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As tales of Roman splendor have been depicted practically as long as television and film have been in existence, through productions both celebrated (I, Claudius) and denigrated (Caligula), almost all of them presented a juxtaposition of decadence, debauchery, and cruelty. And when it came to telling the story of a Thracian slave-turned-gladiator who led a massive rebellion against Roman oppressors, Spartacus’ tale was no different.
First acquiring acclaim through the eponymous 1960 epic film, which starred Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis, this story and script made an indelible mark in pop culture. Inevitably, tastes change and the once-lauded sword and sandal genre eventually faded away. But this style of historical drama then regained popularity with 2000’s Gladiator, and 40 years later, audiences weren’t quite done with Spartacus. With a series premiering on Starz in 2010 and airing for three seasons, the medium may have changed to television, but Spartacus once again lit up our screens.
Season 1 (entitled Blood and Sand) follows Spartacus’ (Andy Whitfield) initial alliance with the Romans, subsequent capture and enslavement, separation from wife Sura, and transport to the Capua ludus (or gladiatorial school) of Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), a smarmy low-level lanista who desperately wants to be the “big man on campus.” Batiatus is so thirsty for power that over the course of one season he alienated, backstabbed, and snowed important governmental officials, his own henchmen, and the very gladiators under his ownership. His wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) meanwhile is Ancient Rome’s answer to a wannabe society matron: pretentious and haughty, with the scent of “new money” enveloping her. Certainly a conniving social climber, she presents herself as a successful, proper Roman wife, but is just as sneaky and underhanded as her husband.
We are talking about the seeds of revolt here, so all of the Romans are branded as villainous, self-serving, and having grossly inflated egos. But Batiatus is small potatoes compared to the legatus Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) and his high-maintenance wife, Ilithyia (Viva Bianca). Glaber was directly responsible for Spartacus’ captivity, and as due to her position and power, Ilithyia displays even worse behavior than that of her counterpart.
Throughout Blood and Sand, the underlying rationale for Spartacus’ actions lie in being constantly distressed over being separated from his beloved Sura. While Spartacus ingratiates himself to the masters by satisfying spectators’ bloodlust through the games, thereby stuffing his master’s coffers in the sole hope Batiatus will help him get her back, his interactions with the other gladiators don’t particularly endear him to others—least of all the reigning champion of Capua, Crixus (Manu Bennett). Crixus is used to being top dog in the house of Batiatus, and does fight for what he believes to be the (misplaced) honor and glory of such a title. Yet he is just as much of a victim as Spartacus, as he’s been forced into sex by and with Lucretia for her to get pregnant. But because he is in love with her body slave, Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), he attempts to keep his domina appeased for his true love’s sake. As for the rest of the slaves, they are simply suffering at the hands of Batiatus and are resigned to their fate—until Spartacus starts to plan his next move and tries to get the rest of the slaves to finally see the truth and battle for their own freedom.
In a nod to the episode where, after learning that her husband will be going to war against the Romans, Sura tells him to “kill them all,” the first season finale (aptly titled “Kill Them All”), was poignant in the fact that while he was regarded to be the golden boy of the ludus and the moneymaker for Batiatus, Spartacus finally breaks rank. He begins to enact his revenge against not only the man he backed down for, the one who double-crossed him, but the Roman people as a whole for their abominations. Having to convince the rest of the slaves in Batiatus’ house took a little time, but it did work. Every single one of them turned on their masters and punished them the same way they did: with violence. Batiatus and Lucretia are certainly among the masses and just how they meet their ends (or not, in one case) can certainly be justified. To quote one KMFDM banger, the rebels took control.
“Kill Them All” would also mark the last episode Whitfield would star in, as he would undergo treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and eventually departed the show, according to The Hollywood Reporter. While production was originally halted prior to his leaving the role, a prequel miniseries was shot and aired in 2011. Entitled Gods of the Arena, and taking place five years before the events of Blood and Sand, viewers got to see younger versions of Batiatus, Crixus, and Lucretia, learned of their origin stories, and be introduced to the then rock star of the gladiatorial games, Gannicus (Dustin Clare). Liam McIntyre would replace Whitfield in the title role beginning in Season 2. Whitfield died on September 11, 2011 at age 39.
While it is common in daytime soap operas to consistently recast characters, very rarely would such a popular primetime television show continue once the lead was gone, yet Spartacus did so successfully. Vengeance (Season 2) and War of the Damned (Season 3) really got into the meat of the story of how the rebels were intent on unleashing their own brand of retribution against all that tyranny and subjugation. Despite the sad reason as to why he initially stepped into the role, McIntyre certainly rose to the occasion and kept the essence of what made the show so good. There may be a bit of division among hardcore fans concerning which actor’s performance is superior, but regardless of which one spoke those lines, the emotions were played with heart.
As the show was on a subscription cable network, and given what setting this story took place in, there was also an extensive amount of graphic content: plenty of violence, plenty of nudity, and plenty of sex (consensual and non-consensual). While sex was definitely used to demonstrate the hedonism of the times (including one scene where Spartacus is forced into sex with who he thinks to be a Roman noblewoman), love is certainly no stranger to the characters, and many romantic relationships are forged throughout the series.
The language is also definitely salty, as virtually everyone in Ancient Rome swears like there’s no tomorrow. Of note are Batiatus’ plethora of quotable exclamations and snarky comments which are not only hilarious, but certainly draw some comparison to Gladiator’s own saucy lanista, Proximo (played by the late Oliver Reed). Circling back to that other contemporary depiction of Rome, one would be remiss not to point out that Russell Crowe’s role as Maximus Decimus Meridius is certainly comparable to Spartacus in terms of determination, reserve, and old-fashioned desire for revenge.
As one would expect, the best-known line from the film, “I am Spartacus”, does sneak into the dialogue during Season 1. But only once one is aware of the context that it fits into can one truly grasp the gravity of those words. It was more than just a mere statement of defiance; it was the battle cry for a man that had everything taken away from him, was manipulated, yet found momentary adulation. Spartacus and his brethren may have indeed killed them all, but the life he initially envisioned was destroyed, his autonomy was pummeled, and his spirit was broken—as were those of the other members of the rebellion.
Ultimately, the final season, War of the Damned, concludes both touchingly and movingly, and the closing credits deliver one last cracking moment. Under a soaring choral piece, photos of almost every single actor that had a substantial part on the show were included in the closing montage, with the last frame briefly split to show both Whitfield and McIntyre: a perfect and touching tribute to the two men who gave this warrior his voice, his resolve, and his strength.
Spartacus has never been a mere footnote in history, and thanks to Steven S. DeKnight’s dazzling TV creation, he will never completely die. His desire to fight for what he wanted, for liberty, and what is just, will keep that memory and robust spirit perpetually alive for all those that are willing to take up the battle for themselves. Spartacus didn’t just kill them all—he rescued them, too.
Watch on Starz
Spartacus is also available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.
A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. Her work has appeared in Film Inquiry, YourTango, Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com.
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