If art holds up a mirror to our lives, then I wonder what Spartacus: Blood and Sand is telling me.
Underneath All The Cheese is a Cracking Good Story
A thoughtful viewer might decide to skip this re-telling of the Spartacus story. The 13-episode series aired on cable last year, and received slightly condescending, or even hostile reviews. But I kept hearing a lot of good words about it from ordinary viewers, and finally thought I’d give it a try. The worst that would happen is I’d have to turn it off, but it’s not like I have any personal rule about having to finish whatever I start watching.
Once I got past a somewhat clunky first episode, I was astonished to see a tale that keeps growing in power and depth. Yes, it’s full of glistening half-dressed and nude bodies, with lots of stylized slo-mo fights that show blood spurting and pooling all over – which in my view is a sure recipe for campy schlock. Yet even this works to remind us that life in these times was Hobbesian: “nasty, brutish, and short”. Everybody in this story is looking to get ahead, scrabbling for purchase on a more comfortable life, grubbing for favors from their betters, and lording it over those beneath them. A slave’s lot, at the very bottom, was hopeless indeed.
Since little is known of the real Spartacus, the producers and writers create an imagined story about how this man could’ve come to do what he did. The series takes the story of Spartacus up to the moment he overcomes his owner. We see how he gets taken as a slave, gradually becoming more and more degraded, gets turned into a fighting machine, until we wonder if all humanity will be ground out of him. (A special note of interest is the dialog, which is neither contemporary, nor Shakespearean, but some sort of hybrid mixture, and is especially effective at reminding us that this is a different world than ours, and that different mores apply.)
From what little we know today, Spartacus escaped with a band of 60 -70 gladiators, which grew into an army of 70,000, as more and more slaves escaped to the countryside and joined them. This army kept the legions of Rome at bay for 3 years, while marching up and down the length of the Italian peninsula. It must’ve taken someone with personal charisma, leadership, and tactical skills to accomplish this. Whoever Spartacus was, it seems unlikely he could’ve been an ordinary slave turned bandit. These 13 episodes go a long way towards explaining how it could’ve happened, and why this story still holds our attention even 2,000 years later.