The legend of Spartacus, the warrior-slave who led a bloody but doomed rebellion against the Roman Republic, took root in history 2,000 years ago. Starz ends its contribution to the legacy this year with the final season of its original series about the gladiator who became a formidable rebel leader.
Initially, series creator Steven DeKnight had hoped the series would run five to seven seasons. He now says ending with Season 3, War of the Damned (premiering Friday, 9 ET/PT), is the best possible outcome. He's also grateful the show didn't end with the death of Andy Whitfield, the Australian actor who starred as Spartacus in 2010's Season 1, Blood and Sand, before leaving the series with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"Ending it is bittersweet," says DeKnight, "but I'm happy that we continued because we had the chance to tell the whole story. And it was very important to Andy that the story should be told. He really loved the show and wanted it to go on."
When Whitfield was diagnosed, Season 2 was postponed and production shifted to a prequel, Gods of the Arena, in order to give Whitfield time to recover. But that never happened; he died in 2011. Liam McIntyre was chosen to assume the role of Spartacus in Vengeance, Season 2, which aired last year.
DeKnight says wrapping up now will prevent the show from becoming repetitive or veering too far from the historical record. "In War of the Damned we probably stray about as far from history as we have in past seasons," DeKnight says. "Most of it is based on things that actually happened, but to get it all to work in a dramatic way through 10 episodes we had to shuffle a lot of events."
Season 3 picks up months after Vengeance (which drew about 1.5 million viewers for premiere episodes) ends. Spartacus' army numbers tens of thousands. Vengeance closed with the death of Gaius Claudius Glaber, one of Spartacus' most formidable enemies, and the rebels continue to beat the Romans on every bloody battlefield. With Rome determined to break the rebellion, all-out war is declared.
Despite the spectacular battle scenes, the major story line throughout Spartacus has centered on the evolution of its hero, says McIntyre. "Andy (in Blood and Sand) was the reluctant slave trying to lash out against the horrible things done to him," McIntyre says. "Vengeance was about him finding his new place in the world, the responsibility given to him."
Now, McIntyre says. "He's absolutely the commander-in-chief of this ragtag band of thousands, this army that's trying to do the impossible and take over and destroy the undefeatable armies of Rome."
To rout Spartacus, Roman general Marcus Crassus will join forces with the man whose name is synonymous with ancient Rome: Julius Caesar.
DeKnight asked the show's historical consultants how much the show would be breaking with history by weaving Caesar into the plot. "I was shocked when they said not at all," DeKnight says. "Caesar is the most written-about Roman, but this is one tiny sliver of history where not a lot is known about what he's doing. Lots of historians think he more than likely had some part in the war against Spartacus."
Chosen to play the 20-something Caesar is Australian actor Todd Lasance, who says he enjoyed bringing the young emperor-to-be to life. "That's the exciting part," Lasance says. "There are not going to be any comparisons, and I get to delve into a Caesar who hasn't been explored before on screen. It's a chance to set a new benchmark, I would hope, in portraying him in a period in which a lot of people don't really know about Caesar."
Lasance says that before researching Caesar, he had no idea what he was like as a young man. "I guess, naively, I had the idea that he would be in a toga, have the typical Caesar haircut and have the leaves around his head, but this Caesar couldn't be any further from that. I like the fact that the writers made him a lot more rugged, and they focused on the battlefield elements."
Starz won't officially comment, but deadline.com and other outlets have reported the network is considering a spinoff following the story of Caesar. It's a series Lasance says he'd consider, and one that DeKnight and McIntyre would love to watch. "I know there's the rumor, and I don't know anything officially, but I hope that happens," says McIntyre. "Todd's got this sort of Brad Pitt thing about him, and I'd watch any show with him in it."
But first, fans must bid farewell to Spartacus. "If you do your Wikipedia research, you know it's not the happiest ending," says McIntyre, who promises a finale of epic proportions.
"I got to see a rough cut of it. It was heartbreaking, and Steven and his team do a really good job of keeping you guessing. You never quite know, as Steven says, if it's going to go all Inglourious Basterds and kill Hitler. It's a very heart-rending story, but its also uplifting," McIntyre says. "I think they really found the right tone and went out in a huge way."