The Times, 24 May 2010

Spartacus Review

I always assumed that most Classicists are noses-in-books people. Well, why leave the house when you have Homer and Virgil to hand? Real life can only disappoint. And cinema and television even more so: there were the occasional blips - like Gladiator in 2000 and a couple of series of HBO's Rome - but our screens have usually been Roman-free: I, Claudius was first shown over thirty years ago, when I hadn't even read my first Greek myth (The Tiger Who Came To Tea has few Classical overtones).

Yet suddenly, the screens are awash with the Classics, as though every Hollywood mogul in town had been reading Mary Beard's Pompeii, and thought 'Mr DeMille, Vesuvius is ready for his close-up'. So it's a pity that they have all been rather lacklustre: Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, Agora, and Centurion have all got their sandals out at cinema near you in the past couple of months, and it's tempting to wish they hadn't bothered. They have committed the cardinal sin of historical drama: not inaccuracy - which is a given - but dullness.

Happily, the gore-fest, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which airs on British television this week, has embraced swords and smut with considerably more gusto. The low budget gives it a more multi-cultural air than Classicists may be expecting: the series was shot in New Zealand, which might explain the surprisingly large number of Maori gladiators to be found in this version of first century BC Italy.

Graphic violence in the arena was surely to be expected from the show's title, but it isn't the fighting which has our moral guardians up in arms. It's the fact that Batiatus, played by John Hannah - the nice one who reads Auden in Four Weddings and a Funeral - is shown being fellated by a slave-girl in episode 2, while conducting a conversation with his wife, Lucretia, played by Lucy Lawless (who may have the name of a porn star, but is the formerly respectable Xena, Warrior Princess). She is being pleasured by another slave girl in the same scene. If Mary Whitehouse weren't dead already, this would surely have killed her.

But however shocking the sexual content might be, the characters still speak in reassuringly cod Classical-ese. 'Fight well,' one gladiator explains to the new boy, Spartacus, 'and you are rewarded with coin'. The show was written in English, so this isn't just a bizarre translation: it appears to be how characters have ended up speaking in historical drama. The writers try to create something between formal speech and modern slang, and inadvertently light upon Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid.

Spartacus has already faced calls for it to be banned in America, where it is shown on Starz, a subscription-only channel. But here in the UK, where a wardrobe malfunction barely provokes a raised eyebrow, Spartacus will be shown on Bravo, and online, where Mediawatch-uk fear it will be easily accessed by children. One hesitates to point out to Mediawatch that while Spartacus may be pretty shocking by the standards of television, is extremely mild by the standards of internet porn. And hey, when the kids find it, at least they might learn a bit of Latin while they're being corrupted.

It offers viewers a chance to see the back-story of Spartacus, the gladiator who rebelled against his masters, escaped the arena, and remained at large in Italy for three years. His ragtag band of gladiators soon swelled to about 70,000 men, and his victories against the Roman army were extremely impressive. It eventually took a force headed by Crassus - one the wealthiest men Rome had ever seen - to kill him, and quash the rebellion. Stanley Kubrick's eponymous film goes for a more romantic ending (I'm Spartacus! No, I'm Spartacus!), but the reality is that he almost certainly died in battle, although his body was never found.

But Steven S DeKnight - the creator of Spartacus: Blood and Sand - has sensibly avoided the latter part of the Spartacus legend, which we already know so well from Kirk Douglas' portrayal. He has focussed instead on the origin story; this is Spartacus, the early years. Virtually nothing is known for certain about the man until he escaped from a Capuan gladiatorial school: he was probably a Thracian, he may have had a wife, he might have served with the Roman army before finding himself enslaved. And this very vagueness allows the writers some dramatic licence: their gladiator - like Russell Crowe's Maximus - needs a reason to fight. Betrayed by a venal Roman commander, and desperate to find his wife and rescue her from slavery, he can either die in the arena, or fight his way back to freedom. At the heart of this brash, silly show is a romantic husband who loves his wife.

It's a perfect example of the fact that historical dramas reflect the time in which they are made, often more so than the time they depict. We want to watch the blood and guts of the ring just as much as the Romans did, albeit on TV. But we demand a back-story which makes it morally acceptable: a husband trying to save his wife is a man we can watch wield a sword and take a life with a clear conscience. Especially when he is fighting against a man who has hurled our hero's porridge to the ground that very morning.

Spartacus reflects so many of our current obsessions: the actors are pretty much uniformly gorgeous, toned and buff, like models. It's never even questioned. And why should it be? These are gladiators - they basically spend all day working out. Well, maybe, but think what the Romans and Greeks used to look like on TV: Peter Ustinov was no John Hannah. And it's even more obvious when you look at Perseus in the original Clash of the Titans movie, and this year's remake. Harry Hamlin was very pretty, but he would have needed a year in the gym to look like Sam Worthington. Even if Sam Worthington would need a year of varnish to get Hamlin's tan.

So while it's tempting to believe that we are like the Romans that we see on TV - the sex, the violence, the swearing, the beautiful naked ladies and the hot, naked guys - the truth is that we are simply constructing a vision of the Romans which reminds us of ourselves, or at least how we would like to see ourselves. A 'true' interpretation of the ancient world just doesn't and can't exist, because every historian, writer, director, and actor has their own vision of the ancients which they want to create. Which raises the question of how much historical accuracy matters in entertainment. A film isn't a set text, after all.

Is it important that Agora sees Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician, as a scientific martyr, slaughtered by the bloodthirsty, anti-science Christians? The truth is that she was simply caught between two warring political factions. It would be a different film if they had stuck to the facts, and certainly a less dramatic one (it culminates with the burning of the library of Alexandria, although it is set several hundred years after the library had been destroyed). Centurion, meanwhile, has the Ninth Legion wiped out in Caledonia in 117AD, cheerfully ignoring the fact that the Ninth Legion still existed after that point. The Eagle of the Ninth, which comes out this autumn, will suggest the same inaccuracy.

Of all the TV and film adaptations of ancient Rome, I Claudius is the one which retains the most credibility, even if the make-up now looks rather cakey. Perhaps that's because it had proper, serious actors in it, and a lot less nudity and violence than the current interpretations of Rome do. But it's also because Robert Graves had a close affinity to his source material: he translated the books of Suetonius on which his novelisations are closely based. So it is a pretty accurate dramatisation of Suetonius, the ancient biographer. But that only begs the question, how historically accurate was the gossipy, prurient Suetonius, who wasn't even born until after Claudius had died?

That I, Claudius is probably the most accurate interpretation of the Roman world we've seen on screen surely isn't the most important thing for its audience; what matters is that it is the most entertaining. A good story makes a good TV show. Something which the makers of Spartacus might just have remembered.