“In war, one does what one must to survive.”
Laeta acknowledged this grim truth to Caesar early in “Spoils of War.” She was, if not absolving, then at least understanding with regard to his role in the slaughter of Roman prisoners while undercover; saving many meant sacrificing a few. She can certainly relate, considering she committed some light treason of her own while under occupation in order to serve a greater good.
Wielders of power are held to one standard, though, and subjects of that power to another. Sins motivated by military exigency are answered differently due to the actors, not the acts. Caesar’s moves directly cost Roman lives, and he became the guest of honor at a post-conquest hootenanny. Laeta acted solely to save lives, and her own life was forfeit as a consequence.
As Crassus stoically explained, giving aid and comfort to Spartacus demanded punishment, even if it was a necessary evil. Of course, he may also be rationalizing a cold-blooded military decision by couching it in a sense of honor. Crassus, too, is willing to sacrifice innocents to secure his larger victory. Selling the widow of a Roman noble to a reviled pirate in order to gain a vital tactical alliance is part of the cost of doing business under dire circumstances.
This was a necessary sequence of events, given how Laeta’s character progression has been laid out all season, but its execution struck me as a missed opportunity. Having Laeta be branded a literal slave before rising up to slay her dominus forces her onto the rebels’ side. It strips her of her Roman-ness and her agency, giving her no choice of allegiance in the final stages of the war—almost like she the show couldn’t truly accept her in the rebel fraternity without first passing the initiation.
How much more interesting could it have been for her to go over to Spartacus’s camp by choice, as a once-exalted Roman citizen renouncing her world of her own free will? To take a bold measure because of what she believes is right, as Spartacus and Crassus do? After all, she had grudgingly accepted that the Thracian was an unexpectedly decent man. Upon learning that her long-awaited Roman savior had treated her as one of the titular spoils of war, such a decision would be eminently sensible. Ironically, after drawing a stark contrast between Spartacus and Crassus based on their level of respect for Laeta’s agency, the show then negated that very agency.
So instead of walking into the rebel camp, she was carried in by Gannicus, a damsel in distress just like Sybil. There’s no denying this was a great episode for Gannicus (and for you many, vocal fans of his), first staying behind to distract the legions while Spartacus led their people’s retreat, then improvising a daring escape of his own with Sybil and Laeta in tow. He got to be valiant, shrewd, and noble (albeit only after Sybil nudged him in that direction). By the time he took to frigging horseback to single-handedly ride down a half-dozen soldiers, he was all but literally a knight in shining armor. The sequence is a dashing addition to Gannicus’s Greatest Hits compilation, and Dustin Clare has developed a real knack for balancing the character’s happy warrior and reluctant hero sides.
Still, like with Laeta, something in this leg of Gannicus’s arc troubles me. More clearly than ever, Sybil is being posited as his new and more appealing love interest. She’s meek, pious, deferential—she practically worships Gannicus, and even if that’s understandable, it means the two can’t possibly exist on the same level. In other words, she’s the polar opposite of Saxa, who—even as an underdeveloped character—has proven her man’s equal in skill and passion.
There is a well-worn trope in fiction that insists a man’s maturation means giving up the “wrong” type of woman and settling down with the “right” type. In this trope, the “good girl” is typically a docile, dependent wife, while the “bad girl” is challenging, sexually assertive, independently capable. Spartacus has, more often than not, treated its female characters with enough respect and complexity that I’m willing to let them play this out and hope it stays out of that trap. The show may ultimately avoid following that cliched road, but at the moment it is passing some problematic mile markers.
For now, Gannicus’s gallantry is the last burst of action in this phase of the conflict, as the dust settles on our new world order. The rebels are once again out in the cold—literally, this time, pinned down on an impassable ridge north of the city. Their numbers now contain a couple of refugees from enemy camps, Laeta and Castus (oblivious to the betrayal of his fellow Cilicians). And Crassus’s crew commands in Sinuessa, where from the catbird seat the aristocrat opened up about the full breadth of his ambition: “A wise man does not fight for glory alone.” Banishing Laeta to the Good Ship Heracleo removed the last vestige of Sinuessa’s original power structure, creating a vacuum that Crassus and his pliant Senate ally Metellus are only too happy to fill.
Before those aggrandizing dreams could progress, though, the troops needed to unwind and celebrate victory. Caesar was the guest of honor, so naturally Crassus tapped Tiberius—probably the only man in the camp who detests Caesar’s living guts—to head the party-planning committee. His choice of entertainment included party game staples like the drawing and quartering of prisoners, which I suppose was the Apples to Apples of its day.
Yet Tiberius’s grudge against his father’s favorite was raging, all the more so after Caesar took some time out of his day to first condescend to the kid and then rub his nose in the yawning chasm between the success rates of their respective operations in the war. It didn’t help that Tiberius’s primary role on the show at this point is 1) to be aggrieved at people, and 1a) to fall flat on his face in the process of acting on that aggrievement.
Hence his attempt to surreptitiously eighty-six his rival, which was only halfway foolish (for Tiberius, that’s progress). Baiting Caesar into a surprise mano-a-mano with a vicious gladiator cleverly used the glory-showering occasion against him. It might have even worked, were Donar not suffering one or two grievous wounds from the last battle. At one point, the future conqueror was plainly terrified of the Rhinelander—and with ample good reason.
Alas, hindered by the wear-and-tear of one too many impalements, this was not the day on which the mighty Donar forever altered the course of world history. Like Gannicus, he had stayed behind to ensure his compatriots made their way to safety. But where some men get to gallop over the horizon with a pair of lovely ladies and a snappy new cloak, other men must settle for a noble death by their own hands rather than by a Roman’s.
In his demise, Donar delivered one last message to his newly emboldened enemies. Right now, the rebels may be on the defensive, trapped at the edge of the world, while Crassus holds all the cards. But as Metellus aptly recognized, “If this man stands for all the rebellion, celebration may hold premature.”
– R.I.P. Donar. You died as you lived: Like an utter badass.
– Speaking of Crassus kin commoditizing women, Tiberius had made his abuse of Kore an ongoing affair. He, like his father, transformed his victim’s status from an asset into a vulnerability. As a slave, whatever agency Kore possesses is due to Crassus’s favor; leveraging that fact to keep her silent lets Tiberius assault her psychologically as well as physically.
– All right, Fashion Legion: How do we feel about this clean-shaven, properly Roman-looking Caesar now?
– Gannicus got the main spotlight, but let’s also properly credit the balls on Spartacus, Crixus, and Agron, who faced down an entire damn phalanx while the rebels beat their retreat.
– “By what means?” “I have no fucking idea.”
– “You mad fuck.”
– “Even the gods grant aid to the fucking man!”
– “I believe you a man of infinite plots, twisting upon themselves to shame Gordian knot.”
– “He fights for what he believes is just.” “There is no cause more dangerous.”
– “Then he and I are the same. Each believes himself the hero, the other villain. It is for history to decide who is mistaken.” Crassus may speak as if history is a neutral force, but any discussion of events like the Third Servile War calls to mind the old adage that history is written by the victors.
– “He is a troublesome man to kill. I have attempted it myself upon occasion.”
– “Greed is but a word jealous men inflict upon the ambitious.”
– “Must Julius Caesar risk life to kill every last rebel himself?”
– “And I believed myself a difficult man to kill.”
– Body Count: I saw 59 in the episode, bringing us to the edge of the three-bills mark at 293 on the season.
What did you think of the episode? Have recent events set nerves to edge?