Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Spartacus: Blood and Sand

MMX. XIII Episodes, approximately LV minutes each.

*spoilers throughout*

I wonder if a more loathsome people have graced television screens than the Romans of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. In watching Spartacus one might forget the Roman farmer tilling his field, the merchant selling his wares in the marketplace, and the student practicing his declamation. The patricians are neither the keepers of the cultural flame nor the administrators of the republic, but. . . well let us consider those Spartacus presents us.

1) Legatus Claudius Glaber disobeyed his orders to maintain order on the Roman border in the east and marched his army in the opposite direction to gain glory by fighting someone else. His purpose is to gain standing with his wife's father and advance his rank. In pursuing a different enemy to fight he he betrays his word to Spartacus and Spartacus' people who were counting on the Romans to help them vanquish a nearby tribe who regularly raids them. When Spartacus and his men break their alliance with the Romans, Glaber sells both Spartacus and his wife into slavery (and in doing so separates them.)

2) Glaber's wife, Ilithyia, A) buys a gladiator in order to get him to sneak up on Spartacus outside of the arena and kill him. When the gladiator fails, she allows him to be tortured, mutilated, and crucified. B) When Ilithyia is caught by a fellow patrician woman in flagrante delicto with a gladiator, Ilithyia, out of embarrassment and fear of her reputation, murders the woman by bashing her head into the floor. C) Locks the entire party in the villa when the slaves revolt, leading to the guests' deaths.

Other characters of this class we get to know less well but like no more. Magistrate Calavius cares more about blueness of blood than governing competence, his wife is an airhead, and his son is a spoiled brat who would toss away the life of a man on a mere whim.

Yet these acts pale in comparison to the deeds of Batiatus and his wife Lucretia, the central characters of Spartacus. Batiatus is the owner and manager of a ludus he inherited from his father, but he and his wife are possessed of a relentless drive to rise in their social circle. Their avarice and political machinations are in fact too voluminous and convoluted to describe, but their disregard for lives and all else besides wealth and power are odious to the point of ridiculousness.

The rest of the plebeians are more or less sketched in as the background of Spartacus. They are not working class folk simply getting by in conducting their quotidian business, rather the women expose themselves at gladiatorial contests where the men drown in wine and even the children gnash their teeth in lust of the bloody spectacle.

The fighters in that spectacle, though, are the true nobility of the show. Spartacus is betrayed by Glaber, loses his wife only to regain her in her dying moments, learns to accept his fate as a gladiator, but finds the Roman world and the world of the ludus too corrupt to live in. He is repeatedly exploited, misled, and betrayed by Batiatus. Crixus, the champion prior to Spartacus and his only equal in the arena, maintains a strict code of honor about the necessary loyalties to his dominus and his brother gladiators, and what life as a gladiator demands of, and denies, him.

Varro is perhaps the show's most interesting character. A free man who entered the ludus to pay off gambling debts, he struggles with the guilt an shame of that misdeed, missing his wife and child, anger that his wife is expecting a new child (not his), and the risk of falling back into his gambling addiction. The friendship with Spartacus that sustains and ultimately dooms him was the most compelling plot thread of the series.

Sharing his thoughts on Spartacus, classicist and military historian Dr. Victor Davis Hanson makes several points worthy of elaborating upon:
All historical fictions need to invent story-lines and personal relationships, given the dearth of historical information. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus included personal dramas not in the ancient record, such personal interactions were subordinate to, and enhanced, the known narrative about both the nature of the revolt and the Roman reaction to it. . .
What baffles me is that the series is spending an entire year on mostly what we don’t know (the life of Spartacus before the revolt) and nothing on what we do (the revolt itself). . .

. . .we never quite see what the point of all these trysts, orgies, and beheadings are leading to, other than a generic reminder that slaves had it bad. . .

If the point is to teach us how awful the owners were, to prove to us they deserved what they will they soon get — when they are strung up and spliced and diced as the revolt starts — all that could  have been done in one episode (ditto the violence of the arena). [1]
Dr. Hanson's point is the essential one for understanding Spartacus: Blood and Sand: what is the effect of the dramatic inventions? The fact that Romans are a nasty, cruel, brutish people is really the one trick of the show, therefore we must assume it is significant. Is there nothing else? What of the notable issue of slavery, the issue at the heart of  the 1960 Kubrick-directed Spartacus? From the film's opening prologue, ". . .yet even at the zenith of her pride and power, the republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery." In Blood and Sand not only are the gladiators resigned to their fates in the arena, their conduct there is a great point of honor for them, whether it is Varro paying down his gambling debts or Crixus bringing honor to the house of his master. Spartacus, at first unwilling to "embrace his fate," gradually grows resigned to it and forgets what is "beyond these walls." Crixus only rises up when he is sabotaged by Batiatus to fall in the arena (versus Spartacus no less), and Spartacus only when he learns Batiatus was ultimately the cause of his wife's death. They did not rise up simply, or purely, because they were slaves, but on account of some other offense. The soap-opera intrigues and one-dimensional representation of the Romans coupled with the more or less muddled thinking of the gladiators makes it hard to draw any specific conclusions.

The great complexities of Roman culture, their seemingly mixed views on the gladiatorial games, and the tangled politics of this particular era were appropriate material for a television show with many episodes and hours to fill. The narrow focus on these characters and the repetitive looks at the same matters squander the opportunity. (Consider the breadth of I, Claudius, which in 12 episodes of comparable length to Spartacus: Blood and Sand covered the era from Augustus to the rise of Nero. Consider too the wealth of issues raised in I, Claudius and its fascinating and contrasting characters.) With the only issues before us being the nasty Romans and the virtuous slaves we have a drama, salted with an extremely graphic presentation, regrettably simplified as the dreams of socialists for whom Spartacus was the proletarian hero par excellence.

Such is not to suggest that Spartacus: Blood and Sand is exceptionally political, it is not. The committed leftist might indeed find it compatible with his ideas even though it does not espouse them, but he also may share my complaint about the vagaries of the motives of the gladiators. The classicist might enjoy some of the accurate details in choice of vocabulary, but the diction is ponderous and delivered with a stilted staccato I suppose is meant to suggest. . . something. The set detail, apart from the fuzzy computer-generated wide shots, may likewise please the historian with the villa's layout and the large statue of Batiatus in the style of the so-called "Barberini Statue" with the Roman patrician holding the busts of his ancestors. Yet set detail does not a drama make.

The graphic nature of the show is ultimately self-defeating as it ends up distancing us by making the actions appear so outrageously bad that their unique qualities as aspects of Roman culture are outshone.

I do not intend to defend the Romans in this space, nor do I wish Spartacus to have portrayed them in a favorable manner. Rather I would simply have preferred to see them more fully portrayed and for the the plots to have generated more significant outcomes. (Consider the contrasting quotes at the top of this essay for context.) Would it not have been more interesting if Batiatus had been a more or less a good man who also kept slaves? What if Batiatus had provided for Varro's wife and child, what if he studied philosophy, or dreamed of joining the senate to correct the corruption. . . what if he had done one or some of those things, and then in order to escape Spartacus had to kill him? There was no moment of understanding for Batiatus and no poignant words from Spartacus in their final confrontation, which was devoid of any deeper probing of their twisted relationship. Even if one wanted an incontestably evil villain, they could have given him a specific and clear flaw that led to his demise. Instead, he is an avalanche villainy, exhibiting every vice conceivable. The quantity and outlandishness of his misdeeds simply distanced him from us, diluted the poignancy of his main flaw, and drew out the drama to unnecessary length.

Dr. Hanson suggested much of what Spartacus dragged out over thirteen episodes could have been done in one. I would add that given how it ended, without capitalizing on any of the drama, it should have.

Additional Thoughts

I found myself far harsher than I expected on Spartacus: Blood and Sand when I sat down to write this review. I indeed enjoyed the touches I mentioned above. Likewise, despite the problems in the writing, John Hannah was an absolute hoot as Batiatus. Andy Whitfield was particularly effective in the early episodes in quasi-Herculean mode with his slight dimness, stubborn streak, and pious bearing of many trials, and also later on account of hints that he followed a personal code somewhat recognizable to us.

On that note, perhaps I was so harsh because of the potential for a story about the Romans. A character who was pious about his duties to his fatherland, family, and ancestors, diligent toward his occupation, and devout in his religious faith, a man who was educated, studious, and curious, and who still kept slaves could have been fascinating, especially for an American viewer today. I qualify that statement so because for all of the similarities we share with the Romans, aspects of language, government, and of course much more, there exists the great gulf of the Enlightenment between us. An exploration of the differences this gulf creates, by means of the characters of Spartacus and Batiatus, would have made a world of difference for the show.

ille, oculis postquam saeui monimenta doloris
exuuiasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira
terribilis: 'tune hinc spoliis indute meorum
eripiare mihi? Pallas te hoc uulnere, Pallas
immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.'
hoc dicens ferrum aduerso sub pectore condit
feruidus; ast illi soluuntur frigore membra
uitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.
–Aeneid. XII. 945-952
vitae philosophia dux, o virtutis indagatrix expultrixque vitiorum! quid non modo nos, sed omnino vita hominum sine te esse potuisset?
–Tusculum Dispuations. V.II.5

N.B. For example of what I consider a subtle contrast of worldviews from different eras, please read my review of "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and for an example of writing that demonstrates specific emotions and not mish-mashed vagaries, please read my review of "Amadeus" and my summary of emotions as described in Aristotle's Rhetoric.


[1] Hanson, Victor Davis. Spartacus, The Pacific, and the “Last of the Romans." March 2010.

(in addition to the works Dr. Hanson mentions in his essay cited above.)

Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life In Ancient Rome - The People and the City At the Height of the Empire. Yale University Press. 2008.

Futrell, Alison.  A Sourcebook on the Roman Games. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, MA. 2006.

Gruen, Erich. S. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

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