The 2010 Starz historical drama Spartacus is terrible; however, it’s terrible in a fascinating way. With a truly pathological lack of self-awareness, it demonstrates its own dedication to destroying male bodies. To add irony, it delivers this titillation within a narrative constructed in such a way that it exposes the audience’s base, even carnal interest in the spectacle of male bodies being eviscerated. Gratuitous violence, homoerotic subtext-that’s-barely-even-“sub”, politics, and scatological obsession all intermingle in Spartacus with shameless fervor as the fundament of narrative. With a pornographer’s wink towards its salivating audience, Spartacus delivers climax, in the form of piles of broken and brutalized male bodies floating in rivers of blood, while implicating the audience in delivering the massacre.
Looking Hard for the Camera
The first season of Spartacus spends an episode laying down some basic exposition. Our hero is a Thracian man, who joins the Romans out of an alliance of convenience. When the Roman general that he and his fellow Thracians are allied with, Legatus Glaber, decides to abandon his promises to the Thracians in favor of a military campaign of political importance for his personal career, our hero and his fellow Thracians revolt against the alliance and split ranks. This sets the stage for the vindictive Roman general, failing an opportunity to upstage a political rival on the battlefield, to capture and enslave our hero and his fellow Thracians, as well as kidnap our hero’s wife.
In this same episode, we witness the first scene where the confluence of Spartacus’ aforementioned obsessions becomes blindingly clear. At a festival held by the wealthy and powerful Senator Albinius of Capua, father of Ilithiya – and, therefore, disapproving father-in-law of Legatus Glaber – various politicians such as first season mainstays Batiatus and Lucretia (spouses and partners-in-crime), and their most prominent rival for favor, Solonius, show off slaves that they offer for the gladiator games. Batiatus, envious of the quantity of Solonius’ offerings and the favor he garners for them, whinges, “That man has fingers in all the proper assholes – he wiggles them and everyone shits gold.” Sex, politics, and greed take shape at the gladiator games, the quintessential site of orchestrated violence.
It is important to note that in this scene (as throughout the show) there is gratuitous and ubiquitous female nudity. Unnamed female slaves, covered in skimpy, jewel-encrusted outfits that don’t cover much at all – as (almost universally) male characters talk, they writhe and wriggle in shallow pools of water, never speaking. Even the camera, after a brief pan and a few cuts to show that they are there, generally relegates them to the background or the fringe of the camera. With few exceptions, women are pushed out of view as much as possible in order to facilitate an obsession with men.
It is, in fact, almost naked male bodies that occupy the center of the camera for most of this scene, and the vast majority of the screen-time in the show. The next time the camera is concerned with the ubiquitous naked women it is through the gaze of our hero and his fellow Thracian captives, gazing at the decadence that surrounds them in Senator Albinius’s villa, where they have been shown off to guests. But it is important to notice, the show is really only passingly concerned with even the named women in the show; Sura, our hero’s wife, is menaced by barbarians and then is kidnapped halfway through the first episode, dragged offscreen so our hero can…well, do hero things. After that, we see her once in a dream our hero has of her, where he fucks her and then powerlessly watches as she dies in a gory detonation. Then, she is unceremoniously killed before the season is halfway done, after several episodes of her absence. She is damsel’d and fridged, not once, but twice in the first half of season 1. Other female characters, such as Ilithiya and Lucretia, occupy more complicated positions in the narrative, to which we will return.
Nonetheless, despite all the apparent attention paid to women, men occupy the position of the show’s obsession and focus, as is illustrated in the very next scene, where our hero is made to fight in the arena. Once the action gets underway, violence is very carefully choreographed and framed for consumption: every swing of a weapon, every body-blow, every conflagration of gore from wounded bodies is viewed with slow-motion, dead-center filming, as if to prolong the spectacle. Exceptionally gory, heavily affected violence is manufactured through cheap effects and green screen cinematography as if to underscore and intensify the brutality.
Interestingly, the camera makes brief, diversionary cuts to the audience in the arena as they cheer on the violence. They spastically chant, throw things, scream, and froth for the violence in the arena, but they also stand in for the show’s audience. The gratuitous, clearly-faked bloodshed is not for the arena audience (they are fictional, after all) – that violence is for us, the viewing audience of Spartacus. And so, all of the frothy, spastic chanting the crowd performs stands in for our cheering. In response, Senator Albinius informs Legatus Glaber that he will be merciful, and allow our hero to live, despite Glaber’s intent to see him killed in the arena–”ad gladium.” Batiatus steps in to bridge the gulf between Albinius’s need to appease the crowd and Glaber’s grudge. Batiatus offers to buy the Thracian, in the expectation that he will soon die. So, the politicians bargain between themselves, crafting a narrative that they can peddle to their audience as appeasement – just as the show’s writers bargain to craft a narrative that they can peddle to their viewing audience.
This parallelism between the politicians of Capua and the writers of Spartacus quickly solidifies. As the crowd chants, “LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!”–as if chanting along with us, who hope the show continues–Albinius declares, “We will be merciful…What name does the man carry?” Glaber, peeved, replies, “I never cared to ask.” And so, for the first time in the show, the writers, via their politician stand-ins, (Batiatus in particular), name our hero, “The way he fights…like the legend of the Thracian king of old…Spartacus, he was called.” Roll credits, as triumphant music soars and the audience cheers Spartacus’ name.
The Hunger for the Games
But the indulgent maelstrom of politics, sex, money, violence, and scatology only begins there – for a brief example, Lucretia and Batiatus have a lengthy conversation of their political ambitions and money troubles while having sex. This scene immediately cuts to another where a bunch of gladiatorial slaves are naked, heavily oiled, and being cleaned of blood and sand. At least one penis is caught in dead-center view of the camera, for good measure. When our hero is first called “Spartacus,” he quizzically tries to correct the misnomer, but is interrupted by another slave, Crixus, “No-one gives shit to who you were, Thracian.” And, honestly, nobody does. Otherwise, the show would’ve started earlier in our hero’s life. Instead, all we see of “Spartacus” is his life as a gladiator and afterwards.
And this life is a bizarre one. In his first appearance, the Doctore, or gladiatorial trainer, declares, “The gladiator does not fear death. He embraces it, caresses it…fucks it. Each time he enters the arena, he slips his cock into the mouth of the beast, and prays to thrust home before the jaws snap shut.” The bizarre, feverish metaphor conflating (bestial) sex and violence leads to a display where Spartacus resists his masters. When Doctore yells at him to pick up a practice sword and fight another slave, he defies him, and growls, “[Spartacus] is not my name!” Doctore growls back, “Your name – your life – is what we decide.” In other words, “WE ARE THE WRITERS!”
But Spartacus resists further and, incidentally, reveals an interesting dynamic in the narrative. When Doctore’s goading fails to incite Spartacus to violence – precisely the same violence that propels the narrative – Doctore threatens to end the show in the second episode, “I can do nothing with this one. Send him to the mines.” It is at this exact moment that Spartacus picks up the sword given to him and tries to assassinate Doctore from behind. This is the first instance where Spartacus resists the flow of the narrative, and, just as later, he gives in by acquiescing to the narrative’s demands in this peculiarly violent show. He fails to kill Doctore, of course. But he becomes a character in the show, rather than a troublesome, failed plot mechanic. As if to be even more blatant, Doctore refers to the politicians who run the gladiatorial festivals as, “the editor
of the games.”
Looking at Them Looking Like Me
Those ‘editors,’ of course, are influenced by various gazes. One is that of the audience as a mob that cheers and jeers. One is the various ‘politicians’ like Glaber, Solonius, and Batiatus, the stand-ins for the writers. Batiatus in particular prizes Spartacus the way a writer prizes his main character over all of the side-acts. He seeks to craft Spartacus into an attraction for the masses, just as the writers seek to craft Spartacus into an attraction for the masses. Batiatus wants Spartacus to entertain so he can get money, cover his debts, and be wealthy again. The writers want Spartacus to entertain so they can get ratings…which, as it turns out, are eventually equated to money.
There is a third type of gaze that also stands in for the audience, though, and this is where Lucretia and Ilithiya come in. The vast majority of the women in the show are either treated as peripheral ornaments, such as the various naked women in Albinius’ mansion, or unceremoniously fridged, such as Sura; they are treated as trinkets to be fought over by, or traded between, men. Sura, in particular, is merely represented by a small strip of cloth for much of the first season, which Spartacus treasures and fights to maintain possession of. Lucretia and Ilithiya, however, are both stand-ins for males gazing lustily upon men, providing the means for Spartacus’ mostly male audience to enjoy the thinly-veiled homoeroticism of well-oiled men beating and wrestling each other without having to really admit that it is a homoerotic pleasure in the first place.
At an event orchestrated by Lucretia and Batiatus in advance of a festival, they show off their gladiators to various guests. Ilithiya is one such guest, and she shows a carnal hunger for the gladiators throughout the scenes of this event. In evaluating Crixus, she coos, “Your Gaul is of a fine cut, is he not?…Such a man!…I tremble to see him again at the arena.” Ilithiya translates her transparent carnal desire into a desire to witness a spectacle of violence. She gets both in short order.
Lucretia orders Varro, one of the more likable of Batiatus’ slaves and a friend to Spartacus, to have sex with a female slave of Lucretia’s for an audience, which includes Ilithiya and several other guests, male and female. In a corner, two (male) guests exchange bets on Varro’s sexual stamina, while Ilithiya carnally snarls, “I’ve never seen a gladiator fuck before…the way he rams her…like an enraged bull!” For his part, Varro whispers to himself, mid-thrust, “Forgive me, Aurelia[, my wife].” Suffice it to say, it is humiliating for him, and Lucretia’s ongoing marketing of the loverly capacities of a gladiator is in dissonance with reality, but Ilithiya doesn’t notice or mind. Instead, she wears a look of feverishly carnal excitement.
She wears an identical look of hunger while watching the gladiatorial combat between Crixus and Spartacus, “Finally…Crixus. Look how his form catches the sun!” The crowd cheers, and Ilithiya’s loins froth. But she is not the only one; Lucretia wears similar looks when watching Crixus fight, even reacting to Ilithiya’s cooing with jealousy and insecurity. Lucretia hungers so much for Crixus that she literally orders him to fuck her regularly. Lucretia orchestrates displays of violence and sexuality for Ilithiya, but she also does so for herself, and, as Batiatus’ partner-in-crime, for the much larger audiences of the gladiatorial games.
Hard Men Getting Fucked
In fact, this translation of sex to violence, and of violence to sex, is one of the aesthetic hallmarks of the show. When trading banter over a future gladiatorial bout, a gladiator named Gnaeus tells Crixus, “I will fuck your corpse.” When taunting and insulting Spartacus, Barca and Crixus compare him, when supine, to a spread-legged woman waiting to be fucked. When Spartacus taunts Gnaeus, he calls Gnaeus, “a young, wet, girl”, implicitly turning Gnaeus’ chosen weapon, the net, into a yonic symbol (this is reinforced by the fact that Gnaeus keeps casting it over a rigid, wooden dummy that is easily recognizable as phallic).
In truth, all of these are just episodes where the homoerotic equation between violence and sex are made visible; wanting to destroy somebody and wanting to be with somebody are mirrored. When Crixus and Spartacus are poised to kill or brutalize each other, at various moments in the show, they are wrapped in embrace, or straddling each other, as they threaten to thrust their (phallic) swords into each others’ bodies. One moment of particular tension between them – in episode five – erupts into an impromptu wrestling match, where the stark nude men are entwined as if they were performing a sex scene. The looks of carnal hunger worn by Ilithiya and Lucretia as they watch the games are also worn by the gladiators as they threateningly circle each other in the gladiatorial school, as if they cannot decide whether they want to fight or have sex. In either case, they end up wrestling while half-naked, leaving the possibilities ambiguous.
In this way, Ilithiya and Lucretia serve as a mechanism for a (mostly) male audience to more explicitly indulge this crossover between destroying men and having sex with them. Where Crixus, Barca, Spartacus, Gnaeus, and all the others must be circumspect about the crossovers between their parallel desires for violence and sex, Lucretia and Ilithiya can be blunt, and salivate openly for the parallel destruction and consumption of men. Lucretia, in particular, even gets to orchestrate the events to some degree, serving as a stand-in for the concomitant vision of the writers. Even though they are women, their gaze is male, and it is fixed keenly and exclusively on men.
This gaze is what motivates the story; the hunger for violence, which turns out to be the same as the hunger for male bodies, forces Spartacus and his fellow gladiators to homo-erotically slaughter each other, gushing blood in every episode. This gaze is embodied in the form of the arena audiences, but it is also embodied in Lucretia, Batiatus, Ilithiya, Glaber (who hungers for Spartacus’s death and pseudo-sexual humiliation throughout the story), and all of the aforementioned gladiators. The only way the show could be more blatant and honest about its commitment to the spectacular parallelism between sex and violence, is if all the gladiators were orgiastically screwing each other while they slit each others’ throats.