So I'm finally watching the last of Spartacus, this time the third series, 'War of the Damned'.
It's... okay. But the series has had a downward trajectory, and this isn't the best series of the three. Without the scheming Roman matrons and the rival Praetors, we're left with new entrants Crassus (a rather nobler portrayal than my own idea of him, it must be said), his son Publius - a chip off the old block - Julius Caesar, and a few others. The Cilician pirates are there, and pleasantly sleazy, and Crassus' attempt to play the sternest of Roman paterfamilias' is nicely played. The famous 'decimation' of a force that ran from Spartacus' men is very well done. I hadn't actually realised that the punishment was carried out by bludgeoning, but apparently it was, and suitably grisly. The action has been telescoped a bit - several months of campaigning around southern Italy has been shoehorned into the capture and defence of one provincial port (played here by Dubrovnik) - but that's okay. The whole campaign is confusing and Spartacus' motives hard to discern. Setting him up against Crassus as the main villain, and using Pompey's arrival with his army from Spain as a time limit for action is both pretty accurate and suitably dramatic. A great plus point is that, unlike the Kubrick film, the series doesn't glamorise the slaves or attempt to portray them as ideologically motivated freedom fighters or revolutionaries; they are convincingly chaotic, desperate and unpleasant; out for revenge and plunder and with no credible long term game plan, riven by ethnic and personal rivalries and jealousies. Crixus is nicely edged into being a rival centre of power - in reality he and Spartacus appear to have parted company and Crixus led a contingent of the slaves on a divergent path for over a year until he was cornered and defeated.
I think my biggest problem is with the version of Julius Caesar on offer. The idea that he was around in Rome in 72BC isn't implausible. The idea that he began his association with Crassus then, and that Crassus bankrolled his candidature for tribune is likewise very credible - Caesar was Crassus' protege and Caesar used Crassus' son as an officer on his later campaign in Gaul. His energy, womanising and military genius is well caught. But the idea that he would act as some kind of secret agent behind the lines, acting as agent provocateur, and above all, do it while wearing a beard? No. Just, no. Caesar was infamously fastidious about body hair, and had all of his plucked out by a slave with tweezers, and surely wouldn't risk being in the presence of Cilician pirates again only a year or so after having just had a bunch of them hunted down and killed for kidnapping him. It just feels too big a betrayal of what we know about the man.
All that aside, and in spite of the CGI blood, T&A, and armies full of Kiwis and Aussies, it is still well done. It revels in the '300' school of ancient history, but is far more historical than that travesty was. The use of language is quite interesting; the definite article is dropped, and Latin derived words used in preference for Anglo-Saxon ones; 'gratitude' for 'thanks', 'apologies' for 'sorry'. It makes it nicely strange and outre - as with Deadwood, just alien enough to catch the ear, but not enough to be distracting. I'm glad it was done, but disappointed that they didn't make more of the genuine history, which was dramatic enough!