There is no debating the fact that television programming includes more sex and violence than in yesteryear. Dramatic franchises such as Law & Order and CSI routinely exploit legal and scientific speculation in these areas to plumb the darkest depths of narrative possibility, but the blackening of content is by no means limited to drama. Primetime comedy too has become much bolder, with the humor of such series as Two and a Half Men and Two Broke Girls having taught audiences to blush new shades. Though mainstream networks are complicit, the vanguard of this steady march toward deregulation is made up for the most part of specialty cable channels. Over the years, original specialty cable series Oz, Trailer Park Boys, The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Game of Thrones have presented increasingly popular models of audacity, outriders whose role in many respects has been to probe, drive back, and possibly weaken those defenses that would oppose a more concerted advance.
To understand how extreme television has truly become, and how popular the trend is, one need look no further than the American dramatic series Spartacus, an original production of the Starz premium cable network. Spartacus: Blood and Sand went to air in January 2010, and has recently—subtitled Vengeance—concluded its second season. With an opening weekend audience of 2.7 million viewers for Vengeance, the series is an unprecedented success for the network; when its third season begins, it will be the first time a Starz original series has had one.
Created by Steven S. DeKnight, produced by Sam Raimi, and starring such historical-fiction alumni as Peter Mensah, Lucy Lawless, and John Hannah, Spartacus manages to up the ante even in a desensitized age, involving full-frontal nudity, hard profanity, and scenes of extreme gore and sexuality. The series excesses are not in themselves unjustifiable. The historical world of Spartacus, that of the Roman Republic during the first century BC, was one of slavery and bloodsports, with the abuse of subjugated and lower-class peoples empowered by a polytheistic hierarchy. The dignity of those enslaved is forfeit in every way imaginable—as one imagines it would have been—with routine dismemberment, rape, and various forms of humiliation. As historical fiction, Spartacus exploits the flesh to create a sense of ancient-world realism, and in many ways, it succeeds. Where the series truly becomes prurient is through its reliance on mortification as a narrative vehicle rather than as an incidental element of setting. Simply put, when human degradation becomes a draft horse, human dignity is its fodder. As a result, Spartacus is a self-cannibalizing program, seeking to convey a story of value to its human audience through progressively devaluing human life.
As is the necessity with fiction set in the past, Spartacus looks to history to provide the landmarks by which its story is oriented rather than to provide the road itself. There are two main sources for this history: Plutarch, who recounted its events a hundred years later in his Life of Crassus, and Appian a generation after that in his History of the Civil War. Spartacus is reported to have led a group of gladiators first to rebel against their master and then into war against Rome in the years 73-70 BC. The original victories of the gladiators eventually inspired some 70,000 slaves to join them, creating a snowball effect that, some historians argue, emboldened what was initially a desire to escape Italy into a roving, full-blown campaign against the republic.
For a time, and because Rome was involved in at least two other wars abroad, there was real worry about Spartacus and his forces. Plutarch argues that the rebels eventually became overconfident, however, and were defeated in 70 BC by Marcus Licinius Crassus and his forces. The six thousand prisoners of this battle were then crucified at regular intervals along the road between Rome and Capua, where the revolt began; the body of Spartacus himself was never recovered. The idea of Spartacus as an enemy of civilization continued until the eighteenth century, when French playwright Bernard-Joseph Saurin portrayed him as a hero in an eponymous tragedy. Since then, the legend of Spartacus has inspired figures as diverse as Karl Marx, Stanley Kubrick, and Arthur Koestler, and recruited as a symbol of emancipation for everything from the working class to homosexual men.
Very little is known historically of Spartacus before his rebellion, however, and it is upon this murky screen that Spartacus: Blood and Sand—as well as the prequel series Gods of the Arena (2011)—projects its fiction. The first episode begins with a disheveled prisoner, the eventual Spartacus (played by the late British actor Andy Whitfield), in an underground holding cell. Aboveground is a packed arena, where, to the delight of the crowds, a previous slave is being carved up by a gladiator. Blood splatters the lens, a ‘fourth-wall’ filming device intended to emphasize realism. Despite this emphasis, human bodies in Spartacus contain around fifty pints of blood. The scene flashes back. The prisoner in chains is a warrior of a tribe of Thracians, an Indo-European people of and around Roman Macedonia, who agreed to leave their families to fight for Rome against a common enemy, the Getae. The Thracians are betrayed when the Roman commander Claudius Glaber decides late in the campaign to attack a more powerful enemy. He refuses to release the Thracian auxiliary, despite the threat the unpursued Getae now pose to their unprotected families. The man who will come to be known as Spartacus nevertheless leads a small group of the Thracians to desert, and returns alone to find his village being destroyed by the Getae. He manages to rescue only his wife, Sura. Despite the slaughter of their people and everything they know, they soon have passionate sex (again). What is supposed to separate their true love from other trysts we encounter in the series is an ululating soundtrack, which strikes up adventitiously whenever the two lock eyes. He and Sura are apprehended by Glaber and his men, she sold into slavery and he condemned to die in the arena for his desertion. When, however, he manages to kill all four of his would-be executioners, he is purchased by the owner of a local gladiator school, who calls him Spartacus, after a famous Thracian king. We never learn his real name.
In terms of sensibilities, Spartacus takes no prisoners. As a drama about gladiators, it sets new standards for violence and bloodshed, but it also uses explicit scenes of sex in order, presumably, to provide a balance. Much of the sexual material is simply pornographic rather than violent, but because the characters are usually under duress, the effect is the same. In terms of savagery and degradation specifically, the existing two seasons and one mini-series of Spartacus might readily furnish a litany of scenes to turn the stomach. Neither sex, nor sexual orientation, is spared. Only a little less shocking is the language—often a blistering chain of f- and even c-words whose vulgarity isn’t so much in their use as it is in the raw, unnatural, and gratuitous fashion in which they erupt into the dialogue. Spoken language in Spartacus is deliberately stilted; with an avoidance of articles such as ‘the,’ for example, it appears intended to mimic Latin. Viewers who are linguistically inclined may wonder, then, why there is such staggering reliance on Germanic forms of cussing. As with the language and behavior of stereotypical tough guys in other fiction, that of the gladiators seems to have been scripted by members of the chess club.
Based on these elements alone, it may no longer seem necessary to explain just how Spartacus steadily erodes any values its characters possess. Nevertheless, one can get a good idea from looking at the titular character himself, and how the life of Spartacus in Season One, Blood and Sand, is gradually stripped of all value and meaning. When he is first apprehended, he vows to do what he must to recover his wife. In exchange for his obedience, his master, Lentulus Batiatus, promises to find her and return her to his side. Though it is made abundantly clear that Sura is being peddled about somewhere as a sexual slave, much of the first season sees Spartacus imagining her back at his side and planning to escape and resume their life together. His hope is implausibly naïve, and it comes as no surprise when Sura is returned to him all but dead, secretly wounded en route by an agent of Batiatus in order to retain Spartacus’s allegiance. After her death, Spartacus forsakes his Thracian past, vowing to be only a gladiator. His former identity annihilated, his remaining humanity is laid open to the narrative’s incessant scavenging. He agrees to provide sexual services as part of his position, and is humiliated by being paired unwittingly—and as part of a sordid subplot—with the wife of Claudius Glaber, who originally captured him and enslaved his wife. Later, during an exhibition match to celebrate the coming-of-age of the magistrate’s son, Spartacus is forced to execute his only friend. The man’s widow will not accept Spartacus’s pledge to provide for her, instead aborting her pregnancy and becoming a servant herself in the venomous household of Batiatus. Even Spartacus’s earned position as the champion gladiator of Capua becomes a hostage to his master’s ruthless political ambitions, to be squandered at any moment. By the time the final episode of season one rolls around, the sole remaining purpose of the Spartacus’s life is, as the episode is named, to “Kill Them All.” The gladiators carry out their butchery, and only a couple of the ruling-class characters survive into the second season.
Spartacus is a crucible of human dignity. Positive values are introduced for the sole purpose of being burned away, and because its characters have been so thoroughly dispossessed by the end of the first season, the second season is forced to find new values to feed its furnace. New friendships; new loves; new loyalties—all are furniture built deliberately of kindling. With the end of Spartacus already dictated by history, the series’ graphic excesses are not about lending humanity to a bloody piece of our past, but about exploiting the most perturbing assumptions of its circumstances. This use of history invites audiences to dress their sadistic voyeurism in the robe of education—to congratulate themselves for having had the moral courage to consider the harsh existence that Spartacus portrays. It uses fiction, in other words, to do something that the Marquis de Sade—the originator of sadism—repeatedly outlined as the key to mastering one’s existence. It makes what is repulsive not only enjoyable, but desirable.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com