Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a six episode prequel to Blood and Sand, which begs the obvious question, can we have a good Spartacus series without Spartacus? It turns out we can.
Spartacus is not only the protagonist of the series proper, he is also a hero and leader. Finding and establishing a replacement with a similarly dominant personality, would have been difficult, so Gods of the Arena doesn’t even try. It shifts the focus on to characters with less lofty goals, ones whose goals end with personal glory.
As the series opens, Gannicus is the reigning champion of the House of Batiatus. He’s a take on the modern, spoiled sports star. He’s cocky, he shows up late for practice, and engages in various vices. But his arrogance is actually backed up with results. He is by far the greatest gladiator in the Batiatus Ludus, if not all of Capua, though he isn’t being given the chance to prove it, due to the highly political system for choosing which gladiators fight in the most prominent battles. The structure of Roman society is devoted to perpetuating the success of those already in power, and holding back challengers.
In Blood and Sand, Batiatus is a skilled and ruthless manipulator in his own quest for fame and station. As Gods of the Arena opens, he is already hatching plans to raise his fortunes, but in decidedly less ruthless ways. Instead of murder, Batiatus relies on the giving of favor and flattery. By the midway mark of the series, he has turned his ludus into a virtual brothel, selling his gladiators and slave girls to sate the sadistic whims of those in power, in the hope that they will reciprocate with higher profile matches for his gladiators.
The true villain of Blood and Sand is the system which allows those in power to use those beneath them. This concept is carried over to Gods of the Arena, both for the slave class, and with Batiatus, who supplicates himself in the vain attempt to win the respect of the powerful (never realizing that the act of supplication ensures that no respect can ever be earned).
Batiatus’ father returns to the ludus, ashamed of the sycophantic and disgraceful tactics taken by his son. The irony is that the father’s sole tactic is little different, attempting to curry the favor of those above him by giving into their demands, in the hopes of small rewards. As Batiatus’ rival, Tulleus says at one point, the father is a good Roman who ‘knows his place.’
Seeing the established system, and the role he is expected to play in it, Batiatus takes over as the ‘Spartacus’ of the series. He fights against the system that enslaves him in his rank, taking the respect he wants by force, as his once powerful rivals cower before him. He lacks the empathy to see that he treats those bellow him in the same way (which becomes a big deal in Blood and Sand). He is that which he hates.
Gods of the Arena doesn’t have the overarching storyline of Blood and Sand, owing to its lack of a primary protagonist with a singular quest to drive things forward. However, in its smaller scale, the story is just as engaging. Even knowing the inevitable fates of certain characters does not detract from the emotion of their story (and I was constantly surprised by the path that their stories took to get where they needed to be). As complex the plot and as beautiful the visuals, Gods of the Arena remains as character-centric as its predecessor and remains just as wonderful and entertaining.