OK, time to come clean. I wrote an essay on the slave wars (all three of them I think, I can’t really remember) a long time ago and I haven’t really done that much work on this area since. So, as I’ve been watching Spartacus, although I’m familiar with the period in a general sense, and with Roman customs, religions etc on a wider scale, and I remembered then major details of the revolt (Thracian slave leads revolt, is on the run for two years, killed in final battle, defeated by Crassus's forces, not crucified as certain movies imply) I haven’t remembered all that much about the specifics of this particular slave revolt and the people involved. Since this last episode takes us into the actual historical slave revolt, I decided to delve into the primary sources on Spartacus before recapping and reviewing it, to see how much had been taken from history and how much had been fictionalized. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were more genuine historical characters running around than I’d realised.
Now, I know this all sounds very bad and you’re probably all thinking I should have done a bit more research weeks ago (I was snowed under with conference organisation and pushed for time, sorry!). But I’m afraid I have to confess that I’m really, really glad I didn’t. Because it turns out I needn’t have been so worried for Crixus a few weeks ago, nor need I have wondered whether he and Spartacus would ever work things out between them – I now know exactly what happens to Crixus, it’s right there in Appian. I know why Haldir has wandered off to return in series 2 as well. And, while I’m impressed at the way the series has incorporated and developed characters who aren’t much more than names in the history books, I’m also a little disappointed, because now I’m spoiled! I think I had forgotten how much fun it was the first time I watched I, Claudius, when I knew absolutely nothing about the ancient world and genuinely had no idea who Livia was going to poison next or whether Postumus or Germanicus would survive. Watching Rome, much later and after finishing my first degree, was a very different experience, as my housemate and I sat, waiting for the things we knew had to happen, waiting to see Livia for the first time or see how Cicero met his end. The challenge for historical series, of course, is to cater to both audiences; to provide an exciting, suspenseful story for those who don’t know what’s going to happen, and to deliver an entertaining and gripping drama for all those who do, and I think all three series do that very well. But I must confess, naughty as it was of me not to look him up before, I don’t think I would have enjoyed watching the interaction between Spartacus and Crixus nearly so much this season if I’d known how it was going to work out. Whether this indicates that the writers of Spartacus are more interested in appealing to the section of the audience that doesn’t know the history or not, I’m not sure, but since these characters also all appear in the Kubrick film (which I also haven’t watched for a while) I doubt it. It’s really more an indication of how well they wrote the relationship between those two characters.
In case anyone’s wondering what else I’ve missed, the sum total of what we know about Spartacus pre-slave revolt is: he was Thracian (Plutarch and Appian); he had once been a Roman solider but was made prisoner and sold to a gladiator school for unknown reasons (Appian); he was a gladiator in a school in Capua, with other Thracians and with Gauls, run by an unjust owner called Batiatus (Plutarch, though he almost certainly plays up the ‘injustice’ of Batiatus to make Spartacus himself look better because that’s the sort of thing Plutarch does); he had a wife from his own tribe who was a prophetess and who escaped with him (Plutarch, getting carried away one suspects). Plutarch and Appian, both writing a good 200-300 years after the revolt, are the only surviving sources to cover the revolt in any detail, though there are various other fragments and summaries available. So far, then, nothing conflicts too much with the sources, and I’m happy to give them the bit about the wife, she only appears in Plutarch anyway! Crixus, a Celt (so presumably one of the Gauls) doesn’t come up until after the revolt has taken place, and nor does Glaber, so everything they have done before the revolt is fiction, though it fits with what comes later.
As for the revolt itself, neither account is very detailed. Plutarch says two hundred slaves planned to escape, about 78 made it using weapons stolen from a kitchen, and after their escape they elected three leaders, the first of whom was Spartacus. Appian says Spartacus himself persuaded about seventy of his fellow gladiators to make a break for it, and is no more specific than that. The series, of course, follows Appian, as his version is much more dramatically interesting and more in line with what the audience are expecting than a mass breakout followed by a calm election of leaders (probably more likely as well).
Both sources are freely available online, but don’t read them unless you want season 2 thoroughly spoiled! And now, on with our regular recap.
Haldir has disappeared again – boo-hoo. He’ll be back in season 2. He has apparently left his wife in charge of discussing his patronage of Batiatus’ ludus, which is either woefully inaccurate or a deliberate snub to Batiatus on his part. Crixus appears to have recovered reasonably well from last week’s whipping and is finally getting the chance to fight Spartacus, as he’s been wanting to for weeks. Various free characters keep calling Spartacus ‘a god’, which is going a bit far, he’s a good gladiator, not an emperor. Crixus has already told Spartacus ‘no’ to something unspecified – we can guess what that’s about.
And... flashback! To ‘two days ago’. Spartacus is in the process of recruiting all his fellow gladiators in a conspiracy to overthrow Batiatus and escape – at last!
Drill Sergant Guy is miffed at Batiatus for abandoning the ludus to Haldir’s mercenaries and running off to enter politics. Batiatus has decided to grant Drill Sergeant Guy freedom so that DSG can take over the ludus as lanista. Since DSG has only just discovered that Barca was killed by Batiatus, rather than set free, he is a little suspicious of this offer, but Batiatus insists that it was all Barca’s own fault.
Xena has decided that Spartacus and Crixus should fight to the death in a private show for the gladiators, which is totally bonkers and a massive waste of money, since both are valuable crowd-pleasers. Xena wants Spartacus to kill Crixus to soothe her hurt feelings from last week, and somehow Batiatus is sufficiently pleased with this that he agrees to this totally insane idea. When Batiatus tells Spartacus, Spartacus asks that Crixus be allowed to train again, to improve the fight – also pretty obviously a trick to try to plot with him. Spartacus even finally asks for poor long-suffering Torc Girl, just so that he can get her to help with his plans. She agrees, on the condition that he has sex with her properly, which he finally agrees to do.
Back at the fight, Torc Girl and the other slaves have been done up very nicely with pretty flowers and jewellery and everything, and Xena seems to have replaced her former favourite, Naevia, with Torc Girl, making it difficult for her to get away.
We go back to ‘one day ago’, and Crixus explains to DSG that he will kill Spartacus because he has promised Nevia he will stay alive until he gains his freedom. DSG encourages this, as he wants to rebuild the lanista once he is in charge, with Crixus’ help.
Paris Hilton is busy working on the guest list for Xena and Batiatus’ celebration and it turns out that it was Xena’s idea to have her read out a little speech, written by Xena of course. Paris Hilton is not impressed at all and it would not be surprising if she did for Xena herself at this point. Being a pain in the ass to a brutal murderess does not, it has to be said, seem like a terribly good idea.
Spartacus thinks the fact that Naevia has been dragged off somewhere will persuade Crixus to join him, but unfortunately Crixus is solely concerned with defeating Spartacus so that he can find her himself, though he acknowledges that, in another life, they might have got on (which is rather nice). He also gets Spartacus to swear to find Naevia if he wins, and if Crixus wins, he will make sure Batiatus dies.
Gnomy beardy guy has got hold of some poison to weaken Crixus and ensure that Spartacus wins, and with that, we’re back in the fight, where Crixus does not actually appear to have been poisoned, or if he has been, it hasn’t slowed him down at all yet. While the fight continues, Torc Girl stabs a guard and we go back in time again to earlier that morning. Xena and Batiatus have a little chat about how their son will rule an empire (particularly interesting given that Rome is still a Republic at this time) while gnomy beardy guy, having lost Naevia, switches his attentions to NR’s widow, Aurelia. She is hoping that Crixus will kill Spartacus and, trying to impress, gnomy guy lets on that he is pretty certain Spartacus will win – and is overheard by Torc Girl.
Spartacus doesn’t want DSG dead, having apparently forgotten that he realised several weeks ago that if he was going to go after Batiatus, he would have to kill DSG first. He also tries to persuade Aurelia to get herself out of the way, but she refuses to trust him – though she does tell him about the poison in Crixus’ food. Spartacus is, of course, far too honourable to want Crixus’ food tampered with. Xena comes to see Crixus one last time, offering him a get-out if he tells her Naevia meant nothing to her and pointing out that her unborn baby is probably his, but Crixus is also having an attack of either nobility or pure stubbornness and she leaves him to drink the poison.
Back at the fight, Torc Girl shows Spartacus her bloodied hand and Spartacus gets Crixus on the ground and tells him about the poison, which is starting to take effect, in a final attempt to get Crixus on his side. This does it – seeing he’ll die anyway, Crixus offers Spartacus his shield as a trampoline to attack Batiatus in his box – an attempt sadly halted by DSG’s whip. (And which looks really cool). It’s too late to stop now, though, and Crixus yells ‘Kill them all!’ to the assembled gladiators while Paris Hilton tells Xena that she’ll ‘see her properly attended’ – so, have her brutally killed then.
Crixus explains the score to DSG and points out, in between killings, that the house of Batiatus was not, and never has been, honourable. As a guard comes up behind Crixus, DSG decides he likes Crixus more than he likes freedom and throws his sword at the guard, killing him and joining the rebellion.
(At this point, right in the middle of the melee, Dad came in for his dinner and made some comments about the delightful tea-time viewing we’d laid on for him).
Then there’s some really exciting head-chopping. One of the brothers who co-conspired with Spartacus dies, but the other lives (brothers together, with weapons? That was just asking for trouble).
Batiatus and the others retreat into the villa, but this does them no good, as Crixus leads a charge of gladiators, wielding a Roman head (I think they should dem
DSG confronts gnomy guy about Barca’s death. He’s too honourable to just kill him, but he throws him a sword to fight with. Meanwhile, the gladiators kill the snotty teenage boy’s mother, though Batiatus gets the better of that particular man. Gnomy guy tells DSG everything, boasting about his achievements and generally acting a bit like Ephialtes in 300. Gnomy guy seems to think he’s in Gladiator, messing around with the sand, and asks for a gladiator’s death, and DSG obviously hasn’t seen Gladiator himself, as he falls for this trick and appears to get himself stabbed for his trouble (though he still seems to walking around for the rest of the episode, so he must have won in the end).
Crixus wants to know where Naevia is and Xena says she will tell him if he gets herself and Batiatus out of the villa. Crixus doesn’t believe her, tells her he’d rather his son was dead than related to her, and stabs her in the stomach. He’ll have nightmares about that later.
Aurelia has ended up wandering around with the snotty teenage boy, who, thanks to Spartacus, she knows had her husband killed. So she kills him, obviously. Spartacus finds her, and DSG finds him and insists that enough have died – but Batiatus is still alive, as Xena collapses at his feet (she got pretty far with a fatal abdominal wound). Spartacus finally fights Batiatus and wins, of course, because the series isn’t called Batiatus: Blood and Sand. Oh, and there might be some history involved as well. There’s an almost touching moment as Batiatus and Xena try to reach each o
Having spilled so much blood and guts over the course of the series, this season finale had a lot of expectations to live up to, and it succeeds – I was going to say beautifully, but that’s not really the right word in this case. Artistically, perhaps. The sheer scale of the carnage ensures that the episode feels suitably epic, and there are some great touches adding to the drama – the liberal use of red lighting along with all the blood that’s spilled, the determined exit, at a calm walking pace, of the slaves from the gates of Batiatus’ house, and the lighting around the ludus, which has been rather nicely done all season. I still think the idea of lining up all the gladiators (who still aren’t wearing anything, of course) around the ludus to watch two of their number fight to the death without making any money from it is ridiculous, but it did create a visually arresting scene, and Spartacus’ leap from Crixus’ shield into Batiatus’ box was rather brilliant. And there’s still plenty of unresolved issues for the next season, including whether Spartacus will end up with Torc Girl or Aurelia (probably Torc Girl), where DSG will fit in as they organise themselves (Plutarch’s third leader, perhaps?) and whether Haldir will now forgive Paris Hilton (though I don’t care quite so much about that one). Bring on season 2!