Spartacus: Blood and Sand…

I have been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand with much enjoyment and would like to counter various sneering reviews such as this (it was another review I can no longer find that provoked me to write here)…

The general drift seems to be to point out the banally obvious, that the show contains a constant diet of sex and violence, and to state that there is no plot. It seems to me that this entirely misses the critical point: that the sex and violence are the plot. Both serve to demonstrate the core aspects of the politics and culture they represent.

When you have two privileged people chatting about the day’s business, while each is ‘fluffed’ by a slave to get them sexually aroused, before they enter into full copulation, with these and other slaves watching – then it seems to me that we are being given a profound lesson in cultural history that it might otherwise take screeds of text to convey.

Similarly, when you observe men highly trained to kill, decked out in armour and weapons exquisitely customized to provide entertaining matches (yes, like a computer game, but these were real people being maimed and slaughtered) before a baying crowd of gorethirsty ‘citizens’ – then something of the politics and morality of the Roman Empire is clearly communicated. Apparently, after a day at the Colosseum, whores would gather in the streets outside so that the audience, their libidos inflamed by hours of torture and bloodshed, could sate their passions there and then on the street. From what I’ve read, sex and violence were endemic to ancient Rome and many other urban centres of her empire – and these excesses were not something enjoyed underground but in the full glare of day, promoted by the state, indulged in by even the highest stratum of society…

Further, comparisons with Frank Miller’s 300, though superficially true (Spartacus makes many stylistic borrowings), again seem to me to miss the point. 300 deliberately (or ignorantly) misrepresents history. To have Xerxes, the Persian King shown as some kind of S&M pervert (homosexuality being implied among other things), is a gross inversion of the truth. From what we know, Xerxes was a profoundly moral man, hedged about by a religious (Zoroastrian, arguably) code that was far more chaste than anything the Greeks had to offer. Indeed, those Spartan heroes, if correctly portrayed, would have spent the time before battle, combing their hair and primping themselves to appear as beautiful as they could in the coming battle. This from a military elite among whom homosexuality was compulsory. Not that I am expressing any judgement about this. Rather, I could not help being aware, while watching 300, of how Frank Miller had twisted his representation of history to reflect what appears to me to be a sinister notion of West versus East – a self-serving white hat/black hat analysis that has political consequences even today…

So, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is indeed comicbook – gloriously and creatively so, somewhat fantasy, and there is quite a lot of rather dodgy acting, but it is nevertheless a visceral portrayal of some aspects of Roman culture that goes some way to explaining why their slaves rose up, not once but several times, in grotesquely violent and desperate attempts to free themselves from the degradation and harm imposed on them by their masters…

34 thoughts on “Spartacus: Blood and Sand…

  1. Haha. Your post actually made me take a look at the series. I was only vaguely aware of it since TV isn’t really a part of my life.

    Excessive Matrix and terrible graphics aside, I actually quite like it. There isn’t an over-glamourization in the costuming. The violence I would’ve liked to bring down to the same mundane level, but that would probably lose its crowd appeal. And the sex is actually believable. I do find the angle it’s portrayed in quite new – as you had said. It drags Rome down from its classical loftiness that is far too overbeaten as a TV track and actually tried to make something from a relatively new angle.

    Having said that, I’ll still stick to the Japanese anime. πŸ˜›

  2. Oh my, may I join the otaku club this thread is going to form? ^^

    I haven’t seen anything yet, but now I’ll take a loot at it.

    Just let me say that I thoroughly object to the usage of the word “homossexual(ity)” applied to before the 18th Century. πŸ˜›

    1. you may, otaku *bows*

      my use of the term “homosexuality” was clumsy. I do realize that it is an anachronism – that it is a relatively recent ‘invention’… however, in my first usage of it above, it was used correctly, I think – in that I was using it in the context of Frank Miller’s intentions and the interpretation of a modern audience. The second usage is more problematical – though, in my defence, I was using it to communicate to the average person – not a professional splitter of gendered hairs :OP I’m curious as to how you would rewrite my sentence so as to overcome your objections…

      1. some kind of S&M pervert (homosexuality

        Would be

        “sexual intercourse with other men”.

        And

        “This from a military elite among whom homosexuality was compulsory”

        would be

        “This from a military elite that used sex amongst themselves as a practice to reinforce their social bonds, something that was even compulsory”.

        …Or something of the kind. Sodomy, men who have sex with men, etc., all perfectly acceptable alternatives.

        And as for the “average person” – dumbing it down for the average person in a way I think lowers the level of that average. But I do get your point; I just think that your readers, and those of this blog, might be a good tad beyond “average”. πŸ™‚

        1. ok… I still think I’m right with my first reference… since it is ‘homosexuality’ that is in the mind of Frank Miller in his depiction of Xerxes – homosexuality as the term is understood today…

          with my second reference, I agree with you that I erred… it was sloppy… I should have written something like: “This from a military elite among whom it was compulsory that a young man should give sexual favours to an older one to whom he was paired…”

          of course you’re right that my readers are anything but average! *grin* To clarify, when I used ‘average’ I was referring to what knowledge most people – perhaps even many of the readers of this blog – would have of how differently sexual behaviour was characterized in the past… it is a rather specialist area of interest… I do know that the Greeks for one saw sex between men in a completely different way from us. Apart from anything else – and I have friends who say that this still survives in modern Greece – the primary division is not the gender of who you choose to sleep with (which is our modern criteria of “homosexuality”) but what role you take in the sex act: passive or active. What was considered shameful in Greece was for a male citizen to adopt a passive role… if he was being sexually a ‘top’ then he could have sex with anything he wanted – not even limiting it to humans *grin*

          1. Indeed, it is so. And youngsters tended to be bottoms since they were socially inferior, and still learning.

            But I think one thing you said bears notice. You mentioned that the inexistence of homossexuality as such is a specialist field. And yet, not that long ago (speaking in terms of millenia, surely), the sheer notion that there even was such a thing as homossexuality was a specialist field – something for the doctors and the proto-psychologists to diagnose, contain and treat. It bears the question: what does this mark of “specialized knowledge” mean, how does it spread, and how can such mechanisms of idea-spreading can be hacked into, so we can right some wrongs?

            Oh well, too much Foucault does this to a person.

          2. of course you’re right… and though I’m interested in this as an issue, I am perhaps not political enough about it… so what you have been saying has made me think… You know, the life of an author can be very insular. That may not be a good thing… hmmm… What work by Foucault deals with this issue?

          3. The whole History of Sexuality deals with Greco-Roman sexuality, if you’re interested. But the most juicy of the books, and also the smallest, and most important to the Western history of Philosophy is the first volume.

            Here it is. πŸ™‚

            As for yourself, don’t forget that “the personal is political” – that the way in which homosexuality was (non-)dealt with in your books is also a powerful political statement of how there can be a world where sexuality functions differently from ours.

          4. I suppose there’s a hint in the title *grin* I’ve bought your “juicy” book…

            As for myself, I am of course aware that I took political stances of various kinds in the Stone Dance, including several on sexual issues – what I realized through this exchange is that that is probably not enough…

          5. (Since I can’t reply below your level, I’ll reply to myself.)

            I’m very curious to see what you think of the book once you’ve read it; might it deserve a post here? *grin* I think you’ll love how Foucault sees power; you might recall a quote I once made that you yourself said that could have been a precept from the Wise. And indeed it is so; sexuality and power operate through devices, which are manyfold. Just for an appetizer, the first chapter deals with the issue of the taboo on sex: according to Foucault, such thing never existed.

            Well, we can’t all do everything, everywhere. Your reach is already much bigger than mine, for instance, for the simple fact that you’re an internationally known author. And, of course, the fact that you incorporate such things in the books doesn’t necessarily translate into people thinking about such matters.
            But still, wether you think you should do more (or less), it’s important to realize how much you’ve done already. Having said that, associations for people who seek to engange themselves, through activism and politics, are a dime a dozen. πŸ™‚

          6. (how clever of you to find this workaround – as you can see, there has to be a limit to how many times this indents)

            I am unlikely to be able to read the Foucault immediately, but you will certainly hear from me when I do, here or elsewhere… Been having an ongoing argument with another friend along the lines of the issue of the taboo on sex… and this with respect to this blog topic…

            Thank you for your kind words concerning my ‘reach’ *grin* Really what I am most concerned about is remaining aware of parts of my brain that are calcifying… What you have highlighted is that, through living in a near-hermitic world, I may be in danger of losing awareness that political action is still required on this front…

          7. Well, to be more thorough, what he says is that there has never been a taboo around speaking about sex, which isn’t the same as saying that discourse about sex has never been silenced. Silences are part of the administration of discourse.

            I’m glad our conversation had that effect on you, though I credit it not to my words, but to your interpretation of them. πŸ™‚

          8. I’m not sure I get the distinction… And then are we talking about talking about sex, or of showing it…?

            I think just you pointing out my crime *grin* was enough to give me pause to think…

          9. I was trying to make a distinction between a taboo on having sex and talking about.

            There is this common idea that there is a long-standing taboo about sex and sexuality, one from which we must break free. Foucault demonstrates empirically that this is not historically true – quite the opposite. That we are faced, continuously, with an injunction to never stop talking about sex. And the idea that there is a taboo is nothing but a self-serving argument used to further this injunction to turn sex into discourse continuously.

          10. *jaded expression* yeah, yeah, know all about that! (started reading the book last night – interesting thesis… haven’t seen it proved yet, but it ‘feels’ right…) :OP

          11. Nice to hear that. πŸ™‚ Have a nice read. And yes, it does feel right from the get go. And even more so as it develops. In the ends, it’s all to do with confession. *enigmatic gaze*

      1. humm, now I’m a bit confused. I’ve only read one but I don’t remember from which author was. But it was probably Howard Fast, because its the name which sounds more familiar to me.

        1. Howard Fast wrote a novel on Spartacus, and he is credited as being the source in the Kubrick film… The Spartacus I mentioned (by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) is much more obscure – so it’s unlikely that’s the one you read… however, it has some very interesting aspects, including being written in an English that somewhat reflects the structure of Latin…

  3. I didn’t have an anime in mind as I’m too busy at the moment, but I’m somewhat interested in Gundam 00, since I kind of like the art style.

    In terms of the anime I’ve watched, probably well over 50 series, although I admit a good 30 of them were watched on forward simply because I wanted to know the ending

    I’d recommend Mushishi – probably one of the few animes that really moved me.

    I’ve always loved anime for its ability to compliment live action movies. It’s not the same as 3D animation, which has for years tried to imitate “reality”. I remember one of the huge issues with 3D rendering was giving a feeling of gravity, nevermind details in things like texture, hair, lighting, etc. Anime, in contrast, never tried to be like reality, and as a result its developed so many different artistic styles. There are the the 3D-render mixes, the 2D render animations that the Japanese have now developed after the advent of 3D rendering (and they do it so well for everything from Street Figher and Tales games down to anime like Ghost in the Shell SAC). But if there’s one distinct thing about anime I love more than anything else, it’s the ability to feel speed. Speed is felt through the visual symbolism of lines, and physically inhuman jumping patterns. Yes, the ninjas and super-power guys are not realistic, but that’s the whole point – the lack of realism gives you an altered sense of aesthetics and allows one to focus on the beauty of contrast between speed and stillness, and the elegance of the lines carved by movement in space without a truly physical body.

    And then it just goes back to a cultural sentiment I think. Japanese anime has certain views and discourses – archetypcal stories that resonate well for me. Anime I think relies very much on its affects, since the logic behind many stories, and generally even the repetitiveness of the plotlines don’t stimulate on the highest intellectual levels. Japanese animes are like my favourite books, which usually end up being poigiantly short and beautiful because they draw on broad, but powerful strokes that vanish after brief flashes (whether well executed or not). I’d like them for the same reason I like Chinese and Japanese ink paintings.

    And yourselves?

    1. Ghost in the Shell is one of my favorites, both the movies and the series; I also recommend the movie Tekkonkinkreet for its visuals and amazing story. The short movie Kakurenbo is also one of my favorites.

      1. yes, I like both those films and lots others besides – Spirited Away comes to mind. Kakurenbo – looked it up, looks interesting… will try and track it down sometime… Of course the quality of anime varies wildly, but, in my opinion, when it’s good it blows away most Western animation…

        1. For some reason I didn’t like Spirited Away that much; It’s a good movie, with great visuals and the world created by Myazaki it’s very original and full of interesting characters and fascinating creatures.

          It was the overall story that disappointed me a bit, its the old formula of the little shy and insecure child that travels to a strange world where she goes on a journey of self discovery, faces her fears, and comes back stronger; nothing we haven’t seen before in stories like Alice in Wonderland and Neverending Story;

          While watching Spirited Away, when I saw Chihiro riding on the back of Haku in dragon form I couldn’t help myself to think about Bastian riding Falkor, while the Neverending Story theme song played in my head ^^

          1. As Athena says above, the plots of many animes are not brilliant… and, actually, the point of my post above is to focus on something other than plot to carry the meaning of some artwork… There were many aspects of Spirited Away that I found remarkable: the terror of that shadow monster chasing her at the end, for example – and the contrast of that, later, with the shadow monster sitting quietly beside her as the tram comes along through shallow water… The contrast here between speed and stillness – as Athena points out – and violence and peace – is the important thing for me… In the West we do seem to have an obsession with plot – I suspect that the Greeks are to blame for that too! *grin* Aristotle and his Poetics… There are other ways to tell story – even in the West, Irish myths come to mind -where plots make little sense, but what does come through is an extremely fresh and strange way of looking at the world…

    2. Well, let’s see…

      Neon Genesis Evangelion

      Ghost in the Shell (just the movies)

      Serial Experiments Lain

      Gankutsuou

      Ayakashi

      Texhnolyze

      Infinite Ryvius

      X

      amonst some others…

        1. I’d guess that you’ll like them all; and that visually you’ll love Gankutsuou, for how it’s coloured so differently (and perhaps for being based on Alexandre Dumas?).

          Each has its flair; most are mind-fuckers, my favorite genre. πŸ™‚

          1. yup… like the unexpectedness… not to mention the very strange (to a western mind, perhaps) animist beliefs so many of these anime reveal…

    3. I too like the freer direction that Japanese animation goes in… of course not all of it works… but when it does, it can be stunning… A contrast between speed and stillness is a very Japanese sensibility… I think your point about ‘affects’ is well made. I understand that Chinese poetry (at least traditionally) similarly uses a limited number of images, but arranges them to create what you call ‘affects’ – at least that is how I understand it – that it captures vanishing nuance as if it lies in the gaps between the images and in the movement from one to the other… Your latter comment speaks to me of calligraphy: the thick brush loaded with ink making spontaneous though ordered strokes that completely express some inner feeling… Without knowing much about it, I too like ink paintings… more than the Chinese than the Japanese… What you haven’t mentioned is ukiyo-e woodblocks – whose line and solid colour seem to me a powerful influence on anime – and I adore those :O)

      1. I didn’t realize this sparked a dialogue about anime!

        But trying to reply to some of the above:
        Actually, I like mostly modernist Chinese ink painting – abstracts as they would be called in English. However, an artist dating back to I believe the Yuan dynasty called “Liang Kai” is also one of my favourites.

        It’s also the ideas behind the brush strokes that have particular resonance. Firstly, there is the effective use of space – space isn’t to be filled up, but rather arranged in relation to the ink to have a meaningful dialogue. Sometimes, the imbalance of space is what create dynamism.

        Secondly, there is the implication of the topic drawn itself, which is often quite symbolic, and I must admit mostly sails over me because I haven’t memorized the thousands of pieces of poetry and literature I should know in order to understand all the allusions. πŸ˜›

        Thirdly, and probably the most touching for me, is the living lines of ink. Because there are so few lines, each line is important. Each line if executed by a master should have “bone” strength (which roughly suggests the idea of having spirit, character, which is melded into a naturalized technical mastery). As such, looking at a piece is retracing motions; following those motions, one has a a brief access into the Emotions that flowed through; and from that, perhaps a glimpse into a state of being or another person. For the same reason, I would enjoy seeing the textures in Rembrandt’s oil paintings or Turner’s work, but nonetheless, since they have so many, it is very difficult to focus on the whole.

        1. I’d never come across Liang Kai – and looking at a few pictures it seems to me clear why you like him and modernist works as well – Liang Kai looks incredibly modern!

          With space, is what you’re talking about ‘negative space’ – because in Western art too this is a core concept – though I do understand that with “imbalance of space… create dynamism” you’re inferring something even more sophisticated – I suppose that what you’re talking about here is an excellent example of the Daoist principle of yin yang… no?

          Work that depends on allusion has for me some defects – not least that it naturally creates an exclusive audience among which it can be appreciated… That’s not to say I haven’t done that myself, though in the case of the Stone Dance, I made allusions to certain fields of knowledge that are extremely generally held (eg. the Garden of Eden)… The other suspicion I have of this is that it can easily become all about being ‘clever’ – I suspect I’m not free of that vanity either…

          Your third point is most fascinating of all… I’d never heard of “bone” strength (what is the Mandarin character for that?)… I have certainly appreciated the movement in Chinese calligraphy, and you can feel the pressure of the brush as it modulates through the strokes… it feels like looking at a dance… Though I think I understand your point about Rembrandt and Turner, I think that there the strokes, thought important, are subordinate to the image; whereas with Chinese calligraphy, the strokes are the image…

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