Spartacus: War of the Damned "Decimation" Review: Decimation Row

By Andy Daglas

Feb 23, 2013

Spartacus: War of the Damned Episode 4: "Decimation"

Most likely, when you’re reading this, it’s the weekend. So why not take a few minutes to call your parents, or grab coffee with a good friend, just to remind yourself that there is goodness and light in the world. Because that episode? That was grim.

Don’t get me wrong, Spartacus has never been the sunniest series on the dial, even when things have gone reasonably well for Our Heroes. But no matter how dire the circumstances, the protagonists—and the audience—have always remained buoyed by a safety net of brotherhood, or hope, or the righteousness of the cause. That net has been rapidly fraying this season. Now, with a suddenness that was bracing even by this show’s standard for rapid story movement, the ropes have been severed completely.

Of course they had help from Caesar, whose initial role in Crassus’s grand plan was unveiled this week. It’s a nifty ploy on Crassus’s part, but an even niftier one on the part of the show's writers: Take the character destined to become one of the most famous individuals in world history and use him for covert ops. The man whose cognomen came to mean “emperor” in Latin, German (kaiser), and Russian (czar); the man whose clan name would be affixed not only to a brand-new month but to an entire calendar; in "Decimation," found advantage in his current anonymity.

He arrived in Sinuessa—now widely known as a refuge for huddled masses yearning to breathe free—with appropriate swashbuckling pique. Gaius the Actor would fit in perfectly with the Spartacus repertory, chewing on every morsel of his made-up backstory with the shiteating conceit of a kid who knows he’s getting away with something. He matched swords with Gannicus (competently enough to be useful, not so skillfully as to tip his hand) and quickly sized up the nakedly resentful Nemetes as the weak link in RebelCo’s upper-middle-management. It was great, shifty fun, and of a piece with the cocksure commander we’ve seen so far.

But then the episode took a turn, as did the character, when his initiation rite put him face-to-face with the hidden horrors of occupied Sinuessa. Fabia’s condition, and the unspoken traumas visited upon her over several weeks, was truly stomach-churning. Caesar was rightly appalled, but his reaction was no less unexpected. It added new shades of empathy and fragility for a character previously defined almost exclusively by arrogance and an easy propensity for violence.

We’ve discussed how one of the themes of War of the Damned has been the shifting lines between hero and villain, and this was clearest expression of that theme so far. In that moment, Caesar wasn’t merely a military maestro out to quash a foe and accrue glory; he grasped the righteousness of his cause and abhorred the monstrosity of his opponents. And who could disagree? It’s likely no coincidence that the scene echoed Spartacus’s own behavior while incognito in "Wolves at the Gate," when he too granted a doomed stranger a merciful death, then had to spin his actions to reinforce, rather than blow, his cover story.

That spin was tactically smart, riling up already inflamed passions (“I set her free—as I would all Romans still held by Spartacus!”). Yet Caesar didn’t so much sow the seeds of dissent as he did slather the seedlings with Miracle-Gro. Resentment and rage have been simmering in all corners of the rebel base, held in tenuous check only by the adamant force of Spartacus’s will. The middle acts of “Decimation” piled one formidably tense moment on top of another, a series of deceptions and manipulations in which the next words out of someone’s mouth, the next decision made, threatened to bring disaster on one party or another. Conversations—between Caesar and Nemetes, between Nemetes and Crixus, between Naevia and Gannicus—were as ruthlessly choreographed as any gladiatorial combat, and with equally high stakes.

But the incident that incited the chaos sprang from shy, superfluous Sybil, in a reversal that surprised me perhaps more than it ought have. Initially, I suspected her stumbling upon Laeta and the missing POWs might prompt a wary alliance, or at least a future C-story where Sybil agonizes over her unwanted secret. Rather than draw that secret out for an episode or two to manufacture tension, Spartacus, in characteristically fleet fashion, pivoted on it right away and had her spill the beans.

And with that, the whole shebang came crashing down. Spartacus’s detente with Laeta imploded, the truth of Attius’s innocence ignited Gannicus’s fury toward Naevia, and Crixus—hand-picked as Spartacus’s second-in-command at the start of the episode, with dramatic irony that was all but lampshaded—led the massacre of just about every remaining Roman in town.

The ensuing fissures open up new—and perhaps final, arcs—for the major players, and new notes in particular for Dustin Clare and Manu Bennett to play. Gannicus, practically against his will, is morphing from guilt-ridden hedonist to melancholy moral authority. Crixus, so long dependant on being part of a solid brotherhood, may be driven to lead a breakaway faction even at the cost of the rebellion itself—and the agony of that dawning realization is palpable.

The riot in Sinuessa, fueled by unrestrained emotion, was conspicuously cross-cut with a far more regimented brand of bloodshed, imposed by the draconian punishment which gave the episode its title. As punishment for Tiberius's troops deserting the battlefield—and as warning to all legions against future cowardice—Crassus revived an archaic mode of discipline. Accounts argue that the historical Crassus’s decimation did spur his army’s morale in the long run. Yet here it doomed at least one blameless party, Sabinus.

In another parallel between a Roman and our Thracian, Tiberius was forced to take part in the brutal execution of his closest confidant (as Spartacus was obliged to slay Varro in the Blood and Sand episode "Party Favors." Sabinus’s death didn’t carry nearly the same emotional weight, of course, partly because we don’t care as much about Tiberius as we did about Varro and partly because Tiberius and Sabinus's relationship wasn’t that deeply developed in these four episodes. But it did set the character rather sharply onto a new course, one more interesting than a standard quest for his father’s approval. Tiberius got his wish to be treated as a soldier and a man, not as an aristocrat’s mollycoddled whelp. In the process, he’s finding the martial ideals of honor and glory prove as illusory as the rebellious ones of freedom and equality.

On both sides, even when violence may sometimes serve just ends, it inevitably spawns new injustices of its own. Whether rebel-on-rebel, rebel-on-Roman, or Roman-on-Roman, the violence unleashed in the episode’s final act was bleak, brutal, and unsparing. No longer portrayed as brave or empowering, it’s simply the only way anyone in this universe knows how to deal with their problems. “We are men of blood and battle,” Crixus admonished early on, “and the streets grow restless with idle purpose.”

Spartacus is not just a violent show. Violence has been a vital part of its DNA since the beginning. It’s intrinsic to the show’s entire narrative, aesthetic, and thematic structure. It has been depicted as both depraved and noble, as the instrument of subjugation and as the lever of escape. How, when, by whom, and against whom violence is used has in large part helped characterize both the heroes and the villains.

By that standard, no one stood particularly well-acquitted this week. Much of “Decimation” felt like a rebuke to every cheer that ever greeted a .GIF-worthy dismemberment. Having implicated the audience in relishing its stylized gore, Spartacus in its final season is confronting the full consequences of a “kill them all” mentality.

Notae Aliae

– Both Spartacus and Crassus have now lost the loyalty of a top lieutenant. These guys really ought to commiserate over a jug of vino sometime.

– Caesar undercover nicely paid off two subtle, curious groundwork details laid earlier this season: The strange, precise mutilation to which he subjected his nether-regions in the premiere (to cover for an absent slave brand), and his offhand explanation in “Men of Honor” that Crassus would not let him trim his locks. See? His appearance isn’t just for Thor-eseque sexiness—it’s for strategic Thor-esque sexiness!

– Caesar tells Nemetes he’s “had the displeasure” of Cilicians’ company. At least this part of his story is true; the real Caesar was briefly the prisoner of Cilician pirates in 75 B.C. (four years before the events of this season).

– Once again I loved Spartacus and Laeta’s brief interaction, especially where she laid out exactly why Crassus poses a legitimate threat. I admire the show’s willingness to yank the rug out from under these two a lot sooner than I expected, although part of me still wants to see them blow off these ingrates and run away to the Alps.

– Likely Sybil thought that ratting out the refugees would prove her worth, not least to her crush Gannicus. Little could she know that he, lone among all Spartacus’s followers, would have preferred to avoid the very outcome she triggered. Womp-womp.

– Agron’s still nursing a grudge against Castus, the Cilician who put the moves on Nasir. I’m not too thrilled with this sort of one-note soapiness expanding into a multi-episode arc just to give Agron something to do.

– As commenters have pointed out, the historic Crixus and a group of followers are recorded as splintering from Spartacus toward the end of the Third Servile War. It’s uncertain whether this action was due to strategic or factional concerns, but it seems the writers have chosen to follow the latter interpretation.

– “The most fearsome weapons yet exposed.”

– “A position not commanded from upon back.” PHRASING, Tiberius!

– “Return to drink and whores or part from this world.” Naevia shares some good advice for any situation, really.

– “We are not Romans. Nor shall we become them by acts of unnecessary cruelty.”

– “Your lesson well learned. Imperator.”

Body Count: I counted 16, likely dozens more off-screen, including the four other victims of the decimation. On the on-screen basis, 182 for the season.

What did you think of the episode? Unleash comment and find it read.

  • Comments (92)
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  • monicaconso Mar 10, 2013

    I watched it just now and I loved the episode but I would add to the Notae Aliae that Caesar's brush with the Cilicians was more than just a kidnapping. It is one of the most interesting episodes in the history of the character.

  • BranislavIvkovi Mar 03, 2013

    very dark, let's-mess-with-the-plot episode.
    but what's with crixus' voice? i get that raspy is manly but sometimes it looks as though he really has trouble talking..

  • lancyliu Mar 01, 2013

    i like it

  • thesirchelios Feb 25, 2013

    A very dark episode that was truly hard to get through at times! Although I thought the rebel part of the episode was very exciting, I have to commend the writers for the Roman part above all else. The way they handled the outcome of Tiberius neglecting his fathers orders in the previous episode was brilliant!
    Initially I was expecting Crassus to simply order Tiberius soldiers to be whipped or some similar punishment. After his speech about Romans never disobeying a commanders orders and setting an example, I thought he would go for the kill them all approach, which would be horrible but probably not be shown with any emotional impact, but rather just make Tiberius mad that he got publicly shamed by his father. At this point I was not very excited about that plot and wanted to get back to the rebels.
    Then we hear about the decimation and I start to get a feeling that this could get ugly, especially after Sabinius proclaims that he will take part, because it is the right thing to do. Initial thought is that he is obviously going to pick the white stone and be killed. However I quickly wave if off thinking Tiberius will get his father to spare Sabinius and in the process be even more shamed, but who cares?
    Fast forward to Crassus speech about loyalty and I realise we are going to witness this thing and it is going to be bloody, but we like it when the Romans kill each other! Plot twist, instead of Tiberius asking for mercy for his friend, he is sent to be apart of the "lottery". Wow, Crassus is one cold motherfer, further proving his great potential as a nemesis for Spartacus! And now Tiberius is obviously going to draw the short straw, the tables have turned completely!!! What is Sabinius willing to do to save his friend, will he defy Crassus and go agains everything he believes in? I really have no idea where this is going now, but it is going to get dark!
    Suspense as Tiberius reveals a dark stone. Wait what, now Sabinius is going to die after all? But Tiberius will show his weakness and bargain with his father.
    They have to beat their friends to death with sticks in a ultra-cruel bullying circle!!!???!! Holy shit I did not see any of this coming!!!! And Sabinius surviving for what seemed like an eternity, Tiberius unable to put him out of his misery. That one last look before the final blow. WOW!!!
    From the very start I obviously had no idea where this was going, and I kept coming up with new scenarios in my head and the writers kept twisting and turning the story in an intricate way that for the first time made me care about these Roman soldiers and feel bad for them. In doing so they also perfectly set up Crassus as a cold and brutal leader, willing to sacrifice anything for his cause, and the conflict with his son that is now built on hate and rage rather than unwillingness to recognise him as a man.
    With the cinematographers and editors doing a superb job of filming and blending the two slaughters, it created my favorite episode of the season and an absolutely brilliant piece of television.

  • yutg25 Feb 27, 2013

    I agree I mean I knew what Decimation was 1 out of ten guys chosen at random beaten to death with fists but I didn't think they'd show it like that. I'am curious as to Crasus do if his son chose poorly.

  • ElRob Feb 25, 2013

    Wonderful episode. This show is boldly forging ahead into territory no television production has dared to tread yet again.

    My only lingering question is what, precisely, Spartacus' motivation and vision is at thsi stage of proceedings? Others in this section have already noted that he has already gotten his revenge on both Batiatus and Glaber, the ones most responsible for his enslavement and his wife's death. What drives him at this point to lead the fractious ex-gladiators and slaves? and, as he has so clearly taken the responsibility, to what end does he lead them on? Not many hints have been dropped, though I think the next episode will reveal that he will try to hire some of Heracleo's pirate buddies to carry his "nation" far from Roman shores.

    Last note: I'm so glad I discovered this site, Andy's reviews, and all of you posters here who put keyboards to purpose and see intelligent commentary spring forth. Finally a community of folks who take Spartacus as seriously as it deserves to be taken, having fun while doing so. Cheers, and here's hoping we get the final season we all deserve!

  • moturn Feb 25, 2013

    ElRob, your question was answered by the talk between Spartacus and Gannicus.Spartacus's thirst for vengeance was not filled by the deaths of Batiatus and Glaber. Why not? Because he failed to save Sura in the process. So now he means to do everything in his might to bring to heel the Romans, so that their cruelty in years to come is but "a distant memory."

  • ElRob Feb 25, 2013

    OK, I can respect that reasoning. The problem for me is that I have a hard time believing there is some kind of grander vision when all we really see Spartacus doing during most of every episode is crisis-managing unruly followers. No doubt the Big Reveal of his plan to either escape Crassus' army or annihilate it (or both?) will come in ep. 5. Cheers!

  • yutg25 Feb 27, 2013

    My brother was recently watching a documentary based on that Historians really aren't sure what Spartacus' plans were after all the Romans won this battle.
    Some argue Spartacus planned to hit Rome itself
    Some say escape.

  • yutg25 Feb 25, 2013

    I think he just trying to find a place where his people can live far from Roman oppression. Historically there is a plan but it may be interpreted as a spoiler for the next epi so I decline to post it here.

  • TylerA46 Feb 24, 2013

    I really hope Naevia is killed very soon. Can't stand that ugly bitch, since they changed actresses.

  • kcee Mar 01, 2013

    yeah.. they make her a right shit stirrer now! Guess it helps to explain Crixus splitting from Spartacus cos of this jezebel lol. Alos, not sure why they needed to bring Caesar into the story other than for the spinoff talks I hear about ...

  • moturn Feb 25, 2013

    Frankly, I wouldn't have foreseen this change in Naevia's personality, given her meek she was before. Yet the barbarous mistreatment she went through by Romans and in the mines seems to have brutalized her into the monster we see now. She has to go.

  • Jimz Feb 25, 2013

    Couldn't agree more. In addition to her acting like a completely mad cunt and being THE highest liability when it comes to their goals,constantly causing trouble,I too have never gotten used to actresses change. The original Naevia was it...even if they had to replace her,I never understood why with this one.

  • yutg25 Feb 27, 2013

    Maybe the actress choose not to return because she didn't like where the new storyline would take her.

  • nimrod Feb 24, 2013

    Great review! Sabinus simply refused to go down during that hellacious beating. Gannicus vs Crixis round 2 was totally owned by Gannicus. That brought a big smile to my face. Crixis talks about brotherhood and the like, but he's just one rung of selfishness below Ashur (okay, maybe 2). Only four episodes in and the writers have already shown the walls tumbling down around Spartacus. I feel for him, knowing how this splintering turns out. He had to choose Crixis as his number 2, Gannincus probably wouldn't want the burden of being the 'next guy in line', and Agron is as hotheaded as Crixis.

  • Jimz Feb 25, 2013

    I agree about Gannicus. In fact,in the previous episode Spartacus had already tried to draw him more deeply into the decision-making circle of leaders of men trying to add more power and responsibility in that regard to him,but Gannicus refused.

  • kcee Mar 01, 2013

    Gannicus will probably become no. 2 as they loosely base the show on history.. kinda makes me think what they gonna do with the Castus (the pirate who hit on Nasir). In history he was one of the leaders.

  • Jimz Mar 02, 2013

    Really? Honestly I didn't even know know Gannicus too was based on a real,historic figure. Thanx for the info.

  • kcee Mar 04, 2013

    yup. he was real!

  • yutg25 Feb 25, 2013

    Its more than that if you recall in Revenge part of the problem is that Crixus is Gaul and a great number of their fighters are from Gaul and the name also has merit he's Crixus the undefeated Gaul. Gannicus has the name but he isn't Gaul and Agron doesn't have Crixus' prowess in battle.

    I don't think Crixus will survive to the Final battle I get the feeling he'll be taken out in two more episodes.

  • kcee Mar 01, 2013

    Don't think he will last long either... History and the fact he's on Arrow now (although guesting as far as I know)!

  • Jimz Feb 25, 2013

    Actually and although I don't think that's an issue here at all,Gannicus is Gaul as well if I remember it correctly from the Gods of The Arena.

  • moturn Feb 25, 2013

    Jimz, your memory serves your poorly. According to his story, Gannicus is a Celt, not a Gaul.

  • Jimz Feb 25, 2013

    That's the same thing. Gauls were Celts

  • MadMaph1 Feb 24, 2013

    This show has never been remotely accurate but, who cared it was great entertainment. I have to say though having the pampered Julius Caesar portraying a hard bitten secret agent centurion is hilarious.

  • smithinjapan Feb 24, 2013

    Total props to Andy and the contributors for giving us, the somewhat ignorant of the actual history the show is based on, some background info. Even though the show is undoubtedly imperfect in its representation of historical fact, it's still awesome, and even better when you know that a lot of it is true (assuming history is).

    As for the violence, one of the promotional 'edges' of this show when it started, and what was pushed constantly, was that it was coming from the creator of 300, which is more or less all blood and gore. Despite the blood and gore the shots are absolutely stunning, and the action intense. This week the colors and scenes shot around Crassus and Co. were the most stunning, and that story was slightly better than the fast-paced story around Spartacus and the rebels. You could see all of what's happening coming since Naemia killed the blacksmith and lied about the reasons, but I agree it's happening a bit too quickly.

  • moturn Feb 25, 2013

    There are a great deal of remarks in this columns about the historical accuracy of the show. Quite frankly, I don't believe the producers and writers meant for the Spartacus stories to be factually correct. History or legend was only framework by which the imaginative stories of fiction here were **loosely** based.

  • smithinjapan Feb 25, 2013

    I don't think you'll find anyone saying it's very accurate, just some pointing out that there are some points in the story that do indeed check out (loosely, for sure).

  • canine Feb 24, 2013

    If I recall what I've read about the slave uprising, Spartacus and Crixus actually did split up due to a mishandling of prisoners of war by Crixus. Though according to my knwoledge it was actual roman soliders and Crixus decided to crucify them. This lead to an argument where the slave force was split in half, thus giving the romans the advantage.

    One historical thing I do miss from the otherwise great series is interpretation of the fact that Spartacus and all the slaves could have escaped the roman empire. First they went south and met the pirates, who against coin offered to take them to Africa, and two times during the campaign they where at the feet of the alpes allowing them escape, but for some unknown reason Spartacus always chose to turn back (some historians believe it was either the horde's thirst for more battle, while others believe it to be Spartacus himself not able to escape the unwanted role of commander). I know getting all this into the series is tough with so few episodes, but an example of they being able to escape, but not going would be nice.

    The decimation and Fabia took my breath away from this episode. So horrible events showing equal acts of cruelty on both sides. Fun note, the rest of the legion suffering from decimation was taken on by Caesar himself and became the 10th legion (because 1 out of every 10 was decimated), after that the 10th legion became quite famous in the Gaellic war and they never retreated from battle ever again.

  • TylerA46 Feb 24, 2013

    They didn't come back just to fight more, they could not escape.

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