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 Spartacus, and 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.
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.