I have been watching the show Spartacus on Netflix. The series is set in the 70’s BC, and is about a small town of Capua, a region in what we now know as Italy. This was the time of the gladiators, where Romans made men fight each other to death just for sporting pleasures. ‘Let’s give them blood and thrill’ the generals would announce to appease the citizens.
This was also the era of flourishing slavery. Strong muscled men, acquired in sometimes as little as half-a-coin, were at their master’s whims either to be the house help, their Dominas and Dominus’s private sex worker or to train in the arena to become gladiators. The fitter ones with the promise of a good fight would train from the early rays of sun till often late at nights. The fall out rate (read put to death) was 90%. 8-9 slaves would lose their lives during the grilling battle of drawing blood or losing it to another’s sword. Once a recruit passed the test (by defeating an already stationed gladiator) he would then acquire the honour to be one marked by the house’s name on his arm with a sizzling iron rod. This show spoke about the House of Batiatus where the gladiators were marked with a ‘B’ and were a part of their master Qunitus’s stock! To kill or die was the only honorable feat to achieve. However my story is not about blood or death but of lust or maybe love which still dared to flower in the hearts of half-a-coin worth of men and women. Let’s look at out our protagonists who dared to love…
The House of Batiatus had a champion named Gannicus, a gladiator as much known for his strategically placed blows as his biceps. The affair begins during one of the sensual soirees organised by their master Quintus to gain favours from Varis, a Roman of higher standing and influence. Varis too tired to enjoy the carnal pleasures himself orders Gannicus to have sex with the slave Melitta, ‘Today I will just watch’ he said as he ordered another slave to stroke him as he watched. Melitta was the wife of Gannicus’s blood brother Oenomaus, but of course the Romans considered slaves as animals and once they spoke of something they wanted it must be obeyed. Much against their will Gannicus and Melitta begin the act. Yes, the Romans were messed up but this is not my focus here.
The two began copulating with immense guilt and helplessness at first, but somewhere along desire grips Melitta and she wraps her arms around the gladiator’s hips. Gannicus too responds with tenderness and passion and just like that, the two under more than a hundred pair of eyes move from having sex to making love. That moment was beautifully captured in the show.
In the proceeding episodes, the gladiator and the woman slave love in way they can, through stolen glances across the training ground, or fleeting touch through the iron gates whenever Melitta was sent underground to fetch wine for her mistress. Gannicus did fight his desire for his blood brother’s wife as did Melitta but the two found themselves helpless under the over riding passion that had suddenly seized them. Neither women nor wine, bestowed upon him by his master after significant victories in the arena, could interest him. His happiness depended in her gaze only.
Melitta though fought the passion harder than him. She firmly rejected Gannicus’s advances even though her body betrayed what her mouth lisped, she repeatedly appealed to his reason and warned him of the price they would but pay if the ill-fated feelings were discovered. She told him of how he was losing position as a champion due to his constant distraction of her, yet the one listening or speaking knew that what they were feeling was bigger than all logic and reason.
“Why are you doing this?” She asked Gannicus as he once again held her in the folds of his arms, refusing to let her slip away. “Is it not enough that we have lied to my husband for being forced into intimacy that night.”
“Oenomaus is like a brother to me. I did not ask for this, you know. But now I am helpless and to deny this would be a bigger lie.” he said.
Melitta understood his words only as someone who has known a rebellious heart could. She too had failed all reasoning and rationality, the risk of punishment, even death seemed smaller compared to the lie she was forcing upon herself and Gannicus. She knew what Gannicus meant when he said that, ‘to deny this love would be a bigger lie’. She could not help but accept the truth of what was between them.
Was it not this truth that gave them, the slaves, something that was their own. Melitta, was given to Oenomaus as a wife after the master’s command. Though he was a good husband and a kind man, she had fallen in love with Gannicus and it was not on the master’s bidding. A longing which the two felt, the master could neither own nor order away. As they did with everything tangible of the slaves they owned.
As Spartacus in the show says, “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows.’ And yet Gannicus and Melitta in their love found freedom even if for some moments…?
What kept me thinking was that love even as it chains, it frees …doesn’t it?