Camp and City in Spartacus

Robert J. Rabel

University of Kentucky

The film Spartacus, produced by Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, sets the city of Rome against rebellious slaves constantly on the move, slaves who live within the camp of their leader Spartacus.  Therefore, one would expect to find Rome portrayed in the film as a city and the camp of Spartacus merely as an improvised military camp on the move.  However, the film seems to defeat normal expectations in this regard.  In a clever reversal of logic and sense, which critics and commentators seem not to have noticed, Spartacus' camp is fitted out with the accoutrements commonly associated with cities in the ancient world.  Spartacus' camp, in other words is a "city on the move," while militaristic Rome is reduced to the status of an armed camp under the tyrannical control of a power-hungry General Crassus.

First and most importantly, a city is a place that maintains and nourishes family life.  The film, however, presents its audience with no examples of a Roman family; one sees only soldiers and female slaves among the Romans. Family life is depicted only among Spartacus and his followers.  Secondly, the city is characterized by the presence of an institutional and commercial area, an example of which is again to be found only among the followers of Spartacus. Thirdly, the city is a community of mortals, both living and dead, so that the cemetery is an important element, yet the only burials that take place in the film are conducted by the inhabitants of Spartacus' community of slave-citizens. Finally, cities in the ancient world normally have walls for the protection of families enclosed within their compass, but military camps—in the Roman world at least—also commonly possessed walls.  Spartacus' city lacks walls, of course, since it is a movable city.  While the walls of Rome are depicted within the film, the effect is once again to reduce Rome to the status of a military camp, since walls enclose only soldiers and slaves, not families.

In conclusion, I will briefly explain how Homer and Virgil accomplish a similar effect of reversal between camp and city, Virgil in the second half of the Aeneid and Homer (temporarily) in the central books of the Iliad.


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