The first season - "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" - starred Australian actor Andy Whitfield as the leader of the slave revolt in ancient Rome. But Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma last March, and the role has since been recast.

So "Gods of the Arena" is not, technically, the second season but a prequel to the first; Spartacus doesn't even appear, although Whitfield does a brief cameo later. Batiatus (John Hannah) - the slaveholding noble - and his better half, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) - have a particularly brutal and effective warrior named Gannicus (Dustin Clare) in servitude. He is so good, in fact, that others want to buy him. Batiatus gets an offer he may not be able to refuse.

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MY SAY Let's get down to what fans of this sword-and-sandal blood porn nonsense really want to know: How many naked women? I counted about 25, but may have missed one or two (wasn't looking that closely. Really, I wasn't.) There is one lesbian love scene, but you'll have to wait to just before the closing credits for that. Meanwhile, the body count: Still high but not obscenely high. Can't kill off too many extras just yet.

What "Sparty" seems to have done a bit more effectively in the prequel is offer variations on the carnage; true fans will especially appreciate the opening gladiator scene; everyone else will lose their dinner.

BOTTOM LINE Unadulterated rubbish, and exactly what fans expect. Bravo, Starz.

GRADE D