The gladiatrix (plural gladiatrices) was the female counterpart to the gladiator. There is limited information about their existence, which comes from a few ancient historians (members of the elite class), and a small number of archaeological remains.
Training, fighting and lifestyle
While 'upper class' gladiatrices may have had separate basic conditions, there is little evidence to suggest that the majority of gladiatrices did not follow the same basic lifestyle as their male compatriots. Once the gladiator had entered the familia gladiatoria they spent the majority of their life confined within the ludus (the training ground). The ludus at Carnatum in Austria, the Ludus Magnus in Rome, and the Caserma di Gladiatori in Pompei provide evidence of the living quarters that gladiators lived in. These three are the most well preserved archaeological remains of ludi. The number of cells was dependent upon the size of the school, and it is unclear how many gladiators would live in each cell. However, Garret Fagan notes that Plutarch mentioned the unjust nature of a particular Lanista's close confinement of gladiators, indicative that such treatment may not have been commonplace. The cells at the Ludus Magnus, for example, were 4 by 2 metres, and Meijer notes that this probably would have housed two gladiators.
In order to create the most efficient and effective gladiator or gladiatrix, they would be treated with good food and medical care. Each school appeared to have kitchen and mess-hall, and although diets would differ from place to place they appear to have been fattening diets. Galen, who would become personal physician to emperor Marcus Aurelius, described the diet as one of broad beans and barley gruel. This would create a fatty layer that gave them protection against minor wounds. This diet would be coupled with quality medical care to ensure that gladiators were in top shape and health.
The privileges that each gladiator or gladiatrix had were dependent upon their ranking within their ludus. A fragment from Juvenal indicates that higher ranked gladiators received better food, more freedom, and sexual gratification. These classes of gladiators were separated from each other within living quarters. In addition, within training, the rankings were made explicit. Each gladiator trained with a particular palus (a wooden training stick). These sticks were arranged in the training ground in order of rank. The question at hand is how female gladiators would have ranked within their ludus.
There is contradictory evidence regarding the ranking that female gladiators could achieve. Stephen Brunet notes that a number of inscriptions, which refer to gladiatrices as mullier, which Brunet argues, connotes a lesser status. However, many references in literary works and other sculptures view them as exceptional. Satius and Martial both remark on the excellent fighting of the gladiatrix they witnessed. Martial extols Titus for showing women committing acts similar to Hercules. Perhaps the most famous archaeological evidence regarding the prestige of female gladiators comes from the marble slab, Missio at Halicarnassus. Kathleen Coleman argues that this sculpture indicates a similar level of prestige to male gladiators. The first indication that these combatants were viewed as serious and impressive fighters comes from their names. Achilla, a feminized version of Achilles, and Amazon evokes a reference to the mythological fight between the queen of the Amazons and Achilles. Both of these characters were renowned for their prowess in fighting, suggesting that the fight depicted was of high quality. The second area Coleman uses is the description of the fight itself, described with the phrase missae sunt. This indicates that both combatants were granted reprieve and allowed to return to their barracks. While it is possible both combatants were granted reprieve separately, their stance indicates that they may have been fighting each other. That would signal they might have fought to a draw, and were, as a result, granted reprieve. While some evidence suggests that draws happened often (for instance the resume of Flammas who received missius twenty-five percent of the time), the majority of artistic representations show defeat. In addition writings from Seneca indicate that a draw was undesirable. From this Coleman infers that the event was a spectacle that inspired much respect. The third core area that Coleman analyzes is the presence of the sculpture itself. She argues that it was likely an expensive sculpture to commission based upon the materials used. As a result, the public portrayal indicates that gladiatrices were commemorated and looked upon with respect. This particular sculpture is worth mentioning as Coleman argues that one possible explanation for the purpose of the slab is usage within the ludus in which they trained. This would suggest that both Amazon and Achilla were highly ranked within their ludus, and their lifestyle and freedoms would reflect this higher status. It is of course difficult to know what level of rank they would have in other instances, however this possibility suggests that their ceiling was not low.
Upper-class women were more likely to achieve a higher rank. Gladiators who had full Roman names were freedmen or freeborn. Evidence from Petronius indicates that these fighters were of higher quality. He notes that one particular show was going to be excellent as there were more freedmen than lanista trained. This suggests that the higher ranking, and consequential lifestyle privileges were more likely to be attained by those women of the upper-class. They would likely have special privileges already, given that they had freely entered the ludus rather than being forced into it.
Difference between male and female gladiators
There is some evidence that not all gladiatrices trained in the same ludus as their male compatriots. Mark Vesley examines evidence that some women would have trained in the Collegia Iuvenum. The Collegia Iuvenum were a series of paramilitary associations to train free men, and women, in martial arts. Vesly examines three Latin funerary inscriptions, which indicate female participation within these schools. One inscription found northwest of Rome used specific gender language, suggesting the need to distinguish between male and female genders. This was corroborated more specifically by an inscription for Valeria Lacunda, who died at seventeen years of age. The inscription showed she 'belonged' to the collegium. These references to female participation become important within the context of parallel evidence indicating a connection between these collegia and gladiatorial games. In Ostia, an inscription creates a direct link between the local school and combatants in the Ostian games. The schools would train their members in fighting, as well as animal hunting. However, it is unlikely that all female gladiators would have trained in these special schools. Vesly states these schools were for free people, and that most female participants would have been from the upper class. Stephen Brunet, argues these schools were not the most common type of schooling. He believes that most female gladiators would have followed the same path as their male counterparts. Steven Murray, discusses an alternative theory that some female gladiators would have trained with their fathers, in cases where their fathers were former gladiators. However, it is difficult to know how frequently this type of training would have occurred. Finally, Fik Meijer, notes that females may have had less strenuous training than their male compatriots.
Fighting in the arena
The frequency with which female gladiators appeared in the arena is disputed. The first instance in which they were explicitly reported was during Nero's reign, by Cassius Dio. The next recorded appearances occurred during Domitian's reign, in which there were two reports, from Cassius Dio and Seutonius. Finally, during the inauguration of the Coliseum, Cassius Dio and Martial describe female venatores, or animal hunters. Apart from these references, there are two physical records of gladiatrix participation. An inscription in Ostia in the mid second century records the local magistrate, Hostillianus, boasting that he is the first since the founding of Rome to provide female gladiators. In addition, the previously mentioned Missio at Halicarnassus provides evidence of another fight outside of Rome. These six references are the only certified references we have.
Despite the sparsity of evidence, both Anna McCullough and Kathleen Coleman argue they may have been more prevalent than other historians allow. McCullough argues that many authors may have overlooked instances from the first century. Coleman, in contrast provides two defensive arguments: First, she looks to evidence presented from bans, including one by the Roman Senate in AD 11, and a similar one by Septimius Severus. She argues that these were primarily targeted towards women of the upper class. In addition, Coleman argues inscriptions, such as one in the third century in Ostia, suggest that these bans were not always followed. Coleman then responds to arguments that females were rare because the participants in Missio at Halicarnassus had their helmets removed to indicate their femininity. She argues that instead, the helmets were removed as a result of the draw. The evidence does not allow the rarity of female gladiators to be taken for granted. Stephen Brunet, in contrast, cautions against overestimating the prevalence of female gladiators. He argues that the language of amazement used by authors when describing gladiatrix appearances, coupled with limited confirmed examples, suggests that they may have appeared only rarely. In addition he argues the near absence of female gladiators from artwork also suggests their rarity. Finally, the lack of a standardized terminology to reference gladiatrices suggests their relative infrequency.
When they did fight, they would have fought in two primary capacities. There are a number of sources which indicate that they would have fought as venatores, or hunters of beasts. Martial compares their fights against beasts in Titus's games to Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion. Also, they would have fought against other women. Gladiators were usually pitted against fighters of similar skill and capacity. There is some evidence that they fought against dwarves. However, Brunet, referencing a number of ancient historians, indicates this was unlikely. Gladiatrices were looked upon with more serious admiration, and would not have been pitted against dwarfs for comic relief. At times they would fight in group fights with men, however during these fights they would often be in chariots in order to counteract the physical disparities. For a more complete description of what a gladiatorial game would look like, see the Gladiator page.
Perceptions of gladiatrices
Rome was made up of several different classes: the Patricians (include the Senatorial and Equites class), the Plebeians, freedmen and the slaves. The last two had little or no rights at all and basically had no social status. However, the class system is very complex and for the sake of this section the classes will be divided into two main groups: the upper class, which consists of the Senatorial and the Equestrian class, and lower class, which consist of the rest of the classes.
In essence, elite Romans viewed upper class women who participated in the games with grave disdain. Stephen Brunet and Anna McCullough both come to the conclusion that it was unbefitting their station for elite women to perform in the games if one was part of the upper class. There is very little evidence to suggest that women of the lower class faced such disdain. Juvenal harshly criticizes women of status who participate in the games in which he says "rich women who have lost all sense of the dignities and duties of their sex." This criticism is twofold: first, noblewomen portray their social order, and second, that they betray their gender. The former is more serious because not only do they shame themselves, but also they shame their social class. However, it is equally critical to note that often men of the upper class were also criticized for entering the game. Tiberius Gracchus was harshly criticized for entering the arena by a number of senatorial historians. As a result, it is possible that this criticism stems from a divide within the elite between populares and traditional conservative elites. While the Juvenal fragment, referenced above, specifically highlights a betrayal of gender, the context in which that comment is made belies its importance. The satire in which it is situated is rife with blatant sexisms, and some scholars believe that the bombastic language indicates that the satire is intended to critique those who hold the view it expresses.
The use of female gladiators became associated with opulence. In Roman society female gladiators became closely associated with decadence and luxury. From written records such as Juvenal, Cassius Dio, and Petronius, it is possible to establish that these games were extremely luxurious because of the infrequency of female gladiators. Furthermore, it is possible to draw two very important conclusions: One, to acknowledge the brilliance and rarity of such a game, and two, to establish that female gladiators were representative of indulgence on the part of wealthy elites. The latter can be broken down into two parts. It is either representative of inappropriate self- indulgent noblewomen, or the indulgence of sponsors procuring novelty fighters for their games. Thus, we can conclude that in the hands of a private party, female gladiators were explicitly associated with elites, whose status and wealth allowed them to become gladiators themselves, or allowed them to purchase women for the arena.
The act of purchasing women for the sake of the games could indicate that women were used as nothing more than sexual objects for the Roman elite. The slab of marble from Halicarnassus can give some insight if female gladiators were viewed as sexual objects. Louis Roberts supports this argument when he suggest the removal of helmets and bare breasts indicate that the male audience found an erotic appeal to watching females fight in the arena. However, Coleman counters this by saying that the two rounded objects to the side of the women are helmets, indicating that they took off their helmets in order to be granted the reprieve. In addition McCullough argues that any nudity would have been a symbol of their lower class, rather than their femininity, "In the Roman mind, there would have [been] certain associations with the sexual availability of slaves... Slaves were sort of expected to be sexually available to anyone at anytime, especially their masters." As was previously indicated, it is then possible view gladiatrices as emblematic of the ideals of the gladiatorial games showcased.
The purpose of the gladiatorial games was to show Roman men what the ideal man was in the face of battle. The Roman man was expected to fight in battle with honor and courage no matter what the circumstances were. This is why the games also became a political tool in mobilizing Romans to fight in the military with these characteristics. That was why during the Augustan reforms women were given poor seats in the arena because the games were aimed at men providing fortitude and endurance on the battlefield. If gladiatrices were looked at with similar levels of prestige as their male counterparts then they would have held similar status with the Roman Elite. This would mean that they were functionally a part of the lower class, but held a place within popular esteem that elevated them into a unique platform of popularity during certain moments. Evidence from previous sections highlighting their prowess during their fights seems to indicate this is a reasonable lens with which Romans would have viewed them.
Policies towards gladiatrices
There are a number of specific, and codified, policies during both the Republic and Empire that affected gladiatrices. In 22 BC, all men of senatorial class (not including equites) down to their grandsons were prohibited from participating in the games. It is easy to assume that since men of the senatorial class could not participate then the more scandalous senatorial women competing must have been banned as well. But this senatus consultum, a senatorial decree expressing the opinions of the senate, seems to have been ineffectual. Aristocratic women continued to appear on stage and the ban was lifted until reiterated in 19 AD.
In 19 AD, during the reign of Tiberius, The senatus sonsultum included a bronze tablet called the Tabula Larinus, which emphasized the opposition of the senate towards women participating as gladiators. Specifically, the edict prohibited the gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or of knight, under the age of twenty. The edict placed penalties besides just criticism of infamia, loss of reputation, on any man or woman of the equestrian or senatorial class who fought in the arena. Although this did limit the participation of high-status women from participating in games, women who were slaves or of low-status could still take part in the games. This ban was held to an extent until the time of Caligula. Once again, the specificity of upper class women within this edict indicates a class based discrimination rather than a gendered discrimination.
If we assume female gladiators fought in same way that the males did, then we can assume that female gladiators followed the same or similar rules in the arena as their male counterparts. If women followed the same rules in the arena that men did, it is likely that they tried to live similar lives outside the arena, which would have challenged accepted societal norms of the time.
In the middle of the Roman Empire, we see the first instance of a full-fledged ban of gladiatrices. In 200 AD, Septimius Severus banned any female participation in spectacles. The motivations for this are unclear, but according to Cassius Dio, during a gymnastic contest, "women took part, vying with one another most fiercely, with the result that jokes were made about other very distinguished women as well. Therefore it was henceforth forbidden for any woman, no matter what her origin, to fight in single combat" (Dio, LXXVI.16).
Despite Septimius Severus' banning the participation of females in 200 AD, it was recorded that women participated in the gladiatorial games Ostia, a port 20 miles from Rome, after 200 AD. In the third century AD, a local magistrate named Hostilianus held games that included women according to an inscription. This shows that female gladiatorial fights did not end with Septimius Severus' ban of 200 CE.
Archaeological evidence is critical to corroborating the sources we have from elite Roman authors. These remains provide an alternative narrative. While some of this evidence came from wealthy classes (i.e. the commissioning of Missio at Halicarnassus), the remains provide useful insights not wholly slanted by the lens of the author.
There are two depictions in artwork that are believed to be of female gladiators. The first is widely recognized as depicting two female gladiators in combat; the stone relief depicts two women in combat. The evidence lies mainly in the names that are carved under the figures, Amazon and Achillia, are believed to be the names of the two female gladiators. The relief of Amazon and Achillia depicts both women wearing the same kind of armour, which is unusual unless the relief depicts some kind of reenactment. Both carry an ocrea (greave) on the left tibia, they wear subligaculum (loin cloths), balteus (belt), carry a mid-sized rectangular scutum (shield) and carry a pugio (dagger) in their right hand. The arm that grasps the dagger is protected by the manica (arm protection), and the galege (armets) of both women are at their backs on the floor. Above the gladiators there is an inscription implying the outcome of the match was a tie. Some scholars do however question whether this relief actually depicts two women; the names could potentially be male and what was thought to be a female breast on the naked torso could be a male pectoral muscle.
The second is a statue possibly depicting a gladiatrix in a victorious position. The statue was once thought to be an athlete, but recent evidence suggests it is in fact a female gladiator. The evidence suggesting this woman was a gladiator can be seen through the body position and clothing. Since she is raising an object in the air, this can be seen as a victory gesture of a gladiator. This makes sense if the object she is holding is a sica, but not if she was holding a strigil as originally suggested. The clothing suggests her gladiatorial status in two ways. Firstly, she is clad in only a loincloth; female gladiators would fight with a naked torso and athletes would wear a tunic that left one breast exposed. Secondly, she wears a strip of leather or fabric around her legs. Gladiators would often wear this type of bandage called a fasciae to protect arms and legs and reduce the pain of injuries. There is no evidence through writings or depictions of athletes wearing these bands.
In addition to these two finds there are two excavated sites that have provided similar information through the unearthing of remains of possible gladiatrices. These sites, both in the United Kingdom, are not verified sites of gladiatrices but offer valuable insights if they are.
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, she was buried with several items related to the world of gladiatura. This 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 placed in the grave. The only Stone Pines in Britain at the time were those planted around the London amphitheater 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. Some scholars believe the skeleton to be that of a ludia, the wife or lover of a gladiator. This explanation explains why she was buried with items associated with gladiators.
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 female gladiator. His doubts were reported on the website by Bija Knowles, a freelance journalist based outside Rome.
- Female gladiators feature in two modern films.
- In Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 The Sign of the Cross, women are shown in the Roman gladiatorial arena in several ways. In one scene, girls wearing very little clothing attempt to escape ferocious animals; in another women are pitted against dwarfs costumed as African pygmies.
- Female gladiators are also depicted in the film Gladiator. In a scene depicting The Battle of Zama. In this scene, a woman is depicted riding on a chariot wielding a bow.
- Female gladiators appear in two novels of Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco series:
- In Two for the Lions, a Roman lady of the equestrian class fights in the arena in Lepcis Magna; Falco reflects to himself that female gladiators are not unknown, but they are almost universally ostracized, and that the lady is committing social suicide by fighting;
- In The Jupiter Myth, Falco encounters an ex-girlfriend in Britannia, a former circus acrobat who has reinvented herself, and a troupe of like-minded females, as gladiatrices.
- In Russell Whitfield's novel Gladiatrix, a Spartan priestess is captured as a slave and made to fight in a Roman arena.
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