"Why The Bloody, Sex-Soaked ‘Spartacus’ Is The Most Progressive Show You’re Not Watching"
I am an unabashed fan of the first season of Spartacus, but have not yet had the pleasure of tuning in to the following seasons. I admit, the sudden death of the actor who played Spartacus and his replacement scared me off. But maybe I'll tune back in soon.
By treating oppression as something that’s basically structural, rather than a thing inflicted by individual bad apples, Spartacus gives flesh to a core progressive insight about the power and character of social oppression. Progressives often speak about racism, sexism, and classism as impersonal forces, things that exist in the world independent of how individual people think about them. It can sometimes be hard to connect concrete acts of discrimination and violence to this airier description. But Spartacus is a vivid illustration of how a system founded on a particular form of classism directly, inevitably leads to individual acts of brutality. The social logic of Rome corrupts people’s incentives, giving even Romans capable of extending sympathy to slaves (like Batiatus’ wife Lucretia) cause to treat them in the most inhuman fashion imaginable.
Spartacus‘ critique isn’t just limited to class. The show’s Rome is unmistakably gendered: Roman women, denied prestigious posts in the military and the Senate, can only exercise power indirectly, participating in the struggle for social power through behind-the-scenes politicking. These Roman women are by no means helpless damsels — perhaps the two most effective, intelligent operators on the show are Lucretia and the high-born Illythia — but when they attempt to assert equality in familial or political decisions, they run up against the limits of what Roman society will allow them to do. And while slaves male and female are both subject to sexual abuse by Romans, there’s no doubt that female slaves bear by far the worst of it. One of the clearest markers of the rebels’ moral superiority, by contrast, is their comparatively egalitarian approach to gender. The season 3 relationship between rebel gladiator Crixus and Naevia, a survivor of repeated sexual assaults, is an honest, touching depiction of a supportive partnership. The rebel army also allows women to serve as equals in combat, to deadly effect.
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