the real spartacus


Only in the radical literary atmosphere of the 1760s did Spartacus start to become the popular figure we now know from film and fiction—above all, of course, from the classic Stanley Kubrick movie of 1960 starring Kirk Douglas. One of the first attempts, if not the first, to create this “new Spartacus” was a lengthy dramatic eulogy to human liberty by Bernard-Joseph Saurin, entitled Spartacus: une tragédie en cinq actes et en vers. This play premiered in Paris in 1760, was revived after the French Revolution, and (as Maria Wyke has spotted) was still well enough known to be mentioned, albeit slightly inaccurately, in the publicity material for the Kubrick film (“taking our influence from the sublime verses of Bernard Joseph Sauria [sic],” as it claimed).1 Saurin added a personal side to the story. Where Plutarch in the second century AD had referred in passing to Spartacus’ wife (an ecstatic prophetess from Spartacus’ original homeland of Thrace, in northern Greece), Saurin concocted a much more implausible romance. He tragically paired the rebel slave with Emilie, the daughter of Crassus, the Roman commander, who finally managed—after a series of humiliating defeats under other generals—to secure victory for the Romans. But more important, the plot focuses on debates about freedom of various kinds, and different costs.

more from Mary Beard at the NYRB here.