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

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.