Howard Fast’s SPARTACUS, which he self-published in 1951, is one of my favorite novels. It was later adapted into a terrific film directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Both are worth enjoying as the same but distinctly separate stories of Spartacus’ life.
Fast wrote SPARTACUS in response to the three months in prison he spent during the McCarthy Era, and self-published it because no publisher would touch it. Now it’s a classic.
SPARTACUS tells the story of the slave uprising against Rome during the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator. Fast’s novelization of his life differs in some key respects from the life of the historical Spartacus so as to tell the story he wanted, which is an interpretation of Spartacus. The novel expresses the theme that life, love and freedom are paramount human values, and that oppression and slavery debase humanity.
The theme is evidenced in the story structure, which is split between two narratives. In one, a group of Roman nobles travel Italy touring the “tokens of punishment” (crucified slaves), the other flashbacks and stories describing Spartacus and his fight to end slavery. The Romans have the best of everything, a rich life built on the labor and suffering of millions of slaves. They don’t particularly enjoy it, though. Wealth and idleness have corrupted the virtues that build their republic, enabled by slavery. They hate and fear the slaves they exploit, going so far as to call them “instrumentum vocale,” or tools with a voice.
In the other narrative, we see Spartacus struggling to survive as a slave working in a marble mine and then as a gladiator in the arena. It disgusts him that people could be used up and thrown away to thrill jaded Romans. Gladiatorial combat isn’t gloried as it in films like GLADIATOR or the TV series SPARTACUS. Men don’t slaughter each other just to hear crowds cheer. The novel is closer to real life, which is the gladiators were fed and adored and pampered but only for their ability to kill other men until they themselves were finally killed. They hated it.
Spartacus leads the gladiators in a revolt and begins building a slave army that intends to overthrow Rome and begin a new golden age reminiscent of idealized simpler times. He smashes army after army sent against him until finally the Romans destroy him. But have they destroyed what Spartacus represents, the human spirit?
SPARTACUS is beautifully written and stirring. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend picking it up.