Appealing to our inner teenage boy

US import Spartacus: Blood and Sand makes Up Pompeii! look like a work of serious classical scholarship.

David Bowden

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What have the Romans ever done for us? Yes, we all know the Monty Python sketch: roads, irrigation, etc. But apart from that, they’ve contributed rather a lot for the free-speech wars. From the McCarthy-baiting and homosexual undertones of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus to the Mary Whitehouse-baiting play The Romans in Britain, via Tinto Brass’s notorious Caligula (which pretty much did everything and baited everyone), you can barely shake a laurel wreath without getting a legion of complaints. So it’s heartening to see that American television’s latest update of our classical friends has already garnered itself quite the reputation before it’s even stepped off the boat.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand premiered in Britain on the cable channel Bravo this week. As one might expect from a programme screened in the US on a network called Starz, and produced by The Evil Dead zombie-flick director Sam Raimi, it is not exactly in Edward Gibbon territory. Hell, it makes Up Pompeii! look like a work of classical scholarship. They play heavy metal during the fight scenes. There’s lots of blood, lots of sex, and the odd bit of sand to mop it up with. Would it help give you a better picture if I mentioned that one of the headline stars is Lucy Lawless from Xena: Warrior Princess?

Unsurprisingly it has provoked one or two complaints, both in the US and in the UK, where MediaWatch is campaigning to get it banned. Leading British free-speech campaigners Index on Censorship even felt compelled to defend it. But it is all rather half-hearted: the sort of free-speech debate which comes from the mind of a television publicity officer trying to stir up some easy notoriety rather than being a flashpoint in the culture war.

What is most striking about Spartacus is how familiar it is. We’ve been well served with classical epics recently, from HBO/BBC’s recent Rome to hit films such as 300 and Gladiator. And Spartacus faithfully borrows from all of them. So we have Rome’s risible dialogue (though nothing which tops ‘Mark Anthony buggers boys like you for breakfast’); 300’s homoeroticism under a CGI sky; and Gladiator’s brooding hero.

It throws in quite a few other familiar pop-culture references, too. So by the end of the first episode we’ve seen Sin City’s cartoonish lashings of blood; a Kill Bill quota of limb-slicing; some good old-fashioned Matrix-style camera-work and plenty of jiggling bits’n’bobs. At the start our Thracian friend bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Cavaziel in The Passion of the Christ, and in the second episode he appears to meet the ancient world’s equivalent to The Wire’s Prop Joe. This is a veritable orgy of allusion. Even the senator looks a bit like Paddy Ashdown.

In this regard, of course, it’s actually a rare example of historical accuracy. Culturally, the Romans were the great plagiarists, freely stealing from the Greeks and plundering the best of their conquered lands. It was materially – in building those roads and viaducts – that they really left their stamp on the modern world. While the British Empire sought its legitimacy in those cultured Greeks and their smooth marbles, the consumerist US has always been much more fascinated with the Romans, with their gains of blood, orgies and land. The willingness to emulate the Romans says a lot about America’s self-image: both asserting its significance (after the fall of Rome came barbarism) while letting its opponents have their small victory (the Yanks have no culture, sniff the Europeans) and getting on with ruling the world.

The West has always revelled in the decadence of the ancient world. But as Angus Kennedy has argued, what is decadent about Western civilisation today is not its sexual licentiousness or profanity, but the fact that it consumes without creativity or production. That America is looking to invoke the excess of the Romans is not because it shocks, but rather that it comforts. Actually, when American TV and film is at its very best, it looks not to the past but to the present: one of the first masterpieces of American popular culture was Modern Times (made, appropriately enough, by British émigré Charlie Chaplin).

It is as true today as it was in the past: the rich dramas recently produced by US networks, from The Wire to The Sopranos, challenge us to confront the world as it is, rather than look for validation from the past. Even Mad Men – the Sixties-set drama which revels most heavily in its period detail – is at its most enthralling when reflecting the forces which moulded the modern age (and all its prejudices). In the recent third series, a beatnik growing disillusioned with his commission to redesign Madison Square Gardens sneers at his clients that the best Roman ruins are to be found outside of Rome – because the Romans themselves, in their rapacious materialist haste, tore them all down. Coming from the lips of one of the more socially progressive characters, it is striking that in this regard he is more conservative than his fellow Madison Avenue dinosaurs.

Which is also why this latest free-speech war has struggled to spring into life: we’ve seen this all before, from bouncing breast to severed limb. Spartacus simply taps into everyone’s inner teenage boy, and whether you consider that harmless good fun or unbearable tedium is really up to you. But if you really want to make today’s moral majority start running for the hills, try showing a civilisation at work building and shaping the world to suit humanity’s material needs. In today’s climate, the most shocking aspect of Spartacus is not what went on inside the gladiatorial arena but that a civilised society would dare build a monument on the scale and ambition of the Coliseum in the first place. It may be a sketch which has grown slightly stale with repetition, but perhaps we really do need to remind ourselves what the Romans actually did for us.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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