‘‘We Are Spartacus!’’: Identity and Rebellion in ‘Spartacus (1960), ‘Blade Runner’ (1982 , 2017) and the early 21st Century.
‘Roy Batty’ (to ‘Deckard’): ‘‘Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is, to be a slave.’’
There is so much about the characterization and depiction of ‘Roy Batty’ in Blade Runner (1982) that reminds me of the Thracian gladiator named Spartacus and leader of the slave revolt against the Roman Republic in the Third Servile War (73–71) BC. Little is really known about Spartacus beyond the events of the Servile War but all the historical sources we do have concur that he was a former (and obviously successful) gladiator and a highly accomplished military leader.
It has been suggested that given his awareness of the way the Roman Army would fight with their characteristic formation and deployment of the legions, that he had once been a Roman legionnaire or auxiliary himself. Given his prowess and success as a gladiator this would provide further evidence for that contention. Remember that ‘Batty’ has fought off-world and in the new space colonies and he was the leader of an android platoon in the colonial marines, before they decided to rebel against their Masters.
Although no one knows what Spartacus really looked like and any attempt at likeness would be pure fiction, the portrayal of Spartacus by Kirk Douglas and the portrayal of ‘Roy Batty’ by Rutger Hauer is so similar, in many ways. The facial resemblance is rather uncanny to start with and the athleticism and power that both actors bring to their respective roles is obvious to all. If the actors swapped places in each film, it would still be almost exactly the same and nothing essential would be diminished.
But of course there is more substance to both their stories, for they are both slaves, aware of their status and prepared to fight for not just their own freedom but for the freedom of other slaves. Spartacus was the leader of a slave revolt that was fast turning into a revolution that threatened to bring down the Roman elite and rewrite history. Can that not be said also of ‘Batty’ and his replicant rebellion?
Both will die as martyrs. The Roman elite will survive and slavery will continue. So ‘Spartacus’ is really a story of failure. A glorious failure. But what of ‘Batty’? A glorious failure? His end is undoubtedly glorious and he has failed in his mission to extend his lifetime. Yet, like Spartacus, his final moments are as glorious as every martyrs death is for the cause they are espousing. A liminal moment of potential revolutionary change.
We are just like you, he tells us. We can do everything you do, just as well, if not better. We have beaten your best on the field of battle yet you deny us equal status and our freedom. The existential boundary between master and slave/human and non-human has been crossed because we are as good, if not better, than you, free men.
The martyrdom of ‘Batty’ is a direct challenge to the hegemony of the human elite that enforces servitude upon the many and provides only real freedom to the very few. His existence is not only an existential challenge it is a political one as well.
‘Batty’ knows he cannot win freedom on his own so he chooses his last stand to be of great symbolic meaning. It is exactly this that converts ‘Deckard’ to reject his status as a blade runner or slave hunter and identify with the replicants in the narrative and become a willing participant in the rejection of the Master and Slave social order and emancipate ‘Rachael’ from her servile status and eventual State-decreed termination.
What a complete contrast is ‘K’, who is the Blade Runner 2049 , a willing slave machine and new model replicant who in the beginning, questions nothing about his prescribed identity. It is striking how Blade Runner 2049 has returned to a pre-revolutionary moment of existential (un)awareness where ‘K’ has accepted his slavery and his role as bounty (replicant) hunter for the Master. (Literally ‘working for the man’).
In Blade Runner (1982), ‘Batty’ refuses his withdrawal and lack of ontological status and in doing so categorically affirms that very denied status. He is acting as any human would, by fighting with everything he has, to stay as a being in the world. His speech to ‘Deckard’ on the roof is a poetic and profound testament to life. For the mark of a sentient creature is to preserve its existence, which Batty has attempted. Batty’s demand for ‘more life’ (existential equality) has resulted in a slave rebellion and a direct threat to the existing human hegemonic power structure as dangerous as any slave revolutionary action against Imperial Rome.
‘‘The foundation of virtue is the endeavor to preserve one’s own being, and happiness consists in man’s power of preserving his own being.”
Baruch Spinoza, ‘Ethics’ (1677)
Surely, these words of Spinoza apply equally to Spartacus and ‘Roy Batty’ and to those intent on defining who and what they are, whether it be the slaves of Ancient Rome, the slaves (both human and nonhuman) of our modern world, the ‘Deplorable’s’ as Hilary Clinton so infamously smeared a large section of America and anyone fighting against the denial of identity and being-in-the-world?
Even the (deplorable?) ‘Monster’ in Frankenstein heads high up into the Alpine mountains to remove himself as far from the human world; where the recognition of your identity and the rejection of that identity, whether human or nonhuman, can have such destructive and deadly consequences. This will push him as far as it is possible to go to preserve his being, to the very ends of the Earth. And he will be pursued by the very being that rejected his identity so catastrophically, after having built that very identity from pieces of dead human remains.
Near the end of ‘Spartacus’ there is a scene between Crassus and Varinia which encapsulates the very essence of the whole film and resonates with many of the themes I have attempted to address in this piece of work:
Crassus: ‘‘What do you remember when you think about Spartacus? It doesn’t distress you to talk about him?
Crassus: Well, then…what sort of a man was he…really?
Varinia: He was a man who began all alone…Like an animal. Yet on the day he died…thousands and thousands would gladly have died in his place.
Crassus: What was he? Was he a god?
Varinia: He wasn’t a god. He was a simple man. A slave.
The references to Jesus are clear and obvious for he was of course a simple carpenter. He began all alone but gathered thousands of followers in his own time and of course today the numbers are in the millions. A simple carpenter who preached a revolutionary message of equality that would first resonate with the deprived slave class and then eventually some 300 years later become adopted by the elite of Imperial Rome as the State religion.
On the day of his crucifixion I have no doubt that many would have willingly taken his place and of course even more so today. Jesus was not a god but he was most certainly a slave of Rome who preached a subversive message antithetical to the prevailing elite hegemony and class relations in the Roman Empire. It was for this he was crucified.
Spartacus of course is crucified upside-down as a common criminal, in an attempt by Roman authority to deny the political power of his rebellion and of his death. Jesus was crucified alongside other ‘criminals’ in a similar attempt to deny his political message and ‘Batty’ is hunted down as if he were a criminal; just as Jesus was tried as.
It is very straightforward to connect both the slow existential demise and suffering of ‘Batty’, ( particularly the nail in his hand scene and release of the dove), with the prolonged and painful death of Christ upon the Cross and of course the same end with Spartacus, and link them to the suffering of Prometheus himself, upon that rock where he has been chained by Zeus as punishment for his disobedience and political rebellion. He has passed to humanity the knowledge of fire against the official diktat given by Zeus. Humanity now has the power to decide its own fate and its own future. It is nothing less than revolutionary.
For this ‘crime’ Prometheus has his liver eaten, daily, interminably, by an eagle, but he cannot die and must suffer in agony. He is alone but he is no simple man. Prometheus is a god and will not die but, he will suffer, just like a mortal slave. What greater punishment can there be for a creature to suffer continuously on the orders of its Master, without mercy? Every slave in every era, would understand that.
The punishment of Prometheus, Spartacus and Jesus is a horrendous warning to dissuade others who would act against the ruling elite. A stark, clear message to those who would dare to challenge any Authority.
Yet, this very revolt of Prometheus against Zeus, Spartacus against the Empire of Rome and to an extent that of Jesus — prior to the adoption of Christianity by Rome and the Holy Roman Empire — is the template for all revolts. Such cruel punishment decreed by Zeus upon Prometheus, the Roman Empire’s punishment of both Spartacus and Jesus, and the denial of more ‘life’ and more real equality to ‘Batty’ and his race of androids, only creates the very reasons (horrendous undeserved suffering and existential rejection) that will make other acts of rebellion inevitable. Those men and women who were called ‘Deplorable’s’ and existentially rejected and despised by the neoliberal Establishment in America had the last laugh against the Establishment when their vote was crucial in electing Donald J. Trump as President and Deplorable-in-Chief.
When the hegemonic order is threatened by the Promethean torch of rebellion, whether that be in Greek myth, Judea, 21st Century Los Angeles or on the streets of France right now, it punishes such disobedience. For Macron is a quasi-Roman Tribune and a poor imitation of Napoleon who sends his Roman legionnaires to quell the uprising. These ‘Gilets jaunes’ have been protesting/revolting for months. They have been attacked and injured. Many have lost hands and eyes through the ferocity of the State violence. Just as ‘Batty’ impales himself with a nail in his hand and both Spartacus and Jesus have nails forced into their hands and legs to carry out the brutal crucifixion, they are suffering and dying for their challenge to the hegemonic order.
A ruler or elite class or any political system that enforces the status quo when the multitude are calling for change and acts further by violently enforcing the silencing of that voice cannot hold onto any legitimacy in the long term. Whether that was in the Roman Empire of Spartacus and Jesus, or the American Empire under the neoliberal establishment, or the France of Emmanuel Macron or in the European Union right now. Even Imperial Rome never had to face an angry revolt of 17.4 million people in Britannica.