The Spartacus team is well aware the series can't survive on lust, gore and ancient eye candy alone. "Viewers won't keep returning just to see two gladiators beat the crap out of each other in the arena," DeKnight says. "Basically, we're softies. At the core of our show is a sweeping drama and a passionate romance." Early in the first episode, Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), are brutally separated by Roman soldiers who condemn him to die in the gladiator games and sell her off to a Syrian slave trader.

"It's Spartacus' all-consuming love for his wife that makes him survive against impossible odds," Whitfield notes. "It's a story so amazing you can't get your mind around it. I still stand back and go, 'This guy I'm playing actually built an army of slaves and took on the entire Roman Empire? Really?'"

Whitfield's own story ain't too shabby, either. A former engineer who hails from Wales, he only took up acting seven years ago--at the age of 30. Until then, he'd made his living as a facade specialist, scaling the exteriors of skyscrapers and bridges to spot architectural problems. "Finding Andy was like finding another Russell Crowe or Viggo Mortensen--a tough son of a bitch with soul," DeKnight says. "We really lucked out."

But the execs didn't push that luck when casting the plum female role, Lucretia, a desperate, social-climbing conniver married to Batiatus (John Hannah), the downwardly mobile owner of a gladiator school. They simply handed it to Tapert's internationally adored wife, former Xena star Lucy Lawless. "I keep being asked, 'Why are you doing the sword and sandals thing again?', but this is so different," Lawless says. "And who doesn't want to play Lady Macbeth?" (Click here to read our Q&A with Lawless.)

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