Sex and Gore? That’s Ancient History





When the Victorians were feeling gloomy about their prospects they used to compare themselves to the ancient Romans. They read Gibbon, Plutarch and Tacitus and looked for parallels: a society burdened by empire, corrupted by wealth, deficient in manly virtue. Lately we have been doing much the same, only instead of consulting the Latin texts we turn to screen epics like “Gladiator,” the HBO series “Rome,” and the 2007 Zack Snyder film “300,” which, strictly speaking, was about Spartans, not Romans, but let’s not be fussy. The cable channel Starz, as part of an effort to expand its slate of original programming, is extending this classical tradition with “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a 13-part series that starts Friday, and has already taken the unusual step of commissioning a second season before the first one even runs.

Overtaxed, militarily overextended and with an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the Romans, we learn, were a lot like us, but for entertainment purposes they had some signal advantages: They were more violent, they wore skimpier clothes and they had orgies. “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” a retelling of the history of the famous slave and his rebellion, does not neglect any of these traits. It features abundant nudity, both male and female. (“In the early days we had a lot of conversations about how many penises we could show in a single episode,” Rob Tapert, one of the producers, recalled recently.) There is a great deal of simulated sex, of both the gay and straight variety. And the subtitle is not false advertising: the characters do not merely bleed; they spray great fountains and gouts, arterial geysers, that splash up on the inside of your TV screen or else hang in midair like red Rorschach blots. Mr. Tapert and his co-producer, Sam Raimi (better known as the director of the “Spider-Man” films), got their start with the “Evil Dead” horror-movie franchise, and the new show at times suggests their early experiments with high-pressure circulatory systems. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Mr. Tapert admitted....

About the show’s explicitness, he said: “We wanted to push the envelope. We’re fine with graphic sexuality, graphic violence as long as it comes from a place in the story. And I think the violence has an operatic element. We wanted to make it beautiful in a way.”

And within reason, he said, he also wants the show to be accurate. He even hired a couple of Ph.D. candidates in classics to pelt him with memos and e-mail messages about details like whether or not Capua had a governor and the wine-drinking habits of Thracians. “We bend history, of course,” he said. “But we try never to break it.”



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