Spartacus – bodies moving through the past


by Christine de Matos

Is it possible for historians to engage with dance as an historical “text”?

In late 2018, The Australian Ballet performed its latest incarnation of Spartacus in Melbourne and Sydney. The ballet is based on a real historical figure from the Third Servile War (73–71BCE) who has long worn the tunic of mythology and legend, notably in the Kirk Douglas-Stanley Kubrick-Dalton Trumbo eponymous film of 1960, a film that has been the subject of much historical interrogation. “Visual media”, states American historian of Ancient Rome Allen M Ward, “more than any other modern medium shape the public’s perception of the past”[1]. History scholars have carved out a space for film as a legitimate research artefact for historians, both because of film’s ability to engage a viewer with the past while entertaining them, despite historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, and a film’s capacity to tell us something of the time in which it was made, precisely because of those inaccuracies and anachronisms.

Spartacus the film is a classic demonstration of that last point. It is based on the 1951 novel by Howard Fast, an American communist who wrote the book during the McCarthyist era. Dalton Trumbo, the writer brought in on the film, was on Hollywood’s infamous blacklist and, when Douglas made the decision to openly credit him as the writer, is famously associated with the ending of that blacklist. It is this contemporary historical context that is key to understanding the decisions taken in both the novel and film to play with the past. Whereas historians more contemporary to Spartacus refer to him as a “Thracian of nomadic stock” (Plutarch) or say that he had served as a Roman soldier before becoming a prisoner and “sold for a gladiator” (Appian), Fast and Douglas have Spartacus born into slavery and working in the mines prior to being transformed into a gladiator at Capua. This makes the story of Spartacus more relevant to, and an inspiration for, its times: it is concurrently more working class (the virtual slavery of workers vis-à-vis the capitalists/Romans) and more American (the Civil Rights movement dealing with the legacies of generations of slavery). Past and present are united in a singular cause, one ready to be interpreted by historians of film.

Can something similar be done with representations of the past through dance? Choreographed performances of the story of Spartacus also have their historical contexts, such as the first, Spartak, created in the Soviet Union in 1956. Framed by the Cold War and the end of the Stalinist era, choreographer Leonid Yakobson digressed from the classical form by using modern dance forms and costuming to perform his dissent towards the Soviet regime: he rebelled within and through a dance about rebellion.

What of the Australian context? The Australian Ballet premiered its first Spartacus in 1978. This version was choreographed by the Hungarian László Seregi for the Hungarian State Ballet in 1968 – 12 years after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks and based on Fast’s novel. Gary Norman danced the role of Spartacus and, in his corset-like leather-vest and frayed red briefs, appeared strong, filthy, and just a little unhinged, somewhat anticipating the film version of John Rambo. Most famous in the lead role is Stephen Heathcote, who channelled a similar hyper-masculine, if more erotic, version of Norman’s Spartacus in the 1990 and 2002 tours of the ballet.

Unlike the previous performances by The Australian Ballet, the 2018 revival is not Seregi’s but a reimagined version by Lucan Jervies, who relied much less on the Fast text. Just as Fast and Yakobson were influenced by their contemporary circumstances, Jervies’ inspiration comes from the resurgence of populist right-wing politics in Brazil, Turkey, the United States and Europe, modern dictatorships such as North Korea, discussions about toxic masculinity, and concerns about modern slavery.

Jervies also conducted his own historical research to inform his interpretation, in the same way an historical novelist or maker of an historical film might. For instance, he travelled to Florence, Venice and Rome, which included seeing an exhibition that visually compared ancient Rome and modern slavery, read widely, including the ancient historians, and visited Roman artefacts and a bust of Crassus at the Louvre. He also studied past totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

It is possible to see all these influences in Jervies’ version, not least through his more sensitive, “metrosexual” Spartacus. However, is this  just a messy pastiche of histories or can such an historical and contemporary ensemble convey a coherent message from the past to the present?

The 2018 performance is rich in symbolism awaiting dissection and contextualisation by the historian. The challenge is how to do this – performances are ephemeral, so either multiple viewings are required, or a filmed version (which presents a whole new set of challenges and contexts via the camera’s lens) will be necessary for sustained enquiry. Else, historians can do what they always do and are experts at: work from the traces and fragments of the performance – online reviews, YouTube excerpts, programs and memories. But the promise is rich, if the historian also analyses choreographer intent, audience experience, contemporary contexts, or even the corporeal language expressed through the dancer’s body.

The Australian Ballet’s most recent Spartacus may not be history as historians expect it to be, but it can be interrogated for its uses of the past in the present. Changing notions of dominant masculinity, political contexts, social issues can all be identified in anything from the choreography to costuming. As the classics scholar Martin Winkler said of the film, “Spartacus is not a lesson in Roman history, but it is a lesson in how Americans conceive of history and themselves”[2]. In his book’s dedication, Fast informs readers that he wrote the book “so that those who read it, my children and others, may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong”[3].

Jervies’ Spartacus, too, is timeless in its evocation of inhumanity, oppression and totalitarianism, and timely in its hopeful aspirations of invoking social change in Australia today. Rather than giving us a new understanding of the past, or bringing the past into the present, this version of Spartacus draws on multiple histories for inspiration to illuminate the political present, and leaves its audience to ponder what has really changed at society’s core – each era, it seems, still needs its very own, rebranded, Spartacus.



[1] Allen M. Ward, “Spartacus: History and Histrionics”, in Spartacus: Film and History, ed. Martin M. Winkler (Madden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 88.

[2] Martin M. Winkler, “The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus”, in Spartacus: Film and History, ed. Martin M. Winkler (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 165.

[3] Howard Fast, Spartacus London: Panther Books, 1970, 5.


Image: Death of Spartacus by Hermann Vogel, 1882,

BY phanswblogeditor IN Issues in Historical Work ON 4 MARCH 2019

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