It’s a challenge to look back on a series like Spartacus. When it began in 2009, I took it as a juvenile attempt to bring together over-the-top 300-style violence with the baseline hetero-male audience’s collective desire to see Lucy Lawless naked. I had all but written the series off until it showed signs of transforming midway through the first season. Shock and awe-yeahhhh camera work gave way to actual narrative. Sure, it wasn’t HBO’s Rome, but that didn’t make it uninteresting to watch John Hannah curse Jupiter’s cock as he attempted to climb Capua’s social latter. Subtext began to appear within the series’ imagery and long form story-telling found its way into the mix. I offered a public mea culpa before admitting to being hooked on Spartacus. For my last official Spartacus War of the Damned post, I thought I would talk about some parts of the show that have really stood out to me over the last few years.
In the final episode of War of the Damned, Agron promises a dying Spartacus that his legend will live on throughout history. It’s a touching meta moment in the series, and perhaps the best thing a dying leader can hope to hear. But who actually carried Spartacus’ memory through history?
Until Spartacus entered popular culture in the 1960s, he was relegated to the realm of classists and historians. The legend of Spartacus, as written by the Romans, was not about the triumph of individual agency, but the validation of Roman law and civilization. Much to the fictional Agron’s horror, Spartacus spent the better part of two millennia as a ghost story for aristocrats. He was a warning for what happens when the higher orders push those under them beyond the breaking point.
The last fifty years have seen Spartacus appropriated from the narrative of “haves” and rebranded as a populist figure – historical accuracy be damned. Steven DeKnight’s Spartacus is perhaps even more a folk hero than the character directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Howard Fast. The post-modern Spartacus began as a soldier within the Roman Auxiliary. He only became a slave when a betrayal from his Roman commanders saw him fighting in an imperial conquest rather than defending his homeland. A subsequent decision to desert led to Spartacus’ capture and colonization into the lowest order of Roman society.
I won’t presume to guess how much this resonates with the working poor of America, but it’s hard not to see the contemporary influence on the Spartacus story. How many disenfranchised Americans want nothing more than a chance to be a part of the system, yet find themselves betrayed and marginalized by those institutions? How many people put themselves into the spectacle of the internet in search of fame, glory, and a lasting memory by entertaining the masses? In this, DeKnight’s Spartacus is quite successful in continuing the democratization of Spartacus, as initiated by Kubrick and Fast. Moreover, the desire for individual recognition among an alienating global community, where the Internet is our arena, further allows the series’ gladiators, the rock stars of Rome, to inhabit a conceptual space common to a broad audience obsessed with getting their fifteen minutes of fame.
Spartacus and Gay Culture
When I was in high school I wrote a review of Spartacus (1960) for a writer’s craft course. When my teacher asked why I didn’t devote more time to discussing Spartacus’ queer-friendly scenes, I answered with a rather flip, “People were cooler about gay stuff before Christianity. The movie didn’t make a big deal out of it, why should I?”
During Spartacus’ first season bonafide television and culture critics, I mean people who get paid to do write about TV for a living, would not shut up about Crixus’ and Spartacus’ apparent unresolved sexual tension. I was unimpressed. Neither character was gay. Characters are allowed to hate each other without wanting to have sex with each other, deal with it. Meanwhile Barca, one of the series openly gay characters, inhabited a character space akin to one of the gang rapists from The Shawshank Redemption. Simultaneously, all the women, once again playing into sophomoric fantasies, were secretly bi-curious. Yet critics could not seem to move past the juvenilia of Spartacus’ and Crixus’ non-existent tension.
Thankfully, the series seemed content to grow up while a great many other people were trying to figure out pitchers and catchers. Vengeance, the series’ second chronological season, saw the creation of a new same-sex relationship. In a series where seemingly every other relationship was forged out of convenience, politics, opportunity, lust, protection, or revenge, Agron and Nassir proved to be the only healthy and mutually supportive paring of the show.
I’m sure a great many people, likely with more legitimacy to speak on gay-advocacy than I possess, have written at length on the importance of Agron and Nassir as an openly gay couple within a very hetero-normative cable TV series. But if I can revisit a modified form of my high school thesis on Spartacus (1960), I think this series has done a great thing in crafting a space where everybody is cool with same-sex couples, even if it has to do a little girl-on-girl pandering along the way.
Spartacus Vengeance’s Fatal Mistake
Point 1 – Losing Andy Whitfield was a tragedy. Not finding a way to keep John Hannah in the series was a mistake. When a long form drama has the chops to maintain multiple leading men (John Hannah, Andy Whitfield, and Manu Bennet) it can’t afford to lose two of them at the same time. Gods of the Arena didn’t even have the decency to make its half-season arc focus on Crixus. Such a decision would have facilitated an introduction to Liam McIntyre couched in a greater attachment to Crixus.
Point 2 – Rather than having Batiatus survive the attack on the Ludus, and subsequently be elevated to desired station, thus giving the series an actual reason to be rooted in Capua, we were introduced to half a dozen new Romans with one-off intrigues. The Upstairs Downstairs element of the show was lost at a time when McIntyre was uncertain as Spartacus and the writers only saw fit to have him speaking in dry speeches. Even if John Hannah was only used for five episodes, it would afforded enough time to allow Galber to become a leading man in his own right. Meanwhile having Batiatus concentrate a half-dozen new intrigues into one character would have made the story telling infinitely more efficient.
I’ve taken issue with the series’ historical accuracy from time to time. All too often Spartacus seemed to get the minor details right while buggering up some of the bigger ideas. Upon re-reading some Plutarch and Appian I’ve been reminded of one of my earliest lessons in Roman history: The Romans are the biggest liars of them all.
Seriously, history is a hell of a lot easier to write when the goal is not to be accurate to fact, but to create a legacy for your allies while simultaneously vilifying your enemies. Bearing that in mind I’ve put together a point-counterpoint on some of the series ongoing historical “liberties.”
Ancient Romans were a pious and proper people. Nobody had sex like they did on Spartacus.
Right, and Silvio Burlusconi would have made sure his biographer included the part about Bunga Bunga parties if the press hadn’t found out about them.
Spartacus died in 71BC.
Maybe, maybe not. The “I’m Spartacus” moment/sequence in Kubrick’s movie and DeKnight’s series, respectively, reflects the fact that in an ancient army few people can recognize their general. Most people in Spartacus’ army were just following the person in front of them. Only a handful of Captains would have been able to recognize Spartacus or Crixus. Of course, the Romans are not going to be apt to write a history where the man who undermined the Republic escaped to perhaps one day threaten Rome again. Spartacus died as an idea in 71BC, the man bearing his name may have survived.
Roman swords are great for cutting off people’s heads.
False. The gladius is a short sword that would be quite terrible as a tool for beheading. It is best used when partnered with a legionaries’ shield and used as a stabbing weapon.
Final Thoughts, for now
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t more to say about Spartacus. When three big themes and three smaller ones run nearly 1700 words it probably indicates a need for me to write an actual paper on the subject.
In the end, Spartacus’ legacy will be as a show that began as tawdry titillation and grew into a series which questioned the way we interact with history. It didn’t seek to subvert what we think we know, rather it looked for gaps in the primary sources and choose to live in those spaces, spaces where perceptions of the past are checked by modern historical sensibilities. This is no small feat. Arguably something like Game of Thrones, though similar in format and tone to Spartacus, will never be able to do what Spartacus accomplished. For that reason, as well as countless others, Spartacus will prove to be a pop culture event worthy of much critical discussion and dissection.
Thanks to everybody who kept up with these posts over the last ten weeks; it was a hell of a ride. A special thanks to the Google+ Spartacus Circle for allowing me to promote my work every week. Further thanks to Jennifer Adese who has been a fantastic supporter of these reviews, and this website, since I got it off the ground.
Nos morituri te salutamus