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The bravest women the world has ever known

Battle of Gladiatrix

Rome's women-gladiators

Русская версия

In historical essay published in "Cavalcade" magazine in 1958, Dunwoodie Hall tells a legend about a female gladiatrix in ancient Rome. The essay is published with minor cutting.

Gladiatrix The air was filled with shouts, yells, shrieks and cheers as the clang of the iron broadsword and trident provided weird sound effects for the savage struggle between the two women who faced each other in the arena. Around the two gladiatrixes lay the pretzel-postured bodies of a half dozen limp duelers, who moments before had thrilled the bloodthirsty mob in the stands with their daring swordplay. But now the Roman spectators avidly watched the two female adversaries, naked to the buff, whose bodies seemed to glow in the steamy afternoon sun under the coating of sweat. Their fluttery weapons locked in mortal combat, spoke only of doom. The first woman, a huge blonde of statuesque Nordic proportions, brought down a vicious left-handed swipe which her opponent, an Amazon-like brunette, barely had time to ward off with the trident. Countering swiftly, the brunette swooshed at the other girl who nimbly sidestepped. Slipping on the grimy sand, she quickly scrambled to her feet, amid a lusty approval from be paying customers. Now, the blonde moved in and smugly broke the force of a vicious thrust that would have caught her on the hip. She feinted once more, parried and lunged. Her sword entered the brunette's abdomen at the navel. Dropping her trident themortally wounded gladiatrix shrieked, cupped her hands around the blade that now protruded from her midsection and sank on her knees to the ground, eyes bulging in disbelief. Victoriously, the powerful blonde pulled the weapon out through her opponent'sclenched palms, raised it overhead and whipped the falling victim with a forehand lash across the neck and shoulders. Under the impact, the brunette tumbled backward; veered to give her killer a final hate look and collapsed like an empty cloth sack among the other littered bodies. From the packed tiers emerged a tremendous yowl of glee at the dexterous manner in which sudden death had been dealt out.

The noise of the uncounted millions of spectators who swelled into the four-story "Colosseum" (Coliseum) to watch the greatest of human slaughters during Ancient Rome's violent days have helped drown out, perhaps forever, a phase of gory gladiatorial games that has been apparently forgotten - the female combatant.

Unnumbered thousands of these girl gladiators sleep the sleep of the bravest women the world has ever known. In their days such arena wildcats as Paulina, Sapienta, Perpetua, Breaca, Flaviana, Maura and the fabulous Irene of Syracuse stood their places among the greatest of the hand-to-hand fighters - that is, until they were beaten in a match, and slain. Nobody has ever estimated how many victims forfeited their lives on the sandy floors of the Colosseum - in 90 AD 19,000 gladiators died in one night! But the fact stands that many a dueler who strode into mortal combat to engage in these sanguinary spectacles was a member of the so-called weaker sex. The gladiatorial contests were indeed carnivals of gore that symbolized the Roman lack of respect for human life and human dignity.

Yet the Romans were probably the first to recognize that the female of the species is at heart a great competitor when the occasion required. And in Caesar's days the occasion required frequently. Like the distaff wrestler and bullfighter of today, the gladiatrix of yesterday had a special kind of appeal for the fans. She fought as savagely and died as bravely as anybody. In fact, the near-demented Galigula found that a duel by two naked swordswomen lent a zippy zest to his dining-hall revels. It is to Rome's credit, however, that in 200 AD the performance of gladiatrixes was forbidden by imperial edict. Under the Empire, recruits for the gladiatorial ring were nabbed from various sources. Many of the men were taken as prisoners of war, the woman as hostages. Other arena fighters of both sexes were recruited from the ranks of condemned criminals, slaves and quite frequently, oddly enough, happy-go-lucky playboys. Although this kind of punishment involved the loss of freedom, it was at least a much better fate than being beheaded outright or slowly tortured to death. After some years of staying alive, a gladiatrix could obtain her freedom. In Rome, a few female convicts, whose offenses ranged from murder and arson, or from robbery to adultery, were in time pardoned after several seasons of unqualified bravery in the amphitheaters.

GladiatrixIt was in many gladiator schools centered around Capua that most of the arena duelers were trained. These schools were known as "ludi gladiatori", where the students belonged to the "lanistae" - gladiator masters - who bought, sold and rented them. In some cases, rich ladies of high Roman society were known to own large stables of gladiators and gladiatrixes and spend extensive wads of hard cash teaching these captives the techniques of close-quarter combat. Because many of the chattels were "killed in action" it's easy to understand why the turnover was so high. Even though discipline at these schools was inordinately rough, ranging all the way from severe floggings to outright mutilations, the girl duelers fared much better than their less-fortunate sisters in prison. Since a healthy fighter usually brought on fatter purses - and, naturally, pride and prestige to the school and its "bosses" - the bodily well-being of the fillies in training was a matter of top importance. To see that the diet was strictly observed, medical doctors were in regular attendance. They also tended to minor wounds to pick up in the swordplay training. Every school had crackerjack masseurs in keeping the flesh to a desirable firmness. All attention was directed to one goal - the production of a superior-fighting animal who would give good sport in the arena. During the day every classroom was kept at an intense level. Novices always practiced with wooden swords on a post or on a figure of straw. Sometime live dummies were used - and these were always troublesome students who were being punished. To qualify for this dubious honor, a coed had only to accumulate the large total of three demerits during her training period. Each demerit, incidentally, carried with it 39 strokes of the whip. Some of the teaching techniques were quite clever. The weapons used in training, for instance, were heavier than the ones used in the arena in order to make the wielding of the real sword or trident that much easier to handle when the chips were down. The women were also 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. Left-handed fighting was taught to most of the lasses since all of the male adversaries would be right-handed and a southpaw would throw them off their paces. Many a woman convict owed her life to the fact that she had learned to parry and thrust from the portside. Life at these Achilles was nevertheless hard. The students lived in shelters like regular slave quarters. Nero's barracks at Pompeii, for instance, had a kitchen, a dungeon and 71 windowless sleeping rooms, 10 to 12 feet square. The ceilings were so low that the trainees could only sit or lie down when they were not in the classroom. Although most of them could not understand anything beyond killing and slaughtering - until they themselves were killed - they were still very proud of their prowess and their teachers - and, yes, even the school. A "degree" from the school of Praeneste, for example, carried with it considerable prestige and honor, something akin to a Harvard or Yale sheepskin. Don't suppose, however, that all the pupils were contented with their lot. Many attempted escapes or committed suicide from time to time. When the instruction was done with, the finished gladiators then embarked on their short and glorified careers.

Until they died, in most cases, theirs was a life of one bloody encounter after another. But death was the inevitable reward sooner or later; all to the tune of the screaming fans in the grandstands and the galleries. The bloody shows usually began with a parade of the performers in the gala uniform they were going to use in the amphitheater. Some of the duelers fought with heavy armor, many in light garments, still others stripped to the waist and quite a few fully naked. All types of weapons were used - long swords, tridents, daggers, scimitars, long spears, axes, stones in a sling and metal nets. It was the kind of show that no TV camera could possibly imagine. The almost incredible grandeur of the setting carried everyone off his feet. Every thing combined to quicken the pulse at these pageant-like programs. And of course the climax came always when one fighter was wounded; then, the spirited mob would cry out: "Habet!" (That's "got him!"). According to the strict regulations at this juncture, the wounded gladiatrix was obliged to drop her shield and weapon, stretch on her back and raise one finger of her upturned left hand in a sign imploring the pity of the tiers and tiers of fans. The crowds would signify mercy by either waving hankies or lifting their thumbs. But if the noisy patrons pointed their thumbs downward, "pollice verso", this meant that everybody wanted the mortal thrust. The victor would then plunge his weapon either into the original wound or into the chest cavity. In certain arenas, an attendant would then scurry out and strike the dying loser's forehead with a heavy mallet - as a sort of "coup de grace". Then the lifeless body would be dragged from the premises, as the next event got under way.

Such then was the nature of sports in Roman times. The slaughter meant little to the hardened mobs. From morning till dark these wholesale butcheries continue; and by nightfall the sands in the arena were literally drenched with blood. It didn't matter whether the victims were famous or not because there were always others to take their place in the limelight.

GladiatrixEasily the era's greatest girl gladiator, and perhaps the most beautiful of all times was Gerardesca Manutius, an Amazon killer who butchered over two hundred adversaries of the both genders in the arena before she herself was cut down. Gerardesca, a flaming beauty whose jet-black hair and magnificently proportioned torso were the joy of every fan in Rome, reaped scads of publicity as a celebrity for about a year before she was killed. A runaway slave-girl at 28, she was among the 90000 who joined forces in 73 BC with the famed Spartacus, the rebel gladiator who fled the school at Capua, and hid on Mount Vesuvius. While serving as a prostitute with Spartacus' army of guerrillas as they beat their way to the Alps and then returned to try to plunder the bejeweled Eternal City: Gerardesca took lessons in swordsmanship and in time became a skilled dueler and hand-to-hand fighter. In the pitched battle field at Lucania, in 71 BC, were Spartacus was killed, Gerardesca was captured by Marcus Lucinius Grassus who ordered her crucified along with 6,000 other runaway slaves. But later General Grassus changed his mind about the delectable, bronze-skinned Gerardesca as she was about to be lashed to a cross on Via Appia. He had her spend the night with him in his tent. The next day he gave her a break and sent her to Capua to train as a gladiator with the hope that one day she might work her way to freedom. Gerardesca has no trouble picking up the rudiments of gladiatorial fighting; within a few weeks she was booked for her first fight, amid a whale of hoopla that touted her as Grassus' protege. In less than five minutes of swordplay she killed her opponent - a brawny, tattooed Thracian from the north of Greece. The bloodthirsty, callused spectators came to life as the strong bodies of the Thracian and Gerardesca, both stripped to the waist, glistened in the hot sunshine while they pranced back and forth. The battle didn't last very long, but the mightiest of cheers rocked the amphitheater as the Thracian absorbed some inches of curved scimitar into his groin when Gerardesca caught him in a deft upsweep. But as with all blade experts who invaded the arena, Gerardesca was ticketed for death. After nearly 11 months of annihilating every one of her adversaries, including some of the best male fighters in the business, Gerardesca was killed in a duel with two dwarfs. During the duel one of the two dwarfs managed to get in back of the girl and plunge his trident into her kidneys. Down she went as the ladies in their silks and the men in purple togas barked out their collective joy for the underdog midgets. Though she was a popular favorite, it seemed that the whole Colosseum was turning thumbs down on Gerardesca. The wounded gladiatrix, in keeping with the regulations, turned over on her back and lay writhing in pain. She raised her finger of her upturned left hand as the two midget warriors jammed their three-pronged weapons hard into her belly and chest for the final kill. It was all over, just like that - Gerardesca's torn body was dragged out of the arena, pulled roughly to the gloomy vestibule downstairs and unceremoniously dumped on top of the day's pile of accumulated victims lying limp in the corner.

So passes away the glory of the world! ("Sic transit gloria mundi").

Dunwoodie Hall.

Female gladiators inspired many strong women lovers, aprticularly, artists. A special web resource Gladiatrix exists where we reprinted the illustrations from

Editorial note. It is absolutely beyond belief that a gladiator was able to kill 200 people for less than a year. A Roman gladiator had about two or three fights a year. It is impossible even imagine that a woman with a limited combat experience would be able to defeat (if not killed) even one male gladiator, who should have a long-term training.

Forty two years later (instead of an epilogue)

British archaeologists dug up remains of female gladiator.

According to international informational agencies as of September 12, 2000, British archaeologists discovered remains of a young woman who was cremated and buried with costly goods centuries ago in Roman London. The archaeologists claimed that there was a big chance she was a female gladiator. If that's true it will be the first archaeological evidence existence of female gladiators.

She was buried with one dish decorated with the image of a fallen gladiator, and other vessels with symbols associated with gladiators. Specialists at the Museum of London believe it may be the first discovery of a female gladiator-s grave anywhere in the world. Jenny Hall, curator of early London history at the museum, declared: "The fact that we have this association with gladiators indicates that she was a gladiator, or someone deeply involved with gladiators".

Archaeologists from the museum also continue to analyze the results of their excavations of the Roman amphitheater found in the financial district of London. That amphitheater had room for 7,000 spectators, which would have been about a third of the population of Roman London.

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