatorial show at Batiatus’s school in Capua, where the first pair goes out to fight to the death while Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and the Nubian Draba (Woody Strode) wait for their turn. Draba had earlier refused to tell Spartacus his name, saying, “Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.” As the first fight can be heard and partly seen outside, the two of them wordlessly and at length face the fact that that moment is about to come, their seemingly inescapable fate.
The man who has paid to watch one of them kill the other is involved, with more relish, in the political version of such combat. Even before Crassus appears on screen, we learn of his long-standing rivalry with Gracchus—Batiatus must quickly cover a bust of Gracchus out of fear of annoying his unexpected guest—and most of the Roman business in the movie is presented as turning on this axis. At Capua, Crassus is so absorbed in discussing political strategy with his (fictional) protégé Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall—another unhappy casting decision) that he pays only intermittent attention to the expensive fight he has commissioned. Later, when Glabrus is disgraced, Crassus replaces him through the political seduction of Gracchus’s own student, Caesar. In the long run, the CrassusGracchus rivalry proves to be a fight to the death. It is also one of the movie’s most overt rewritings of history; the patrician-populist opposition that it is made to embody simplifies Roman politics of the time to something that a general movie audience could take in, and Gracchus himself did not exist. He is Fast’s creation: Lentelus Gracchus in the novel, but simply Gracchus in the film. The name is a vague allusion to the reformist brothers Gracchi of the previous century. (In an act of cinematic homage, the more or less good senator in Gladiator is also named Gracchus.)
Yet these changes, like some of the others in the film, keep their own kind of faith with the historical record—in this case, with one of the most important ancient sources for these events. We have the testimony of Plutarch, the Greek essayist and biographer of the late first and early second century ad, that, at the time of the slave rebellion, Crassus was enmeshed in a rivalry with Pompey, the man who stole his Triumph; their rivalry preceded and outlasted that particular incident and, according to Plutarch, was a defining feature of this period of Roman history. The Greek words that Plutarch uses to introduce the subject (Crassus 6.4) are hamilla (contest) and philotimia (love of being honored; timê is the sign of recognition that obsesses Achilles in the Iliad), and they are much in evidence in his other biographies as well; philotimia is an almost inseparable twin to philoneikia (love of combat), which is essentially interchangeable with philonikia (love of winning), and the three function as almost technical terms in Plutarch’s acute and influential analysis of the personalities and motivations of the famous generals and politicians of Greek and Roman antiquity. Time and again a rivalrous pair of males turns out to be key to an important part of the story: Agesilaus and Lysander, Aristides and Themistocles, the elder Cato and Scipio Africanus. Theseus’s sense of being in competition with Heracles is supposed to have shaped his entire adult life; at Athens, the contest between Pericles and Thucydides is said to fit a pattern like that between Gracchus and Crassus in the film: “there had been from the beginning a sort of seam hidden beneath the surface of affairs, as in a piece of iron, which faintly indicated a divergence between the popular and the aristocratic program; but the emulous ambition [hamilla kai philotimia] of these two men cut a deep gash in the state, and caused one section of it to be called the People, and the other the Few” (Pericles 11.3). Of Julius Caesar, the man who eventually succeeded in changing the rules for the gladiatorial show of classical politics, Plutarch writes that he took this competitive instinct to a new level: “Caesar’s many successes . . . did not divert his natural spirit of enterprise and ambition [philotimon] to the enjoyment of what he had laboriously achieved, but served as fuel and incentive for future achievements, and begat in him plans for greater deeds and a passion for fresh glory, as though he had used up what he already had. What he felt was therefore nothing else than emulation of himself, as if he had been another man, and a sort of rivalry [philoneikia] between what he had done and what he purposed to do” (Julius Caesar 58.4–5). Republican political combat ultimately mutates into a hamilla of one.5
Modern historians of classical antiquity depend on Plutarch for much of their information but do not necessarily accept this kind of etiology for historical events; it is their professional instinct to look for less personalized causes. Plutarch himself, however, writes with the guidance of a famous theory that posited a rigorous equivalence between the components of the state and the components of the individual psyche; his depiction of the role of philotimia in classical politics presumes and occasionally alludes quite specifically to Plato’s Republic and the tripartite model of the soul. The tripartition is perhaps the most interesting part of that theory; the division is not simply into higher (rational) and lower (sensual) functions but includes another factor that tends to resist decisive translation. In English, it is usually the “passionate” or “spirited” or simply “angry” part; in Greek, it is to thymoeides, the part governed by the thymos, a semianatomical term with Homeric resonance. Plato introduces the term in the Republic when Socrates comes to the combative instincts needed in those who defend the state in war (2.15/375A); as he develops his analogy between the state and the individual, to thymoeides becomes one part of the soul of every individual, a part that interacts with the other two parts but is not reducible to either of them.6 Without proper conditioning, it can be unstable and hostile to reason; for a while, it is treated simply as one of the irrational appetites—like those for bodily nourishment and pleasure—that the rational first part of the soul must regulate. Eventually, though, Socrates becomes very interested in the way anger can be an ally of reason in the soul’s civil strife (en têi tês psychês stasei, 4.15/440E); to thymoeides may be irrational, but its irrationality differs from other irrational impulses. Plato’s conceptualization of this special form of irrationality becomes clear when he begins referring to it as philonicon and philotimon. The irrational appetite that makes possible an impressive superiority to bodily pain and deprivation is competitiveness.
Plato has little to say about the abuses of this superior species of irrationality. In the Phaedrus (253D), the thymos is the splendid white horse in the soul’s harness; this disposition may stand for that of classical Greco-Roman culture generally. In particular, it may stand for a political culture whose implicit faith—given institutional form in the Roman Republic—is that the rational ends of the state are best served by a vigorous competition for precedence among its players. Yet beyond his own bright metaphor, Plato’s theory is quite clear that the concerns of the soul’s first and second parts are essentially different: interest in being better and interest in the good are simply not the same thing, and their coincidence is at best a factional alliance. Plutarch considers himself Plato’s philosophical disciple and rehearses the theory of the tripartite soul in his Moralia; the Lives is, time and again, his picture of the soul’s second part in action as one of the main engines of political history from Plato’s time up to the founding of the Roman Principate. It proves, thanks, among other things, to Plutarch’s narrative gift, to be an extremely influential picture; it is a major source, from Shakespeare’s time to our own, of a general sense of what the alpha males of classical history were like. It also explores, more acutely than Plato himself tries to do, the potential dysfunction of to thymoeides in politics; repeatedly, Plutarch’s point in drawing attention to its operations is to explain how things went wrong. The story of the Spartan king Agesilaus is the story of almost nothing else and occasions the observation that “ambitious natures [philotimoi physeis] in a commonwealth, if they do not observe due bounds, work greater harm than good” (Agesilaus 8.4). Plutarch blames Greece’s eventual loss of political independence to Rome on “the baseness and contentiousness [philoneikiai]” of Greek leaders who are too addicted to gaming one another to make common cause (Flamininus 11.3), although Rome is scarcely immune. Coriolanus, who also attracted Shakespeare’s interest, provides a starkly pathological example from the early years of the Republic: “He had indulged the passionate and contentious part of his soul [tôi thymoeidei kai philoneikôi merei tês psychês], with the idea that there was something great and exalted in this” (Coriolanus 15.3), and in the process, he destroyed himself and almost destroyed his city.
Competitiveness may well be a transcultural fact of human and even animal nature, and the tendency of males in particular to sort themselves out into combative pairs is so pervasive that it could even be biologically determined. Show business is certainly a prime seminary for such behavior. Many of the stories about the making of Spartacus take this form (according to Ustinov, the political combat between Crassus and Gracchus was tensely reproduced on a personal level by Olivier and Laughton), and one report attributes the very existence of the film to a hamilla between Douglas and Charlton Heston, who had beat Douglas out for the part of Ben-Hur. The conceptual salience of Plato’s theory, abstracting to thymoeides into a full member of the soul’s triumvirate, and Plutarch’s long-term relevance to our inherited image of classical antiquity (he certainly would have been on Fast’s reading list, and probably Trumbo’s as well) argue against reducing the matter to a gossipy commonplace. Spartacus, I suggest, finds its troubled way to an impressive thesis about Roman history in the later Republic when a version of Plato’s theory maps itself onto an imperial landscape significantly wider than the polis that was Plato’s own frame of reference.
Spartacus and Crassus
Plutarch’s Crassus is only a compromised specimen of a Roman politician, a relative latecomer to philotimia and, in the long run, conspicuously inept at it. His reigning passion is initially philoploutia, love of wealth (the Greek words draw a firm distinction between political ambition and avarice), and his ultimate fate is to die in a badly conceived and executed campaign against the Parthians. In the film, though, he is the supreme embodiment of Rome’s combative ruthlessness, leading the city that had lately discovered the gladiatorial fight as its favorite sport to its accursed political destiny. This perspective sets the film slightly apart from other cinematic depictions of Rome’s decadence, where opulent paganism is commonly set against ascetic Christianity, and the city’s rot is dramatized in terms of its sensual self-indulgence. Even Fast’s rigorously secular novel pointedly contrasts the bisexual promiscuity of the upper-class Romans with Spartacus’s own chaste monogamy, which he legislates as a standard for the freed slaves under his leadership. The film, however, casts a kindly look on the appetites of the soul’s third part; among its justly famous moments is the conversation (authored by Ustinov, to Trumbo’s displeasure) between two conspicuously unmilitary Romans, Gracchus and Batiatus (“I’m a civilian,” Batiatus says later, “I’m more of a civilian than most civilians”), on the moral advantages of being overweight: “Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant, and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?” In Mervyn Le Roy’s Quo vadis (1951), the fact that the imperial palace has become “Nero’s house of women” (Nero being played, as it happens, by Ustinov) is a key sign of decay at the top and a forecast of doom. Gracchus’s house in Spartacus has an all-female staff, and the reason is exactly what you think, but the dramatic point is not his corruption but his appealing lack of hypocrisy: “I happen to like women. I have a promiscuous nature, and unlike these aristocrats I will not take a marriage vow which I know that my nature will prevent me from keeping.” Gracchus too is doomed, but his weakness for women helps earn him a chaste and gentle kiss from Varinia; his destruction takes with it the only strain of grace evident in his social class.
Yet Crassus’s hamilla with Gracchus, though it is the most overtly Plutarchan part of the film’s plot, is not the most important one in which he is involved. The others are outside the rules and catch him off guard, and the drama of the last part of the film is the way they trouble his seemingly decisive victory. Draba’s long gaze at Spartacus as they await their commissioned fight to the death is in fact leading up to a momentous decision to refuse that pairing; in the arena, the victorious Draba defies an order to kill Spartacus and instead hurls his trident against the Romans who are paying for the show. Crassus holds his ground and defends himself (with a shocking bloodiness originally cut for general release), but he is clearly unnerved (at least as Olivier plays it). Ignoring his own announced principles, Draba turns his hostility away from a fellow gladiator and against his real enemy. But the social boundary between slave and patrician—which in Draba’s case is also something of special significance for America in 1960, the racial boundary between black and white—is such that Crassus does not expect the attack and just barely has time to get out of the way. His lack of attentiveness haunts him for the rest of the movie, as Draba’s self-sacrifice sparks the gladiatorial revolt the next day, and Crassus finds himself locked in an even more dangerous contest with a mysterious antagonist who, by the scheme of things in which Crassus lives, should not exist.
The plotting of the skewed hamilla between Crassus and Spartacus developed as the story moved toward the screen. Some elements are there in Fast’s novel; others were apparently added by Trumbo to constitute the main action after the final battle, and it culminates in a moment that was definitely not as Trumbo would have had it. It is skewed, among other things, by the fact that until his last encounter with Crassus before the Appian gate, the fight is not personal for Spartacus; he is fighting for his army’s survival against whatever Rome sends his way. But by then, the fight has already become intricately personal for Crassus. The alarm he feels at Capua returns before the final battle, when he asks Batiatus for “what up to now I have not been able to obtain, a physical description of Spartacus.” “But you saw him,” says Batiatus, and Crassus is stunned. “I remember the Negro,” he says, but he has no memory of the other gladiator, who is now his opposing general. The distress (evident in Olivier’s performance, though not explicit in the shooting script) presumably has to do with both the uncanniness of their previous shared history and the anger at an inattentiveness that deprives Crassus of information he now would very much want to have. His specific inattentiveness during the earlier fight comes with a larger resonance: a socially induced blindness that kept Crassus from thinking that there was anything in the action of slaves that might be relevant to what most concerned him. He is now in a fight to the death with an invisible man.
The hamilla between Crassus and Spartacus—a vertical one, as it were, across a major social divide, rather than a lateral one like most of those Plutarch writes about—takes place not only on the battlefield, where Crassus proves the master, but also in venues where Crassus finds himself defeated. It was Fast’s idea to create a triangle with the two men and Varinia: Crassus finds himself obsessed first with the idea of his opponent’s woman and then with her in person, and after Spartacus’s death he attempts, with surprising restraint, to persuade her to love him. He fails, and Gracchus, in a last move against his longtime enemy, arranges for her abduction and release. With minor changes (such as making Batiatus the agent of her escape; the movie combines two separate characters from the book), the film keeps this plotline but adds another to make the triangle a quadrilateral and to give heightened geometrical clarity to Crassus’s hopeless competition with Spartacus for the love of those near him.
The character of Antoninus is entirely new to the film and even there was something of an afterthought; according to Douglas, the character was created specifically to give Tony Curtis a part to fulfill a contractual obligation. Antoninus is introduced about an hour into the movie as a new slave in Crassus’s household whom Crassus picks to be his body servant. His age is specified as twenty-six (Curtis was thirty-four), but Crassus keeps calling him “boy.” In an important scene restored in 1991, Crassus makes veiled sexual overtures to Antoninus while being bathed and then, at the sight of Roman soldiers marching out of the city on the other side of the Tiber, lectures him on the masochistic erotics of Roman patriotism: “There is only one way to deal with Rome, Antoninus. You must serve her, you must abase yourself before her, you must grovel at her feet, you must . . . love her. Isn’t that so Antoninus?” His face fills the screen as he says this; then he turns around to discover that Antoninus has disappeared. We learn before too long that Antoninus has joined the slave uprising (giving the mostly rural phenomenon at least a token urban component). Spartacus takes a particular interest in him, and the two find themselves together as prisoners after the defeat of the slave army. Historically, it appears that Spartacus did not survive the battle, although his body was never found; it is that way in the novel as well. In the film, Crassus is eager to identify Spartacus alive or dead, and that is why knowing what he looks like is critical. There are political considerations—it needs to be publicized that, one way or another, the legendary leader has been disposed of—although a more personal strain runs through Crassus’s urgency. The prisoners collectively refuse to identify their general by all claiming to be him (Antoninus leading the way), but Crassus is able to answer his own question when he recognizes Antoninus as the young man he had wanted to seduce. In a flash, Crassus’s jealousy tells him, accurately, that the prisoner marching next to Antoninus must be Spartacus, the man who stole his boy.
Crassus’s bisexuality is overt in the novel. It clearly required some work to get it into the movie, and the initial motivation for taking the trouble was probably to make a statement about Crassus’s politics; the scripting of his attempted seduction of Antoninus echoes rumors about the supposedly homoerotic roots of twentieth-century fascism. The discussion of Gracchus’s sexual predilections follows immediately in the next scene; a clear contrast is intended with his genially heterosexual promiscuity. Yet as the narrative unfolds in the last part of the film, the operative contrast between Crassus and Spartacus is not really one of perverse and normal objects of love. Crassus’s attraction to Varinia is mirrored in the erotic overtones of the bond between Spartacus and Antoninus. The final paired combat in the film is between them (replaying, with a different outcome, the climactic sword fight between Douglas and Curtis in Richard Fleischer’s The vikings two years earlier). It is a combat of love in which each is striving to spare the other the crucifixion awaiting the survivor. Antoninus receives the death blow in Spartacus’s embrace, and he dies, saying, “I love you, Spartacus, as I love my own father.” Spartacus replies, “I love you like my son that I’ll never see.” The sound of this was not Trumbo’s idea, and he registered his dislike for it. Yet it seems appropriate enough within the extremity of the moment, and almost a logical consequence of the introduction of Antoninus as a character, a firming up of the fourth line of the quadrilateral.
What is systematically at work is not Crassus’s homoeroticism but his competitiveness. He begins the scene coming face-to-face with Spartacus and demanding confirmation of his identity. To his silence, Crassus says, “You must answer when I speak to you.” At his continued silence, Crassus unexpectedly yells and hits him in the face; Spartacus then spits in his. Even Crassus’s crushing military and political victory has not settled the hamilla, which has now come down to the core situation of two men, one on one. After forcing Spartacus to kill Antoninus, Crassus says to Caesar within Spartacus’s hearing, “I wonder what Spartacus would say if he knew that the woman Varinia and her child are slaves in my household?” He steals my boy, I steal his girl. The news has the intended effect on Spartacus (and finally gives Crassus decisive confirmation of the prisoner’s identity), but in fact, as this scene unfolds, Varinia is being spirited out of Crassus’s house by Gracchus’s connivance. The film will end with Spartacus, crucified but still alive, learning that Varinia and their son have escaped. We are not shown Crassus’s reaction to Varinia’s disappearance. Gracchus anticipates it by committing suicide; Crassus unwittingly anticipates it when Caesar asks, concerning Spartacus, “Did you fear him?” and Crassus answers, “Not when I fought him. I knew he could be beaten. But now I fear him.” Crassus speaks here with the audible voice of Fast’s Marxism; the immediate reference is surely to Spartacus’s prophecy over the body of Antoninus: “He’ll come back, and he’ll be millions.” But Crassus’s words are also nested in circumstance that makes the fear more inward and immediate than that. The second part of his soul, which rules him as he now rules Rome, is not going to rest.
1. For Gladiator, I used the DreamWorks DVD (2000). In his commentary, Scott actually speaks of Marcus Aurelius’s plans in slightly different terms: Maximus is to be “a temporary prince-consort . . . until the Senate get everything into line and decide on . . . a successor.” DreamWorks has issued an extended edition of the film on DVD (2005), but nothing in it changes or clarifies things here.
2. See, for instance, Arthur J. Pomeroy, “The Vision of a Fascist Rome in Gladiator,” in Gladiator: Film and History, Martin M. Winkler (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 111–23. Pomeroy concludes that “we are probably justified to regard Gladiator as commending not an outright Fascist ideology, but a neo-conservative rural utopianism” (121).
3. For Spartacus, I cite the version on the Criterion Collection DVD (2001), which is that of Robert Harris’s 1991 restoration; at 196 minutes, it is a partial re-creation of the 202-minute version of the film’s first public showing. I also had at hand a videotape (timed at 185 minutes) of the general release version from the 1960s, and one stage of the much-revised shooting script (dated January 16, 1959, but incorporating changes dated as late as July 27).
4. The fullest published account of the film’s production history is Duncan Cooper, “Who Killed Spartacus?” Cineaste 18, no. 3 (1991): 18–27, drawing on a fair amount of unpublished documentation. Kirk Douglas tells his version of the story in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 303–34 (the remark about Kubrick is on p. 333). Part of Trumbo’s memo (reportedly eighty pages long) is reprinted as “Report on Spartacus,” Cineaste 18, no. 3 (1991): 30–33; selections from it are also read by Matthew McConaughey as the second commentary track on the Criterion DVD. The first commentary track includes observations and reminiscences by Douglas, Ustinov, and Fast, among others; a separate interview with Ustinov (from 1992) has some excellent if not necessarily reliable storytelling from the set. In general, Trumbo wanted an idealistic, heroic, and articulate Spartacus, whereas Kubrick wanted something more brutal and grim, with less talk; Douglas appears to have gone back and forth. Cooper calls the result “a political film with scarcely any politics in it” (23) and a “shabby compromise with history” (27). For somewhat less dismissive analyses of the film’s conflicted agenda (and long views on the depiction of Spartacus in literature and film), see Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (New York: Routledge, 1997), 34–72, and Alison Futrell, “Seeing Red: Spartacus as Domestic Economist,” in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Sandra R. Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire Jr. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 77–118.
5. For Plutarch’s Lives, I use the eleven-volume Loeb Library edition of Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914–1926). References are to chapter and subsection of the Greek text; the English translations quoted are Perrin’s, with small adjustments. For more details on the reading of Plutarch offered here, see my “Plutarch, Shakespeare, and the Alpha Males,” in Shakespeare and the Classics, Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 188–205.
6. References to the texts of Plato are to the traditional Stephanus page numbers, although for the Republic, I add book and section numbers.