Victor Davis Hanson: "Spartacus" is Little More than Soap Opera

[Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno.]

I have been catching up on the episodes of the new Starz series on Spartacus, the Thracian slave who terrified Rome between 73 to 71 BC, through a mass servile uprising originating in Capua.

At least most of the names of the known characters are right. You can check the main sources of the revolt in Plutarch’s Crassus (the richest and most hated man of the late republic), and the second-century AD Greek historian Appian (a little-read, but fascinating text), and bits here and there in Varro and other compilers.

Both Appian and Plutarch (writing variously between ca. 170-200 years centuries after the incident) seem to draw on the same lost and perhaps first-hand source (their accounts, written a few decades apart, are quite similar), either one of Sallust’s lost books or a later compendium account from one Livy’s lost chapters.

Most recently, Barry Strauss has a fine recent general account of Spartacus’s aims; he also wrote a chapter on Spartacus for Makers of Ancient Strategy, which I edited and comes out today from Princeton University Press. For a comprehensive collection of the primary sources, see Brent Shaw’s Spartacus and the Slave Wars, or the essays in Martin Winkler’s edited Spartacus: Film and History.

So what to make of the series? From the episodes I watched, I’m underwhelmed. True, the production is lavishly financed and professionally produced. The actors are in large part good, and do the British-accented ancient world better than in most films....

What baffles me is that the series is spending an entire year on mostly what we don’t know (the life of Spartacus before the revolt) and nothing on what we do (the revolt itself)....

So there is good acting, good scenery, some success in capturing the grubby flavor of Roman life in the provinces — and yet mostly all such efforts are wasted on a soap opera script of who is sleeping with whom, the usual triple-cross betrayals, and surprise plot twists. Take away the next-step nudity (I suppose the male nudity is supposed to be in some way significant), head lopping, and ancient sets and costumes and we are left with Sex in the City psychodrama, rather than speculations of what drove Spartacus (a great favorite later with both right and left totalitarian socialists) and 70,000 others to take on the best legions of Rome....

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