Now that the complete series is available, I’ve started watching Spartacus on Netflix.
I was initially a bit turned off by the depiction of extreme violence on the battlefield and in the gladiatorial arena, but I soon became engrossed in the story-telling and the intertwining plot-lines of the various characters.
Spartacus (111–71 BCE) is, of course, an actual historical figure, though not too much is known about him.
He was probably a Thracian who served in the Roman army and eventually ended up a slave, forced to fight as a gladiator.
He’s most famous for escaping with a gang of fellow slaves and leading them into a full scale revolt against the Roman Republic. It’s not known what his actual intentions were, but he is commonly portrayed as wanting to end the oppression of the underclass by the wealthy and powerful–Rome’s one percenters, if you will.
It was Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s wealthiest citizen and destined to be one third of the First Triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (aka Pompey), who eventually put down the slave revolt and crucified several thousand survivors along the Appian Way.
There have been many depictions of Spartacus over the years. Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus was written in 1951 during the McCarthy era as a reaction to his imprisonment for contempt of Congress for refusing to name names.
In 1960 that novel was made into a motion picture, also called Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas.
The Starz production of Spartacus goes in its own direction. I’ve only watched the first season so far, but I know that the series lead, Andy Whitfield, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after completion of that season, delaying production of season two. Eventually it became clear he would not recover, and the role was recast. Whitfield died shortly thereafter.
Unlike many other dramatizations of ancient Rome, this Spartacus makes no effort to differentiate the various classes by their accents. Thus we have all the characters, highborn and low, Roman and non-Roman, upstairs (in the villa) and downstairs (in the ludus (gladiatorial school)) speaking the same slightly stilted dialog.
I finally realized that the somewhat awkward dialog (“You think this makes difference? My death will not heal scars you bare.”) is an attempt to provide a Latin-ish feel to the proceedings, as if the dialog is a literal translation from Latin. Latin is a highly inflected language and doesn’t have articles (“a”, “an”, “the”) so it can be more expressive with fewer words.
And then there’s the violence. Yes, there is a lot of it, and very graphic it is, but in a comic book kind of way. Practically all the blood is digital blood, splashing out in all directions; presumably a choice by the production team to make the violence a bit more palatable.
Although I’m far from an expert on ancient Rome, the period of the fall of the Republic and rise of the emperors has always held a special fascination for me. To my eye the production team has done a fine job of keeping historical details reasonably accurate, so I was a bit dismayed to see one of the slaves with the word “FUGITIVUS” tattooed on his forehead.
The problem is that during that period of Roman history, the alphabet didn’t differentiate between the vowel sound “U” and its consonantal sound “W”–both sounds were spelled with a “U”, but at that time the “U” looked like our modern “V”, the letter “V” not having been invented yet. So the Latin word for fugitive would have been spelled “FVGITIVVS”.
BTW, if you’ve ever wondered why the name of our modern “W” is “Double-U” when it clearly looks more like a “Double-V”, now you know. See Letter Perfect by David Sacks for more information.
If you don’t mind the gore, or are willing to put up with it in order to see some outstanding story-telling with brutal plot twists, I can highly recommend this series. One word of caution though: don’t look at the cast list on the main imdb.com page (the individual episode pages are fine) as you’ll discover that some cast members, especially ones that you might expect to stick around awhile, have relatively short lives. Similarly, don’t read the triva on the episode pages, as there are some major spoilers that aren’t marked as such. If you need some help keeping the characters straight, I’d recommend the episode synopses on the Spartacus wiki, but there again, don’t stray too far, as the individual character pages are filled with spoilers.