Spartacus: Blood & Sand (1/2)

My girlfriend and I had watched the final episode of season two of The Blacklist, a show featuring the talents of the inimitable James Spader. Sadly, Netflix isn’t showing season 3 yet and so we were wondering what to see next. I had heard of the Starz show Spartacus, but knew nothing about it apart from the obvious, namely that it involved the gladiator Spartacus and would feahture a treatment of the Third Servile War. So we decided to give it a go.

We watched the first episode, ‘Red Serpent’, of the first season, Spartacus: Blood & Sand. And we laughed pretty much throughout the entire thing. Posting my comments on Facebook, it became clear that most people view the show as a relatively lightweight thing with quite some nudity and scenes of violent death. The creators pinched the slo-mo action and ridiculous digital blood splatters from Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007); the rest is largely taken from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), with a little bit of HBO’s Rome added for good measure.

The dialogue is peculiar. The quaint phrasing of a lot of the lines, however, apparently owes to the scriptwriters trying to emulate Latin sentence structures, which is commendable. Bits though sound like stuff that was rejected from Gladiator’s script (‘Blood and honour!’). Still, it’s so ridiculous and over-the-top – David L. Reinke on Facebook said that ‘almost everything about that series is gratuitous’ – I can see why people would want to watch it.

We decided to watch the second episode and while it is similar to the first one stylistically it is a bit more grounded, with more time devoted to setting up plot lines within the house of Batiatus (John Hannah), the Roman lanista running the ludus (gladiator school) that Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) becomes a part of. By the third or fourth episode we were gripped and binge-watched the rest of the season. Once Spartacus: Blood and Sand gets its hooks in you, there’s no stopping it, and I ended up thoroughly enjoyed the show. There’s a lot more gravitas to the series as a whole once you get settled in.

For this two-part blog post, I thought it be fun to go through the first season and point out some of the stuff that I thought was done well, some of the historical details that I liked, and also to spend some time discussion a few of the most egregious errors. If you haven’t seen the show yet, I suggest you skip these posts, although I will try to avoid giving too many spoilers.

Spartacus in Thrace

Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes as its inspiration, of course, the same events as the 1960-film by Stanley Kubrick. But where the latter quickly moved to the Third Servile War, this first season of thirteen episodes takes its time setting things up, showing us how Spartacus was captured by the Romans, taken to Capua, learned to fight as a gladiator, and finally lead a revolt against his master, setting things in motion for the biggest slave uprising in history (73–71 BC).

The ancient sources don’t tell us a lot about Spartacus’ days before the revolt and so the creators had considerable leeway with how they plotted out this first season. In the very first episode, ‘Red Serpent’, Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is depicted as a Thracian, a member of a tribe at war with the rival Getae, who are portrayed as inhuman monsters.

Spartacus and his people forge an alliance with the Romans. They’ll help the Republic in their war against Mithridates and in return the Romans will aid them in killing all the Getae. And for some reason, Spartacus and his men wear pseudo-Corinthian helmets that bear more than a striking resemblance to the helmets from 300, including the strange, ahistorical extended forehead plate:

As far as costumes and military equipment is concerned, Spartacus doesn’t seem to be too concerned with historical reality. Roman officers wear what looks like muscled leather armour (for which there is zero proof), rather than metal cuirasses. Naturally, the Romans in the show also wear those silly leather forearm bracers. They wouldn’t be Hollywood Romans without them (even if the show was produced in New Zealand).

A map shows us that the action takes place near the Propontis. It is here where the Legate, Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), renegs on the deal he struck with the Thracians, causing Spartacus and his men to rebel and kill a large number of Roman troops. We’re not on very firm historical ground here: Plutarch indeed claims that Spartacus was a Thracian (Life of Crassus 8), but in the sources he’s often associated with Gauls and he may have fought in the arena as a Thraex (a ‘Thracian’), a particular type of gladiator. However, other sources do claim that he had once fought as a member of the Roman auxiliaries. And Glaber, of course, is a historical character, even though the confrontations with Spartacus at this early stage are invented.

We then cut to a scene in what looks like the middle of winter. Its foggy and the trees seem to lack leaves, but they nevertheless bear fruit in what I expect we are to assume as some sort of freak of nature. Spartacus’ wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), is even shown picking some of the fruit:

In any event, when she turns around, monstrous Getae are waiting for her. They manage to capture her, but before anything bad can happen, a sword flies through the air and strikes down one of the foes in a stylized, over-the-top explosion of violence that is normal for this show. Spartacus has arrived just in time to defeat all of them and he runs away with his wife. However, disaster befalls them at every turn. Their village has been destroyed by their rivals, left unchecked by the Romans.

Only a brief spell thereafter, Spartacus and Sura are found by the Romans. They are both enslaved, with Sura taken away from Spartacus. After being hit in the head, Spartacus awakes aboard a ship bound for Italy. The camera zooms out and we are treated to a map that shows Spartacus’ location: somewhere in the Adriatic. Here’s a screenshot:

This doesn’t make much sense to me. Spartacus is a Thracian, who was close to the Propontis earlier in the show. When I think of Thrace, I think of the area north of Greece proper, not north of the Adriatic, which is normally the homeland of the Illyrians. So how come Spartacus is in the Adriatic Sea, on a ship bound for Capua? Capua is not located on the Adriatic coast, but on the other side of the Italian peninsula.

Travel across the Apenines is not a trivial affair and it would make more sense for the ship to travel via the Aegean and the Straits of Sicily towards Campania. (In a third-season episode, Spartacus even says that he never saw Neapolis as he was shipped via the Adriatic, but why?)

Continued in part two…

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