Romans who loved brutal spectacles, first realized that the female gender had a great competitive spirit and fury which could make a base for magnificent shows (on their concept). Ancient Romans worshiped gladiator games and considered female gladiators as especially attractive for spectators – women battled even more fiercely than men and died not less courageously than men. They were sufficiently rare that would be advertised up front as something spectacular that you were going to have in the show. Gladiatrices were regarded as absolutely a special treat.
There were female gladiators (gladiatrix or gladiatrices) in Ancient Rome – this is a fact confirmed by written records and archaeological evidence.
The historical evidence for the existence of female gladiators appears in government edicts and in the writings of contemporary Roman authors. For instance, several governmental edicts limited and even barred the participation of women in the arena:
- In 11 CE, a "senatus consultum" (senate decree) forbade freeborn females under the age of twenty from appearing on the stage or in the arena (as well as freeborn males under the age of twenty-five).
- In 19 CE, this edict was replaced by the senatus consultum of Larinus, which placed additional penalties to any man or woman of equestrian or senatorial rank who participated on the stage or who fought in the arena. Specifically, this edict was inscribed on a bronze tablet, now called the Tabula Larinas, and "prohibited the gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or of equestrians under the age of twenty.
- Ultimately, in 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus outlawed such female violent activities when he issued a decree banning single combat by women in the arena, for a "recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience."
Legal proclamations proscribing activities are rarely preemptive or prescient. Instead, they usually represent a desire to curb socially unacceptable behavior that has actually occurred or is currently being practiced. Thus, these edicts against female gladiatorial exhibition strongly suggest women actually participated in the Roman gladiatorial games, up to the time when lawmakers’ sensibilities came down against the practice.
In addition, many ancient writers provide numerous passages attesting to female athletes and gladiators. Indeed, they often give specific instances and detailed accounts of the actual combats.
The Roman historian, Cassius Dio (ca. 150-235 CE), writes of a festival that Emperor Nero (reigned 54-68 CE) held in honor of his mother (killed by him). Such festivals usually lasted several days in five or six theatres at once, and featured female entertainers, including gladiators. "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 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." Dio Cassius later describes a gladiatorial event that Nero sponsored in 66 CE that included Ethiopian women. According to Martial also wrote about female venators (gladiators who fought wild animals).
Suetonius, a Roman biographer and historian (ca. 69 CE - 122 CE), tells of games given by the Emperor Domitian in 88 CE, in which women actively participated. Domitian presented many extravagant entertainments in the Colosseum and the Circus. Besides the usual games, there were gladiatorial shows by torchlight in which women as well as men took part. As noted in the writings of Dio Cassius, "Often he would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other".
Pitting dwarfs against women can be viewed as the ultimate in martial sensationalism, a shocking juxtaposition of the maternal expectations of women in Roman society with the adulation of warriors and the death that accompanies them. Such displays also demonstrate Domitian’s extremes - a "lethal sense of humor" accompanying a ravenous hunger for novelty. Such extremes were mirrored somewhat in the Roman masses. Therefore, Domitian, knowing that these atypical events would titillate the populace of Rome, probably hoped to barter spectacle for the fulfillment of his own political ambitions.
Petronius in 'Satyricon' mentions a female essedarius (chariot fighter) getting ready to fight against dwarfs: "…he has some dwarfs already, and a woman to fight from a chariot."
The Roman poet Statius wrote a poem about a gladiatorial contest staged by the Emperor Domitian which included, "Moors, women and pygmies", "…the sex untrained in weapons recklessly dares men's fights! You would think a band of Amazons was battling."
As is the case with sporting events today, Romans usually conducted the more popular attractions later in the day, thus saving important events as a capstone for the day’s festivities. Accordingly, holding the female events at night indicates that these contests were probably not just a mere sexual sideshow, but among the day’s main attractions.
Tacitus (ca. 56 CE - 117 CE), Roman senator and historian, wrote about noble and wealthy class ladies participated in gladiatorial events for any reason but money,
Perhaps, the wordiest and the most condemning statement of female gladiators in the writings from ancient Roman world are found in "Satires" of Juvenal (55 CE-127 CE), in which he mocked gladiatrices from the highest classes. But even this mockery is the evidence that noble women performed on the arena:
Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter
Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the maneuvers?
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.
So, the written record of the ancients attests to the existence of female gladiators. The fact many of the references to gladiatrices were made "casually" throughout the ancient writings, suggests that female gladiators were more widespread than direct evidence might otherwise indicate.
Besides written sources, there are archaeological evidences supporting the existence of female gladiators in Ancient Rome. These are four main archeological finds.
- An inscription at the Roman port of Ostia (about 20 miles from Rome). The inscription at Ostia describes a local magistrate as follows: "was the first since the city was founded… to set women fighting". The inscription probably dates from the third century CE. This shows that female gladiatorial fights did not end with Septimus Severus’ ban of 200 CE. By the way, the inscription used the word ‘women’ (mulieres), rather than ‘ladies’ (feminae) in regard to competing gladiatrices.
- A shard of inscribed pottery found in Leicester, England. It is a shard of red pottery with a hole drilled into it. It is inscribed: "Verecunda and Lucius the gladiator"; the inscription leads one to believe that Verecunda may have been a female gladiator, perhaps fighting with the same troupe as Lucius.
- In 2000, archaeologists discovered remains of a young woman who was cremated and buried with costly goods centuries ago in Roman London. Many articles (particularly oil lamps) indicate that this grave is that of a woman who fought in the arena.
- In "Gladiators at Pompeii" by Luciana Jacobelli it's mentioned that during the excavation of the gladiators' barracks in Pompeii, the skeleton of a woman was found which had expensive jewelry. The woman might be a noble gladiator admirer or a gladiator herself (spectators of gladiator games generously gave presents to their favorites and some gladiators possessed some wealth).
- A marble carved relief, from Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey), depicting two female gladiators is dating from the first or second century CE. The relief, currently displayed in the British Museum, is the most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of female gladiators.
The two women are clothed and equipped similarly to male gladiators (specifically secutors). The gladiatrices are heavily armed, each wears loincloth (subligaculum), greaves, and an arm protector (manica) extending from the wrist to the shoulder of the sword-wielding arm. Both are armed with a shield and a sword, and neither is wearing a helmet or a shirt.
The women are facing each other with their names inscribed in Greek beneath them, indicating incontrovertibly that these are both women because they are named ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia’. In Latin, the inscription translates as "missae sunt", meaning that the combatants (or one of them) received an honorable discharge (mercy or missio) from the arena (not discharge from service as a gladiator though).
In fact, the relief is a monument to the valiant effort displayed by these two female gladiators. The female gladiatorial combat was taken seriously enough to warrant commemoration in an expensive and durable medium.
So, the ancient written references and physical evidence count in favor of female participation in gladiatorial combat in the ancient Roman world. Now, let's imagine what life like was for these female gladiators. If women participated as gladiators, and dressed and fought the same as the men (as the relief from Halicarnassus suggests), one must assume that female gladiators followed similar rules in the arena as male gladiators.
If women followed the same practices inside the arena as their male counterparts, they too might have tried to follow the same lifestyle practices outside the arena. This would have challenged the accepted societal norms of the day.
Although most gladiators in the ancient Roman world were slaves, some were volunteers (auctorati) who willingly took the gladiator’s oath to be burned, 'to be bound, to be beaten, to die by the sword' (uri, vinciri, uerberari, ferroque necari). It has been estimated that by the end of the Republic, about half of the gladiators were volunteers.
Essentially, individuals taking this oath relinquished all ownership of their lives, forfeiting their rights as freemen (or freewomen) to their new owner, who could do with them as he pleased. Reasons Roman citizens voluntarily swearing the oath to become gladiators included that they could be released from debt; they might win fame; and they would be guaranteed subsistence. In the end, it seems that many who volunteered did so for financial gain. For example, owners could demand higher fees for slaves presumably because they showed greater enthusiasm. In turn, enthusiastic gladiators could profit more with their share of the higher earnings. Even slave gladiators kept all or portions of the monetary prizes that they won in the arena. Ex-gladiators who were enticed to come back to the arena were heavily paid, and Emperor Tiberius had to offer 1,000 gold pieces to attract one freed gladiator back into the arena. Interestingly, the females who appeared in the arena were not all slaves or women of low social status simply in need of money.
As Tacitus reports, women of considerable social standing participated in gladiatorial events, evidently for excitement and notoriety, not money, since they were already members of the wealthy class. "This year shows of gladiators were as magnificent as those of the past. Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre."
In fact, since the number of women rushing to "disgrace themselves in the amphitheater" was so great, laws were enacted to prevent it. Although the mob of the Roman arena appreciated the efforts of female gladiators as one of novelty, society, as a whole, deemed these efforts unacceptable.
Although the mob of the Roman arena appreciated the efforts of female gladiators as one of novelty, society, as a whole, deemed these efforts unacceptable. Gladiators were unique in this respect. While they were considered the superstars of their day, lusted after by both men and women, at the same time, paradoxically, they were also the lowest of the low in the eyes of Roman society and were held in the greatest contempt. It was one thing for a man of high social status to disgrace himself by appearing in the arena, but for a noblewoman to do so was utterly beyond the pale.
As it was mentioned, satirist Juvenal demonstrated his absolute disgust at these women. Indeed, he brought the full force of his scathing ridicule to bear on them.
Life for the typical gladiator involved living in a gladiatorial school (ludus). The school was run by a lanista (gladiator manager). The gladiators of the school formed a troupe (familia), and received training in the art of fighting by 'doctores' and 'magistri', who in all probability were former gladiators.
Life of the gladiator school female students was perhaps even harder than of male ones. The students lived in shelters like regular slave quarters. As male gladiators, the gladiatrices were trained to fight with heavy chains on their ankles, or blindfolded, or with one hand tied behind the back, or on their knees, or after an hour's continuous run around a cinder track. All of these were aimed towards the strategy that when the real fight was under way the combatant would have none of these disadvantages to cope with and therefore be much more agile and effective during the real thing.
Training generally involved wooden weapons. (Arming slave warriors with sharpened metal weapons was deemed unwise following Spartacus’ famed revolt of 73 BCE.) Auctorati received their training not in the gladiator schools but through private instruction or enrolled in the college (iuvenum). Some females who entered the arena received their training from their fathers, who were freed gladiators.
Gladiators were specialized combatants fought in the arena: murmillo, thraex, retiarius, hoplomachus or secutor - each with specialized armor and weaponry. Rarely did individuals receive training in more than one gladiatorial style, and they normally did not compete very often, usually fighting only two to three times a year, much like a modern-day boxer.
Additionally, contrary to popular opinion, gladiators did not typically fight to the death. In fact, it was relatively rare for a gladiator to be killed in the arena. The rationale is simple: Gladiators were worth a lot more alive - earning appearance fees in the arena - than dead.
The evening before fighting in the arena, gladiators ate at a public banquet (cena libera) to which the local populace was admitted. The morning of the fight began with a parade through the amphitheatre that was designed to rouse the attention of the spectators. Generally, the day’s activities followed a specific pattern. The morning involved the beast hunt (venatio); executions of condemned prisoners were conducted during midday, generally by animals (ad bestias); and gladiatorial fights, the highlight of the day’s events, were offered during the afternoon hours.
The number of fights would depend entirely on the number of pairs of gladiators scheduled. However, generally speaking, if gladiatorial combat was to last the rest of the day, between ten and thirteen pairs would fight, with a single bout lasting around ten to fifteen minutes.
The bouts were simply hand-to-hand combat. Eventually, one of the combatants would tire or become wounded, lay down his (or her) shield, and signal capitulation by raising one finger (ad digitum). The umpire would step in, stop the combat, and defer the decision of the defeated gladiator’s fate to the munerarius (person renting gladiators from the lanista who provided his troupe of gladiators for sale or hire to the producer of the show). He could, with much influence from the crowd, grant missio (mercy), have the gladiator slain, or free one or both of the gladiators. Albeit at a great financial cost - freeing someone else’s slave would cost him heavily.
With the turn of the thumb (pollice verso) – "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" - the decision of the defeated gladiator’s fate was taken. Usually, the crowd influenced the munerarius by their own thumbs. If the gladiator were to receive missio, he (or she) returned to the ludus to fight another day. If death were to be the result, the winning gladiator simply delivered the coup de grace. The granting of freedom, however, was more elaborate. The munerarius would go to the floor of the arena and handover a wooden sword (rudis) to the fortunate gladiator, signaling that the gladiator was no longer a slave, but a freeman (or freewoman).
As it was said before, the world of the ancient Roman arena was not the sole domain of men. Women did participate in the games and lived, and died, as combatants. Women also took up the role of warrior and were a part of that most peculiar of ancient Roman traditions - that of the gladiator.
Now, it's easier to imagine a particular Roman gladiatrice. Since very few names have come to us, there is a limited choice. Let's consider a semi-legendary heroine (as Penthesilea and Helen are).
Classic mythology motives appeared very often in Roman gladiator games. Perhaps, the name Achillia/Achillea is a combination if two great names – Achill and Penthesilea.
Now a legend begins. Bellona Achillia (Achillea) from Pergamum (Roman Empire province Asia) was a daughter of Pergamum's caestor (province administrator). Her life fell at the reign of Marcus Aurelius "The wise". In 162AD when her life has abruptly changed, she was about 20.
Unlike other coeval noble girls, Bellona was an extraordinary person: she had a robust build, inquiring mind and pugnacious nature. Since her father was obliged to give gladiatorial games to the people of Pergamum (at his own expense), the girl got closely familiar with gladiatorial matters; when she was 17, she started visiting Pergamon ludum (gladiator school) and watched trainings and real fights. In this regard, she wasn't alone among noble women who were fond of gladiators openly expressing their admiration of their courage and even having them as lovers. While her father was out accompanying Co-Emperor Lucius Verus, Bellona secretly began taking combat lessons from the estate manager and former gladiator, Adalbaro. Although her eccentric behavior irritated her parents and relatives, they had abandoned the idea to keep her in check – she was too stubborn and unruly. In the ludum she met medical star Claudius Galenus (Galen), who served as a doctor in the ludum (he later became a private doctor of Emperor Aurelius). Being in his thirties at that time, Galen fell in love with the attractive well-grown girl. Both Galen and Bellona were extraordinary persons, each one in their own particular way. Galen was a great doctor and scientists – he learned anatomy just on wounded or dead gladiators. Galen had a mind of philosophic cast and he didn't dissuade her from the gladiatorial training. He taught her basics of human anatomy, especially with regard to wounds which in fact, helped her understand which parts of human body are especially vulnerable and figure out main points of the fighting game.
She got very obsessed with the idea to fight for real on the arena. Training with wooden swords, Bellona picked up the rudiments of gladiatorial art and some wrestling skills. In the age of 19 she had her first sparring fight with wooden swords against a real male gladiator who of course was instructed to be careful with the caestor's daughter. However, her performance surpassed expectation – she showed her worth being almost as equals with the experienced fighter. Since Bellona was left-handed from birth, Adalbaro taught her to take an advantage of that – almost all fighters were right-handed and a southpaw would throw them off their paces.
She kept moving in the circle of gladiator fans and former gladiators. She was strong and beautiful; almost all men lost their mind just seeing her. Besides, she was quite amative. Other women were jealous, and all the sudden she got her first fighting experience. Panthea from Smyrna, a mistress of Lucius Verus, was a big fan of gladiator games and even dabbled in sword fencing. During her visit the Pergamum gladiator school, she felt a fierce jealousy to Bellona seeing in her a rival. Once, being verbally insulted by Panthea, Bellona pounced on Panthea and cruel unarmed fight began. Skilled in fighting men happened around didn't interfere in the duel of two big girls. Being afraid of touching either of the noble girls, they just enjoyed the fierce grappling fight until Panthea found herself pinned and choked almost to death. Galen having witnessed the fight foresaw her great wrestling potential and advised Bellona to learn wrestling. Unfortunately for Bellona, Panthea complained to Lucius Verus who happened to be in the neighboring city of Ephesus. He ordered to punish her for beating his mistress – he made her a slave gladiator for five years (By that time Bellona turned twenty and it was not against the law). That's how Bellona Achillea bitterly fulfilled her wish to become a gladiator. It happened just before Galen went to Rome by Emperor's invitation – the lovers were going to go together. Her father was so angry on her, that he didn't put in a word for her. So, Galen left for Rome alone and Bellona started training in the ludum.
When Lucius Verus required sending Bellona to the ludum, he ordered finding a strong opponent for Bellona after she was skillful enough to fight on the arena. The opponent was found – it was Anahita, a captive from Parthian army. She was a real warrior who fought as a gladiator in Smyrna. Ahalita was so belligerent and fearless that was called 'Amazonia' (Amazon). She had defeated several opponents - women and male dwarfs. However they didn't have a chance to fight for a few years – at first Bellona was training and then Anahita was wounded, so the duel between Bellona and Anahita was delayed.
Being already familiar with basics of gladiator fights, Bellona advanced quickly. After a year of intensive training, she had her fist fight against a savage Sarmatian gladiatrice. Bellona fought as a tigress but was wounded and lost the duel to the experienced and strong adversary. Since it was Bellona's first fight, the crowd didn't allow the Sarmatian to kill her. After a while Bellona recovered (thanks to Galen's successor) and since that time she would never lose on the arena.
During the following three years, Bellona had about dozen gladiator fights against women and male dwarfs, defeating all of them (at that half of them had been killed). This number of fights is quite big even for a male gladiator (in defiance of the tale about Gerardesca, in which they say she killed two hundred men during a year – is sounds like a female pro boxer knocking out 200 men during a year).
Besides gladiatorial events, wrestling matches were very popular on the arenas of the Greek part of the Empire. Being strong and big, she was especially good at wrestling – women were unable to withstand her onsets. She had a few wrestling matches having pinned all female opponents; she also thrashed two dwarfs at once - she had done with one letting the other by; then she easily finished the other.
Bellona's gladiator's career ended as suddenly as started. Emperor's wife Faustina who was infamous by her self-will, cruelty and adultery with gladiators, loved the games and tried not to miss any of them happened around. After Romans defeated Parthians in Armenia, Faustina had a trip through the province Asia and visited gladiator games in Asia Minor coastal cities. In Halicarnassus (city to the south of Pergamum) she happened to watch the duel between Bellona and Anahita. The crowd just howled as the strong stripped to the waist bodies of Bellona and Anahita and their swords and shields glistened through the thick hot air while they pranced back and forth. The mightiest of cheers rocked the amphitheater as Bellona made use of being left-handed and managed to lunge the adversary from the portside. Formidable Anahita was wounded and asked for 'missio' (mercy). The crowd was in good mood and showed 'thumbs up' and 'missio' was granted to the defeated girl. Faustina was surprised how furiously and skillfully the girls had fought and ordered to carve the two brave women in stone – a great local sculptor accomplished that - the relief with Achillia and Amazon still exists and reminds about these glorious women.
Faustina was so impressed by formidable Bellona that pardoned her, released from the bondage and even took her in her retinue as a bodyguard and assistant. Faustina found that very convenient in many respects to have a strong female bodyguard. Since then, Bellona accompanied her liberator in all her journeys and eventually resided in Rome where Galen had been for a while.
Exclusive of the Female Single Combat Club
Roman fresco. Women battling wild animals
Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic. The gladiators are (from left) a disarmed and surrendering retiarius and his secutor opponent, two gladiators of unknown type, a Thracian and his surrendering opponent of unknown type, and the referee.
Forum Boarium - the first gladiator venue. Reconstruction
Fallen gladiator. Oil lamp from the gladiatrix burial in London
Pierre Klossovski. Gladiatrice
Victorious female athlete. Roman fresco
Depiction of gladiatrices
Faustina, wife of Marcus Aurelius and gladiators' patroness
Claudius Galen, doctor in Pergamum's gladiator school and personal doctor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Gladiatrices. Contemporary role game
Training of gladiatrices from the movie Arena, 1973