SPARTACUS (2010 – 2013) – HIGHLY ENTERTAINING ROMAN ERA DEPICTION OF GLADIATORS AND THE SLAVE REBELLION

Spartacus: Blood & Sand was the first season of the American television series Spartacus. The series was inspired by the historical figure of Spartacus (played by Andy Whitfield in the first season and Liam McIntyre for the third and fourth season, after Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer), a Thracian gladiator who from 73 to 71 BC led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, known as the Third Servile War. The show premiered on Starz and aired from 2010 to 2013. The show was divided into 3 core seasons and 1 prequel season called Gods of the Arena. In this review, I will try to give a brief narration of all the seasons and then review show as a whole.

Spartacus: Blood & Sand begins by giving a fictional account of how a Thracian slave, was brought to Rome, condemned for execution for rebelling against the Roman Legate, Claudius Glaber. This slave’s original name is unknown but he is named Spartacus by the Lanista (owner of Gladiators) Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (played brilliantly by John Hannah). Spartacus survives his execution and the roman crowds in the arena demand that he live against Glaber’s wishes. Batiatus purchases Spartacus to further his own cause and he is sent to his ludus (training ground) to be trained into a gladiator. We are now introduced to several characters who will play a prominent role in the upcoming seasons – Batitatus’s wife, Lucretia (played by Lucy Lawless of Xena fame), Crixus the undefeated Gaul (the current champion of Capua and initially Spartacus’s rival), Barca the beast of Carthage and Oenomaus or the Doctore, an African slave who trains the gladiators.

The newly enslaved Thracian warrior Spartacus enters the ludus of Lentulus Batiatus to receive gladiator training. He soon manages to make an enemy of the undefeated Gallic champion of Capua, Crixus, and the attention of whip-wielding taskmaster Doctore who uses harsh methods to test the new novices. He also meets Varro, a Roman gladiator by bankruptcy, who becomes his friend. The crafty but cash-strapped Batiatus fails to impress Glaber and so makes Spartacus, his new slave, an offer: if he cooperates and trains as a prized gladiator, he will use his power to help locate his wife. Consequently Spartacus trains to face the test to be a gladiator, and throws Crixus from the platform right before being killed. Afterwards, the victorious Spartacus swears the sacramentum of the gladiator brotherhood.

Next we see, the gladiators prepare for a series of fights that will be the highlight of the upcoming Vulcanalia festival, Spartacus cleverly manoeuvres to secure the right to battle Crixus, the unbeaten champion of Capua, in the primus or final battle. Despite his wife Lucretia’s objections, Batiatus reminds her that Spartacus’ bravery and previous exploits have “struck a chord with the public’s interest“. Meanwhile, Lucretia schemes to win favor with the wife of Gaius Claudius Glaber, the crafty and devious Ilithyia. At a pre-fight banquet, she interests her in the desirous Crixus, although he is secretly enamoured of Naevia, one of the domestic slaves and the body slave of Lucretia. At the Vulcanalia, Spartacus embarrasses his owners publicly, both by beginning to fight too early, and by surrendering instead of dying.

Spartacus’ disgrace at surrendering to Crixus in the arena leads Batiatus to punish him by demoting the Thracian to fight in the “pits of the underworld,” a hellish, vicious subterranean battle arena where the crowds are frenzied and anything goes. When Naevia seemingly rejects Crixus’ necklace gift, he initially misunderstands the reason for her refusal, and continues his secretive sexual relationship with Batiatus’ wife. Meanwhile, the drought and Batiatus’ money problems continue, and Lucretia ends up selling her new emerald necklace at a loss in the markets. Spartacus somehow survives the pits, and despite losing Batiatus’ winnings, he regains the favour of his dominus after helping to foil an assassination attempt by two slaves, and is restored again to gladiator status.

As the summer heat continues, enemies Spartacus and Crixus are commanded to take on an unbeaten champion named Theokoles, the “shadow of death“. Doctore, being the only warrior to have fought Theokoles and lived, is charged with preparing the two men for the drought-breaking primus, but receives little satisfaction from either man. Spartacus tries to find common ground with his arch-enemy but Crixus remains stalwartly opposed to sharing any of the glory. Meanwhile, after the visit of a fertility priestess, Lucretia is denied a chance to conceive as Crixus, distracted by Naevia, declines her advances. Meanwhile, the wounded Batiatus continues his own investigations into the attempt on his life, and exacts blood vengeance on Ovidius, the cousin of Magistrate Calavius, and his family. In the arena, Theokoles is finally bested by Spartacus and the drought breaks once Theokoles dies, earning Spartacus the title of “bringer of rain“. However, Crixus is critically wounded in the encounter and is taken away to recover.

As the rains fall, both Barca and Spartacus envision a future away from the ludus. Barca expects to purchase his and Pietros’ freedom, while Spartacus dreams of escaping with his enslaved wife, Sura. Crixus, barely alive after the near-fatal fight with Theokoles, is now in a drugged sleep. As part of his promotion to new Capuan champion, Spartacus tries on new armour, and during a private lesson with the Magistrate’s son, Numerius, he steals a dagger for the escape. Spartacus also uses some of his winnings to buy wine and women for the gladiators, to further aid the escape plan. Meanwhile, Batiatus is troubled by false news that Ovidius’ son still lives, and Ashur uses the chance to have Barca killed to avoid repaying the winnings owed to him. In the end Batiatus keeps his word of retrieving Sura, but her reunion with Spartacus is short lived as she quickly dies from wounds sustained in a “bandit attack”.

Spartacus’ world is changed by the death of his wife and he finds himself at a crossroads. In the absence of Barca, Pietros struggles without a protector and is unable to deal with the brutal attentions of Gnaeus. Meanwhile, Varro is visited by his wife and son and receives unwelcome news that she too, without her protector, has also been raped. Amidst the deceit of the household, Doctore seeks the truth behind Barca’s sudden departure from the ludus. Pietros, now without hope, hangs himself – and Spartacus gets even by throwing Gnaeus off the cliff. Spartacus, again at odds with his dominus, is forced to repay the loss from his winnings. After returning the stolen dagger, he decides to focus on his new gladiatorial life. In the arena while dressed as a Roman consul, he fights six criminals dressed as Thracians, and trusting himself to his wife’s gods, he begins to purge his past.

Spartacus continues his reign as the champion of Capua at rival Solonius’ expense, while Crixus struggles to recover and to return to training. After comments made by Ashur, Batiatus begins to explore the possibility of selling the Gaul to a rival ludus in Damascus. Meanwhile, Batiatus acquires six new recruits for 100 denarii, and Ilithyia chooses to sponsor one, a Gaul named Segovax, in order to both defy her husband and impress her socialite friends. After a slight to her husband’s honour by Spartacus at a private party, she implies promises of freedom to the recruit in exchange for his help. Crixus, after working to regain Lucretia’s sexual favour, interrupts Segovax’s attempt to strangle Spartacus. Crixus and Spartacus, both wounded in the fight, begin to renew a sense of brotherhood with each other. Ilithyia, on a return visit, arrives in time to both witness her sponsored slave’s crucifixion and deny any knowledge of the reasons behind the attack.

Licinia, a rich noblewoman and cousin of senator Marcus Crassus, visits from Rome and asks Lucretia to “taste the wares of ludus” with Spartacus. Lucretia, mindful that Spartacus had not been with a woman since his capture, instructs a female slave named Mira to prepare him for his encounter, but Spartacus rejects her. Ilithyia, suspecting her rich friend’s desires, also decides on a masked sexual encounter. Jealously enraged by her choice of Crixus (who has recently resumed training), Lucretia sets up to trap Ilithyia in bed with Spartacus. Ilithyia, shocked after it is revealed that both intended to use the scandal against her, suddenly kills Licinia. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ludus, Batiatus’ plan to kill Solonius is undermined by a slighted Ashur, Crixus makes enemies of two new German brothers, Varro’s wife and son have gone missing, and Naevia steals a guard’s key for an illicit tryst.

Spartacus and Crixus are set up to fight in an exhibition match for Numerius’ coming of age party, and Crixus sees a chance to resume his position. Batiatus, realising Spartacus’ importance to his ambitions, invites him to play a board game called Latrunculi, but Lucretia jealously disapproves of the two men sharing wine. Meanwhile, Naevia has troubles with the guard she stole the key from, and risks all to share time with Crixus. At the party a now revived Ilithyia, still haunted by memories of the murder, seduces Numerius and has him switch Spartacus’s opponent to Varro. Despite it being an exhibition match, Numerius further surprises by not granting mercy to Varro, forcing Spartacus to reluctantly kill his only friend. Later that night, after Batiatus’ interest in politics is dismissed by Calavius, he vows blood revenge for his fighter’s death. Distraught with grief, Spartacus returns to his cell and vents his rage until Mira comes in to comfort him.

Spartacus is continually haunted by the death of his friend and admits to Varro’s wife, Aurelia, that he died by his sword. At the same time, Batiatus fakes another bandit raid and kidnaps Magistrate Calavius, holding him captive in the city sewers. Meanwhile, a festering wound from the fight with Varro weakens Spartacus, and while he recuperates with the help of the medicus and Mira, more visions of the dead haunt his feverish dreams. In the arena, Crixus reclaims some of his lost glory when he is needed in the primus against Pompeius’ unbeaten champion, Pericles – a fight he narrowly wins. Later, in the infirmary, Spartacus throttles Aulus, Sura’s killer (having noticed he had no actual wound as suffered in her attack), and learns that Batiatus ordered her death. Batiatus’ scheming comes to fruition as he, with the cunning help of Ashur, is able to successfully entrap Solonius for Calavius’ murder.

In the arena, Crixus continues his winning streak, and Spartacus kills the condemned Solonius. Spartacus also plots vengeance, but is warned by Mira that any attack on the master risks the life of all slaves. When finally granted an audience with Batiatus, he stays his hand when he notices Varro’s widow, Aurelia, now working as a debt-slave. The ludus later awaits the arrival of Ilithyia and her husband Claudius Glaber, and Batiatus ends up being irked by Glaber’s bluntness, but also surprised by his wife’s pregnancy. Meanwhile, Spartacus fights against Glaber’s soldiers, and Ashur’s vengeful scheming finally exposes the relationship between Crixus and Naevia, leading to a scene. When Glaber refuses to sponsor Batiatus, he and Lucretia desperately reveal Ilithyia’s hand in Licinia’s murder and Glaber is forced to acquiesce. In the end, Crixus is flogged while Naevia is sold – but before leaving, she tells Doctore the truth behind Barca’s “freedom”.

In front of the Capuan elite assembled on the balcony of the ludus, Crixus and Spartacus fight to the death, a bout arranged by Batiatus for their sport. However, two days earlier, Spartacus endeavors to enlist the help of the rest of the gladiators to lead a revolt to destroy the house of Batiatus once and for all. Spartacus gains support from Mira, who is tasked with opening the gate, but Crixus resists in hopes of reuniting with Naevia. Meanwhile, Doctore (whose real name is revealed to be Oenomaus) confronts Batiatus about Barca’s death and Ashur’s hand in it. Later, during the duel, after learning he was given poison to ensure Spartacus’ victory, Crixus finally joins the revolt. In the melee, Doctore initially stops Spartacus from killing Batiatus, but Crixus persuades him to join them just as Ilithyia escapes by having her husband’s soldiers seal the villa doors. Doctore tries to kill Ashur but he escapes, and Crixus stabs Lucretia, killing their unborn child. Aurelia knifes Numerius in revenge for Varro, and Spartacus confronts and kills Batiatus. After the massacre, he vows to rid Rome of slavery, and all the slaves escape the ludus.

Spartacus: Blood & Sand was massively popular with the audiences, if not the critics who hated the excessive and bloody violence and the rampant sex depicted within the show. But the audiences enjoyed the same and the show enjoyed an average of 1.285 million viewers throughout the course of the season.

After Spartacus: Blood & Sand ends, the actor playing Spartacus, Andy Whitfield was sadly diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (he later succumbed to the disease) and he informed Starz that he would like to be replaced. However, the showrunners decided to introduce a prequel series which would be set five years before the arrival of Spartacus and gives an introduction into Batitatus’s acquisition of the Ludus from his father, the roots of animosity between Crixus and the Syrian gladiator Ashur, Oenomaus’s ascent to Doctore and the acquisition of Crixus and most importantly introduces a major character in the form of Gannicus, a Celtic gladiator who is the champion of Capua at that time.

The prequel series was very well made with each of the six episodes providing ample violence, plots and sex for the audiences that were used to such after Spartacus: Blood and Sand. It also allowed audiences to understand how Batiatus and Solonius who begin as good friends in Gods of the Arena, become bitter rivals in Blood & Sand. It also gives a good understanding into the lives of gladiators and some of the customs from the Roman era. The gladiator Gannicus became a huge fan favorite as a gladiator of excellence who also as the show says so, “fucks like a God”.

Next came Spartacus: Vengeance, which was a direct continuation from where Blood & Sand left off. It also introduced us to a new Spartacus played by Liam McIntyre. In terms of screen presence, Liam’s Spartacus lacked the humanity and the smoldering gaze of Andy Whitfield. He also lacked the physical presence of Andy Whitfield, although his acting and physicality improved as the season progressed.

The season covers the gladiators as they try to escape the city of Capua and also try and recover Crixus’s lover Naevia from the mines. It introduces new characters and antagonists in the form of Publius Varinius and Gaius Claudius Glaber returns, from season 1. The events cover include the rebels, escaping from Capua and destroying the arena of Capua, liberating Naevia from the mines and the Battle of Mt. Vesuvius where, Glaber and Varinius are killed by Spartacus and his band. The defeat of Glaber, sets the scene for the final season, after Spartacus declares that now they become an Army.

Spartacus: Vengeance in my opinion, suffered from the absence of Andy Whitfield. Also, the reintroduction of Lucretia in my opinion, was unnecessary. Many of the minor characters from this season were not required especially Seppius and his sister Seppia. The season also marked the end of Oenomaus who was a constant presence in the world of Spartacus from season 1. Ashur as a primary villain was also overused. Spartacus: Vengeance was a season stuck without strong enemies and with the rebels shown as weak too, thus not making for a very inspiring season. Also, the dialogue between characters was dreadful with overly cliched phrases used to somehow depict how ancient Romans and people of that time spoke.

Finally, we come to the last season with Spartacus: War of the Damned. It begins with Spartacus and his army winning against several Roman armies in their quest to “Make Rome Tremble.” These victories, especially the last one against Furius and Cossinius, cause Rome’s senate to turn to the “richest man in Rome”, Marcus Crassus who accepts the offer to raise a new army to put down the slave rebellion. The major storylines that are introduced in this season involve Spartacus’s large slave army looking for a city to reside in for the winter and their subsequent capture of the city of the walled, coastal city of Sinuessa, Crassus building up his forces to thwart Spartacus and the introduction of Julius Caesar as another adversary of Spartacus.

This season was excellent especially its final episodes. Despite its fictional accounts of a ragged Julius Caesar masquerading as a slave and infiltrating the ranks of the rebels, the season’s action sequences, the emotional depth of the cause of the rebellion and the inspiration that Spartacus continues to provide even to this day, prove to be highlights which make War of the Damned, excellent entertainment.

It introduces to us the Roman way of war, the treachery of the Cicilian pirates, thus ruining Spartacus’s plans to carry the rebellion on to Sicily and finally the deaths of several of the most beloved characters for fans of the show. Crixus, Naevia, Spartacus and Gannicus all die during the course of the show but the show is exciting to the very end and anyone who has seen the show right from the start, will be saddened at the end of the show and the tragic ends to some of our favorite gladiators.

The final battle and the battle in which Crixus dies, are well shot and the action is extremely realistic and violent. As War of the Damned lacks gladiatoral combat, unlike its predecessors (except for one episode), it makes up for it in the massed battles between the Roman legions led by Crassus and Spartacus’s slave army. The show also covers the infamous decimation of his legions by Crassus and the crucifixation of captured slaves who participated in the slave rebellion, on the Appian Way. The fan favourite Gladiator Gannicus also meets his end this way.

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch Spartacus to be transported to the world of Ancient Rome. If you enjoyed the movie Gladiator and are intrigued to discover more, watch Spartacus and all its seasons today. Grab your popcorn and your partner and prepare to descend into a world of brutality, war, blood and sex.

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