The Depiction of Slavery in Ancient World Television Drama: Politics, Culture and Society.

Greenhalgh, Claire Elizabeth (2020). The Depiction of Slavery in Ancient World Television Drama: Politics, Culture and Society. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis examines the reception of Roman slavery in recent ancient world television drama through one primary text, Starz’s Spartacus (2010-13) and what it reveals about the way we conceptualise ancient slavery in this under-researched medium. Applying a key tenet of reception theory, namely that fictional works set in the past potentially yield insight into the concerns of the present, it explores how the series’ representation of slavery reflects contemporary issues around gender, sexuality, race, identity, status and power. My comparative methodology comprises an in-depth character and thematic analysis of the series and other recent onscreen slave narratives.

It shows that the series is subject to a range of influences, from modern popular culture to aspects of the classical sources. However, commercial imperatives still drive the selection and appropriation of material. This explains the ubiquity of certain tropes generic to the cable industry, namely graphic sexual content and violence, and enslaved women in particular are portrayed almost exclusively through the lens of sexual slavery. Since the series is about a slave rebellion, it privileges the most brutal aspects of slavery and portrays the institution as inherently dehumanising, violent and disempowering. This study also shows that the series can be situated within a wider tradition of representing slavery onscreen, while the moral ambivalence of servile characters, behaviour and attitudes not only reflects more complex modern TV narratives, but also indicates a desire to differentiate the series culturally and politically from the legacy of the famous 1960 film. Finally, by using slavery to explore themes such as the abuse of power, the importance of liberty and resistance, and the implications of denying bodily and sexual agency and rights, it encourages audiences to reflect upon injustices in their own societies.

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