by: Cleopatra Aelia
“Female gladiators, did they really exist?“
Many pose this question when they learn that I do reenactment as a female gladiator. The answer is “Yes!” And we even know names of two of them: Amazone and Achillia. Many still think of Fantasy fighters such as Xena, so I try to explain with which weaponry gladiators fought and that women used the same weapons as their male counterparts.
Female bouts were far from being as frequent as male fights, hence we do not have pictures of gladiatrices on devotionalia such as oil lamps, knife handles, candle holders, glass and earthen ware. It is unlikely that a gladiatrix ever became as famous as some of her male colleagues. Nonetheless there are written sources which prove that women fought in the arena. And these were not only women of low social class or slaves, but there are also noblewomen who went to a ludus (gladiator school) for training and even appeared in the arena. Tacitus mentions in his Annales that in the year 63 AD Emperor Nero hosted games in which noblewomen (and also senators) fought in the arena. This was especially abominable since gladiators were infamia and henceforth stood outside of society. Already in the year 11 AD a senatus consultum (decree of the senate) existed which prohibited women under the age of 20 and men under the age of 25 to appear in the arena or on stage. In the year 19 AD this decree was amended that additionally to infamia, further punishments for men and women of equestrian or senatorial order would be applicable should they appear as gladiators. However the fame of winning in the arena was so alluring that these decrees did not necessarily scare them off.
Because of the scarcity of female fights, the fact that they were never a regular part of the games and they were (usually) a once in a lifetime experience, they were very entertaining. For example the duumvir (mayor) of Ostia boasted in an inscription that he was the first one who hosted in Ostia a munus in which women fought as gladiators.
We can assume that under normal conditions women fought only against women. It is a common misinterpretation of the poet Martial that Domitian let women fight against dwarves. It was more likely that the female bouts and the boxing fights of dwarves were two separate programs in the same munus. Furthermore he also arranged female fights at night by torchlight.
The only confirmed figurative representation of gladiatrices is a relief from Halicarnassos (today’s Bodrum in Turkey) which most probably dates to the 2nd century AD. Two women who bear the arena names “Amazone” and “Achillia” wearing the equipment of provocatrices are shown on it. The helmets lie on the floor next to the two fighters, indicating that the end of the bout is shown where both have achieved the missio. It is very rare that gladiators achieved stantes missio (dismissed standing) which corresponds to a draw because both combatants had fought equally bravely and had pleased the audience with their performance. Such a thing is very rare and was considered nearly more than an easily won fight. Harvard professor Kathleen Coleman assumes that this relief was on display at the ludus to show the extraordinary merit of the two gladiatrices. It is not clear if the relief was part of a whole, maybe representing a complete munus, since no other fragments were found.
There are doubts whether the gladiators shown on a tomb relief exhibited at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht, Netherlands are female or male. The relief shows two fighters with the left one in an attacking stance while the right figure has lowered the shield, turns his back to his opponent and stands with the knees pressed together. This pose accentuates the hips and hence shows feminity; a stylistic device used by sculptors since the 5th century BC. Does this position points to the fact that the two combatants are women or is only the loser shown in a female way to show his weakness? It was expected of gladiators that they showed virtus, the main Roman moral quality, which consists of fortitudo (strength and bravery), disciplina (discipline and training), constantia (sturdiness), patientia (stamina), contemptus mortis (defiance of death), amor laudis (love of glory) and cupido victoriae (will to win). Amazone and Achillia who had fought to a draw must have complied totally with this moral quality or they would not have received a commemoration in form of the relief even if it is only part of a whole. It was expected of a defeated gladiator to show virtus even when facing death and to accept the coup de grâce without whimpering if the editor decided his death. The German historian Marcus Junkelmann though believes that the relief of the Bonnefantenmuseum does not show women because except for the weird stance they do not show any other female features.
At the museum in Arles, France is an oil lamp with an erotic representation exhibited where the woman sits on the man. In her hands she holds a parmula and a sica which are the small shield and the curved sword of a thraex. It is not clear from the inscription of the lamp if she is a gladiatrix fighting in the weaponry of a thraex or if she is only holding the weapons of her lover.
Further reason for speculation is the grave of a woman which was found in 1996 in London. She was buried at the edge of the cemetery, indicating that she might have been excluded from society. Nonetheless she had received a lavish funeral with a pyre which was erected over a pit, with eight oil lamps that were placed into the pit after the pyre had burned down. One of the lamps shows a defeated gladiator and three others the Egyptian death god Anubis who was seen as the Roman Mercurius. Furthermore, there were eight tazze (cups for burning incense) in which pine cones were burned.
The scholars of the Museum of London assume that according to these finds the woman could be a gladiatrix. Mostly because some of the finds could be seen in a gladiatorial context, e.g. the lamps with the picture of Anubis (because Mercurius was the escort of fallen gladiators) as well as the lamp with the depiction of the defeated gladiator. The pine tree is also seen in connection with the amphitheater because they were planted in front of the London amphitheater in order to cover the stench of blood. Despite the fact that gladiators usually lived on the fringes of society, but might have bequeathed enough funds so that friends, family or comrades could take care of a worthy funeral; or they were organized in a collegium (funeral club).
On the other hand Kathleen Coleman does not see this as proof that this woman was a gladiatrix since oil lamps were common household items and the depiction of a gladiator on one of the lamps could simply mean that the woman was an admirer of gladiatorial fights. The historian Martin Henig sees in the Anubis lamps and the incense of pine cones a hint that the woman was a follower of the Isis cult, while the curator of the Museum of London, Jenny Hall thinks that the one does not exclude the other. Her co-worker Hedley Swain has to admit though that it is an intriguing idea to have found the grave of a gladiatrix but that it cannot be answered definitely.
Whether this woman from the London grave was a gladiatrix or not, fact is that gladiatrices existed and that they fought as bravely and impressed the audience with their skills in much the same way as their male counterparts.
As mentioned above, the two gladiatrices on the relief of Halicarnassos are shown in the armature of provocatores. This gladiator type carried a helmet without crest which was equipped in the 1st century BC without a visor and hence was nearly identical to a legionary helmet. The visor was added in the 1st century AD. He carried the large rectangular shield (scutum) with which the Roman legionaries were also equipped. Further defence weapons were a breast plate (pectorale), on the left leg a greave (ocrea) which covered the knee as well and arm protection (manica) on the sword arm. As an offensive weapon he had the Roman short sword (gladius). As shown on this relief, as well as on other reliefs showing male fighters, the provocatores always fought against each other and not against any other type of gladiators.
The provocatores were one of the oldest categories which still existed after the reform of the gladiatorial types by Emperor Augustus. Much more popular were fights of unequally equipped opponents though, such as the heavily armed murmillo against the lighter armed thraex or hoplomachus. Much more popular became during the 1st century AD the pairing of secutor against retiarius whereas the first was a special type of murmillo with a different helmet. His helmet was smooth without any edges so the net of the retiarius could not get tangled.
Unfortunately we do not know if women fought in other categories as well because the only confirmed depiction shows them as provocatrices. A gladiator was specialized in fighting in a certain category. Some inscriptions prove that a professional fighter could change his career but we assume that he did not train in two categories at the same time.
It is assumed by the scholars that all gladiators received the same basic training and that it was probably similar to the basic training of legionaries as described by the ancient military historian Vegetius in his Epitoma Rei Militaris. The recruits learned the basic moves with a rudis (wooden sword) and a wicker shield against a palus (pole). Afterwards the recruits fought with a sparing partner. How a gladiator chose his career or was assigned a certain career is unknown. We assume that this was based on certain characteristics such as a heavily built person was more likely to fight in a heavily armored category while a swift and agile person would become a retiarius who ran light-footed around the secutor. It is certain that the two provocatrices received a sufficient training to handle the heavy scutum and gladius to be able to put on a good fight in the arena. According to Marcus Junkelmann, a bout lasted no longer than 15 minutes in most cases. It is easy to imagine that women could have fought also as retiaria and secutrix but unfortunately we lack evidence of women fighting in other categories.
Gladiators were recruited from slaves, prisoners of war, condemned criminals (damnatio ad ludos) and also from volunteers who could have been even from the upper class. Unfortunately we do not know anything about the background of Amazone and Achillia. They could have signed up voluntarily as gladiatrices, have been slaves sold by their master to a ludus or perhaps they originated from a people defeated by the Romans. They could even have been free Roman citizens from the upper class or from the mass of poor people.
Even though many facts remain in the dark about female gladiators, we know for certain that women fought in the arenas as gladiators.
Brunet, Stephen: Female and Dwarf Gladiators, in Museion XLVIII – Series III. Vol. 4, 2004.
Coleman, Kathleen: Missio at Halicarnassos, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 100, Harvard University Press, 2000.
Junkelmann, Marcus: Das Spiel mit dem Tod – So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren, Philipp von Zabern, 2000.
Köhne, Eckart und Cornelia Ewigleben (eds.): Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Berkeley, 2000
Murray, Steven: Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World, in Journal of Combative Sport, July 2003
Österreichisches Archäologisches Institut – Grabung Ephesos: Tod am Nachmittag – Gladiatoren in Ephesos (Exhibition Catalog Museum Selçuk), Dogan Gümus, 2002
Pringle, Heather: Gladiatrix, in Discover Vol 22 No. 12, December 2001
Shadrake, Susanna: The World of the Gladiator, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2005
Teyssier, Eric und Brice Lopez: , editions errance, 2005
Wiedemann, Thomas: Kaiser und Gladiatoren, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992
Zoll, Amy: Gladiatrix – The True Story of History’s Unknown Woman Warrior, Berkeley Boulevard Books, 2002