A “14-year-old boy’s ultimate video game fantasy”?: The Violence of ‘Spartacus’

by Ross Crawford

SPOILER WARNING: I talk about the last few episodes of Spartacus.

Don’t read unless you’ve watched the full series. But why haven’t you already?!

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Spartacus in War of the Damned.

A popular school of thought regarding our recreational consumption of violence is that we all have an in-built blood-lust (to variable degrees). Initially, this makes sense. After all, mankind’s proclivity for warfare throughout history is undeniable and has scant signs of ever abating.

Our active enjoyment of violence when presented as entertainment is equally ancient. The gladiatorial arenas of Rome are scarcely a far cry from modern-day boxing rings or cage fights. Whether in the Colosseum in AD.40 or in Madison Square Garden in the 21st century, the crowd bays for blood. The flash of red on the sand (or in the ring) is the ultimate thrill for an audience.

While we must still question why we have this somewhat ghoulish desire, arguably safer and more acceptable ways to quench this thirst have been discovered. Violent films, books, video-games and other forms of media can perform this function, without outwardly harmful actions (although the mainstream media may not agree with this).

The subject of our last (and first!) post, the Starz show, Spartacus, directly engages with this discourse. Invoking the above gladiator analogy quite literally, it effortlessly alternates between glorification and condemnation of the violence it features. On the side of ‘glorification’, much of Spartacus’ sensational action sequences adhere to the ‘Rule of Cool’: essentially we happily suspend our disbelief for the ridiculously awesome. A friend and fellow lover of all things Spartacus once noted a similar rule governs the current WWE and it is indeed remarkable the extent to which Spartacus’ early episodes are structured in a manner akin to a classic wrestling feud. Whether an intentional inspiration or not,  both offer a similar sense of anticipation before a long awaited match-up, erupting into outright spectacle when the bout takes place. (If you’re sneering at the ‘low culture’ of this comparison,  you’re a damn fool).

Admittedly, at the inception of the show most notably the pilot, fight sequences featured hugely stylised gouts of CGI blood, as shown below. This relatively unoriginal approach was quickly abandoned, largely in favour of practical special-effects, with smatterings of CGI for good measure. Arguably, Spartacus continues a long, yet recently neglected, tradition of fantastically squishy practical blood-and-gore effects, following in the footsteps of such films as Evil Dead, The Thing and Braindead. The outright inventiveness of Spartacus’ fight sequences also evoke these classic films. Near the end of the show, you may feel that surely you have seen every possible way a person can be killed. But it will always surprise you.

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Spartacus’ first fight in the arena in ‘The Red Serpent’

Yet even when the violence in Spartacus entertains, a question always lingers in the background: ‘Should we be enjoying this?’. Most notably, the first-season, Blood and Sand, challenges the audience’s excitement and even lust for brutal gladiator duels. Every contest in the arena features shots of the crowd’s jubilant, sometimes carnal reaction to the bloodshed. This is intended to reflect our own reactions–though hopefully none of you follow the example set by the Romans and get intimate while watching the show! Sexual conduct aside, a direct line is drawn from the spectators in the arena to our modern selves, as we observe the violence from our comfy chairs. Thankfully by our time period, nobody has to be killed for our entertainment. But the point remains, we still enjoy witnessing people dispatched in gruesomely inventive ways. 

In the final series, War of the Damned, the depiction of violence is no less graphic but has taken on a different focus. In ‘Decimation’, we are directed to question the reactionary violence perpetrated by Crixus as he instigates the massacre of the helpless Roman prisoners left in Sinuessa. Later in ‘The Dead and the Dying’, many viewers may have scrutinised the dubious ethics of the gladiatorial arena recreated by the rebel leaders. This inversion of power structures, making sport of the previously supreme Romans, raises the tantalising question of whether the rebellion was truly a morally just cause. In this case at least, they succumbed to the temptations of an-eye-for-an-eye. The devastating loss of Crixus was the catalyst for this morbid tribute, yet it sticks out as a moment of pure vengeance at a time when Spartacus had seemingly elevated himself above such acts of boorish impulse. Yet even before this, our eponymous hero is responsible for morally questionable bloodshed, such as the murder of Laeta’s husband. Tellingly, the show never indulged in simple black-and-white morality. Ultimately by most modern standards, these characters are bad people, at the very least in their approach to violence. They are characterised by their willingness to injure, to maim and to kill, sometimes for the greater good, sometimes to settle a score and sometimes for the sheer fun of it.

To a large degree, their behaviour is symptomatic of their surroundings, which underpins and contextualises much of the violence on this show. After all, this was an era in which the unfathomable torture of crucifixion was a standard punishment performed by the alleged pinnacle of contemporary civilisation, the Romans. Bloodshed, in all forms, was an everyday occurrence and a sanitised approach to the savage violence would only serve to undermine the historical realities portrayed by the series. For example, the massacre of Batiatus’ ludus in ‘Kill Them All’ simply has to be a  bloodbath. Such carnage is a cathartic release for both the slaves and the audience; after so much injustice and oppression, the Romans clearly had it coming in a big way. Yes, they were largely defenceless against the expert warriors of Spartacus and company, but this is just a taste of the countless unwinnable scenarios the slaves were thrown into, to be slaughtered for the entertainment of the crowd. It is this history of direct grievance that sets this event apart from the massacre of Sinuessa by Crixus’ followers.

If this thought-provoking approach is not yet sophisticated enough, Spartacus adds another layer of complexity by featuring characters like Gannicus and Crixus, who, perhaps against their better judgement, enjoy and even thrive on the lurid brutality of the gladiatorial arena. Gannicus in particular comes to fully realise the cruelties of this gladiator culture, yet cannot shake his addiction to the adulation of the crowd. He longs for glory, yet knows this glory is tainted. Eventually, he fights to forever destroy the one place he felt most at home: the arena. Similarly, Crixus longs to take the fight to the Romans and put his skill as a warrior to the test. Thus, he is able to reconcile the cruelty of his gladiatorial training with the virtuoso combatant it created. Taking a pragmatic approach, Crixus recognises the training, however cruel, now affords him the ability (potentially) to win freedom for himself and his great love, Naevia.

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Gannicus in War of the Damned.

The depth of Spartacus’ treatment of violence is clearly evident. This renders the critical backlash against the show, purely on the basis of this violence, all the more egregious. A cursory glance at Metacritic shows each series of Spartacus hovering around the middling, 50/100 score range. Upon closer examination, we discover that the vast majority of negative reviews are meager, under-written polemics, labelling an entire body of work as “sword-and-sandal blood porn”. Most begin with a diatribe about the supposed juvenility of the violence and sexuality, before finally acknowledging, ‘oh yeah, there’s also a plot here’. This dismissive approach constitutes total failure on the part of these critics to engage with the core focus of Spartacus. It also reeks of double-standards. The equally ultra-violent Game of Thrones or Walking Dead are deemed worthy of serious critique, with attention only drawn to their adult-content later in the review or often not at all. Essentially, these critics have made up their mind about Spartacus before it even began, utterly refusing to discuss it on a level playing-field with other contemporary shows. There are exceptions, such as the AV Club, who treated it as a legitimate television show (gasp!) and drafted in a reviewer for Vengeance onwards. But the opposite is sadly the norm.

For many Spartacus fans, this will be of little concern. Critical snobbery is hardly limited to this show, or even television in general. In this case, the critics were so busy looking down their noses at Spartacus they missed a classic television show right before their very eyes. And perhaps it is fitting that a show about rebellion should have a fanbase that repudiates the established order of self-imposed, self-important television critics.

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