Donna and I discovered this series when the first year of it was nearly over. We caught up on the first episodes with Netflix and then finished it out on Starz. We liked it so much, we watched it a second time. I had seen the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film of Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, many times on TV, so the Starz series caught my attention. I was slow becoming a fan, however. The first episodes were an obvious rip-off of the 2006 movie, 300 (which sucked; friends, if you want an excellent historical-fiction retelling the battle of Thermopylae, read the Steven Pressfield novel, Gates of Fire; see www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gates-of-fire-steven-pressfield/1103272308?ean=9780553580532&itm=1&usri=gates%2bof%2bfire).
In the first episodes of the first season, Andy and his fellow actors cavort across the screen in tight shorts and capes that were totally unknown in the ancient world. That and the gratutious nudity and sex almost lost me right off. But there was something else that grabbed my attention. The dialogue. It was Shakespearean. In tone, cadence, and metaphorical allusion, it was obviously written by someone who knows Shakespeare. And I love Shakespeare, so this made me overlook the cheesy part. And as the series progressed, the cheesy part lessened a lot. The writers became more confident and their story-telling surpassed even the explicit sex scenes. It was like the writers and film-makers were telling two different stories at first, but they eventually came together.
The writers were also knowledgable of Plutarch's acount of Spartacus. They included among their characters, figures associated with the historical story: Spartacus' fellow slaves and later generals, Crixus and Oenomaus, his first Roman persecutor, Gaius Claudius Glaber, and the owner of the gladiatorial school in Capua, Lentulus Batiatus. They also included a character called, Varro, as a fellow gladiator and friend of Spartacus. This was appropriate since the historical Marcus Terentius Varro was the first classical writer to speak of Sparatacus as a hero rather than a criminal.
And Spartacus was written of as a criminal for many years after the events of his life. History is written by the victors, and the victor in this case was Imperial Rome. Anyone who opposed it was a criminal and brigand. Only slowly did an opposing view emerge--that of Spartacus as the slave who led a rebellion against an empire of slave-owners. So he became the "working man's" hero, and icon of later socialist-leaning viewpoints. This is not lost on the writers of the Starz series.
Cirxus is the gladiatorial school's champion when Spartacus arrives there and a rivalry quickly develops between them. In it, we see Crixus as the proud champion and Spartacus as the talented, but unwilling fighter rising in the ranks. When Crixus demeans Spartacus for not being "engaged" in the work of the ludus (gladiatorial school), Spartacus makes the point that the only reason either of them fight, champion or not, is that they are slaves.
And so a tremendous moral point is made. Why do any of us do the work that we do, 8 hours a day, 365 (mostly) days a year? Because we're good at what we do? Because we love what we do? Or is it because we'll have to take a lesser job if we don't? We'll live more lowly, and maybe starve. Are we any less slaves than the gladiators?
Another good man who died recently was Joe Bageant. He wrote about current events from the working class view. This is what he had to say about working life in the United States:
Yet, I dare say that comfort is not the most important thing in most American lives. It is just the only thing we are offered in exchange for our toil and the pain of ordinary existence in such an age. Consequently, it is all we know. Meaningless work, then meaningless comfort and distraction in the too-few hours between sleep and labor. But we settled for that and continue to do so. The day will never come when we stand around the office water cooler and ask one another: “Why in the hell are we even here today?” It’s the most dangerous question in America and the Western world. (The Ants of Gaia -- it’s only the end of the world, so quit bitching By Joe Bageant)
Which brings me to another point. However inspiring, the story of Spartacus is tragic. It ends with Spartacus, however notable his exploits, being crucified. Could it end any other way? The Starz series first season ends with the start of the slave rebellion and the admonition by Spartacus to "kill them all; there's no other way." The slave-owners place no value on human life. If they did, they wouldn't be slave-owners. They will not give up their power or the slaves that afford them that power. They will fight to the death, so a slave rebellion can only be a fight to the death. There will be no imprisonment upon capture--only execution.
I believe this accounts for much of Spartacus' military success. He was an able tactician, apparently with military experience, but he also had a highly motivated army. The former slaves knew there would be no mercy for them. They either won their battles, or they died. There was no middle ground.
This is why I feel such sympathy for modern "slave rebellions," like the occupiers of the State Capitol in Wisconsin, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. The participants are brave, but they may be fighting a battle that cannot be won, because they are fighting a system that hasn't changed since humans stopped living by hunting and gathering.
So maybe Crixus has a point. Although he is a slave, he creates meaning for himself by making the most of where he's at. He becomes the best at what he's forced to do. He becomes the champion gladiator. This is not delusion ONLY IF he is always aware that he is a slave.
I loved the Starz series of Spartacus. It is notable because it became something greater than it started out. I don't know whose vision is responsible for that, but the writing quickly surpassed the production and created an epic. The epic will continue in January 2012 with season three, which will be called, Spartacus: Vengeance. It appears the story will continue to be based on Plutarch with the action revolving around the budding slave army's first battles with Romans soldiers led by Gaius Glaber.
It is a shame that Andy Whitfield couldn't star in the third season as well. He was a fine actor who probably could have handled Shakespearean roles for real. The actor who will play the third season lead, Liam McIntyre, is Australian and bears a strong resemblance to Andy Whitfield. In fact, they discussed the role at some length before Andy's death.
The story of Spartacus has survived the centuries because it speaks of a desire we all live with. That of throwing off the chains of our oppressors and living as free and worthy human beings. I think the physical facts of the story have been repeated many times and always with tragic ends. I think that's because absolute freedom is not the point of this physical life. Here, we are meant to struggle on the outside, so that the real growth and development can occur on the inside.
It is in our minds and spirits where the chains really need to be loosed. If we can do that, then physical chains are less constraining, and the power of the oppressor is broken.