Gladiatrix: Female Fighters Offered Lewd Entertainment in Ancient Rome
Female gladiators (gladiatrix) were just a thing of legend for many years. However, decades of research have made it possible to finally confirm their existence and importance in the Ancient Roman culture of gladiator fights.
Female gladiators were often called ‘The Amazons’. In Rome, people liked to see their fights in arenas like the Colosseum, and believed them to be examples of the legendary Amazons from the east. Ancient reliefs depict the female gladiators as clothed and equipped similarly to the male gladiators, yet there were some significant differences.
First of all, they did not wear helmets or tunics. In place of tunics they wore only a loincloth. They also used a sword called the gladius, wore arm and lower leg protectors, and a body shield. The lack of helmets for most female gladiators also may be of interest. There are few male gladiators who didn't use the helmet, but it seems that in case of women, there was a different reason for not using it. Women didn't use helmets usually to show their feminine hairstyles and as an obvious demonstration of the sex of the fighters.
The Ludus magnus in Rome: barracks for gladiators built by Emperor Domitian (81–96 CE), view from Via Labicana. In the background, the Colosseum. (Public Domain)
A Symbol of Roman Vanity
The use of female gladiators was closely associated with decadence and luxury. Written records, such as those of Cassius Dio, Petronius, and Juvenal, show that it's very likely that female fights were very lavish because of the infrequency of female gladiators. Gladiator women were also used as sexual objects for the Roman elite. Gladatrix were thus representative of indulgence on the part of the wealthy elite. Fighting women were an important part of noble private parties and they were sometimes invited into private homes to entertain the guests.
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The main difference between male and female gladiators is that the women weren't slaves in the beginning. It's quite possible that in later periods, women who were slaves fought in arenas, but the first Gladiatrix were free women who were looking for adventure.
They were usually wealthy Roman women who liked to fight and treated it as a form of entertainment, a sport, or believed it a way to find a special role in society. According to Tacitus (56-117AD), they were hardly ever viewed by noble men, but at the same time, their fights were extremely popular. However, it was also said that the senators disgraced themselves for watching the gladiatrix in the amphitheater.
The women also didn't fight to earn money, as they were already very rich. Thus, it has been argued that they were looking for attention, excitement, and notoriety. All they needed to achieve these goals was to receive special permission from a person who arranged the fights.
Accounts of Gladiatrix in Historical Resources
Female gladiators probably appeared for the first time during the reign of Emperor Nero. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, described the festival of gladiator fights, which was held as a tribute to Nero's mother:
“In honor of his mother he [Nero] celebrated a most magnificent and costly festival, the events taking place for several days in five or six theatres at once…There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem…; they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will.”
Apart from Nero (ruled 54-68 AD), other emperors of Rome also liked to invite Gladiatrix to their houses, parties, and other celebrations in big arenas. There are also accounts of them which come from the period of the Emperor Domitian’s reign from 81-96 AD. As Cassius Dio wrote about Domitian: "Often he would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other."
Dwarfs in the Roman Arena. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Septimius Severus also accepted female gladiators until around 200 AD, when he banned the female fights to reduce arguments in the arenas. The main goal was to stop making the gladiator fights into shows which, according to the emperor, promoted lower class behavior amongst noble women. This point of view was also present in the Emperor Honorius, who finally decreed the end of gladiators altogether in 399 AD. The last known competition between gladiators took place in Rome on January 1, 202 AD.
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Archeology Solves the Mystery
Archeological evidence has confirmed the existence of the women fighters that were described in ancient roman texts. One of the most important pieces of archeological evidence on the topic is a slab of marble from Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey). It proves that female gladiators were viewed as sexual objects. Currently located at the British Museum. It depicts two female warriors nicknamed ''Achillia''and ''Amazon''. The relief is dating from the period of the 1st or 2nd century AD. The women are presented in a way that was characteristic of the descriptions of female gladiators known from ancient writers.
In 2001, in Southwark, London, a female Roman skeleton was unearthed and identified as a female gladiator. She was buried as an outcast outside the main cemetery with several items related to the world of gladiators. The tomb included such things as 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 which were planted around the London amphitheater. Some researchers still are uncertain if this woman was a Gladiatrix or the wife of gladiator.
Relief of two gladiatrices found at Halicarnassus (Public Domain)
On July 2, 2010, in Credenhill, Herefordshire, England, archeologists uncovered other remains which might be from a female gladiator. The burial contained the wooden chest secured with three iron bands and many iron nails. The pelvis and the head, belonged to a very common woman. However, the leg and arm bones were found to be unusually heavy and suggested that she had strong muscles.
With time, archeologists may discover more proof for the existence of female gladiators. Their picture already has begun to leave the realm of the legendary and is becoming a real part of Roman history.
Top image: Arde Lucus Gladiatrix (Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
F. Meijer, The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport.2005
Dio Cassius, Roman history (translated by E. Cary), 2000
M. Grant, Gladiators, 1967
J. K. Evans, War, women and children in ancient Rome, 1991