In 1960, just before a new administration under John F. Kennedy was taking office, heralding the vision of a “New Frontier,” Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus premiered in Hollywood. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name, written in 1951. Both writers had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the national persecution of writers and artists with past communist associations (Trumbo was one of the original group of the Hollywood 10). Both had been imprisoned during the Cold War era.
The story of Spartacus, founded on that passage of Roman history where the slaves—Gallic, Spanish, Thracian and African—rose against their masters, and formed themselves into a military organization, and for a time successfully resisted the forces sent to quell them,” was an important element of the American cultural imaginary during the 19th century. The great American tragedian Edwin Forrest won renown in the role of Spartacus in Robert Bird’s The Gladiator. “The speech of Spartacus,” wrote Walt Whitman,” in which he attributes the grandeur and the wealth of Rome, to her devastation of other countries, is fine; and Mr. Forrest delivered it passing well.”
The story of the slave rebellion against the Roman Empire became resonant during a time of abolitionist sentiment in the North and fear of slave rebellions in the South during the 19th century. When casting the story for a contemporary film, producer Kirk Douglas chose actors according to a specific “language scheme”: the Romans would be played by British actors; the salves by American performers.
There is a scene in the 1960 film when the Roman patrician Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier) shows his young slave attendant Antoninus (Tony Curtis) a panoramic view of Rome from his villa. Roman armies are marching in the distance to quell Spartacus’ slave rebellion. Crassus describes the city seen in the distance on one of its fabled hills:
The might, the majesty, the terror of Rome…. There is the power that bestrides the known world, like a colossus. No nation can withstand Rome. No man can withstand her…. There’s only one way to deal with Rome, Antoninus. You must serve her. You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must love her.
It was not the first time that Rome was evoked as a symbol to conjure imperial aspirations.
The American Legion sent a letter to “17,000 local posts” warning them to NOT SEE Spartacus because of its alleged communist ties. One influential columnist in Hollywood wrote: “The story was sold … from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go see it.”
But JFK—with a more perceptive understanding of mythic evocations—“sneaked out of the White House in the middle of a snowstorm one night, to go see Spartacus at the Warner Theater.” Following the lead of its young president, the American public followed.
 Walt Whitman, “Forrest as Gladiator,” in A.M. Nagler, A Sourcebook in Theatrical History (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 545.
 Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), 276-306.