It's certainly clear that the writers of "Gods of the Arena" are quite focused on the intention of delivering a prequel worthy of the name. Not only does this mini-series match the intensity of the flagship "Blood and Sand" series, but it has been exploring the existing backstory with more than a few additional surprises.
While there's certainly more than a fair share of sex and violence, it's not simply a matter of appealing to the base desires of a cable audience. The vast majority of it is in service to the character exploration (though perhaps more enthusiastically than truly necessary). Call it taking the principle of "show, don't tell" to its most basic level.
But as always, it comes down to the characters. Batiatus is human in his constant stream of successes and failures, and his scheming never comes to an end. All overtly political societies are rife with such activity, and this definitely has that classic Roman flavor. I've always been a huge fan of all things Roman, going back to my earliest days, so this is easily one of my favorite aspects of the series.
That said, this is also the backstory for the gladiators, so it was interesting to see the details of how Ashur become one of the Brotherhood (more or less) and how Oenumaus became the doctore. The slow but steady rise of Crixus is fun to see, given how his character arc in "Blood and Sand" progressed, and Gaia's influence on later events is shaping up nicely.
The true emotional hook for the episode, however, was the tension between Gannicus, Oenumaus, and Melitta. The writers set up the situation perfectly, with both Oenumaus and Melitta questioning Gannicus on his arrogance in all situations. The circumstances of Batiatus' plot to gain position served to deliver a karmic hammer that will undoubtedly lead to serious pain and suffering in the episodes to come.