A gladiatrix was the female counterpart to the male gladiator, an armed fighter who engaged in violent combat with humans or animals for the entertainment of audiences in the arenas of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. Though unusual, gladiatrices are attested in archaeology and literature.
Larinum decree as evidence
The Larinum decree under Tiberius banned senators' daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters, and "any female whose husband or father or grandfather, whether paternal or maternal or brother had ever possessed the right of sitting in the seats reserved for the equites" from training or making paid appearances as gladiators, implying though not confirming that some females did already appear as gladiators. Their first attested appearance is under Nero, at the games organised by Patrobius for Tiridates I of Armenia. There is also a reference in Petronius's Satyricon - possibly based on a factual show - to a female essedarius, or one who fought from a Celtic-style chariot.
The Emperor Domitian liked to stage torch-lit fights between dwarves and women, according to Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars. From depictions it appears they fought bare-chested and rarely wore helmets, no matter what type of gladiator they fought as. Women apparently fought at night, and the fact that this coincided with the main events of a Games indicates the possible importance or rarity of female gladiators. Most modern scholars consider female gladiators a novelty act due to the sparse writings about them, but writer Amy Zoll notes that the fact that those ancient historians that do mention them do so casually may suggest that they were "more widespread than direct evidence might otherwise indicate." The author of an inscription found in Pompeii boasts of being the first editor (promoter or sponsor) to bring female gladiators to the town.
Dio Cassius (62.3.1) mentions that not only women but children fought in a gladiatorial event that Nero sponsored in 66 AD. It is known the emperor Nero also forced the wives of some Roman senators into amphitheaters, though it is not known if they were forced to fight. A 1st or 2nd century marble relief from Halicarnassus suggests that some women fought in heavy armour. Both women are depicted as provocatrices in combat. The inscription names them as “Amazon” and “Achillia” and mentions that both received a missio (honourable discharge) from the arena despite fighting each other (both were deemed to have won). Mark Vesley, a Roman social historian speculates that as gladiatorial schools were not fit places for women, they may have studied under private tutors in the collegia iuvenum. These schools were for training high ranking males over the age of 14 in martial arts, but Vesley found three references to women training there, including one who died... An inscription read: "To the divine shades of Valeria Iucunda, who belonged to the body of the iuvenes. She lived 17 years, 9 months."
A strong condemnation against female gladiators of the Flavian and Trajanic eras can be found in the Satire VI of Juvenal, decrying the fact female gladiators were typically from upper-class families and seeking thrill and attention.
- Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter
- Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres?
- These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora.
- Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing
- For the arena itself. How can a woman be decent
- Sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?
- Manly feats they adore, but they wouldn’t want to be men,
- Poor weak things (they think), how little they really enjoy it!
- What a great honour it is for a husband to see, at an auction
- Where his wife’s effects are up for sale, belts, shin-guards,
- Arm-protectors and plumes!
- Hear her grunt and groan as she works at it, parrying, thrusting;
- See her neck bent down under the weight of her helmet.
- Look at the rolls of bandage and tape, so her legs look like tree-trunks,
- Then have a laugh for yourself, after the practice is over,
- Armour and weapons put down, and she squats as she used the vessel.
- Ah, degenerate girls from the line of our praetors and consuls,
- Tell us, whom have you seen got up in any such fashion,
- Panting and sweating like this? No gladiator’s wench,
- No tough strip-tease broad would ever so much as attempt it.
The most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of female gladiators is a marble relief found in Halicarnassus and currently on display at the British Museum. The relief depicts two female gladiators. With an adopted nom de guerre appearing beneath each of them (Amazon and Achillia), they are depicted in loincloths and wearing traditional gladiator equipment such as greaves and a manica. Each is armed with a sword and shield; neither is wearing a helmet nor a shirt (they are bare-breasted, as in contemporary sculptural depictions of amazonomachy, but perhaps also implying a degree of sexual titillation in the use of female gladiators).
A female Roman skeleton unearthed in Southwark, London in 2001 was identified as a female gladiator, but this was on the basis that although wealthy she was buried as an outcast outside the main cemetery, had pottery lamps of Anubis, a lamp with a depiction of a fallen gladiator engraved on it and bowls containing burnt pine cones from a Stone Pine placed in the grave. The only Stone Pines in Britain at the time were those planted around the London amphitheatre as the pine cones of this particular species were traditionally burnt during games. Most experts believe the identification to be erroneous but the Museum of London states it is "70 percent probable" that the Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Hedley Swain, head of early history at the Museum, stated: "No single piece of evidence says that she is a gladiator. Instead, there’s simply a group of circumstantial evidence that makes it an intriguing idea." She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London. This gladiator was the subject of a program on the UK's Channel 4.
On July 2, 2010, the BBC reported that archaeologists engaged in a rescue dig at Credenhill in Herefordshire had uncovered the remains of what might be a female gladiator. The burial, which was in a wooden chest secured with three iron bands and a number of iron nails, was in a crouched position. Such a coffin indicated the dead person's status. When removed, the leg and arm bones were found to be unusually heavy with large attachment points for what were clearly strong muscles. The pelvis and head, however, were clearly that of a woman.
The area where the burial was found appears to be part of a suburb of the Roman town of Kenchester, which makes the find even more unusual as burials were forbidden by Roman law within city limits. A team of archaeologists from Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, working in close co-operation with Amey Consulting and Herefordshire Council's archaeology team, were excavating a 10-metre wide corridor, to allow a flood culvert to be built when they made their discovery.
However, there is insufficient proof to say categorically that the corpse was or wasn't a gladiatrix. The established 'Heritage Key' website claims that the project leader of the excavation himself doubts that the dead woman was a gladiatrix. His doubts were reported on the website by Bija Knowles, a freelance journalist based outside Rome.
In Renaissance art
Among the pictures commissioned in Italy by king Philip IV of Spain for his Palacio del Buen Retiro in Madrid, there is a series on Roman circuses including a picture of female gladiators.
Sites and Monuments Record
- Full text of the decree
- Annals, 15.32.3, which mentions that "women of distinction" appeared, which implies the failure of the Larinum decree.
- Satyricon, XLV
- This may be a reference to Boudica fighting from a chariot, which occurred at the time the piece was written.
- Amy Zoll, Gladiatrix: The True Story of History’s Unknown Woman Warrior(New York: Berkley, 2002), 27.
- "He gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well.", Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 4.1
- He mentions Hercules's fight with the Nemean Lion being re-enacted by a "feminine Mars" (ie a woman). This fight may reference Hercules' submission to Omphale, during which she wore his lion skin and club. She was queen of Lydia, a region close to the home of the Amazons. Martial, de spectaculis 6.
- He mentions as a 'new luxury' the "female sex, untrained and unpractised in using swords, fighting neutered men. You would think these cavalry-troops were sweating to ride to savage Tanais or Thermodonian Phasis.", in Statius, Silvae, 1.6.51-56. As in the Halicarnassus relief and in Martial, female gladiators are here referenced to the Amazons.
- Julián Elliot. Gladiadores: La muerte como espectáculo. Historia y Vida, Nº452, pag. 68
- British Museum catalogue
- Yet again referencing the Amazons.
- A feminised form of Achilles. Roman gladiatorial games often referenced classical mythology and this seems to reference Achilles' fight with Penthesilea, but give it an extra twist of Achilles being 'played' by a woman.
- Professor Kathleen Coleman  of Harvard University details the relief extensively in her academic manuscript "Missio at Halicarnassus" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 2000; 100: 487-500 .
- BBC (2010-07-01). "Female 'gladiator' remains found in Herefordshire". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/herefordandworcester/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8780000/8780862.stm. Retrieved 2 July 2010.
- 'Heritage Key'. "Roman Mystery Woman Discovered Near Hereford: Not a Female Gladiator". http://heritage-key.com/blogs/bija/roman-mystery-woman-discovered-near-hereford-not-female-gladiator. Retrieved 3 July 2010.
- Female Gladiators - (Amazones & Gladiatrices)
- Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World
- Portal on Female Gladiators
- Historical sources for female gladiators
- Professor Steven Murray, "Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World" Journal of Combative Sport 2003
- The Light Bearer, Woman Gladiator Historical Fiction
- Women Warriors Fine Art, Stories, Links
- Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service
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