Adapted from Howard Fast’s novel by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Stanley Kubrick, gladiators escape from a school and are a led by Spartacus in an attempt to escape and then in a revolt against Rome that is dominated by Crassus.
In the first century BC the powerful republic of Rome was stained by the practice of slavery. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) was born a slave who was sold to the mines of Libya at the age of 12. He worked there for many years. While working another slave collapses, and Spartacus helps him. A Roman soldier punishes him, and he fights back and is threatened with death.
Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives on a horse with an escort and asks the captain if he has any men fit to sell him. Lentulus examines the teeth of a man and decides his bones are weak. Spartacus is being starved to death and is chained to a rocky mountain, and Lentulus likes his muscles and decides to buy him.
They travel by ship and carts while Lentulus is carried on a litter. Lentulus enters his palace. The director Marcellus (Charles McGraw) of his school for gladiators and he explain to the recruits how they will be trained to fight to the death after they are sold. Lentulus warns Marcellus about the Thracian Spartacus because he tried to kill a guard. Marcellus challenges Spartacus to kill him with a sword, but Spartacus refuses to fight him. Marcellus commends him for not being stupid, but he will be watching him.
In the bath another man tells Spartacus he did the right thing because occasionally Marcellus likes to kill one of them as an example. Spartacus asks the name of an African, but he does not give it because he may have to kill him.
Lentulus and Marcellus sit at a table as the latter assigns women to the gladiators, but Lentulus tells him to give Varinia (Jean Simmons) to Spartacus.
Varinia comes into a room, and Spartacus touches her softly. He says he never had a woman. She takes off her dress, and they look at each other. Above Lentulus and Marcellus laugh. Spartacus gets angry and says he is not an animal. Varinia says she is not either. Lentulus has Marcellus take her out of the room, and Lentulus says he doubts that Spartacus will ever be a man.
The gladiators are trained to develop their muscles and fight using wooden swords. Spartacus sees Varinia working in the kitchen, and she smiles at him. Marcellus marks the places of instant kill with red on the neck and heart. Crippling is marked in blue on the arms, and the slow kill is noted in yellow on the stomach and chest. Marcellus tells Spartacus not to look at Varinia and then to look at her.
That night Varinia is shown to Spartacus, but Marcellus gives her to the Spaniard.
Marcellus warns a woman in the kitchen about leaving a meat cleaver lying around. He has the gladiators brought in, and the women and a child feed them. When Varinia pours wine for Spartacus, he asks if they hurt her; she says no.
Gladiators watch two men fight each other, and Marcellus declares a kill. They practice fighting techniques. When Varinia pours wine for Spartacus, they hold hands.
The servant Ramon tells Lentulus that two noble men are there, and one of them is Crassus. Lentulus gives orders to prepare for him, and he covers the sculpture of Gracchus.
Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives on a white horse and dismounts. Lentulus welcomes him and orders wine. The widow Claudia Marius (Joanna Barnes), Helena Glabrus (Nina Foch) and her brother Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall) are with Crassus. Helena says that they are there to celebrate the wedding of Claudia to Marcus. Crassus asks Lentulus for a show of two pairs, and Helena says they are to fight to the death. Lentulus says he can show them a better sword fight than they can see anywhere. Lentulus says they do not let them fight to the death there, and it is expensive. Crassus asks him to name his price, and Lentulus says 25,000 sesterces. Crassus tells him to arrange it immediately. Helena says they would like to choose them themselves.
The gladiators are told there will be a fight to the death. A friend Crixus asks Spartacus if he would fight and kill, and Spartacus says he would.
The ladies look at the gladiators through iron bars. Helena picks Crixus, and Claudia selects Galino. Lentulus suggests the Ethiopian with the trident. Helena chooses Spartacus to fight with the Thracian sword. Claudia asks them to wear as little as possible for modesty because of the heat.
Crassus uncovers the sculpture of Gracchus and laughs. Varinia serves water to them, and Claudia says she smells of perfume. They talk about her, and she pours water on Marcus. Crassus asks her how long she has been a slave, and she says since she was thirteen. She says she tutored the children of her first master. Crassus offers him 2,000 sesterces for her and does not want her to walk to Rome. Helena says Crassus is rich and asks for her brother’s wedding present. Crassus gives him a key that makes him master of the garrison of Rome.
The four gladiators chosen are taken to a wooden shack where they can hear the aristocrats talking and laughing. Crixus and Galino are called first and go into the fighting area. Spartacus looks through a crack to see them fighting. The Ethiopian Draba (Woody Strode) appears calm. They hear a groan, and Crixus is returned to the shack.
Spartacus and Draba salute them and begin to fight. Draba has a trident and a net, Spartacus a short sword and shield. Marcus asks Crassus how he got him the appointment without Gracchus knowing, and Crassus says he purchased the Senate behind his back. Draba knees Spartacus and gets him on the ground against a wall with the trident at his neck. The aristocrats put their thumbs down and order him to kill him. Draba turns toward them and throws the trident at them. As the women flee, he tries to climb up to their viewing place; but a soldier throws a spear into his back. Draba reaches for the leg of Crassus, who stabs him behind his neck.
The dead body of Draga is hung upside down, and the gladiators walk by and see it. Marcellus says he will hang there until he rots. The gladiators on their beds hear someone walking above.
While coming for food, Spartacus sees Varinia is on a wagon. Marcellus says she has been sold and is going to Rome. Spartacus attacks Marcellus and drowns him in a large pot of soup. A guard reports this to Lentulus, who orders the guard called out. The slaves pick up a bath tub and break out of their quarters. They climb over the fence and fight the guards. After the fence collapses, they all come out. Spartacus climbs up on the balcony bashing guards. The gladiators outnumber the guards, and many escape.
In Rome the senators discuss the crisis of the slave revolt. Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) asks where Crassus is. Gracchus tells Glabrus that Rome is safe as long as he is with them. A senator complains that his estate was burned along with a hundred others. He proposes that they recall Pompey and his legions from Spain. Gracchus says they should send Glabrus against them, but another senator says that there are many slaves in Rome. Gracchus says only part of the garrison needs to go and asks Glabrus if he accepts the command; he does. Gracchus proposes Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to take over the garrison during his absence, and this is applauded.
Later on the steps Gracchus asks Caesar why he is not happy with this assignment. Glabrus comes out and is hailed. Gracchus buys a chicken and tells Caesar they should have a sacrifice for Glabrus.
Crassus arrives home and enters his palace, asking if Glabrus is there. He is shown four men and two women who are a gift from the governor of Sicily. He talks to Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and learns he is a singer and a teacher of classics. Crassus says he shall be his body-servant. Glabrus asks Crassus to congratulate him and says the whole city has gathered to send them off. Crassus asks if Gracchus had anything to do with this. He gets angry at Glabrus who says many remain. Crassus asks under whose command and gets angry when he learns it is Caesar. Crassus says Gracchus has immobilized him. Glabrus says Crassus has legions outside Rome and could bring them in, but Crassus says that is against the most sacred Roman tradition. He will not violate Rome when he possesses her. He tells Glabrus to sneak out of Rome without fanfare.
Rebellious slaves on horses ravage a town. Spartacus rides back to the gladiator school and finds it empty. He goes to his room and hears yelling.
Gladiators are watching and cheering as two old aristocrats are trying to fight each other with swords. Spartacus walks between them and tells them to drop their swords. The gladiators complain, and Crixus says they are to fight to the death. Spartacus says he promised he would never watch men fight to the death again. He asks what they have become. They have wine, but he says they should be looking for bread. A man asks what they could be, and he says they could be an army of gladiators. Crixus says a Roman army fights differently. Spartacus says they can free slaves in every town. They can leave the country on ships. A man says they have the biggest fleet in the world. A man suggests they hire pirates, and they cheer and spring into action.
The gladiators ride horses and carry spears. They find slaves and ask them to join them. Spartacus sees Varinia and dismounts. He did not think he would see her again. She says everything is different now. She remembers him in the arena and cries. He says he thought she was in Rome and asks how she escaped. She says she jumped out of the cart. Lentulus was too fat to catch up with her. They says nobody will ever control them again. She says she loves him. He can hardly believe it but agrees to forbid her to leave him. He puts her on his horse and rides behind her.
Lentulus is dining with Gracchus who thanks him for being good to him in the past. Gracchus says they are both corpulent. Lentulus says Gracchus is the most generous Roman. Gracchus says he keeps women servants for Roman morality. He will not take a marriage vow and likes variety. Gracchus asks how he can help him. Lentulus says he hates Crassus who caused him to become a refugee. He says the women taunted the gladiators to fight to the death. He says he sold Crassus Varinia, but now she is with Spartacus. Gracchus asks why he did not offer her to him. Gracchus offers him 500 sesterces for her when she is caught. He wants to annoy Crassus.
Crassus in his bath asks Antoninus to wash his back. He asks him if he steals or lies, and he says no. He asks if has moral virtues and shows that they are different that matters of taste. He asks for his robe, and Antoninus puts it on him. Crassus says he likes snails and oysters. Crassus has him look at Rome across the river. He says no man or nation can withstand Rome and certainly not a boy. He says he must serve Rome and love her. Crassus turns around and finds that Antoninus is gone.
Spartacus has his army on a mountain, and former slaves are being trained to fight. Varinia is bathing children. Spartacus sees a man telling new slaves their plans. He says there are two women, but an older woman persuades him to keep them. Spartacus asks men what work they did and assigns them. Antoninus says he is a singer and can do feats of magic. Spartacus says maybe he can make the Romans disappear. Men on horses practice using a sword as they ride.
In the evening by a campfire Antoninus gives a magic show, and he recites a poem about going home. Spartacus says he likes his song and can teach them to sing; but Antoninus says he wants to fight. Spartacus walks with Varinia, and she says he likes Antoninus. She asks what he is thinking. He says he is free but asks what he knows. He does not know how to read, but he wants to know. She asks what, and he says everything. She says that the wind begins in a cave with a god. They lie down, and he says he wants to know all about her. He kisses her.
Spartacus asks what garrisons they will find in Metapontum, and Antoninus says they have two legions. During rain litter-bearers bring Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom), and Spartacus orders the litter-bearers freed. Antoninus reads his letter of introduction of the man who will help them get ships from the Cilicians. Spartacus asks how many ships they have, and Tigranes says they have 500. Spartacus says they need them all, and Tigranes says they would cost 50 million sesterces. Spartacus shows him a chest of treasure and asks when they will be ready. Tigranes asks how long it will take them to get to Brundisium. Spartacus says if they do not get there in seven months, they will never get there. Tigranes asks what happens to the ships if the slaves never get there. Spartacus says they will give them that treasure chest now and the rest when they get there. Tigranes agrees and says the ships will be assembled within seven months. They share wine. Tigranes says that Crassus does not want to fight slaves. Tigranes asks if he knows that he is going to lose. He says six Roman cohorts are approaching now. He asks if he saw his army defeated and himself dead, would he continue to fight. Spartacus says yes because all men die. He says that death is the only freedom a slave knows. He is not afraid of it, and that is why they will win.
At night a messenger tells Spartacus that the garrison of Rome is setting up a camp against the cliffs. They have no stockade, and Spartacus says they should join this Roman picnic. He says they can get lots of weapons for their army. The gladiators are marching, and Spartacus tells Varinia that Rome has come to them. They embrace, and he goes off to lead the cavalry.
At night the Roman camp is burning as Spartacus and the gladiators take it. Glabrus is brought before Spartacus who tells him to stand up. Spartacus learns he is the commander of the Roman garrison. He asks if he is afraid to die. He says it is easy because he has seen many gladiators die. Glabrus asks what they will do to him, and Spartacus asks his men. Spartacus breaks the symbol of the Senate and gives it to Glabrus to take it back to Rome, and he asks him to tell them that all they want is their freedom to leave Rome. He says they are marching south to the sea and will destroy any army that tries to stop them.
Glabrus tells the senators what the gladiators want to do. He does not know what port they will use. Crassus recognizes the name of Spartacus and asks him how many escaped. Glabrus says only fourteen have been found. Crassus asks if he surrounded his camp with a moat and stockade, and Glabrus says no. He says they were only slaves. Crassus asks the Senate to punish Glabrus. Gracchus says if they punish every commander who failed, they would lack officers. He asks Crassus to sentence him, and he says he should be isolated without fire and water. Crassus says he is laying down the command of his legions and is retiring to private life. He walks away, but Gracchus says he should not withdraw from public affairs. Another senator says Crassus is the only senator who is not corrupt. Gracchus predicts that Crassus will be back.
The former slaves are walking across a plain. They cross a river and walk in rain at night. Then they climb up a mountain. They trudge through snow. A woman and a man bury a child at night.
Spartacus and others are meeting around a map. An old woman milks a goat. Varinia bathes in a pond, and Spartacus talks to her. She gets out and wraps a dress around herself. He picks her up, and she says she is going to have a baby in the spring. He is happy, keeps her warm, and kisses her.
An older senator says the slaves have already cost them a thousand million sesterces. Gracchus says that Rome is fighting wars in Spain and in Asia while Spartacus leads the slaves. He says they must confirm Caesar as permanent commander of the garrison, and they must assign two legions to destroy Spartacus at Metapontum.
The army of Spartacus enters Metapontum, and rich people bring their treasures and put them on a blanket. Spartacus dines and notices how pregnant Varinia is. He says the best wine comes from home.
Caesar gets out of a bath, and he hears that they lost 19,000 men at Metapontum. An old senator says they should investigate how Spartacus could train an army so fast. Crassus talks with Caesar and notes that their families have been patricians for generations. He asks Caesar why he left him for Gracchus and the mob. Crassus asks him to come back to his own kind. He asks Caesar if he would take the field against Spartacus if he were him. Caesar says yes. He says Gracchus is his friend, and he won’t betray him. Crassus asks if he would betray Rome or Gracchus. Caesar says that is not his choice, but Crassus says it will be. The two men find Gracchus who asks Crassus what his fee would be to lead men against Spartacus. Crassus asks for his election as first consul, command of all the legions of Italy, and abolition of senatorial authority over the courts. Gracchus calls that dictatorship, but Crassus says it is order. Gracchus says those terms are unacceptable, but Crassus expects that to change. Crassus leaves, and Caesar says that Crassus is right. Gracchus says he has arranged for Spartacus to escape from Italy by making a deal with Cilician pirates. Caesar says they are now dealing with pirates, but Gracchus says you do business with whomever you need.
Spartacus and his men reach the sea, but they are still twenty miles from Brundisium. They camp on the beach and celebrate. Antoninus estimates that they can load 150 ships a day. Spartacus gives orders and asks for reports on Pompey. Antoninus says there is not enough food for the voyage. Tigranes comes in, and Spartacus shows him the treasure that will cover what they owe him. Tigranes sits down and says that Pompey and his army has landed in Italy. Spartacus says he knows that. Tigranes says that Lucullus has arrived at Brundisium, and now they have no ships. Spartacus says he saw them in the harbor; but Tigranes says the Cilician ships had to withdraw. There are no ships there now. Spartacus demands a better reason because the Cilicians never feared the Romans before. Spartacus holds a dagger on his neck, and Tigranes admits that Crassus paid them to leave. Antoninus says that Crassus is retired and would not fight them. Spartacus asks what the answer is. He says if they fight Lucullus or Pompey, the other will attack them from the rear. Spartacus says their only choice is to march on Rome. They will have to fight the army led by Crassus who wants to become the hero who saved Rome. Tigranes offers to smuggle their families out of Italy, but Spartacus tells him to go away. Tigranes goes out, and Spartacus calls for an assembly.
Spartacus address thousands of people and says the Cilician pirates betrayed them.
In Rome a herald announces that they have elected Crassus first consul and commander in chief of the armies of Rome.
Spartacus says that Rome will not allow them to escape, and so they must march against Rome and may free every slave in Italy.
Crassus promises to destroy the slave army and restore order in their territory.
Spartacus is glad to be with them rather than be the richest citizen of Rome.
Crassus promises he will capture Spartacus or get his head.
Spartacus says they have traveled far together and won victories. Now they must fight again and remain true to themselves. He knows they are brothers and are free. He says they march tonight.
Crassus watches the Roman soldiers march.
The former slaves walk with their weapons.
Crassus rides a white horse and enters his tent. He asks if positions are ready, and he orders them all to be changed. He says there are passes through the Apennine Mountains not on maps, and Pompey is only twenty miles west of them. Lucullus is also marching toward them. Crassus says he does not want glory but Spartacus and his legend. The officers hail him and go out. Lentulus comes in and sits down. Crassus asks him about Spartacus, and Lentulus says he made him what he is today. Crassus asks for his physical description, but Lentulus says he saw him in the ring fighting the Negro. Crassus asks for his description, and Lentulus bargains for being the agent for the sale of the captured slaves. Crassus says he must remain with him during the battle and help him identify Spartacus.
At night Spartacus walks among the campfires and looks at the people. A little girl asks her mother when they go home, and the mother tells her to go to sleep. He returns to his tent and asks Varinia if she feels any pains yet. She says no and hopes the baby waits until they get to Rome. She says the Romans have not beaten them yet. Spartacus says they always have another army to send against them. She says if it ended tomorrow, it would be worth it. He hugs her and tells her not to make him weak. He says he loves her more than his life, but he feels alone. He prays for a son who will be born free, and she agrees. He asks her to take care of his son. She says she cannot live without him. He says there are no farewells for them. As long as one of them lives, they all live. They embrace again and kiss.
The army of Spartacus stands waiting in a valley. On the other side is the Roman army which begins marching from a hill into the valley. The legions stop and form a line in front that moves forward while the others move to the center. Fires are started in front of the rebel army. Then they roll the flames down the slope toward the Romans, and the others charge behind them. Some Roman soldiers are burned, and they fight each other. Crassus sees that Lucullus and Pompey have arrived. Spartacus sees them too and leads a cavalry charge. He uses his sword from his horse. A Roman jumps on his horse, and both fall off. Spartacus fights on the ground, cutting off an arm of a Roman. Crixus is killed.
Dead bodies cover the field. Crassus walks among them with an officer. He asks for a count of the prisoners.
The slaves captured are told that their sentences of crucifixion will be set aside if they identify the person or body of Spartacus. Spartacus stands up and says he is Spartacus. Those next to him stand up and say the same. Many people say they are Spartacus.
Crassus climbs a hill, and Lentullus asks him if the prisoners are going to be crucified. He reminds Crassus of his promise to let him be the agent of their auctioning. Crassus says he did not keep his promise to identify Spartacus. They hear a baby crying and see Varinia with her baby. She admits she is the wife of Spartacus. Crassus asks where he is, and she says he is dead. He says she is lying and asks where he is. Lentullus asks for the child. Crassus says they will sell the others, but the woman and child are to be taken to his house. He orders Lentullus to be whipped.
Crassus looks at the prisoners as they pass him. He speaks to Antoninus and sees Spartacus. He orders the prisoners to be crucified on the road to Rome, but these two men are to be left to the end.
People see the crucifixions on the road to Rome.
Lentullus tells Gracchus of his stripes on his back, but he found dignity. Gracchus says in Rome that shortens life. Lentullus says he did not complain. Gracchus is glad to learn that he wants to get back at Crassus. Gracchus heard that Crassus is in love with the woman, and Lentullus admits she is beautiful. Gracchus suggests they steal the woman, but Lentullus does not want to do that. Gracchus promises him a million sesterces to increase his courage. Caesar arrives, and Gracchus welcomes him. Caesar admits he is not alone, and Gracchus realizes that he joined Crassus. Caesar asks him to come with him to the Senate.
Crassus lectures Gracchus in a dark Senate and warns him that the disloyal will be put in prison. The name of Gracchus is first on the list of disloyal. Crassus offers him a house in exile with his women. Crassus says his followers trust Gracchus, and he wants him to speak to them. He may bring him back to Rome sometimes to help them accept destiny and order. He says he can go.
At night Spartacus and Antoninus see a man taken to be punished.
Crassus has dressed Varinia in a white dress and tells her to wear it proudly. He puts a gold necklace on her and says it belonged to the queen of Persia. He leads her to another room and has her sit on a couch. He offers her food and wine. He asks if she finds conversation difficult in rich surroundings. She asks why she is there. He asks if the baby thrives, and she says she wants to nurse the child herself. She does not care about her new life there, and she asks why he threatens her with her baby. He says he wants her to give, to love him. She says he threatened to kill her child, but he denies it. She says she is remembering, and he asks if he interferes with her memories. She says no, and he feels insulted. He asks her about Spartacus. She says he began alone; but on the day of his death thousands would have died in his place. Crassus asks if he was a god. She says he was a simple man, but Crassus calls him a murderer and an outrage to Rome. He wants her to understand, and he says he must understand. She says he is afraid of Spartacus and that is why he wants his wife. She says nothing can help him because of his fear. He says they will see, and he goes out.
At night Spartacus and Antoninus are sitting on the ground chained. They talk about what they could have won. He says tens of thousands said no to Rome. He talks about their songs, and Antoninus says that now they are dead. Spartacus wonders about the baby. Antoninus asks if he is afraid to die, and Spartacus says no. Antoninus admits he is afraid. They see Crassus come out of the palace on his white horse. He walks over to Antoninus and says the night passes slowly. He asks Spartacus if he is Spartacus and says he must answer him. He slaps him, and Spartacus spits in the face of Crassus who orders the centurion to have them fight now. Caesar says they are to fight in the morning, but Crassus says they will fight now for him. The soldiers form a circle and unchain them. Spartacus tells Antoninus that he will kill him right away and that is his last order for him. They each pick up a sword, and Antoninus wounds Spartacus, saying he will not let them crucify him. They fight each other and grapple on the ground. Spartacus asks him to forgive him and stabs him. Antoninus says he loves him like his own father, and Antoninus says he loves him like his son he will never see. He tells him to go to sleep, and Antoninus dies. Spartacus tells Crassus that he will come back with millions. Crassus wonders what Spartacus would say if he knew that Varinia and his child were slaves in his household. Spartacus does not respond, and Crassus orders him crucified. Crassus says he wants no grave for him, and his ashes are to be scattered in secret. Caesar asks Crassus if he feared him. Crassus admits he fears him now more than he does Caesar.
Gracchus asks his slave Julia not to cry and dismisses her. Lentullus comes in with Varinia with her baby and says they are arresting everyone. Gracchus is glad to meet her and says they all have to make journeys to different places. Gracchus tells Lentullus he is going to Aquitania with Varinia and the child, and he is giving him two million sesterces. Gracchus is going to Picenum, and Lentullus asks him to come with them. Gracchus says no; he is a senator. Varinia kisses Gracchus who says that would really make Crassus jealous. They go out.
A soldiers stops Lentullus and tells him to come down from the wagon. Varinia and her baby are also made to come down. Lentullus says he has a pass. She sees Spartacus on a cross, and he looks down and sees her. She holds up his son and says he is free. She says he will remember him. Lentullus tells her to get in the wagon. She prays for Spartacus to die, and Lentullus makes her leave with him. They travel on a road that has crucified men on both sides.
This historical drama is based on a true story as told in Plutarch’s biography of Crassus. This largest of Rome’s slave revolts began in 73 BC and lasted two years. Rome used its military power to capture and exploit slaves even while they still had a functioning republic. However, the growing power of men like Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar would lead to the overthrow of the republic and the beginning of a dictatorial empire. The revolt led by Spartacus was an attempt to liberate the slaves, but the militaristic Romans would not even let them escape. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for slaves who rebelled.