I've had Spartacus: Blood and Sand on loan from Lovefilm for ages now, and never quite overcame my apathy enough to watch it. The DVD has accompanied me on three foreign trips now, and even in a lonely hotel room it has never quite managed to make me think: you know, I'm bored enough to watch that now. Yesterday I had made lunch and faced a Sunday afternoon with absolutely zero on the TV, so I thought I'd finally give Blood a chance. I'm glad I did.
It's notionally about Spartacus the Thracian slave who led the great slave revolt in late Republican Rome. But it's about as much about history as '300' is about Herodotus. It's a romp, and ups the ante on BBC/HBO's Rome by going for even more blood (well, it is about gladiators, so fair play I guess) and sex. It's pretty ludicrous, although to be honest not especially more ludicrous than the Kirk Douglas film, with its ridiculously cheesy Quo Vadis style Christianity before Christ.
So, let's be clear to begin with; it's not quality television. There's a cartoonish quality to the gore, like something from an 80s Arnie movie. Limbs are hacked off left right and centre, by a gladius of all things (a stabbing weapon). Women go out to pick fruit in the snow (eh?) miles from their village. Muscles are oiled. It's the WWF with stage blood. Breasts are bared, and poor CGI effects march across the screen looking for all the world ripped from a computer game (as they probably were). There is no attempt at continuity of accents, and the international cast speak a mixture of their native Kiwi, Scots, American and cut glass English, although to be honest I barely noticed that most of the time.
The programme goes for the standard 'decadent' view of Roman culture, as though every Roman behaved like Caligula. In fact, even later on, in the Empire, things were probably not quite as debauched as they are in Spartacus, and the Republic was actually for the most part pretty straight laced (a few notorious wayward wives being the exception rather than the rule), especially in a quiet provincial town like Capua, where the first series is set. Still, it's undeniably entertaining. And having complained about its lack of historicity, there are surprisingly many real facts squeezed in. There is some genuine Latin, the Thracians begin - credibly - at war with the Getae (and it's not often you hear the Getae mentioned in a TV programme!), an early sub-plot is based around the Mithridatic wars, and the storyline sticks to the few known facts about the hero - it makes Spartacus as he was (according to Florus) a deserter from a Roman auxiliary unit, and his wife (as she was according to Plutarch) a seeress who is captured with him; his quest to be reunited with her provides his motivation and plot arc. An early rivalry is set up between Spartacus and Gaius Claudius Glaber, a genuine Roman general, who here is the cause of Spartacus' desertion in Thrace. In history Glaber later failed to recapture Spartacus during the slave revolt in 73BC. There are also some gems of casting, such as John Hannah as the struggling lanista (gladiatorial trainer) who buys Spartacus, and Lucy Lawless as his shrewd wife. And after the first couple of scene-setting episodes which set up relationships and storylines, it begins to twist and turn quite nicely, with various levels of rivalries between the gladiators, their owners, and the Roman nobility that employ them. I'm five episodes in now, and really enjoying myself. It's a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.