Spartacus, a retelling of the famous slave rebellion currently airing on Starz, somehow never seems to get mentioned in conversations about “prestige television.” While a few critics (and a decently sized audience) champion the show, the premiere of its final season this Friday isn’t being greeted with anything close to the fanfare accompanying, say, Game of Thrones, the show’s most natural peer.
That’s a shame. Over the course of its past three seasons, Spartacus creator Steven S. DeKnight (of Buffy and Angel fame) and his team have developed one of the most insightful progressive social critiques on television, blending a bone-chilling depiction of the effects of structural oppression on individual lives a society with a quietly egalitarian take on gender and sexual orientation.
Spartacus’ basic approach is that gladiators aren’t, aside from their combat skills, all that special: they’re one type of slave in a society constructed around human bondage and class oppression. As one Roman puts it, Spartacus is “admired as a gladiator, yet despised as a slave” — someone whose bloody exploits are to be celebrated but, when push comes to shove, exists to be used and abused in the same way as any other kind of slave.
The systematic abuse inflicted on slaves motivates the main plot arc, the gladiator revolt and its growth into a real military challenge to the might of Rome. But the show’s dynamic isn’t as simple as “Romans are evil, hence slaves rebel.” Each of the main rebel characters is vividly drawn, fighting despite hopeless odds for their own reasons — reasons that are themselves provided by machiavellian Romans.
In a twisted way, the Roman oppressors are as, if not more, interesting than the gladiators and other slaves. Roman society is depicted as an unending quest for social standing, where those lower on the totem pole are targets of constant abuse by their so-called betters. While not subject to the routine, legally sanctioned murder and rape that marks the lives of the show’s slaves, wealthy Romans experience everything from petty social humiliation to the extra-judicial slaughter of their entire households by a rival for power. In Spartacus‘ Rome, standing is worth everything – up to and including your life.
In that world, cruel abuse of slaves is made brutally rational. Because currying favor and building alliances with Romans who can secure your standing can make-or-break your family’s fortunes, it makes sense (from the point of view of the Romans) to use every tool at your disposal to do so. Slaves are unique in that they are human, and hence can be used to put on glorious, bloody spectacles or to satisfy the most depraved sexual desires without any legal recourse. So when powerful Roman Varis asks that gladiator Oenomaus’ best friend (Gannicus) and wife (Melitta) have sex, the Roman who owns them, Batiatus, has little choice but to accept, as doing otherwise would lose him the favor of a social better. Even if Batiatus cared that he was forcing his slaves to rape each other (though he probably didn’t), the class structure of Roman society forced his hand.
By treating oppression as something that’s basically structural, rather than a thing inflicted by individual bad apples, Spartacus gives flesh to a core progressive insight about the power and character of social oppression. Progressives often speak about racism, sexism, and classism as impersonal forces, things that exist in the world independent of how individual people think about them. It can sometimes be hard to connect concrete acts of discrimination and violence to this airier description. But Spartacus is a vivid illustration of how a system founded on a particular form of classism directly, inevitably leads to individual acts of brutality. The social logic of Rome corrupts people’s incentives, giving even Romans capable of extending sympathy to slaves (like Batiatus’ wife Lucretia) cause to treat them in the most inhuman fashion imaginable.
Spartacus‘ critique isn’t just limited to class. The show’s Rome is unmistakably gendered: Roman women, denied prestigious posts in the military and the Senate, can only exercise power indirectly, participating in the struggle for social power through behind-the-scenes politicking. These Roman women are by no means helpless damsels — perhaps the two most effective, intelligent operators on the show are Lucretia and the high-born Illythia — but when they attempt to assert equality in familial or political decisions, they run up against the limits of what Roman society will allow them to do. And while slaves male and female are both subject to sexual abuse by Romans, there’s no doubt that female slaves bear by far the worst of it. One of the clearest markers of the rebels’ moral superiority, by contrast, is their comparatively egalitarian approach to gender. The season 3 relationship between rebel gladiator Crixus and Naevia, a survivor of repeated sexual assaults, is an honest, touching depiction of a supportive partnership. The rebel army also allows women to serve as equals in combat, to deadly effect.
The show’s method of challenging other sexual norms is more indirect. Two of the most formidable gladiators we meet, Barca and Agron, are in what are almost certainly the most consensual, loving relationships ever to show up on the screen — with other men. In Barca’s case, at least, it’s clearly depicted as an orientation. But no one on the show treats this as wrong or strange; LGBT relationships are treated in the same fashion as heterosexual ones. That homosexual partnerships are seen as unproblematic in Roman times serves to point out how arbitrary the elevation of heterosexuality as morally unique in some contemporary circles really is.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its rough spots. The pervasive, graphic violence and nudity — really, it makes Game of Thrones look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — arguably undermines the show’s critique of deriving pleasure from the pain and humiliation of others, especially in the first few episodes where that theme wasn’t particularly well developed. But there’s an equally persuasive case in the reverse. Spartacus is, in my view, asking its audience to reflect on why it likes seeing sex and violence packaged together, and what the relationship is between today’s television viewer and the vicious Romans they’re ostensibly rooting against. That one of the second season’s most emotionally satisfying moments involves the destruction of a gladiatorial arena, with spectators lining the stands, sharpens the point.
So Spartacus doesn’t deserve the 300-lite reputation it has in some circles. It’s one of the most deftly executed, socially conscious shows on television. And it’s certainly worth your time.