Spartacus: Blood and Sand smashed its way onto Northern American screens in January amidst an orgy of blood, sex, severed limbs and inevitable controversy. With the success of historical epics such as Rome and The Tudors, Spartacus focuses on the underbelly of Roman societies, the base elements of Caligulan excess. Watched by over a million viewers in the US, the show was quickly snapped up by Australian, Dutch, Canadian and UK networks but with its popularity comes calls for bans and censorship.
The show is based loosely on the story of Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator who led a bloody rebellion against the roman empire. The historical figure has long been favored by writers due to the scant lack of facts surrounding his life, which allows for great interpretative freedom.
So is Spartacus: Blood and Sand merely a cheap violent and pornographic exploit, disguised as entertainment, or is it an exploration of class polarization, slavery and gluttony? Vivienne Pattison, director of the campaign group Mediawatch UK argues that ‘we can no longer ignore the fact that what viewers see on television has an impact on society'. This debate is not new and the idea that human behavior is learned and influenced by the images we are subjected to has been studied for years. Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiment where children were shown to be more likely to act aggressively if they had first been exposed to aggression, sparked a slew of subsequent studies and to this day there is no definitive theory as to whether the media can influence behavior.
Firstly, it is important to point out that Spartacus is a television show, its primary aim is to entertain. It makes no excuses for having fun with the stylistic cinematography reminiscent of films like 300 and Gladiator. Sword slashes result in a torrent of blood that often washes over the screen and body parts litter the ground after every action sequence. But underneath the loud and obnoxious bravado, Spartacus has a lot to say and the seemingly timeless issues of power, politics and sexuality are prevalent in every blood stained crevice.
Blood and Gore
I have personally never experienced such a graphic portrayal of violence on the small screen. Spartacus is without a doubt gratuitous in its depiction of battle. Heads roll, intestines spill and even the odd face is carved from its skull. I have been exposed to violent imagery in TV, Film and video games from a young age and I was shocked by some of the scenes. But, for me anyway, it never seems needless and in fact without it the show could easily turn into another shallow peek into what is easy to disregard as a distant point in Human and social evolution.
Whilst watching Spartacus, a chilling realization washed over me whilst I sat grinning at the fountains of blood that ensued as the protagonist fights his way from pit fighter to Champion: I was no different from the arena crowds screaming for blood from the balconies. Whether intentional or not, Spartacus asks the question: have we really moved on that much? The very fact we can identify with these characters and the prevalence of revenge fantasies which litter every medium of entertainment, seems to imply that the animal in us all is only masked by the civilized society we live in today. Such is the popularity of violence as entertainment, that we must employ media watchdogs to police our television screens to make sure we never go too far.
I am wary however, of sounding like a modern art critic, reading between the lines and finding intellect and irony where there are none. But whether the producers intended to provoke this rather uncomfortable truth, it certainly poses interesting questions of how far we should satisfy our more base instincts, or if we should acknowledge them at all.
There is no getting around it: Spartacus contains a lot of naked bodies. Slave girls stand nude like a selection of meats at a delicatessen and the gladiators spend much of their time parading their genitalia as a display of their masculinity. But before we pose the question of whether it is a necessary inclusion, it’s important to examine why it is so many find it unacceptable in the first place.
What constitutes pornography is incredibly subjective and there are many that reel from even the slightest hint of skin in film, television or literature. But why is this? We all poses human bodies and we have all experienced them in the multitude of shapes and sizes that they exist in. Society has a difficult time separating nudity from sexuality and even though contemporary life is often perceived to be incredibly liberal, this is actually far from the case. It remains illegal for women to bare their breasts in the United States (New York State the exception) even on a beach, whilst boxing, where people systematically beat one another, continues to be one of the most popular sports worldwide.
Spartacus throws this convention to the wind and in doing so, highlights the very thing campaigners accuse of it: The objectification of the Human body. Slaves are depicted as the material possessions of the ruling classes and their bodies are used and abused however the powerful elite see fit. It is an interesting thing to see a champion Gladiator forced to stand naked whilst a senator's daughter gawks at him like a slab of beef at a butcher.
The sex itself is not portrayed in a way that provokes sexual arousal in the viewer, but is instead rather uncomfortable to watch. The audience is forced to discard the accepted notion of sex as private and consensual and provides a consistency with the cheapening of human life that the scenes of violence provide. No doubt many will find it impossible to justify the amount of bare flesh that exists within Spartacus and it is very possible that many of the scenes are unnecessary to the story, However, it is always important to question why sex and nudity is so offensive to so many when it is unarguably fundamental to Human life.
Social class is still incredibly influential even today and will probably exist in one way or another for as long as there is civilization. The idea that a person should know one's place is dealt with in great detail within Spartacus and is highlighted by portraying the extremes of class and power. At one point, the head of the Ludus, Battiatus, played by John Hannah, explains his desire to become involved in politics. He is swiftly reminded that he should concentrate on his gladiators and leave politics to those who possess the breading for it. It is this social hierarchy that fuels much of the conflict within the show, as each layer of an extreme class system must remain subservient to those of increased status.
The reason the premise of a peasant revolt of sorts is so compelling, is due to that fact it is deeply embroiled in our history. The rising up of the Proletariat against the Bourgeoisie, or even at it’s most simplistic level of a slave turning against his master, is an ever repeating cycle, but one that never truly succeeds as Karl Marx prophesied. What Spartacus does so effectively is to play on these emotions, seemingly embedded within our psyche and this makes it extremely easy to relate to the characters even though they are living in a time, several thousand years in our history. The controllers of power are always in a much contested position and Spartacus toils with this idea with varying degrees of success.
But is it any good?
Yes. I personally have not enjoyed a television show so much in years and whether this means I have questionable moral values, or was simply watching more closely, is debatable. I’m unsure as to whether the themes I examined above are intentional social commentary, or merely a by product of having that much sex and violence set in a period of time often void of restraint. However, as far as achieving what it set out to do, Spartacus: Blood and Sand does so in spades. Or as John Hannah himself eloquently states, ‘Sex sells doesn’t it? It’s only entertainment. Nobody’s trying to teach you ancient history. It’s supposed to be a bit of fun.’ So yeah, maybe I was reading too much into it…
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