"Spartacus" begins with three young Roman patricians - Caius, his sister Helena and her friend Claudia, beginning a journey from Rome to Capua along the Via Appia a few weeks after the final suppression of the slave revolt. The road is lined by "tokens of punishment" - slaves crucified in the immediate aftermath of the revolt. During the first day of their travel the party encounter several representative individuals; a minor politician, a prosperous businessman of the equestrian class, an eastern trader and a young officer of the legions; all of whom give their respective perspectives on the rising. On arrival at a palatial country villa where they are to spend the night, the trio meet with other guests, both historical and fictional, who either played key roles in the events just finished or who have sufficient perception to analyze the significance of slavery as an institution within the Roman Republic.
From the encounters at the Villa Salaria, the focus of the novel moves to occasions before and during the actual rising of the slaves. The emphasis is on Spartacus, his life in the mines and as a gladiator; his character, powers of leadership and dreams of a just society where exploitation and cruelty have been eliminated.
The novel changes between third-person omniscient past and present tenses. The novel's narrative structure is that several members of the Roman ruling hierarchy (Crassus, Gracchus, Caius, and Cicero) meet, in the past tense, to relate tales of the events in Spartacus's life and uprising. The tales are told in the present tense directly by the narrator, with details going far beyond the Romans' possible knowledge. The novel deviates from and extends known historical facts. In particular, the real Gaius Gracchus, (154 - 121BC) died about ten years before the birth of Spartacus.
The novel's central theme is that man's most basic universal values are freedom, love, hope, and finally life. Oppression and slavery strip these away until the oppressed have nothing to lose by uprising. Oppressive systems are held together by political systems. Spartacus stands as an eternal symbol of how man must fight against political systems that oppress man's values:
A time would come when Rome would be torn down--not by the slaves alone, but by slaves and serfs and peasants and by free barbarians who joined with them. And so long as men labored, and other men took and used the fruit of those who labored, the name of Spartacus would be remembered, whispered sometimes and shouted loud and clear at other times.
Howard Fast self-published the novel in the United States during the McCarthy era in 1951. He began writing it as a reaction to his imprisonment for charges stemming from his earlier involvement in the Communist Party USA. He had refused to disclose to Congress the names of contributors to a fund for a home for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War. He was imprisoned for three months in 1950 for contempt of Congress.
The final page of the first edition describes some of his difficulties in publishing:
"Readers who may wonder at the absence of a publisher's imprint are informed that this book was published by the author. This was made necessary when he learned that no commercial publisher, due to the political temper of the times, would undertake the publication or distribution of the book. Its publication was made possible by hundreds of people who believed in the book and bought it in advance of publication, so that the money would be forthcoming to pay for its printing. The author wishes to thank these people with all his heart. He is also most grateful to the many people who helped with the preparation of the manuscript, with the editing of it, and with the design and manufacture of the book. He hopes that for some future edition, at a time when it would not subject them to danger and reprisal, to be able to name these people and extend personal thanks to each in turn."
In the 1991 paperback version (ibooks, distributed by Simon & Schuster; ISBN 0-7434-1282-6), the author has a short introduction, "Spartacus and the Blacklist," which expands on the conditions surrounding the writing and publishing of the work.
While both Howard Fast's novel and Stanley Kubrick's film depicted Spartacus as a Thracian who is born a slave and forced to work in the gold mines of Libya and Egypt, the real Spartacus was, from the historical records, actually born a free man who served as a Thracian auxiliary soldier in the Roman army. The historical sources stated that after Spartacus had deserted from the Roman army, he was captured and sold as a gladiator.
The two characters Varinia and Crixus are represented differently in book and film. In Howard Fast's book, Varinia is described as a young German girl with milky-white skin and golden hair, whereas in the film she is depicted as a black-haired Celtic woman from the northern island of Britannia. The Gaul Crixus, in the novel, has red hair and a red beard, but is shown in the film with black hair.
Five gladiator commanders in Spartacus' army – the Thracian Gannicus, the Roman outcast Castus, the Africans Nordo and Phraxus, and the Jew David –; feature in the novel but not in the film. While the Greek slave Antoninus is based on the Jew David, he is never mentioned in Howard Fast's novel.
The death of the Nubian gladiator Draba is depicted differently in the film. During the duel with Spartacus, Draba hurls his spear at the Romans in the guest box and climbs up to the top, only to be perforated by a javelin thrown by one of the Roman guards and then stabbed in the back of the neck by Crassus. In the novel, Draba kills a Roman guard who pounds him on the back with a club to get him to kill Spartacus, and then begins climbing up the wall and is killed by four javelins before he even reaches the top.
Marcus Glabrus, one of the Roman commanders who had been sent out against Spartacus, is based on Howard Fast's character Varinius Glabrus, an inexperienced and rather stupid young senator who leads six of Rome's garrison cohorts against the gladiator army.
Spartacus' attack on Glabrus' camp is described differently in the film and the book:
1. In the film, when they learn that Glabrus and his men have neglected to fortify their camp, Spartacus and his army march down a narrow pathway off the mountain and launch a surprise assault on it, razing it to the ground. Only Marcus Glabrus and fourteen out of three thousand men from the cohorts survive. Spartacus then breaks the Roman commander's baton and gives it to Glabrus, telling him to return to Rome and tell the Senate that the garrison of Rome is destroyed.
2. In the novel, Varinius Glabrus and all of his men but one are killed in the surprise night attack by the slaves. The surviving soldier is brought before Spartacus, given Glabrus' ivory baton of command, and told to inform the Senate that the slaves will destroy Rome and bring them to justice. The City Cohorts annihilated are described in detail by Fast as ceremonial "political regiments" of limited military effectiveness and no match for the gladiators and freed slaves.
In Howard Fast's novel, an impatient Crixus deserts Spartacus' army and heads eastward with an army of Gauls and Germans, only to be ambushed and killed by a Roman legion dispatched to stop the rebels. In the film, Crixus is more patient and remains with Spartacus throughout the entire revolt. The film depicts him as fighting alongside Spartacus against the legions of Crassus in the final battle, only to be killed by one of the legionaries.
After a detachment from his forces is defeated at the hands of Spartacus' gladiator army, Crassus has the survivors decimated – a Roman punishment in which one out of every ten men is beaten to death. In the film, Crassus does not punish his troops and also does not encounter Spartacus until the final battle.
Before meeting Crassus and his legions in battle, Spartacus orders his horse to be brought to him, whereupon he draws his sword and kills it. He tells his men that if he wins the battle he will have thousands of horses to choose from, but if he loses he will not need one. In the film, Spartacus does not kill his horse but rides it in the final battle.
The final battle between Spartacus' gladiator army and Crassus' legions is depicted differently in the film and novel:
1. The opening stage of the film's battle was praised by Time Magazine as a visually impressive "ballet of the legions", with the powerful Roman army advancing over the hill in its characteristic quincunx formation. Spartacus' men send flaming logs rolling down the hillside to smash into the front ranks of the Romans. Crixus and Antoninus then follow up with the rebel infantry. As the legions of Pompey and Lucullus close in on the battlefield, Spartacus leads a cavalry attack on Crassus' troops, hoping to quickly drive them back and then regroup with his men to launch a fresh attack on the Roman reinforcements. The plan never succeeds, as the legions of Pompey, Lucullus, and Crassus close in on the gladiators from three sides and annihilate the majority of the rebel army.
2. In the novel, Spartacus joins his men on foot and leads his entire army against Crassus' legions. There are no battle tactics in the final battle between Crassus and Spartacus; the two armies collide in two great masses and inflict heavy losses on each other. Towards the end of the battle, Spartacus tries to reach Crassus, but is surrounded by Crassus' soldiers and cut down. Six thousand of the surviving rebels, including the Jew David, are captured and crucified on Crassus' orders, while another 5,000 are killed by the legions of Pompey.
In the film, Spartacus survives the final battle, along with Antoninus and 6,000 rebels, and is captured by Crassus' troops. After the six thousand men are crucified along the Appian way to Rome, Antoninus and Spartacus are forced to fight to the death. Spartacus kills the Greek slave and is crucified on Crassus' orders. In both the novel and the historical record Spartacus was killed in the final battle and his body was never identified by the Romans amongst the piles of dead.
The historic revolt of Spartacus took place in 73 B.C and lasted about three years, not nine months as in the film or four years as in the novel (the novel gives the date of Spartacus' revolt as 71 B.C.).