Shiny Shelf

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

By Mark Clapham on 15 April 2011

Well, at least they’re not watering it down.

‘Spartacus: Gods of the Arena’ sets its stall out in the first scene, an astonishing montage of brutal, gory combat in Capua’s old arena, a crude box of wood and cloth.

Shortly after, we get a scene of two old friends doing their business in both senses of the word, as they talk shop at an open street toilet.

One of the friends is Quintus Batiatus (John Hannah), heir to the family ludus and its gladiators as well as husband to Lucretia (Lucy Lawless).

Set an indeterminate time before ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’, ‘Gods of the Arena’ follows the House of Batiatus as Quintus attempts to secure a place for his gladiators in the opening games of Capua’s new arena.

Robert Tapert’s TV series have always found clever ways of getting around star illnesses and injuries: both ‘Hercules’ and ‘Xena’ worked around their star’s absences with ingenuity and flare.

While it’s the necessity of working around star Andy Whitfield’s cancer diagnosis that initially inspired a six-part prequel to launch the second series of ‘Spartacus’, that necessity has spawned a story with a tragic momentum: every character in ‘Gods of the Arena’ has a grim fate ahead, whether that be a grisly death or having to abandon everything they hold dear.

While fates are set, there’s plenty of drama in seeing how the existing characters get to where they are at the start of ‘Blood and Sand’. As for the new characters, their absence from the earlier series means they seem doomed from the start. The interest lies in how these fates will unfold.

At the centre of the series is Hannah’s Batiatus, initially frustrated and spiteful rather than downright malignant, but in his ambition and ruthlessness showing the seeds of the proto-Machiavellian shitbag he will become.

Batiatus has always been a fascinating character, undoubtedly villainous but strangely sympathetic due to his lack of competence as a schemer – in some ways the nobles who patronise him are right, Batiatus isn’t as good or as clever as he thinks he is.

Hannah is scenery-chewing great in the role as usual, balancing Batiatus’ underdog charm with the vicious rage growing within him. Sans Whitfield, this is unambiguously Hannah’s show.

All the other characters orbit Batiatus even as he is frequently thwarted and demeaned by his father and his enemies, including the terrifyingly repellant Tullius, whose every cruelty drives Batiatus to more desperate and heartless schemes.

As Batiatus descends into malice, so those around him are warped, and the very character of the House of Batiatus changes with its heir apparent. At the opening of ‘Gods of the Arena’, the ludus is a brutal place, but slaves are accorded at least some nobility and dignity by their masters.

‘Gods of the Arena’ sees all that change, as human life is cheapened in pursuit of reckless ambition, and the abuse (sexual and otherwise) of the house’s slaves go from being transgressions caused by circumstance to the heartless norm they are in ‘Blood and Sand’.

Apart from the title character’s absence, this is very much the ‘Spartacus’ we know, love and occasionally gawp at the shamelessness of, a cocktail of stylised sex and violence. The unique dialogue style remains, a potent combination of crunchy swearing and archaic grammar.

(Incidentally, I’d love to know if this style mimics Latin grammar, if any classically educated readers could enlighten me in the comments.)

Sadly, Whitfield’s illness continues and so for season two proper the role of Spartacus has been recast. With a new star and so many of the cast written out at the end of series one, it will be interesting to see how the series develops. ‘Gods of the Arena’ suggests the production team will approach these challenges with ingenuity.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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