The second episode of Plebs stays true to the first in dealing with one of popular culture's favourite things about ancient Rome, but it also demonstrates the unique opportunities offered by Rome as a setting for a broad comedy.
Unlike orgies, gladiatorial combat is a real Roman thing, though popular culture prefers to conveniently ignore the fact that not all fights were to the death (not even potentially to the death) because gladiators are expensive. A popular culture gladiatorial combat will only rarely be an execution of a criminal, but will always be to the death, at least in potential, with the audience asked to indicate by doing something with their thumbs whether the loser should live or die. This episode represents gladiatorial combat as a popular sport complete with chants and flags and things - probably not a million miles off, though if you want team colours and that football-match sense of rivals up against each other in a Roman context, you really want to go for chariot racing (which was almost as dangerous).
The great advantage to using gladiators in a comedy is that the Roman context here allows the writers to indulge in the blackest of black comedy without actually making our heroes murderers (though Marcus comes pretty close). Black comedy can be great fun but it usually requires a really dark tone that a standard, light-hearted sitcom might struggle with (see for example some of the reservations expressed over at TV Tropes concerning How I Met Your Mother's 'murder room'; Community's depiction of Jeff's encounter with Pierce's father is slightly less dark but still not overly comfortable).
In ancient Rome, however, gladiatorial combat is simply a fact of life (though Cynthia's conviction that it's all a show was very funny). Marcus' attempt to nobble Cassius the gladiator is a bit close to the line, but here all our heroes can agree at the end that they all killed him and move on with their lives, because they live in a society where they're surrounded by abandoned babies, gladiators, chariot-racing accidents and wars, not to mention the lives some slaves led, and so their accidental complicity in poor Cassius' death doesn't actually mark them out as psychopaths. It's a neat use of the setting to do the sort of comedy that just wouldn't work as well in another context.
Cassius is a 'net-man,' a retarius, which is one of popular culture's favourite types of gladiator, probably because it looks distinctive and very Roman, and sets gladiatorial combat apart from fencing or other forms of sword-fighting. Pop culture will generally go for a retiarius whenever they need a fighter to look nimble and clever (as opposed to occasions that call for brute force, which tend to produce the short sword, generally without a helmet because we need to see our manly actor's face). Of course, this comes in especially handy here when poor Cassius, heart-broken, forgets his net...
Cassius is played by Danny Dyer, an actor I only know from Mark Kermode's impressions of him, which did add an extra level of amusement to Marcus' attempts to nobble him. Dyer projects the perfect combination of charm and vulnerability mixed with taking pleasure in killing 'people from France' for the part - we share the characters' regret when he dies, reduced to an emotional wreck by Cynthia's rejection (Propertius would sympathise) but we'll get over it.
I'm not generally bothered by historical inaccuracies in a show like Plebs, though I confess I was slightly distracted by Grumio specifically identifying Cassius' tattoo as the mark of a gladiator despite the fact it was of an eagle and clearly said SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, 'for the Senate and the People of Rome') which would suggest he was more likely a legionary, rather than a gladiator. It's not really a big deal, but it is a bit distracting when the plot draws attention to it.
Once again, this was daft but made me laugh, and Grumio's epic battle netting chickens at the end was very funny, though the less said about Stylax's fondness for a rotting, bloated severed hand the better...
All Plebs reviews