John Hannah and Dustin Clare

Rome wasn't built in a day, but Spartacus: Gods of the Arena came damn close.

This is the program Starz quickly green-lit last year when Season 2 of Spartacus: Blood and Sand had to be put on hold due to leading man Andy Whitfield's cancer diagnosis. The powers behind the hit series needed a way to maintain creative momentum and keep their cast and staff together until Blood could resume, with Whitfield's replacement, Liam McIntyre. (Production begins this spring.)

But Gods, a six-episode prequel revealing how the House of Batiatus rose to prominence in the gladiator business, is no mere time-filler. It's just as epic and freakishly compelling as the original series and — if possible — even more gruesome, decadent and scatological. In other words, just what we pagan fans demand! And there's not a hint that the project was born of adversity.

"We have tried to make the best of an awful, awful situation and do Andy proud," says creator and exec producer Steven S. DeKnight. "From the beginning, Spartacus has been one big risk, and it continues that way. But even when things get tough, we never bunt. This show always swings for the fences."

And how. DeKnight had the audacity to kill off most of his top characters in Blood's Season 1 finale, which saw Spartacus slaying his master Batiatus (John Hannah) and launching the slave revolt that will one day make him legend. Gods will flash back to earlier times when social climbers Batiatus and wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) get their first taste of fame by acquiring a superstar gladiator called Gannicus (Dustin Clare). He intends to become Champion of Capua, a title later taken by Spartacus.

But this new dude is no carbon copy. Spartacus was stoic, morally incorruptible and immensely likable, but Gannicus, despite his killer smile, is at first a turnoff — a boozy, reckless egotist who'd be right at home on WWE Monday Night Raw. The Australia-born Clare modeled his character after the controversial Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine.

"Unlike Spartacus, Gannicus is very self-destructive," notes Clare. "He uses alcohol and women to escape from his dire reality in the arena. I'd go so far as to say he has suicidal tendencies." And lots of nude scenes. Soon after we meet him, Gannicus is having himself a three-way slave orgy. By Episode 2, he's performing a sex act for the merriment of rich folk.

"Dustin had very little time to buff up before we started shooting, and I've never seen anybody get in such amazing shape so fast," DeKnight says. "He was in decent condition when we cast him, but two weeks later we had him do a costume test and I was like, 'How the hell did this happen? It's genetically impossible!'"

But will it keep his character alive in the ring? Since we don't see Gannicus in the original series, should we assume he doesn't survive the prequel? "Not necessarily," teases Clare. "He's based on an actual historic figure who became one of Spartacus' most trusted generals — so read into that what you will."

Lawless is most certainly a survivor, even though Lucretia seemingly died in the Blood finale with a sword to her pregnant abdomen. "This role is the greatest challenge and pleasure of my career, so I'm grateful I escaped my fate," says Lawless, who shot Lucretia's demise two ways — one where she's clearly dead, one where she's still twitching. Execs chose the latter, assuring she'll be back for Season 2.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. In Gods, the popular actress engages in some sizzling Sapphic sex with costar Jaime Murray (Dexter), who plays Lucretia's girlhood pal Gaia — and that's something Lawless' fans have been dying to see since the star's days as Xena: Warrior Princess. "The lesbian stuff made me nervous as hell, and I don't think I could have done it without Jaime," Lawless admits. "She's really funny and 200-percent professional. She's my kind of woman!"

And Whitfield, who is currently undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, remains her kind of man. "Andy didn't curl up in a ball and think of himself — he's concerned about all the people making their livelihood with this show," says Lawless. "He wants us to continue and we love him for that. It's no wonder he played Spartacus so well. The guy is a true hero."

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena premieres Friday at 10/9c, on Starz.

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