Before there was Game of Thrones on HBO, another premium subscription television channel was looking for a historic-ish series, filled with blood and flesh. As the Starz network struggled to keep up with their competitors, a Thracian hero arrived to do battle and claim victory: Spartacus. The show lasted four seasons as of one of the most popular premium networks television shows in history.
If you haven’t seen Spartacus for yourself, you can check it out on Netflix. Be warned, once you’ve gotten a taste for the arena, there will be much binge-watching in your future.
For now, let’s take a look back at what ultimately proved to be a smashing success for Starz, and discuss some lesser known facts about the series you may not have known… until now!
1. Spartacus Is Based On Historical Events And Characters
We all know that when shows or movies add the ol’ “Based On Actual Events” line, it rarely means we’ll be watching a true-to-life reenactment of events. More often, the truth is stretched thin over the fiction. Don’t get us wrong when we say Spartacus was based on historical events and characters – we aren’t talking National Geographic levels of accuracy here – but just how closely they stick to what is known about the overarching story of Spartacus from the pages of history may surprise you.
Take the titular character, Spartacus himself. The man history knows was in fact, as the show portrays, a Thracian gladiator who was enslaved and forced into gladiatorial combat by the Romans. That man later escaped and was an instrumental figure in the Third Servile War, a slave uprising that took place between 73 and 71 BC.
If you’ve watched Spartacus on Starz, you may also recognize a few other names of men who were leaders of that rebellion. The names Crixus, Oenomaus, and Gannicus should ring a few bells for fans of the show. Yep, they were also actual people who actually took part in an actual slave revolt.
Even the historical records of the Third Servile War contain some disagreements on the fine details of where some of these men came from and exactly what roles they played in history, so the show’s writers had plenty of leeway when creating their world and the characters within it, but the blockbuster show began with one foot planted solidly in history and began filling in the blanks from there.
While taking a few names overheard between naps in AP History class and turning them into a television series may not, on the surface, sound like much attention was paid to the actual history of Spartacus and the Third Servile War, those real-life events affected the show on many levels, and we’ll get into that a bit more later. First, let’s talk about what a big deal the show was for Starz.
2. Spartacus Set Viewership Records For Starz
Back in 2010, the Starz network was struggling to pull in viewers as other premium pay TV networks, namely HBO, seemed to be pulling in the lion’s share of viewers’ eyeballs. Starz was constantly in search of something to give them a boost to viewership and ratings, and that’s exactly what Spartacus did from the moment the show made its debut.
With previous original series Crash only pulling in a reported 185,000 people when it made its Starz debut, Spartacus smashed through the existing records for the network, bringing in 661,000 viewers on Starz, another 580,000 on sister-network Encore, and ended up bringing in a total of 3.3 million viewers once the weekend had ended.
With a strong debut under its belt, the show continued to impress, growing a dedicated audience that returned episode after episode, and Spartacus nearly single-handedly reinvigorated the network, continuing to increase viewer numbers and set Starz original series records – some of which wouldn’t be beaten until 2015.
3. Spartacus Was Renewed For A Second Season Before A Single Episode Aired
With its debut setting viewership records for Starz, one might guess that the network knew it had a potential hit on its hands with Spartacus. That guess would be correct, seeing as how the show received an order for a second season even before a single episode had aired. They were willing to stand behind Spartacus early on, perhaps adding a sense of safety to viewers who would be more willing to get emotionally invested in a series they knew would be coming back for another season.
The Starz network wasn’t just guessing whether or not Spartacus would be a hit with viewers, however. They had a huge, multi-faceted marketing campaign in place intended to get viewers tuning in to dirty, sweaty gladiators battling it out in the arena every week.
4. A Prequel Comic Series Preceded The Show’s Debut
For true hardcore nerds, nothing brings an IP into their hearts quite like immortalization in a comic book adventure. So naturally, in order to draw viewers from an extended audience, independent comic book publisher Devil’s Due created a 4-part prequel comic series titled Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
As it turns out, Spartacus was a natural fit for comics, especially seeing as how the series was shot in an overexposed video style, reminiscent of 300. That film was an adaptation of a popular graphic novel; audiences proved to be receptive to what Spartacus had to offer in comic form.
Each entry in the Spartacus comic series highlighted the rivalriess among the show’s gladiators, providing some background and context as to who these warriors were that were destined to die on screen.
5. Those Comics Were Turned Into A Motion Comic Series
Taking the successful Spartacus comic book series from Devil’s Due to the next level, a four part motion comic series was adapted from the pages of said comics.
All of the visceral art blends well with fantastic voice acting in this series, and if you’re a true fan of the Spartacus series, it is an absolute must watch, although some of the artwork does come across a bit awkward given the way some of the panels were animated.
Among the voice talent brought in to bring life to the comics were Kevin Grevioux, whose work also includes credits in multiple Marvel and DC animated series, and Ray Park, better known to the nerd community as the one and only Darth Maul.
As the hype for the debut of Spartacus on Starz began to build, the comic and motion comic series paved the way for the world viewers were about to be engrossed in over the next several years. Of course, once the series proved a success the Spartacus franchise continued to spread to media other than just television and comics.
6. There Have Also Been Both Video Games And Board Games Based On The Show
Starz took their new, immensely popular series to another level with the introduction of both a board game and video game.
Tabletop game publisher Gale Force Nine released Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery in 2012, with a limited release at that year’s Gen Con event (a popular board gaming convention), and general lease later that same year. Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery maintains a very positive rating over on Boardgamegeek to this day, and is considered a favorite among many longtime tabletop enthusiasts.
The video game released by Ubisoft the next year doesn’t quite live up to those standards. Released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in September of 2013, Spartacus Legends holds a paltry 45/100 review score for the Xbox version over on popular review aggregate MetaCritic, while the PS3 version comes in only slightly ahead, with an average review score of 50/100.
7. Lead Actor Andy Whitfield Was Diagnosed With Cancer Following Season 1
With a second season already ordered, Spartacus made its debut on Starz in January of 2010 to an audience that would continue to grow over time. As filming for the previously ordered season 2 drew near, lead actor Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March of 2010.
As Whitfield began receiving treatment in New Zealand, season 2 of Spartacus was postponed and producers scrambled to figure out what was next for their hit series. As a result of Whitfield’s illness, producers chose to shoot a six-episode prequel mini-series, which ran during part of the second season’s run time, and the original plans for season 2 were put on hold as the crew awaited Whitfield’s expected recovery.
The mini-series Gods of the Arena focused on House Batiatus before the arrival of Spartacus, and how many of the characters present upon the arrival of Spartacus came to be in the lanista.
8. Actor Andy Whitfield Passed Away In 2011
Sadly, Whitfield’s victory over cancer would be short-lived. During a routine follow up medical evaluation, it was discovered that the non-Hodgkin lymphoma had returned. Despite receiving a clean bill of health in June of 2010, by September of the same year the cancer had returned, and Whitfield once again began undergoing treatment.
Whitfield fought the disease that ravaged his body for another year, but sadly on September 11, 2011 he passed away, a mere 18 months after his initial diagnosis. Andy was 39-years-old, and left behind a wife and two children.
Andy and his wife Vashti allowed cameras to document their battle against cancer, and the documentary Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story) gives a raw look at the everyday fight against cancer and the impact it makes on a family, aspects of the disease we often don’t see.
With Whitfield battling cancer for the second time within a few months following the return of the disease, a decision had to be made about the future of the Spartacus series. Andy Whitfield decided to step down from his role as the lead character in the series, and Australian actor Liam McIntyre stepped in to fill the role for the remainder of the series.
9. The Show Ended For the Sake Of Historical Accuracy
Despite being forced to move on without their original leading man, Spartacus continued for two more seasons following the prequel mini-series with McIntyre firmly entrenched as the titular character. The drama heightened as the slave revolt began in the season titled Spartacus: Vengeance, coming to a conclusion at the end of the fourth and final season, Spartacus: War of the Damned. But why would Starz bring such a popular show to an end prematurely? Viewer numbers remained strong, and the series could have easily continued. To answer the question of “why so soon?” we turn back to that historical accuracy we spoke of earlier.
You see, at the end of the real Third Servile War history tells us that Spartacus more than likely died, as he does at the end of the series. As we mentioned earlier, writers and producers were obviously filling in the details with drama and action created from their imaginations, but the overall story was based on historical events. So when the show creators reached the point in the historical record where Spartacus dies in battle, they decided to bring their story to a close right there.
The writers could have easily just added their own spin on things from this point, straying from the historical records for the sake of a few more seasons of television, but in the end they decided to stay as true to the story they were recreating as they possibly could, and thus fulfilling the prophecy of the shield with a red serpent from the first season.
10. Fans Had A Moment Of Hope The Series Would Be Revived On SyFy
With Spartacus officially off the air, fans were left to mourn the loss of not only a beloved character, but also a world in which they had become invested over the last several years. As you might imagine, there were plenty of folks begging for the series to find new life, and in May of 2014, if only for a fleeting moment, there was hope.
Entertainment website The Wrap ran a story on May 22 of that year which reported that the Syfy network would be picking up Spartacus and airing new episodes going forward. The story quickly began making the rounds in the Spartacus fan community that their beloved show was coming back.
Unfortunately this was not to be. The site had simply misunderstood the information they were given, and corrected the error. Spartacus was heading to Syfy for replays of the original 39 episodes only – no new episodes were being produced. Fans once again mourned the loss of the series, and it finally began to fade away into the history of spectacular television shows.
11. No One Is Quite Sure What Happened To The Real Spartacus
With the overarching story fitting within the confines of known history, a couple of pretty important details of the story were definitely given a bit of a Hollywood twist.
For starters, there’s not really much historical evidence to support that the end goal of the Third Servile War, and those leading it, was to end slavery. In fact, many leaders of the rebellion have been accused of terrible atrocities all their own. There simply isn’t much evidence to tell us if these men were actually the heroes they are portrayed as in the series, or simply seeking to gain their own power within the Roman Republic.
The second detail, which the series wrapped up nice and neat, but doesn’t quite mesh with what we know, was the death of Spartacus himself. While scholars of the time seemed to agree that Spartacus did in fact die during during a battle with the Roman Legion, it’s also said that his body was never actually recovered. His forces were routed during the battle in which he likely died, however, so unidentified bodies covered the battlefield, and thousands more survivors were captured and crucified along the road between Rome and Capua. So while it’s doubtful Spartacus went on to lead a full life following the final defeat of his forces, he certainly wasn’t placed in a nicely marked grave for all to admire.