Stylistic Excess and the Aesthetics of Violence in Spartacus

In her book Now a Major Motion Picture (2007), Christine Geraghty addresses the notion of the circular, and describes it in terms of narratives coming back to life and being re-interpreted for their specific time. Similarly, Charlotte Brunsdon’s article “Structure of Anxiety” addresses the specificity of narrative topoi appearing at particular times, and the changes that happen to them because of the specific time period (Brundson, 1998). In the light of these critical re-assessments of the ways the past re-surfaces, it is particularly interesting to see how the past decade of popular transnational television history has seen the proliferation of a particular form of historically themed programs. Productions like Rome (2005-2007), The Tudors (2007-2010), The Borgias (2011-2013), Spartacus (2010-2013), or more recently The Vikings (2013-), The White Queen (2013) or The Reign (2013-) re-positioned the concepts of adaptation and remediation, and shifted the attention from questions of authenticity and fidelity to questions of conversion and reinvention, and to a more broadly defined aesthetics encompassing narrative complexity and visual style (Polasek, 2013:1).

Despite their obvious differences in theme, production modes, or levels of popularity, these new television dramas constitute a relatively coherent set of programmes (almost a genre within a genre) that is distinguished from their precedents by a stylistically excessive rendition of their subject-matter. Although there is a clear focus on the political subtleties, intrigues, manipulations and manoeuvrings behind the dynamics of storylines, the relations between characters, or the social structures of the periods depicted, these programmes rely extensively on the inherent appeal of the juxtaposition of sex and violence, the sight (and site) of viscera and lust. The graphic portrayals of killing and nudity test the boundaries of transgression, but they also provide an opportunity to take a closer look at the aesthetics of violence in popular television. Within these aesthetics, the spectacle becomes paramount – but this spectacle derives not only from the visuals, but rather from a more complex ‘poetics’, a logic of composition, or more precisely, a specific iconography of storytelling.

Spartacus 1

Starz network’s Spartacus-franchise (with its four seasons, board game, comics, novels, video game, and home video releases) provides an emblematic example for this over-driven spectacularity. By favouring the sensational element, Spartacus (2010-2013) performs an underlying de-centring that shifts the attention from historical accuracy to a subversive iconography. In terms of concept, development and cinematography, the series owes a lot to the spectacular elements of the epic fight scenes in blockbusters like Gladiator (2000), and to the use of green screen environment that 300(2006) brought to mastery. The series takes liberty at handling both what is known about the historical Spartacus, and what Kirk Douglass’s memorable performance (Spartacus, 1960) immortalised of the character. However, the creators did recycle into the finale of Season 3 the emblematic scene (and line) from the end of the film where all the slaves stand up and identify with their leader, declaring ‘I am Spartacus’, also ready to share his fate. The production also retains much of the film’s mise-en-scene of the ludus in the courtyard of the villa of Batiatus (played by John Hannah) where the gladiators train.

Spartacus 1960

Spartacus 2010

Spartacus takes advantage of the potentials of long-form story-telling. The ensemble cast allowed the creators to develop (and experiment with) equally important parallel narrative lines which in effect creates a de-centred narrative, and allows for a potentially endless horizontal expansion. The show re-positions the iconographic features of slavery and gladiatorial combat, and builds them anew around the centrality of the body as a source (and object) of both pain and pleasure, and, through the body, around the centrality of the spectacle.

In the following I would like to explore the ways in which Spartacus links violence as spectacle to practices of serialisation. To begin with, there is a curious, though very indirect form of auto-referentiality built into the series. It is the recurring, serialized gladiatorial combats that mark the dramatic climaxes of the narrative. Combat bundles together a variety of contexts, ranging from entertainment to acts of commemoration (to honour the past and the dead) to revenge and punishment (execution). For instance, when Spartacus (Andy Whitfield/Liam McIntyre) is made a gladiator, or when he experiences his first victory that earns him a reputation in Batiatus’ house, combat is both a means of ascension (to fame) as well as a de-humanizing force through which Spartacus gradually loses the remaining parts of his original identity as a free man – only to embark on a violent quest to reconstruct that identity. Combat, then, breaks out of the walls of the arena, and emerges as an act of revenge that culminates in the slaughtering of Batiatus’ family and guests at the end of season 1, the killing of legatus Glaber (Craig Parker) at the end of season 2, only to return to an arena-like setting in the episode entitled ‘The Dead and the Dying’ in the final season, where the gladiators themselves become the audience of a wild and violent cat and mouse-style execution of Roman legionnaires.

On the one hand, fighting (and subsequently, dying) as a gladiator is presented as what it really was supposed to be: a form of entertainment, a glorified way to please the audience (both in the arena, and in front of the TV screen). Spartacus turns its gladiators into spectacles, and the gladiatorial games into a series, which the audience wants to see over and over again. And within the world of the series, this gives the gladiators some level of status and security. Some gladiators hope to gain their freedom in the arena, some of them refuse (or at least are very much reluctant) to serve their masters in ways other than on the sands where the actual ‘value’ of a gladiator is established. This value is quantified not only by the number of his victories, but also by the status of the person who he defeated, and, most importantly, by how well the audience (i.e. spectators of the show) remember his name and his feats. The bloodier the kill, the more engaging the combat is, the higher the reputation of the gladiator will be. Therefore, the episodic structure of the gladiatorial games in Spartacus has a curious form of seriality coded into it; so much so that apparently the series’ portrayal of the games is deeply rooted in the ethos and practices of contemporary popular entertainment, with the audience determining the revenues, and, consequently, establishing a hierarchy not only among the gladiators, but also among the competing training schools.

Spartacus also visually amplifies the proximity of sex and killing via its signature shots: whether it is throat cuts presented in slow motion, surrealistic amounts of blood spraying from neck-wounds,

Spartacus blood

bodies skewered by spears, swords or other weapons,

Spartacus skewering

or sex scenes with convulsing bodies,

Spartacus sex scene

the programme goes far and beyond in pushing the limits of what can or cannot be shown on television. Not only in terms of the dramatic and stylized representations of perfected ways of killing, or the acrobatic performances of the gladiators in the fight scenes, but also in terms of an explicitness in the representation of sex that is unprecedented on TV. Viewers are more or less accustomed to levels of female nudity, but male nudity, homosexuality, and the (porno)graphic portrayal of intercourse feature equally vehemently in the programme. Scenes range from passionate love-making to the exploitation of secret fantasies to rape – perpetrated by both men and women, and figured as the ultimate form of domination, not only of master or mistress over slave, but also, rebranded as revenge, of the rebel and the fugitive over their former masters. These scenes are governed by a compositional logic that re-imagines the decadence of the final days of the Roman Republic. All that is wrought into a somewhat carnevalesque pageant of a stylised, graphic-novel like history that plays down the mythos in favour of the ethos.

It creates a curious contrast, however, that the Roman women around whom certain plotlines are built, are not interested in the (male) gladiators’ victories, or their performances in the arena. These women take interest in the gladiators’ survival primarily because they find entertainment (i.e. take pleasure – literally) in other services these men can provide. Both Ilithyia (Glaber’s wife, portrayed by Viva Bianca) and Lucretia (Batiatus’s wife, portrayed by Lucy Lawless) are drawn to the gladiators sexually. They look upon male bodies not primarily as instruments of sport (or war for that matter), but rather as sexual objects that can be exploited. The gladiator’s body emerges as a fetishised object on which the dominus (or domina) can still exert power, but on which they also closely depend. For the women, game does not reside in sport, but rather in the lure these dangerous fighters embody: the desire to tame, control, overpower, to, literally, toy with them. Examples might include the scene where Ilithyia wishes to see the gladiators’ ‘virtus’ (no explanation needed, I suppose) before choosing her own champion, or Lucretia’s desperate attempts to get pregnant with Crixus’s help. And while these encounters are supposed to happen in secret, at least unknown to Batiatus and Glaber, it is perfectly normal for a man (Batiatus for instance), to “use” the slave girls to satisfy himself, even in front of, or precisely at the wish of, his wife Lucretia. The difference between master (dominus / domina) and slave is a matter of total exposure, access, and control.

But stylistic excess characterises not only the amount of screen time given to violent content. It is an inherent component of the dialogue of the characters as well. Both in regards to the use of swear words, and in regards to the eloquence propelled by (pseudo-) latinate structures in the characters’ set pieces. The apparent abundance of props in interiors ranging from cliché-like elements of Roman architecture, (columns, drapery, fountains and pools in the Batiatus house, catacombs where the gladiators’ living quarters are located) articulate the spectacle of the decadent atmosphere of the Roman Republic.

The programme’s excessive stylistics are closely intertwined with the technical dimension of the medium, more particularly with the technological apparatus that frames the modes of production, the visual narrative, and, consequently, the entirety of the viewer’s experience. Therefore, the show’s extensive reliance on green screen deserves special attention in this regard. As consulting producer Grady Hall points out, the producers felt they needed the green screen environment because they wanted to offer a “different telling of Spartacus that needed to be a graphic novel in motion” where the visual style and the ambience directly reflects the emotions and themes of the story (DVD Box Set, Extras, 2013.). Producer Rob Tapert acknowledges the potential downside of green screen, but claims that Spartacus used the technique in a way that was substantially different from the case of other, more feature-like, more high-budget cinema productions: “I don’t think that any of the hindrances that green screens cause in some movies are the same for us. Our green screen is to create environments rather than to create characters” (ibid). Although the tools and camera rigs developed for the sets are intended to create an apparatus where viewers’ imagination can just be filled without them having to “think about the technical limitations” of the medium (ibid), it is precisely the seamlessness Bolter and Grusin identify as the core element of remediation (2000: 75) that becomes impossible, because the medium itself discloses the very practices that are supposed to create that seamlessness. The result is absolutely spectacular, but the way the audience is drawn / transported / shifted inside the apparatus feels a bit unnatural. It creates a kind of hyper-realism, a form of spectacularity that is, literally, above or beyond realism, which affects the aesthetics, and, indirectly, the narrative as well.

Spartacus is an emblematic example that violence can be presented as aesthetically appealing (or at least challenging, subversive), not exclusively as that which excels in gore, but as that which affects its viewers primarily through stylistic means. The aesthetics of violence reminds us of two things. On the one hand, it calls into question forms of transgression, and reminds us to the cultural embeddedness of our subjective responses to these forms. And on the other hand, it shows the ability of serial television to capitalise on the fact that the violence is something that we habitually consume. In the case of Spartacus, the success (or failure) of the narrative pivots on a spectacularity flashed (or, more particularly, ‘fleshed’) out into the open.


David Levente Palatinus holds a lectureship in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the University of Ruzomberok. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Bologna. He has published on forensic crime fiction, corporeality, the representation of the body, and violence and deconstruction. He is currently working on a booklength project called “The PathologEthics of Culture.”