Are gladiators like Survivor contestants?

21:30, Aug 29 2010

There seems to be a discrepancy between the modern depiction of gladiators in shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the actual truth of who and what the gladiators were in ancient Rome.

According to history, the gladiators were essentially entertainers who were armed to the teeth and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Roman people. "Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their legal and social standing and their lives by appearing in the arena. Most were despised as slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalised, and segregated even in death," says the Wikipedia article on them. It seems that gladiators were the least of society, people who were used purely for entertainment and had no deeper meaning to society before entering the arena.

This seems to be quite different from the way gladiators have been portrayed in television and film, where the combatants are invariably disgraced war heroes fighting for more than just entertainment. Gladiator, the Russell Crowe movie released in 2000, is a perfect example: Crowe plays Maximus, a Roman general betrayed by his people who uses his time in the arena to spark an uprising and take revenge on the emperor.

The latest depiction is found in Spartacus: Blood and Sand (second episode aired last night on The Box, 9.30pm), which tells the story of folk hero Spartacus, played by American Andy Whitfield - a Roman soldier who was imprisoned and sold as a gladiator and who eventually led a revolution against the Romans. His story was famously made into a 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand changes up the formula from earlier tellings of the story by taking its stylistic cue from recent ancient-era films such as Gladiator, Alexander and 300; you need only compare the golden colouring of daytime scenes in Spartacus: Blood and Sand to similar scenes from 300, or check out the way fight sequences go from normal speed to slow motion then back to normal speed, to spot the influence.

It's also produced by cable network Starz, allowing the writers to ramp up the violence, sex and language, which in turn has the effect of making the show appear closer to how we might imagine the debaucherous Roman era. Heavily stylised blood spray, gory flesh wounds, and dismembered limbs - all of which appear roughly every 4 seconds - make us appreciate and notice the violence even more; clearly these things are meant to shock us, though I found myself grinning and saying "whoa!" more than anything else.

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Spartacus: Blood and Sand is also filmed here in New Zealand, and uses Kiwi actors in key roles: former Shortland Street stars Craig Parker and Manu Bennett and Xena star Lucy Lawless all feature in the cast.

If you were going to generalise, you'd say that the main characters we meet in these TV shows and films are heroes of the people, carrying with them a level of fame before they ever enter the arena. But it seems that gladiators were mostly nobodies who were enslaved by the people of Rome purely for entertainment purposes.

So if the historical gladiators are different from the modern depiction of gladiators, then what is the better comparison? If you ask me, gladiators are probably more like Survivor contestants.

Before you laugh, hear me out. First, Survivor contestants are - for the most part - people who have no real entertainment skills before becoming Survivor contestants (hence why they feature in reality shows), while gladiators are people who traditionally had no entertainment or fighting skills before becoming gladiators.

Second, Survivor contestants are used by viewers purely for entertainment, just as gladiators were used by Romans. Third, Survivor contestants are famous only for being Survivor contestants, with the odd one achieving fame elsewhere (such as Boston Rob and Amber); similarly, gladiators were famous only for being gladiators.

Last, as much as seeing who wins is good, the most entertaining part of Survivor is watching the failure of the 15 contestants who don't win, while the most entertaining part of the gladiators seems to be watching the failure (translated: death) of those who didn't survive.

In fact, the only real difference is that, on Survivor, the losing contestants don't actually die during the course of the show. Though that might be the one thing that would make me start watching again.

There is one other similarity that I haven't mentioned: the gladiators say a lot about our impression of early Roman entertainment (namely, that it was obsessed with sex and violence), while Survivor says a lot about modern entertainment (namely, its dependence on reality television).

As entertaining as Spartacus: Blood and Sand is, perhaps it says more about what entertains us than we think.

So - have you been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand? Do you enjoy shows or films set in Roman times? What do you think of my comparison between traditional gladiators and Survivor contestants?

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