The seedy, greedy world of Spartacus: Blood and Sand has produced many memorably heinous yet compelling characters. We’ve had ruthless social-climbing Batiatus with his all-consuming ambition and monstrous temper; his cold-hearted, viciously conniving bride Lucretia; and haughty, brutal Glaber. Yet by the final gore-spattered frames of Spartacus: Vengeance, one member of the show’s pantheon of evil stands out. Ashur, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who became an odd-job boy and sometime assassin, who became the slyest, most cruelly manipulative fiend ever to walk the mean streets of Roman Capua.
If he wasn’t so steeped in blood and treachery, you could muster sympathy for Ashur. After all, he begins the series as much a slave as all the other gladiators, damned to an inhumanly savage existence of relentless training and sadistic blood-sport. He has no choice but to hone his body to heights of chiselled perfection, only to offer it up for mutilation at the hands of fellow slaves, for the amusement of a baying crowd. Yet unlike Crixus or Barca, Ashur does not even have the hollow consolation of glory and celebrity as a God of the Arena, as he is the least of the Brotherhood, his victories of little note or tainted by underhanded ploys. Then he is crippled by Crixus and even his forlorn dream of becoming a true gladiator is snatched from him. Truly he is a victim of slavery, brutalised into a foul echo of the prosperous and respected man he might have become through his natural talents had he not found himself in Roman shackles.
Yet his catalogue of misdeeds is so creatively vile that by the time the first season has drawn to a close, any potential sympathy for him has evaporated like morning dew. A faithless betrayer, a gleeful rapist and a smirking torturer, not even the actor’s hammy charms or his plucky campaign to carve out a private empire under the noses of the snotty, arrogant Romans can make him remotely redeemable.
In the moral world of Spartacus, violence and mayhem are a necessary way of life and means of self-expression, even for our relatively sympathetic rebel-heroes. There is a certain coarse honour in their open, doomed defiance of the tyrannical Roman Republic that oppresses them. Ashur’s self-serving deviousness, his desire to co-opt his oppressors in enabling his own rise to power rather than fighting back against them, undermines and mocks the bravery of Spartacus and his followers. If Ashur had been successful in his plan to supplant the fallen House of Batiatus, who could possibly believe that he would have become a callous, abusive slave-master even worse than Batiatus himself, massing wealth and influence through the exploitation of the slaves who were once his fellows?
A monster obviously shaped and moulded by the despotic society that captured him, Ashur may have been. But he was still a monster, nonetheless. Though his agency was limited, he still had to make choices. By the hour of his final confrontation with the rebels, he had long since left choices of grim necessity behind, and was walking a path of brutal, bloodthirsty hubris.