The scripts of Spartacus carefully replicate the effect and mood of a language and a culture from two thousand years ago. The elite Romans speak with received pronunciation and poetic metres; lower-class figures like Batiatus pepper their speech with profanities that take the names (and body parts) of the Roman gods in vain. Reflecting the hegemony of Latin, even the slaves speak the same language, but with more recognisable accents from further-flung colonies. And with a straight face –uttering the most boggling of insults and commands, but without a twitch of Anglo-Saxon embarrassment or shame. The Romans are used to speaking their words frankly, to slaves who dare not protest or blush.
Writers have long struggled with the problems of conveying the attitudes and ideas of a different time or place in the same language that readers use to write their shopping lists or shout at their kids. Tolkien invented an entire world in order to justify the authorship of a single sentence in a language that didn’t exist. Numerous science fiction authors have posited the use of an English that is decayed or mutated, each demanding new exercise on the part of the reader before they get a sense of the world they see. The same applies to historical fiction.
Derek Jarman found a way around it by having everyone speak Latin in his film Sebastiane. But even though his actors rose to the task, their argot sounds strange to modern ears. In the most memorable line, a man onscreen calls out “Oi! Oedipe!” The subtitles gleefully translate it as “Hey! Motherfucker!” Roman insults and oaths didn’t draw on vernacular concepts – more often than not, they drew classical allusions, to Hercules and Venus, Vulcan and Jupiter. And their body parts.
In Spartacus, the writers embark upon an extended exercise in capturing the sense of how ancient Romans communicate. Dialogue is as carefully Latinate as possible, to the exclusion of much earthy Anglo-Saxon. No, not the f-word and the c-word, both found in abundance, but little touches like hello, goodbye and thank you, banished from hearing in order to up the sense of a different world. “Gratitude” is itself an anachronism, not found in Latin until long after the time of the Republic, but its use in Spartacus sets a tone throughout, and matched by much other dialogue.
When Glaber (Craig Parker) says: “What promises have you made Batiatus and his faded bitch?” there is a cadence and a rhythm to his words. Even in English, the script conveys the sense of a language carefully conjugated almost into poetry, heavy with alliteration and assonance, even as it launches an insult.
That’s one of the reasons why I leapt at the chance to write the first Spartacus tie-in novel Swords & Ashes, because it was a chance to play with those ideas for a whole book. I get a real kick out of words like miscellanea (a gladiator’s porridge) or spoliarium (the room where they dump the dead). I think it’s sweet that a gladiatorial groupie is called a ludia (literally “schoolie”) or that the gladiators used to call their pre-game warm-up routine numeri (“the numbers”). Such ideas can impart a real sense of time and place by their presence.
There are also some that need to be absent. When my first draft came back from approvals, it was missing three thousand words, most of them “the” and “a”. Latin doesn’t have definite or indefinite articles, and while the producers are happy to have them in the text, they are reluctant to hear them in dialogue. The pseudo-Latinate dialogue of the show is jarring when you first see it on the page, but you soon get used to it. It’s not long before you hear Batiatus bellowing in your ear about wine, women, and the arena. I was very surprised that I was able to last a whole 28 pages before his first outburst of “JUPITER’S COCK!”