Ancient Rome is back on screen with a vengeance – but the brutal, bloody Spartacus did it best

Andy Whitfield in Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Andy Whitfield in Spartacus: Blood and Sand

2024 is, it would appear, the year of Ancient Rome. Its most anticipated film is undoubtedly Ridley Scott’s long-awaited sequel to his Oscar-winning 2000 epic Gladiator. And Gladiator 2 – as it is imaginatively known – promises to launch its star Paul Mescal to superstardom, just as the original turned Russell Crowe into an A-list, Academy Award-winning icon. Mescal has already commented that he’ll be “profoundly depressed” and “in a bad spot” if the mega-budgeted picture turns him into one of the most famous actors in the world. The film’s tagline has just been announced, and it’s, appropriately enough, a reference to one of the most famous quotes from the original: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Yet even as we wait for its arrival, there are other Roman-themed epics to occupy us. Francis Ford Coppola’s long-gestating Megalopolis project may have – as ever with Coppola – suffered a turbulent production, but it has been completed. Advance word on the picture, which is said to be, in Coppola’s words, “a Roman epic with the story of an architect who wants to rebuild a utopian New York City after a devastating disaster”, is wildly mixed, with it alternately being compared to Picasso’s Guernica and described as “downright confounding” and “the work of a madman”.

No such high-blown expectations surround Roland Emmerich’s new Peacock series Those About To Die, which stars Anthony Hopkins as the Roman emperor Vespasian and is set in the world of gladiatorial combat. The show, which is set to launch in July – thereby acting as a spoiler of sorts for Gladiator 2, which will not be released until late November. Emmerich commented: “I have always been fascinated by the history of the Roman Empire. So much still seems relevant for our society today – from the entanglement of politics and sports to the disciplines of the competitions, which haven’t changed much either over the last 2000 years.”

(Those with long memories might recall Emmerich’s previous forays into historical drama with the much-criticised likes of Stonewall, Midway and – perhaps worst of all – his Shakespearean authorship drama Anonymous, and so may wish to temper their hopes before they become too enthusiastic at the prospect of what the director has cooked up here.)

The original Gladiator was, of course, a vast box office hit, and briefly led to a revival in the swords and sandals genre until such undistinguished pictures as Troy and Alexander collapsed it once again. Such films were once enormously popular in the Fifties and Sixties, with such pictures as Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis and, of course, the legendary Spartacus attracting vast audiences and winning awards.

But a combination of the vast cost of recreating the ancient world, and increasingly sophisticated audiences sniggering at the camp qualities of muscled men grunting and fighting one another while wearing skimpy loincloths, meant that the pictures soon fell out of vogue. When Peter Graves’s lecherous airline captain asks a young boy “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” in the spoof Airplane!, the genre’s fall from grace seemed complete. Even Gladiator could only revive it for a short time. It will be fascinating to see whether the sequel, and Emmerich’s series, can restore it to public favour (thumbs up!) all over again.

Jai Courtney and Andy Whitfield in Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Jai Courtney and Andy Whitfield in Spartacus: Blood and Sand - Alamy

Yet this is to ignore the four-season Spartacus series that aired on Starz between 2010 and 2013. Created by Steven S DeKnight, a former Joss Whedon collaborator who had worked on the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the show followed the same basic narrative trajectory as Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film.  Although, it must be admitted, neither paid more than lip service to the acknowledged historical facts that surrounded the life and times of the eponymous Thracian slave leader who rose up against the Roman empire in the Third Servile War before being defeated by the massed armies of the plutocrat and general Marcus Licinius Crassus.

However, there were enormous differences between the Oscar-winning epic and the television series. Although Kubrick’s film was remarkably violent for its day (the full, uncut version was only restored in the early Nineties), it was still tame by contemporary standards. DeKnight’s show set new standards for on-screen sex and violence that led for calls for it to be banned, or at the very least heavily censored, all of which he and Starz ignored.

The results speak for themselves. Coming only a few years after the hugely expensive series Rome, which prioritised politics and intrigue over battles and bloodshed – even if there was, inevitably, a vast amount of sex – DeKnight and Starz were determined not to fall into the same trap that Rome’s creators faced where, forced to scrap the planned third and fourth series for budgetary reasons, they lost a vast amount of intriguing material. This included the story of the rise of Jesus told exclusively from a Roman perspective: a fascinating and provocative idea which, alas, has yet to come to pass.

But, in the case of Spartacus, which began with the 2010 series Blood and Sand, the intention was clear from the outset. As DeKnight said, “When we started off on…season one, it didn’t start off subtle.” The Welsh actor Andy Whitfield was cast as the rebellious slave, and was part of an ensemble cast that included none other than the great John Hannah as Batiatus, the conniving owner of a gladiatorial school, and Xena: Warrior Princess icon Lucy Lawless as his wife Lucretia.

Lawless had become a gay icon after her star-making performance as Xena, and it was in partial acknowledgement of this – as well, perhaps, as appealing to the show’s desired audience of hormonal teenagers and young men – that she undertook various scenes of lesbian sex and nudity, as required by the role.

Lucy Lawless in Spartacus
Lucy Lawless in Spartacus

The show was also ground-breaking from a technical perspective. Following on from Zack Snyder’s Frank Miller adaptation 300, which used extensive special effects and green-screen work to bring the battle of Thermopylae to life, all four seasons of Spartacus were shot entirely in an Auckland studio, with no location filming whatsoever. This meant not only that the production team had complete control over the environment, but it also served as a precursor to such series as The Mandalorian, which enables the creation of their fantastical universes within deliberately artificial settings.

As DeKnight told it, the challenge was significant: “Can you take the visual concepts and aesthetic that (Snyder) so brilliantly pioneered in 300, and apply that to a television show where the time restrictions and the money restrictions are just massive?” The answer was an unequivocal “yes”, but then it had to be. As DeKnight remarked, “Every single thing was a challenge, from the costuming where everything had to be built for the show, to the sets, to the visual effects, especially on this show where literally every single thing you see on the screen was built especially for the show, the weapons, the furniture, everything.”

Spartacus was all filmed on an Auckland sound stage
Spartacus was all filmed on an Auckland sound stage - Album / Alamy Stock Photo

It paid off, and now, this kind of stylisation is accepted as commonplace, but when the first series of Spartacus was released, reviewers reacted with surprise, even shock. The Hollywood Reporter sniffed: “The painted sky, which seems vibrant at first, soon feels as artificial as the shopping-mall ceilings adjacent to Las Vegas casinos.”

Nonetheless, the first season was a great success – albeit with audiences rather than critically – and a second instalment was swiftly commissioned. Unfortunately, Whitfield had by this point been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and he had to be written out of the prequel series, Gods of the Arena, in which he had only a vocal cameo in the final episode, The Bitter End. Although it was initially believed that he had responded well to treatment, it soon became clear that his illness was terminal, and so the role was recast with Liam McIntyre for the second series, imaginatively titled Spartacus: Vengeance. Whitfield eventually died in September 2011.

Although this loss was undeniably a blow to the cast and crew, the show had by now established its gleefully baroque groove, in which the most violent scenes had a crazy panache to them. Perhaps in recognition of the essential, jaw-dropping absurdity of the bloodshed, there was even a moment in which a human jaw literally drops to the ground. Little wonder DeKnight commented: “Spartacus is not a documentary. You shouldn’t write a term paper based on this show. First and foremost, it’s entertainment.”

The show eventually concluded in 2013 and, inevitably, had the same downbeat conclusion as both the Kubrick film and the real-life Spartacus, as he and his army were defeated by the grander and better-equipped forces of Crassus. Although it had a loyal and appreciative audience, it was somewhat overshadowed by Game of Thrones, which began airing shortly after Spartacus’s premiere and soon captured the interests and imagination of the public – and awards panels – in a way that the Roman epic did not.

This is unfair and doesn’t do DeKnight’s sparky and imaginative series justice. It might be historically inaccurate, but it is also a supercharged epic that gleefully tramples over any concept of restraint or good taste and comes up with something intoxicating in the process. As one Telegraph writer enthused at the time, the show offers “Grand Guignol blood-letting powered by heart-stopping twists and high melodrama.”

John Hannah and Dustin Clare in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
John Hannah and Dustin Clare in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena - Alamy

Lacking the ambivalence and moral dilemmas of Thrones, it was a straightforward mixture of noble heroes and hissable villains. It was only a shame that the villains triumphed, albeit with an ending that is rather more triumphant than in the earlier film, as Spartacus dies while proclaiming himself to be a free man.

It remains to be seen whether 2024 really is the year of the Roman revival. Or if Gladiator 2, Megalopolis and, yes, Those About To Die end up being big-budget disappointments. Even if they are, DeKnight’s inventively violent and dangerously addictive series deserves another chance.

After all, how can you not warm to a show in which a character gruffly declares: “I have had my fill of words and tearful farewells. I desire blood and cries of our enemy.” Prestige, award-winning television be damned: this is the true stuff of legend.