Blood and Sand has so far (we have seen season one and a short prequel series called Gods of the Arena, season two is expected shortly) depicted Spartacus’ journey to the point he leaves Capua at the head of his slave rebels, gladiators mostly. The series is done in a kind of comic book style, like Zack Snyder’s 300, with some particularly gross scenes of violence. There is also a lot of sex: oily, lubricated, lusty, impromptu, gifted, and outcome focused sex. Part of this is a kind of fetish for controlled persons; the owned body is simply a tool for work or pleasure.
Desire, as depicted, appears as little more than an itch for slaves to scratch. Interestingly this becomes the weak point of Rome, with desire reduced conceptually to a need to get one’s end away anything greater becomes an aporia, a pathless way. Desire greater than physical urgency is a reduction of self, a setting aside of priority and status. All the freeborn Roman citizens that Blood and Sand represents are engaged in an endless successful meeting of physical needs and failed, shaming, attempts at love. The slaves, on the other hand, are in the reverse position: they can love and give their hearts but their bodies serve only Rome, their bodies are only for purposes as defined by citizens, by their domina/dominus.
This fantastic dichotomy, between the desiring and the loving, drives the narrative forward, Romans and slaves alike longing for the co-location of love and desire, without which both are deprived of wholeness, seamless being. The practice of slavery is the tool by which social, political and personal wholeness is denied. Romans can only be Romans by defining what they are not, slaves. Slaves can only be slaves by defining what they are not, Romans. (The inbetweeners, freedmen and freedwomen, don’t really get a look in. After all, it was precisely these citizens who were sent to the imperial littoral to defend against the barbarians who might resist Rome’s racket and to settle the lands nicked from the barbarians. Their desires and loves are nothing to the grand narrative, they are simply other.)
The interesting thing, the really interesting thing, about Blood and Sand is that women resist the dichotomy most of all. The Roman women know how it is to be thoughtlessly fucked up the arse, so they long for love, they long for the status and authority of being Roman without having to give up the possibility of rapturous love, of love-making without it being service to Rome and Ro-men. Throughout season one the women of Blood and Sand balance themselves between desire and love, unable, ever, to get both from a single man. This frustration is the central hinge on which the narrative moves.
Structurally slave women are in the same bind but without the liberty of choosing their partners in either form, and have no chance of personal satisfaction. Women slaves are passive receptacles (literally). In several scenes John Hannah’s Batiatus rogers slave women with little more than spit on his prick and a dropping of slave drawers, the slave women do not (even slightly) acknowledge the intimacy of the rogering, it is the same as if they had been told to unstack the dishwasher: passive, slough faced, neither tolerant or intolerant. The intimacy wasn’t theirs, pleasure wasn’t theirs, bottoms weren’t theirs. They deny everything.
Slave men can’t manage the same trick, they have to cum. In a subplot line Batiatus’ wife Lucretia requisitions the burliest slave, Crixus, for an afternoon fuck sometime in each episode. Crixus does the business but longs for the slave girl who watches him fuck Lucretia and cleans her up when they’re done (the slave girl gets his cum? I guess). Nevertheless Crixus does cum in each episode and cannot resist Lucretia until the climax (!) of the final episiode of Season 1 when he kills her. For slave men the loss is in the eyes: the slave men are raging and violent and it is their response to the ties that bind. Spartacus himself is motivated to fight, and subsequently rebel, by being deprived of and then losing his beloved (and hot) wife. He knows that infinite thing of love merged with desire and without it his anger and wrath of his being are ratcheted up each subsequent episode until the slaves rebel and kill everyone.
Roman men, as might be expected, are the core evil-doers but actually they aren’t much better off. Batiatus roots everything (a slave girl sucks his cock before he has sex with Lucretia, for example) but cannot ever acquire the property, or status, or titles to satisfy him. He controls hundred of slaves and has all the benefits of citizenship and property but ultimately he is limited to being just that, dominus, slave master, lanista. He can do pretty much as he pleases when it comes to sex and violence and money but what he can’t have is the respect of his fellow citizens and the status (auctoritas) he really wants. The reason, I think, is pretty obvious: he is the manager of men who kill and die for a living, plus he’s the kind of guy who rogers slave girls in front of his wife. It would be hard to suddenly turn around and become part of Polybius’ great system of Roman administration when your central gig is extreme sports and recreation.
The Rome of Blood and Sand is one beset by, as much as anything else, class. The Spartacist rebellion was called the Servile War by the Romans and it was not just about slavery, it was about a system that required service at every level, from every level. All the characters of Blood and Sand are beset by their need to give service, and the thanklessness of doing so. Service is the antithesis of desire in this economy: desire is not righteous and not Roman, service is righteous and Roman.
The great upwelling of desire depicted in Blood and Sand is an argument about the failures of Rome (pre-ordained, contemporaneous, and post facto): its inclusions and exclusions, its liberties and its suppressions, its allowances and its intolerances. The failure to meet desire and love on equal terms is the curse that will, ultimately, lead Constantine to conversion and the centralisation of Roman power in Christian popery (Arian, Orthodox, and Catholic) first in Rome and then in Constantinople. Love is given a low priority: way, way second to service and desire is a classic Achilles heel. This Rome is doomed by its inability to love that which is not Roman despite its great desire for exactly that which is not and cannot be Roman.