Obscenities in Spartacus

Lucy-Lawless-SpartacusThe Romans can be charming. They are justly regarded as the foundation of much of our modern culture. But they were also a bunch of bloodthirsty fascists.

Rome shouldn’t be too much fun. Spartacus is going to rise up one day. He is going to lead a revolt, which means that my novel Swords and Ashes needed to make it very clear that we shouldn’t like the Romans. This is harder than it looks when the main mouthpieces for the Romans are Lucretia and Batiatus, so winningly played in the TV series by Lucy Lawless and John Hannah. Sometimes, it’s possible to forget that we’re supposed to hate them. The readership has to identify with the slaves, not the masters. Because when the new season of Spartacus: Vengeance kicks off, you need to know what side you’re on.

If a reader finds someone with whom they identify, they have to be on the losing side, crushed and broken by the powers that be. This isn’t too hard with a wide-ranging underclass of slaves, although it can be jarring in an age of overbearing political correctness to write dialogue for a bunch of impossibly privileged, grasping, murderous bigots. So I set out to find a way to disgust, at least once, literally everybody who was likely to pick up a copy of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes. You have to close the book thinking what a great thing it would be if someone stood up to these bastards, and that means you should be offended.

SpartacusSaga_Marquee8_1440x651Women? Easy to do with a society whose foundation myth is based on rape, and whose ladies were regarded as chattels. Animal-lovers? Plenty of opportunity with ‘entertainments’ comprising repeated cruelty to an entire menagerie of innocent creatures – I knew I was onto a winner here when even my editor said she was a bit queasy after reading one scene. She took it out. I sneaked it back in.

Ethnic minorities? The Romans saw no colour, but that didn’t stop them being casually racist about almost everybody. ‘Asians’, which is to say, people from the Middle East, were mistrusted as a bunch of oriental weirdoes. Greeks were envied and despised, for having all the culture that the Romans plundered, and answered in turn by snootily dismissing the Romans as a bunch of philistines. And if you are from northern Europe – lawless, wild places like Britannia – the Romans think you are a savage. I even managed to get in a snide comment about wine from France being ‘barbaric’ – it would be another generation before Caesar conquered Gaul.

Your grandmother? When the show’s best-loved line is “Jupiter’s Cock!”, I think we’ve got that covered.

Gays? Now there’s a tough one. Spartacus has a huge gay following, particularly for the tender romance between the Carthaginian gladiator Barca and his lover Pietros. So I made it as clear as I could that just because there were homosexuals in Rome, and in open view in the TV show, it didn’t mean that their social position was necessarily welcome.

The Roman author Seneca once wrote of the layout of a ludus which had so many gay gladiators that they had their own wing. Homosexuality, it seems, was no bar to success in the arena, but the Romans certainly did not condone it. Instead, Seneca writes of how the gladiators who love men get to practice their “obscenities” in private, where none might see their “disease”. I made sure I’d have someone say that.

The entire human race? If you’re a human being (Yes? Check.) then the mere notion of slavery should be enough to set you off, particularly when I go into such detail about what it could mean for people on a daily basis. In particular, I delved deep into Roman law, to show how terrible a slave’s life could be, and the true side-effects of a life with no control whatsoever over one’s fate or body.

So that was everybody taken care of, except possibly me. My wife saw to that at Christmas, when she eagerly snatched up my advance copy, and started reading some of the sex scenes out to my mother. It made me feel distinctly uneasy… I had even managed to offend myself.

This article originally appeared in January 2012 as a guest post on Blogomatic, to promote my novel Spartacus: Swords & Ashes (US/UK). I repost it here because the original site seems to have disappeared.

Somebody Wrote That?


On 4th June, the Japanese will be releasing the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the anime Yamato Resurrection, an announcement accompanied by excitable trilling about the on-disc extras. This was because the animators made two different endings, and left it to a focus group of 4000 viewers to vote for the one that was used. This is not a problem peculiar to Japan, but endemic in a medium that constantly tries to place a statistical value on creativity itself. I’m just saying, nobody needed a focus group to make Casablanca. Although if they had, Rick’s Café would be owned by a werewolf, and “As Time Goes By” would have been sung by Jay-Z and the cast of the Muppets.

The Writers Guild has a slogan that it likes to push at the public: “Somebody Wrote That.” Their point is that writing isn’t just what people say on screen. It’s the things you see. When Asuka Langley’s Eva unit picks up an entire battleship in End of Evangelion, somebody wrote that. When Ponyo’s mother rises out of the sea like a sentient tsunami, somebody wrote that. When the lead character in Dante’s Inferno crawls up a devil dog’s bum… er… I guess somebody wrote that, too.

But somebody made a decision. Who lives, who dies, who falls in love, these are questions in the hands of the author. I’m sick of recuts and reworkings and resprays, as if everything I pay money for is only a work in progress. Modern television tries to sell me rehearsals and auditions in place of performance. Modern movies increasingly ask me to fill in plot holes or write my own ending. I do that for a living. And I can do it at home without buying a cinema ticket.

Here we are again, back in the world of fan-pandering. Decisions like the dual ending of Yamato Resurrection play to modern youth’s love of interactivity and gaming, and the notion that decisions are made by the people who show up. Even if the people who show up are a bunch of giggling morons who will love anything as long as there’s a pretty vampire boy in it with a talking ocelot. Will it turn out soon that “nobody wrote that”?

I don’t want democracy at the movies. I want to see a writer’s creative vision, not mob rule by whoever showed up at a particular cinema several months ago. If I’m not paying the creators to use their expertise, why am I paying them at all? Democracy is me voting with my wallet, not discovering that the creatives named on the poster actually left it to 4000 strangers to decide how their film should end. It’s an abrogation of authorial responsibility – a sneaky, pre-emptive strike against bad reviews, as the answer is sure to be: “Well, that’s what you wanted.” If this film sucks, it’s the fans who will get the blame. And if it’s a success… well, write your own ending.

(This article first appeared in NEO #70, 2010)