Spartacus: Blood and Tolerance

Sharing is caring!

The Spartacus TV show was never going to be for everyone. It’s a maelstrom of brutal violence, cartoonish gore, nudity, sex and imaginative swearing. Almost anything that could offend a person is here.

Everything except intolerance.

Only one thing is certain with this show - that loincloth won't be staying on for long.
Only one thing is certain with this show – that loincloth won’t be staying on for long.

The world of Spartacus is full of inequality. Class, gender, and wealth all affect people’s chances in lives. It’s the story of slaves and masters, underclasses and overlords. Inequality drives the action.

But you don’t see much of the intolerance that accompanies it in our society. Nobody is judged, either by the producers or by the characters, for their skin colour or sexuality. Gay relationships are treated no differently from straight ones. The cast is mostly white, but the characters never comment on the presence of people of other colours. When race comes up it’s about region of origin – whether someone is a Gaul, a German, a Syrian, a Roman – and even on the lips of the most vicious characters it seldom carries the implication that one group is inferior to another.

I think this ties into a broader moral underpinning of the show, and one that’s surprisingly forward looking for a production that plays to our basest pleasures. Spartacus is very open about sex and violence. We see full frontal nudity, both male and female, displayed with casual ease. We see sex, straight and gay, in a range of different forms, whether it’s about love, fun, power, or something else. We see violence as something horrifying yet strangely fascinating, and are sometimes exposed to the scars it brings, both physical and emotional.

I’m not trying to hold up Spartacus as some shining beacon of modern television. But as I work my way through the fourth and final season it’s providing me with a lot of food for thought, not just insane spectacle. I can’t help thinking that, despite appearances, its heart is in the right place.

If you haven’t watched it already and aren’t put off by gore and nudity, then I totally recommend Spartacus. For folks in the UK, it’s now all on Netflix.

3 thoughts on “Spartacus: Blood and Tolerance”

  1. Um, it’s that a really strange decision to make in a series that it supposed to be set in Rome? Weren’t the Romans crazy racist against practically everybody who wasn’t Roman, and maybe the Greeks a little less? The worst thought the Gods had put them on the Earth and blessed them with cunning and strength, so they could treat everyone else as they pleased, so long as they kept the sacrifices of petition and thanksgiving coming. The best thought that their job was to drag the barbarians kicking and screaming into civilization and in a generation or so, they would thank them for it. And among Roman citizens, there was this big pecking order partially around how long your family had been Roman, or better yet, noble, for.

    So I guess I’d find this easier to swallow in a low fantasy series set in a Romanesque setting but with a culture tweaked for modern sensibilities. As it is, it smacks of erasure and rewriting history. But on the other hand, it is for entertainment. I have a personal rule about gut wounds in my fiction. I know that if you stab a sword in someone’s gut, it is possible to have…spillage. But I am entirely not interested in that level of detail. It is enough to know that they got a sword through their gut. Move along.

    There’s a wonderfully thought provoking discussion in the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang”, which revolves around a persistent-memory hologram program with a self-aware character named Vic Fontaine, set in 1962 Vegas. When the program sets up a routine where a rival pushes Vic out, the main cast engages in a heist plan to try and kick out the usurper. Ben Sisko, usually supportive, has never tried the program and doesn’t get why they’re all taking it so seriously. He (black from New Orleans, former US), has the following conversation with his longtime girlfriend, also black, from a colony planet, so more culturally generically Federation.

    “Sisko: You want to know? You really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you. Las Vegas nineteen sixty two, that’s my problem. In nineteen sixty two, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh, sure they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.

    Kasidy: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there and neither has Jake.

    Sisko: But don’t you see, that’s the lie. In nineteen sixty two, the Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people and I’m not going to pretend that it was.

    Kasidy: Baby, I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but it isn’t meant to be. It shows us the way things could have been. The way they should’ve been.

    Sisko: We cannot ignore the truth about the past.

    Kasidy: Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is it reminds us that we’re no longer bound by any limitations, except the ones we impose on ourselves.”

    The best thing about this conversation, easily one of the better ones and on the nose more than most from Star Trek, is I agree with both of them at different parts. We have to acknowledge how bad the past could be, even the present could be. But in entertainment especially, we have to be able to dream of better, so we might use it as a model to be better.

    So all that to saw that I’m not certain how I feel about this. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica showed absolutely no profession that did not have representatives of both genders, but it wasn’t perfectly gender egalitarian in its plots and dialogue, either.

    1. That Star Trek scene is great, and I’m with you in admiring how it makes me agree with parts of both sides. It’s important to remember the problems of the past, but not to let them keep constraining us.

      As for Spartacus’s glossing over race issues, you may have a point, and it’s one I’ll consider as I finish watching it. There are definitely parts of the Roman attitude that remain, in particular the disdain for those at the top of society for those beneath them. People often identify each other in terms of racial and cultural groups, but not always in ingrained negative terms. It’s as if they’re very aware of those divisions, but unless they’re Roman they don’t usually bring negative stereotypes with them – they develop those stereotypes within the show when they fall out, and get over them when they make up. The Romans with speaking parts are usually aristocrats, and so disdainful of other Romans as well as foreigners, so that race becomes a side issue.

      I’m not saying it’s a perfect approach, and I think an interesting show could be made that really got into Roman racism. It would also have been better if, in this diverse and open setting, they hadn’t made all the really prominent characters straight white guys. But it’s refreshing for a show to be so head-on about the idea that all people are just people, regardless of race, sex or sexuality, and for that I cut it a lot of slack.

      Oh, and if you don’t like spillage in gut wounds then definitely, definitely don’t watch it. The show revels in a cartoonish hyper-gore that is far from being to everybody’s tastes.

Comments are closed.