So I’ve been watching some of the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and sand (actually each season seems to have a different subtitle…). I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that it kind of veers between frenetic splatter-action and soft-core porn. I’ve read they intentionally emulated Zack Snyder’s 300 film in the first episode or two, and it shows. The action sequences also owe something to Tarantino’s Kill Bill — geysers of blood, a bit like old samurai films, and crazy stunts, more like the Shaw Brothers’ work, only less of it. The special effects are not always convincing but they certainly out-splatter pretty much any other film in the “peplum” genre. The sex scenes — and there is clearly a quota that each episode must meet, with four or five topless scenes for the lead actresses and full frontal nudity for at least one actor or extra — are a little off-putting, juxtaposed as they are with ultraviolence. In fact about half of the sex scenes are intentionally repulsive, and this actually works in the show’s favor. The decadence of Rome is meant to be shown in a repulsive light. Moreover, despite the exploitation levels of sex and violence, the show is not that bad. Some of the acting is quite good — John Hannah and Lucy Lawless tend to steal the show in their scenes, but the whole cast is reasonably good. The plot is melodramatic and violent, and kept my interest. It also really works as an indictment of Imperial Rome. You can’t help but hate the Romans. They are portrayed as relentlessly decadent, greedy, venial, lustful, and basically evil in every way. A show about a bloody slave revolt probably has to dehumanize the Romans some in order to make the rebels into heroes. It’s too bad the show has to get so much history wrong.
Actually it gets a fair amount of the history right, in terms of the Roman world. Rome really was very dependent on slavery (a fact that Hollywood has usually been unwilling to depict). The show emphasizes the horrors of slavery pretty well, though I’m not sure if slaves were quite so callously killed on a whim as the show suggests. The sets are convincing. The costumes of civilians and nobles are generally accurate, and military kit looks right too (hell, the Romans’ shields are oval rather than the usual later imperial rectangle we see in every movie). The gladiators’ equipment is mostly correct too, in so far as they depict mostly depict real gladiator styles. (The axe-men I’m very dubious about — the show keeps depicting guys with a huge battle-axe like something you’d see in a video game, and they also have several gladiators fight with a pair of double-bitted axes. Granted they look awesome, but like the guy with a medieval flail in the Russell Crowe Gladiator film, it is just Hollywood being Hollywood. The hoplomachi are depicted as fighting in melee with their spears rather than casting them — that seems possible but it’s not how I usually see them depicted.)
I like the very formalized manner of speaking the nobles usually use — I’m not sure if it would really be common in private conversations but it does class up the dialogue, even with the occasional gratuitous but hilarious cursing.
The main things I think the show gets wrong, unfortunately, are pretty central to the plot. First, the show depicts Romans as being pretty shameless about sex. Every party involves live sex shows. This helps establish the ruling class as decadent. But Caligula, Tiberius, and Nero actually shocked the Romans with their orgies; the show suggests everyone in Rome was pretty much on their way to a brothel or stumbling home drunk from a party out of the movie Caligula. Yes, the Romans had a pretty open attitude about sex and fewer hang-ups than we do in the U.S., but I don’t think they were all voyeurs and exhibitionists as the show suggests. Also, while slaves could be used for sex, it was considered somewhat shameful for a free citizen to do so, while the series suggests it was normal and acceptable.
Secondly, the show depicts most gladiatorial bouts as being to the death. Historians who have studied the actual records of the Roman games have concluded that very few bouts ended with the death of a gladiator. Certainly there were times when there was massive loss of life, but those would be the “re-enactments” of battles (staged by condemned criminals) and executions by beasts or gladiators (the latter of which do figure occasionally into the show). So we see death after death in the arena and almost no defeated gladiators being given the chance to submit. I suppose that helps elevate the drama too, but the arena was terrible enough without exaggerating the lethality for gladiators. In reality the gladiators more often “fought” animals or prisoners than other gladiators, and they rarely killed other gladiators.
Now I know that most “historical” shows and movies are terribly inaccurate and I’m not someone who can’t appreciate them as drama. In fact, Spartacus does a pretty good job of creating really compelling characters. The bad guys are interesting. The good guys are interesting. The situations they find themselves in, or create, are interesting. If you can accept that this is a drama which plays up the exploitative elements, you will find this show pretty enjoyable.