Opening a number of years before the arrival of Spartacus, Batiatus finds himself administering his father's ludus, while his father is in Sicilia living in semi-retirement. Seeking fame, he (with the support of his old friend Solonius) tries to win favor with a local nobleman, Tullius, by paying 50 denarii for a Gallic slave worth only 10 named Crixus- by noting his potential to be a great fighter. Arriving at the ludus, Crixus soon meets veteran gladiator Oenomaus (who has a slave wife named Melitta), as well as Syrian slave recruits Ashur and Dagan. Meanwhile, Lucretia welcomes the sudden return to Capua of Gaia, a young but recently widowed friend, and "party girl" from Rome who is attracted to both the delights of the ludus and of opium. In an attempt to participate in the opening games of the soon to be completed arena, Batiatus selects his most skilled gladiator, Gannicus the Celt, the original champion of the House of Batiatus, for a duel in the marketplace. Unknown to Batiatus, however, is that young Vettius, the owner of a rival ludus, is merely an agent of Tullius -- leading to deadly consequences as he is soon outmaneuvered in his own game.