I have from time to time waxed eloquent (I hope) about my fixations with warrior imagery and hyper-gay hyper-masculinity. For today’s installment of the beefcake bouquet: Spartacus, queer hero.
But not, as you might suspect, inspired by the clashing swords and blood-spattered TV show or the cheese-fest extraordinaire movie. Instead, I’m turning to historical inspirations. At least, what little history there is to go on. Despite the huge legend that has endured for millennia, only a tiny bit of written history survives—and none of it first-hand. That certainly hasn’t stopped anyone, and, rest assured darlings, it won’t stop me.
Stop me from what? Why another painting, of course. Yep, time for some gladiator beefcake! Having recently finished my completely unauthorized and ever so slightly queer take on John Carter, I’m hankering to keep exploring new takes on well-known, masculine figures.
What history says–or doesn’t, actually
Let’s start with some history. I am no expert, and I’m not after historical accuracy, if such a thing is even possible. But I will still happy recommend The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss. Unlike so many history books, especially about ancient times, I find his books particularly readable. The prose is approachable, the style conversational, and he offers just the right amount of detail to inform without overwhelm. However, he doesn’t skimp on the research. He endeavors to be very clear about what’s documented, what’s speculation, and where disagreements reside. All without putting you to sleep before you reach the bottom of the page.
Alas, there’s no queer focus to the book and no effort to unearth what queer presence there might have been either in the gladiatorial ring or the rebellion that followed. It was surely there, but history is written by the heteronormative victors—at least most of the history we currently have.
While the current make up of the Academy is changing for the better, it doesn’t make up for its centuries of straight-washing history and trying to invisibilize us out of existing. Bits and pieces are coming to light, and it’s encouraging. But largely, we’re left to speculate.
And speculate I will!
Where fiction has taken us
Here’s a little round up of the various fictional takes on Spartacus that I’ve experienced so far.
Let’s start with a TV show, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Here we have a dozen or so episodes of the utter gayness of macho posturing. They made the interesting choice to spend most of their time objectifying male bodies and having the male protagonists experience some pretty awful sexual objectification. But, really, how is that any better? What have we accomplished? Also, the one attempt at genuine queer representation was both uncomfortably racialized and, of course, ended badly for them: a male couple, both black, both die, one by violence the other taking his own life after being repeatedly raped. Entertaining, to an extent, and lots of (homogenous) beefcake to appreciate. That’s about it.
Next up, the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus. Couldn’t finish it. So not a whole lot to say here. It departed too far from the book it claims to be an adaptation of to draw me in. Normally, I’m all for your campy Hollywood spectacle—and spectacle it is. But, once we got deeper in the presentation of Crassus as queer, corrupt would-be dictator (i.e. the villain) in opposition to the freedom-loving, hetero-manly Spartacus, well, I decided to hit pause and just never unpaused.
Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, has been the most moving and enjoyable of my samplings of the legend so far. Written amidst the Communist purges and blacklists of the 1950’s, it’s a stark look at a society built on slavery from the perspectives of both enslaver and enslaved. It carries a strong message to American readers willing to listen. And unlike other treatments of Spartacus, the individual hero is not the sole focus. He’s there throughout, but as a symbol, a movement, an inchoate fear. We get a picture of him and his legacy through his effects on others more than making him the sole individualistic focus–as is the style of so much popular media now.
Queering the Hero
In Euro-centric, western cultures, the word “hero” is suffused with heteronormative assumptions and expectations. At least, for those of us of a certain age, raised in an environment that praised unflinchingly toxic masculinity in all walks of life—and especially in popular culture.
Pair that hetero-hero against a queer-coded villain, as happened so often, and we who were a little bit different were left bereft of hope or examples of what we could achieve and contribute. Not for us the triumph. Not for us the joyous reunion. Not for us, the ride into the sunset.
Enough of that shit. Time to get to work, time to make the
donuts epic, sweeping works of art that center us and our triumphs! Now, I can’t capture the entirety of queer experience in any single work or art—or any single lifetime, for that matter. But, I can strive, one step at a time, one canvas at a time, to tell better stories than what I had in my formative years.
So, what are we looking at here? I’m still in the formative stages but heading toward images of affectionate, sensual male bonding as agent of change, as a stirring of rebellion. That is, in fact, the title I’m batting around in my mind right now. I’m also adding an important spiritual dimension: Dionysus, god of wine, chaos, and, most of all, the people!
The Strauss book mentioned above speculates that a strong religious thread ran through the rebellion that nearly toppled the Roman republic. The worship of Dionysus had been all but outlawed as dangerous to the landed gentry and wealthy elite of Rome. The line between people and gods was a lot blurrier back then. Could Spartacus have been seen as a god on earth, leading the enslaved to freedom?
So many tantalizing ideas swirling around, waiting to be born. I’ll leave you with a little sketchbook tour and hope you’ll follow along as this adventure unfolds.
Some imagery associated with Dionysus. The grape, source of wine, but also ivy, a poison. Such duality! Finally, a thyrsus, a ritual staff topped with a pine cone, used in ceremonies.
A picturesque bit of decaying architecture and an idea that may not bear fruit (lol). Figures emerging out of grape and ivy leaves.
The implements of the gladiator: a helmet and a sica, short curved sword; likely to be found in the hands of Spartacus while in the arena; here they’re being taken over by a higher power
A concept sketch. Going for something surreal here. Rather than fighting, I want to highlight ritual, ideally an ecstatic one befitting the Dionysian themes I’m exploring.