Reflections on Reception: Our Journey(s) with Ted-Ed

The gods have been smiling on us for the past year or two. As we have learnt more about the podcasting and popular history game, momentum has been building. One of the highlights has been our collaborations with TED-Ed. Dr G and I have been fortunate enough to contribute to a few projects on Roman History, such as the Vestals, the Emperor Augustus and the newly released Spartacus.

Since beginning my postgraduate studies, classical reception has been a particular interest of mine. As loyal listeners will be aware, I studied the 1960 adaptation of Spartacus for my doctoral thesis. It was fascinating to consider the motivations of the various people involved in the production, the context of the project, the source material that was consulted and that which was ignored, not to mention the backstory of Spartacus himself. There were so many layers to this film and the construction of history was complex and compelling. The complexity stemmed in a large part from the fact that so many people were involved in crafting Spartacus. Most written history that I studied as an undergraduate was produced by a single author; a far cry from the collaborative nature of film.

File:Kubrick - Douglas - Spartacus - 1960.JPG - Wikimedia ...

Kubrick, Douglas and Strode on set – it’s not looking good for Spartacus, if Kubrick’s thumb is anything to go by!  (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Whilst our modest contributions to TED-Ed shorts cannot compare to the production of Hollywood epics, it has been enlightening to experience the construction of history from this side of the fence and to be one of many voices. History involves making choices about which sources to trust, which to highlight, the questions to be asked and the conclusions that can be drawn. However, often popular history involves making these choices on a more dramatic scale. Filmmakers, playwrights, and novelists weave historical stories in different ways to academics and are faced with different choices. TED-Ed is a fabulous medium that reaches millions of viewers all over the world and animation can quickly convey information in ways that actors could not. It’s worth considering the limitations and restrictions that shape the story. For example, how do you fit thousands of years’ worth of interpretations on a person or event into five minutes? How do you reconcile sources that contradict each other? How do you deal with gaps in the sources in an animated short? You generally can’t, and so you make choices.

Early Spartacus and the Sources

There are many problems with the primary sources on Spartacus. The earlier sources are fragmentary, and the longer narratives were written long after the slave revolt was over. Most annoyingly, there are no sources from the slave perspective, and the pro-Roman sources do not always agree with each other on the details. Spartacus’ life before he broke out from the ludus in Capua is uncertain as he did not merit the attention of historians before then. This raises a number of questions, such as:

  • How did he even end up as a gladiator?
  • Was he a prisoner-of-war, captured during conflicts with Thrace?

Our sources describe him as a Thracian, although this could mean that he fought in the Thracian style in the arena. In sources such as Appian and Florus, Spartacus was condemned as a deserter from the Roman army. The latter is the story line pursued in the TED-Ed video, as it provides a clear and satisfactory explanation for Spartacus’ fate, but not everyone would agree with this interpretation. For instance, one of the earliest sources on Spartacus, a fragment from Varro, suggests that he was an innocent man who found himself condemned to the ludus. And what of his life at the ludus? Plutarch mentions a wife that accompanied him into slavery and someone along these lines turns up in many popular interpretations of his life, including my own. However, this unnamed woman is only alluded to in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus 8.3. Did she really exist? AND WHAT WAS HER NAME, PLUTARCH? I DEMAND TO KNOW.

Our Rebel on the Ground

Once Spartacus and his fellow escapees had the Romans’ attention, there are certainly episodes that are attested in multiple sources, such as the legendary escape from Vesuvius. However, there are still plenty of discrepancies or insights that are only found in one account. The character of Spartacus himself is a matter of debate and was quite the sticking point during the production of the 1960 film. Sources such as Sallust and Plutarch provide some unexpectedly positive and heroic details about the slave leader, whereas Appian’s portrait is darker. Appian’s Spartacus can be ruthless in his efficiency, killing all his prisoners and slaughtering pack animals in order to speed up the progress of his army. He also records that Spartacus sacrificed 300 Roman prisoners when one of his fellow rebel leaders, Crixus, perished (App. B.C. 1.117). Crixus is one of the more prominent figures in the slave revolt and is a common character in the various adaptations of the Third Servile War. Although the detail is patchy, I am always intrigued by the relationship between these two men and feel that his death was one of the more significant in the slave campaign. However, a potentially different slant on Crixus’ funeral emerges in another source. I opted for the detail preserved in Florus for Crixus’ death when writing for TED-Ed. Florus (Epitome, 2.8.9) stated that Spartacus made his Roman captives fight like gladiators when holding funerals for his fallen officers, which is too deliciously poetic to ignore! Oh, how the mighty have fallen…

On Interpretations

These are just a few of the examples of the many choices that go into telling the history of a man such as Spartacus in 600 words or five minutes of animation. We certainly have more personal insight into the process of creating this type of history than ever before.  Now that I have my own Spartacus film of sorts, my relationship with Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas is much stronger. It has really brought us together 😉 Thankfully, unlike the somewhat troublesome cast and crew on the 1960 film, the team at TED-Ed have been a dream to work with; providing a lot of editing suggestions, as well as the wonderful animators, musicians, voice actors and so on. It takes a village to bring these stories to life!

Further Reading

Why not grab a copy of Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars? This collection of primary sources and related material has recently been revised and is better than ever.

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!


  1. Henry MacAdam
    December 20, 2018

    Dear Doctors:

    I just read this and I think you have given an excellent summary of what you’re hoping to do in the TedEd contribution on Spartacus. I hope this video finds its way onto many screens in many countries!

    I spotted a small typo at the beginning of line 10 of the section “Our Rebel on the Ground” (you have …”when his one of his”). Removing the first “his” will correct that.

    Cheers, Mac

  2. The Partial Historians
    June 7, 2019

    Thanks for your appreciation and eagle eyes!

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