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Spartacus, The Pacific, and the “Last of the Romans”

March 27th, 2010 - 8:51 pm

Beefcake beheading

I have been catching up on the episodes of the new Starz series on Spartacus, the Thracian slave who terrified Rome between 73 to 71 BC, through a mass servile uprising originating in Capua.

At least most of the names of the known characters are right. You can check the main sources of the revolt in Plutarch’s Crassus (the richest and most hated man of the late republic), and the second-century AD Greek historian Appian (a little-read, but fascinating text), and bits here and there in Varro and other compilers.

Both Appian and Plutarch (writing variously between ca. 170-200 years centuries after the incident) seem to draw on the same lost and perhaps first-hand source (their accounts, written a few decades apart, are quite similar), either one of Sallust’s lost books or a later compendium account from one Livy’s lost chapters.

Most recently, Barry Strauss has a fine recent general account of Spartacus’s aims; he also wrote a chapter on Spartacus for Makers of Ancient Strategy, which I edited and comes out today from Princeton University Press. For a comprehensive collection of the primary sources, see Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars, or the essays in Martin Winkler’s edited Spartacus: Film and History.

So what to make of the series? From the episodes I watched, I’m underwhelmed. True, the production is lavishly financed and professionally produced. The actors are in large part good, and do the British-accented ancient world better than in most films.

The series seems an effort to emulate in part Rome — the far better scripted British-televised two-year series that ended in 2007 — in part 300 (slo-mo fighting scenes, computer simulations, blood splashed on the screen, buff, beefed up torsos) — in part Gladiator (suffering and ordeal, before ultimate moral triumph and death), and (unfortunately) in part the American-style, evening soap — something like the old Dallas or Falcon Crest. And all this is supposedly energized by graphic sex (frontal female and male nudity, homosexuality, gratuitous orgies [I was shocked, as it were, to see a nude Lucy Lawless, whose mostly wholesome old Xena series my then teen daughters, and millions like them, once used to watch], and grotesque violence [lopped limbs, beheadings, etc.])

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).

So next season, will the complex battles and campaigns of the slaves’ desperate struggle dominate the series (especially in light of the recent illness of Spartacus actor Andrew Whitfield), as we see one of the most fascinating incidents in Roman republican history at long last unfold?  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.

In the Starz production, however, 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 — and so under that cover we can see a lot of 21st century group and homosexual sex that usually doesn’t make it onto the screen.  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).

That’s the difference between a soap opera and a great novel or film — the ability to turn the everyday minutiae of our pedestrian lives into a larger statement about the human condition. I didn’t see much transcendent thought in this version of Spartacus.

So there is good acting, good scenery, some success in capturing the grubby flavor of Roman life in the provinces — and yet mostly all such efforts are wasted on a soap opera script of who is sleeping with whom, the usual triple-cross betrayals, and surprise plot twists. Take away the next-step nudity (I suppose the male nudity is supposed to be in some way significant), head lopping, and ancient sets and costumes and we are left with Sex in the City psychodrama, rather than speculations of what drove Spartacus (a great favorite later with both right and left totalitarian  socialists) and 70,000 others to take on the best legions of Rome.

Hell In The Pacific

The Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks mega-million-dollar production of The Pacific follows the mood and style of Band of Brothers. And for the most part that is good (although it is hard for American 20-something suburban actors to master the gestures and cadences of a generation that came out of the Depression).

So far in two episodes — mostly on Guadalcanal (following the narrative of the Robert Leckie memoir) — the producers have captured well the mystery of that first major land offensive campaign. After all, it is still almost inexplicable how, just nine months after Pearl Harbor, fresh and mostly combat inexperienced American ground forces (largely the 1st Marine Division and later other Marine and Army divisions) slugged it out with, and annihilated, far more veteran Japanese battalions, when the second generation of superior American planes was not yet on line, logistics favored the Japanese, and the imperial fleet, even after Midway, still outnumbered the Americans in the eastern Pacific.

We often associate military superiority with Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, Caesar’s 10th Legion, the Knights of Malta, Napoleon’s Old Guard, Sherman’s Army of the West, or the creepy SS division of the Wehrmacht. But surely the record of the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific is nearly unrivaled — the Old Breed that was still talked about in reverential tones by later Marines on their way to Okinawa.

I noted in a prior posting the unfortunate remarks of Tom Hanks. Yet, so far in the series, the script seems even-handed, and we are not lectured, contra Hanks, that the animosity of American soldiers fighting to survive one more day supposedly reflected a national policy of preexisting racist hatred.

I’ll look mostly forward to the E.B. Sledge segments, the brilliant WW II memoirist, especially on Okinawa — perhaps the nastiest, more horrific battle in American history, or at least comparable to Antietam or the Bulge — whose 65th anniversary falls on April 1.

The Last of the Romans

What might offer a really tragic topic for a fascinating series — with a host of brilliant and merciless enemies like Khusrow the Persian, the Vandal Gelimer, Vittigis and Totila the Goths, and Zabergan the Hun?

Why not the saga of the Byzantine general Belisarius? His 30 year career (529-559) saw the Last of the Romans (a native Latin speaker from Thrace) fighting to save the beleaguered eastern empire in Mesopotamia against the Persians, only to return home to rescue his emperor Justinian from the Nika riots in the Hippodrome. Then he left for North Africa and in months destroyed the century-long Vandal Empire whose ravages so underline the last thoughts of Augustine. After that he sailed for Sicily, and for a time reclaimed the idea of Roman Italy from the Po to southern Sicily — only to go eastward again to meet the Persians, and then back again to a now collapsing Italy, and then, of course, back to Constantinople to internal exile, trials, and humiliation, only in forced retirement to save the city from a raid of Huns that earned him another rebuke — all during a time that saw deteriorating Byzantine power, chaos in the defunct Western Empire, a raging bubonic plague that killed 300,000 in Constantinople, the dome of Santa Sophia collapsed and for a time in ruins, and an emperor Justinian and his often lethal wife Theodora who alternately rewarded, recalled, punished, ruined, incarcerated, and reprieved the old general, whose conniving older wife Antonia, a court intimate of Theodora, at times tried to protect her spouse, at times seemed as much against as for him.

Had Belisarius not been recalled so frequently by his serially suspicious emperor, and even more often shorted of supplies, he might well have pulled off Justinian’s grand dream of reuniting most of the West into a reconstituted Roman Empire (mad, but not entirely mad, given the inherent weakness of the rule of the Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, and Franks). And for all the charges of insubordination and treachery, in the end the old Byzantine general was more loyal to his emperor than any in his immediate circle, and fair-handed to local populations in an age of violence and banditry.

If Mel Gibson is looking for a script, it offers far more potential than even did William Wallace.

And that’s that — I think all of us needed a break from the health-care mess and the growing storm clouds of debt on the horizon.

Subscript. Some have remarked about my February 2009 “The Impending  Obama Meltdown,” written weeks after the President was inaugurated and at the height of his popularity. I’m afraid I retract nothing, nada. The passage of health care proves little yet, other than its enactment required the most blatant practices of political bribery and legislative manipulation in memory. That ends-justify-the-means win is going to come back to haunt the Democrats for generations when they are in the minority and seek its traditional, but now discredited, sanctuaries.

So far, Obama & Co. have suffered the most rapid decline in polling history of any first-year administration, from around 68% to below 50% in a mere year, and is looking at a large correction, perhaps of historical proportions, in the 2010 referenda. That seems to me enough of a meltdown — well aside from $2 trillion added in additional debt, near 10% unemployment, a neutralist foreign policy, and the most polarized divide in contemporary society since the era of Richard Nixon, mostly brought on by Obama’s campaign pledges of  centrist governance followed by a hard left domestic agenda.

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