I’ve always been a bit of a history nut. And, as I’ve always been a film aficionado, I struggle at times with productions that choose to create their own ‘reality.’ Usually this is justified by producers who say they need to first present a ‘winning story,’ not necessarily a factual one. While I understand their desire to put butts-in-the-seats, I don’t believe the greater society at large is best served when movies play fast and loose with what really happened. Films are very powerful, after all, and – as much as I might get a deliberate chuckle from it – I hate to think there’s a generation of children who mistakenly believe Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart was a regular Joe: check the birth certificate, and you’ll find out that William was born a noble.
After watching the first season of Spartacus – the one subtitled “Blood & Sand” – I was captivated. I wasn’t alone. The program on the Starz Network premiered on January 22, 2010, with an impressive half-million viewers, as well as another half-mil on the Encore Network where the program only aired the pilot episode. However, Spartacus was one of those rare exceptions in TV history that actually built a larger audience with each airing. Before the season was over, the saga of the slave turned emancipator more than doubled its audience size.
But what did the critics think?
Well, they’re critics, after all. The first season scored a middling 54 (out of 100) on Metacritic.com, while viewers scored it an impressive 8.1 (out of 10).
The nerd that I am, I immediately scoured Amazon.com for the highest-rated historical account of Spartacus I could find – or, at least, the most affordable. I wanted to know more about the former Roman soldier because I wanted to understand how much of the show’s presented detail was accurate.
I settled for Barry Strauss’s “The Spartacus War” (Simon & Schuster, 1st edition). Bargain hunter that I am, I ordered a used copy that arrived in only a few days, and I literally tore into it. At just over 200 pages, I knew it wouldn’t take all that long. What I was utterly surprised to learn was how little we knew about the man history remembered as a slave, a gladiator, a general, a politician, and a legend.
In fact, what I discovered was that there was essentially very little we knew with certainty about Spartacus, and that’s precisely because – as is so often the case – history is written by the victors.
Spartacus lost (yeah, I knew that going in). Rumor had it that he lost pretty badly.
Granted, what he did left its mark on civilization of the time. The slave who rose up and claimed his own freedom imprinted those ideas on the Romans. Much like King Leonidas’s defeat (in the stellar 300) inspired millions to eventually embrace what he stood for, it would seem Spartacus had to died so that what he stood for could live.
For the record, Strauss’s book is an impressive read, though it’s equally frustrating because one learns that the details of the man brought to life in the Starz program are lost. Much of what Strauss fills in is intelligent speculation, but there’s still no way we’ll ever fully know what Spartacus did and did not do, think, and say until someone’s perfected a time machine.
Those who followed the program in its first season were shocked when they learned that star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Showrunners were suddenly faced with the awful decision of whether to entirely cancel the program or to recast their lead. Even series creator Steven S. DeKnight credits Whitfield as the inspiration for the final verdict: the actor told them, “I really think the show should go forward without me. I give you the blessing. I want this story told.” (h/t: Wikipedia)
Go forward it did.
In order to give them the time they needed to secure a new leading man, they crafted a shortened second season – subtitled “Gods of the Arena” – for which they could explore a series of events that took place before the beloved slave joined the House of Batiatus, fleshing out some characters who’d grace Spartacus’s journey once production resumed. Gods premiered with just under 2 million viewers, so methinks DeKnight, Whitfield, and all involved made the right fateful decision.
Whitfield was eventually recast with Liam McIntyre, and Spartacus: Vengeance premiered on January 27, 2012, with 2.1 million (though Starz contends the actual numbers are closer to 2.7 million when counting in other first-airings on affiliated channels). Vengeance explores the story as Spartacus and band of warriors are on-the-run from the events at the conclusion of the first season, and it brings to a bloody close the primary conflict waged between the rebel and the Roman praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber – the man responsible for Spartacus’s enslavement. Critical reception continued to improve, though many still dismissed it as a swords’n’sandals’n’sex saga (not that there’s anything wrong with it!).
Perhaps realizing that they’d had enough of a good thing and wanted to go out on top, DeKnight and others decided to bring the story to a close. As I’ve stated, there’s very little known from history – much of what can be established is down to trivial recitation of geography and documented skirmishes at this point – so I’ve no doubt they made (again) the right fateful decision. Thus, “War of the Damned” premiered on January 25, 2013 with an audience of just shy of 2 million viewers. (Keep in mind that ratings tabulation for pay-cable isn’t an exact science. For example, Starz credits Vengeance as having 6 million weekly viewers based on their calculations, but all that matters so far as the Nielsens are concerned are premiere episode airings.)
However it shakes down once the history of the program is complete, Spartacus has been a pretty stellar run for Starz and the growing audience that embraced it. Perhaps we’ll even learn – ironically enough – that this Spartacus had to die so that another one could live? (There have been rumblings – minor ones – of a proposed spin-off centered on Roman leader Gaius Julius Caesar who was introduced during Damned’s run.) Sure, some of the violence is over-the-top, but, if you’ve listened to any of the commentaries available on the DVD sets, both the producers and the actors fully acknowledge that so many of the bloodiest slashing and beheadings were depicted as such deliberately for symbolic value. Agreed, some of the sex has been more that gratuitous, but it’s still pay-cable, after all, so boobs come at a premium.
I, for one, am sad to see it end, but end it must.
Will Spartacus see it coming?
Tune in and find out.