If you want to try to genuinely put yourself in the heart of a novice gladiator of 63AD, stepping into the arena for your first fight, facing a real, but far from certain, prospect of death, then reading Sand of the Arena won’t do the job. If however you want a cheerful adventure tale, leavened with solid research that will leave you able to distinguish between a retiarius and a murmillo*, then James Duffy’s novel will do the job.
It begins, with creative echoes from Gladiator backwards, with a boy, Quintus, on the cusp of manhood. He is robbed of parents by a shipwreck on the coast of Britannia, and of his birthright by a rebellious slave, Lucius, who poses as the young aristocrat to relatives who, it seems, have no cause to doubt his position.
Luckily, however, Quintus had a former gladiator as a bodyguard, who had trained him in the basics of self-defence, and an enthusiasm for the arena that gives him a natural destination when he flees the prospect of a life of slavery. We follow his progress from the ludus to the arena, his distinctly modern concern for physical development, and an encounter with a supposed eastern martial arts expert (one of the least convincing aspects of the book).
Meanwhile, Lucius has used his scheming ways and his uncle’s money to rise to political power in Britain, with the help of his decadent “aunt”, who becomes his lover. It is unfortunate that the dastardly female aristocrat of the Nero-Claudian era, such an old, oft-repeated story, should come out again, and the novel could really do without her Playboy-style sex-by-numbers scenes.
Without these, the book could easily be marketed as a classy adolescent read; it has that Boys’ Own quality that should really appeal to male teens – the next step in sophistication after Harry Potter. And its messages about male friendship and honour – played out in the relationship between Quintus and the Sudanese hunter venator (hunter) Lindani, who forms astonishing feats with bow, arrow and spear against a variety of beasts in the arena – are self-consciously decent.
Its apparent misogyny is also leavened by the appearance in the later stages of a book of a German slave turned female gladiator who predictably adopts the arena name of Amazonia. Her existence is supported by archaeological evidence, although I’m less sure about her bouts against male opponents.
Any teacher of ancient history would approve of the obviously solid research behind Sand of the Arena. If it touches all of the usual cliches – the dormice appear on page 27 (as they did in the recent TV series Rome) – it also shows considerable signs of deeper, wider research, from the details of clothing, weapons, gladiatorial tactics and more.
So it is a bit more than your usual exploitation of an ancient setting for an adventure tale, a good job really, for while this book is complete in itself, with a satisfying if predictable ending, I can already feel the sequel coming on.
* A retarius fought with a trident, net and small dagger, but no helmet, while a murmillo had a large rectangular shield, a short straight sword and a helmet with a high crest. The ludus was where the gladiators lived and trained.