Who Was Spartacus? Starz Series Faithful to History

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Denis Foyatier (c/o Wikimedia GNU Free Documentation Licence http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spartacus1.jpg?uselang=en-gb

The Starz Original trilogy portrays Spartacus in a manner close to the man described in ancient texts. Photo: Denis Foyatier

War of the Damned marks the last of Starz Original’s trio of series dramatizing the Servile War of 73-71 BC.  For many, the graphic violence and lurid story line of Starz’ adaptation has been unappealing. Of all the fictional adaptations of Spartacus’s story, however, this trilogy is the most faithful to ancient sources, explaining who Spartacus was, how he came to be a gladiator and crucially, what made him a capable general.

Spartacus’s Journey from Thrace to Italy

Films such as Spartacusand novels such as Howard Fast’s Spartacus and Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators, describe Spartacus as the final generation of a long line of slaves. The ancient sources, however, clearly state that Spartacus was born a free man. He is described by Plutarch as a member of one of the nomadic tribes of Thrace. According to M. J. Trow, these tribes once covered the area of modern Bulgaria, north of the Danube and the Carpathian mountains.

Blood and Sand, the first of Starz Spartacus series, is unique in that it remains faithful to the sources. Firstly, it shows Spartacus starting his adventures as a free man in his native country.  It then uses the ancient texts to develop the story of how he became first a slave, then a gladiator.

According to Appian, Spartacus “served as a solider with the Romans but had since been a prisoner and sold as a gladiator.” Florus’s Epitome adds some flesh to the bones, describing Spartacus as “a mercenary Thracian [who] had become a Roman solider, …a solider deserter and robber.”  Blood and sand seizes upon these textual facts, showing Spartacus enlisting as a Roman auxiliary in order to gain Roman aid in defending his homeland. When the Roman’s don’t follow through on their part of the deal, Spartacus assaults his commanding officer and deserts. He is subsequently captured and taken to Italy.

Spartacus the General

Other fictional adaptations have missed an important aspect of the Spartacus character by ignoring references to Spartacus as a solider in the Roman army. These references explain credibly how an enslaved gladiator could have been such a capable general. The Starz series employs these facts well, outlining details of the Servile War battles, demonstrating Spartacus’s ingenuity and ability as a strategist.

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The escape from Mount Vesuvius, shown graphically in the end of the second part, Vengeance, is scripted straight from the sources, particularly Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and Julius Frontinius’s Strategemata.  Frontinius’s chapter On escaping from Difficult Situations describes Spartacus’ tactics of using plaited vines to escape from the steep, unguarded side of Vesuvius, so that he “not only made his escape, but by appearing in another quarter struck such terror into Clodius that several cohorts gave way before a force of only seventy-four gladiators” exactly as portrayed in Vengance.

In War of the Damned, Spartacus escapes from Crassus in a sequence of scenes totally faithful to the Plutarch version. Hemmed in by Crassus on the peninsula of Rhegium under the cover of a snow storm, Spartacus orders a ditch dug, designed to trap Crassus’ army. Once filled with the bodies of the dead, Spartacus and his army can cross and escape.

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There is a bit of doubt as to the real name of the gladiator now known as Spartacus. Image by Känsterle

Spartaks? What’s in a Name?

Spartacus may not even have been the real name of the gladiator general. Evidence of graffiti from Pompeii shows that most enslaved gladiators fought under single stage names such as princeps, “the chief” or hilarius, “merry.” Only free fighters used their own names.

There is a piece of graffiti in a town contemporary with the rebellion showing a mounted gladiator named Spartaks or Spartacus. Some believe it could refer to the historical Spartacus. It could equally be the title for another Thracian gladiator.

Naming a Thracian gladiator Spartacus could have been the Roman’s idea of an insult. Trow mentions a fifth century BC prince called Spartacus, son of one of Thracia’s most famous and powerful kings. By degrading the name of a noble hero, making it a gladiator’s artistic name would humiliate a captured Thracian.

Blood and Sand picks up this. In the film, the true name of Lentellus Batiatus’s Thracian gladiator is never given, though the lanista award him his new title “Spartacus” to humiliate him.

A Mystical Destiny

Once in Italy, the ancient sources describe how Spartacus’ future greatness was foreshadowed by signs and portents. According to Plutarch, when Spartacus was first brought to Italy, “they say a snake coiled itself upon his face as he lay asleep and his wife… a kind of prophetess and one of those possessed with the bacchanal frenzy declared that it was a sign portending great and formidable power to him with no happy event.”

In most fictional versions, this prophecy is ignored; the mention of a wife has only been used to create a romantic interest.  In Blood and Sand, both the prophecy and the wife become crucial elements of Spartacus’ destiny. Spartacus’ wife dreams of the snake before he sets out to war. She offers him two choices: to fight with the Romans and achieve greatness leading ultimately to doom, or to stay with her. Spartacus chooses to go, only returning to her when he is on the run from that prophesied doom.

As in the sources, Spartacus’s wife is enslaved with him, though nothing is said of her fate. The Starz series makes that fate her death, which becomes Spartacus’ motive for his revolt. The prophetic snake also becomes his emblem in War of the Damned. The event in both the sources and the series is a foreshadowing of what is to come.

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Plutarch describes a Spartacus who was an able strategist and general. Image by Hermann Vogel

Crassus: A Worthy Enemy

The use of prophecy was a standard emblem of greatness, awarded to Spartacus by the Romans to make him a worthy foe. He couldn’t be just a run of the mill slave. This is why the sources have to emphasis his noble qualities. According to Plutarch, he was “of high spirit and valiant,” and this earned him the admiration of Crassus, the man who finally defeated him. This is also the opinion of  the Starz Crassus. Starz’ Spartacus brings to life the man described in the ancient texts.


Appian. The Civil Wars, Book 1. Accessed Aug 30, 2013.

Florus. Epitome of Roman History, Book 2. Accessed Aug 30, 2013.

Plutarch. Life of Crassus, 9. Translation by John Dryden. Accessed Aug 30, 2013.

Sallust. Histories, Book 3.

Sextus Julius Frontinus. Strategemata, Book V.

STARZ Original. Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010), Vengence (2012), and War of the Damned (2013). Television series.

Trow, M J. Spartacus: The Myth and the Man. (2006). Sutton Publishing.

Velleius Paterculus. The Roman History, 2.29Accessed Aug 30, 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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