Female gladiators - who would have thought it? We generally think of gladiators as being big, strong males like Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator. However, the evidence for the existence of female gladiators, though scarce, is very convincing!
An Introduction to Gladiators
Gladiators were respected but not respectable. Think of them like world-renowned rock-stars who have committed a crime – you admire their work but you look down on them at the same time. If you were to perform in public in the Roman Empire, you were seen as being below the social status of the audience member. As gladiators were entertainers, they were seen as the lowest of the low in Roman society.
Gladiators were huge investments for their owners as they went through a rigorous and expensive training program, and their earning of appearance fees for their masters in the arena meant that they were worth more alive than dead. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, gladiators did not always fight to the death. A decisive outcome often resulted when one of the gladiators was wounded or gave up.
The Evidence for Female Gladiators
The Great Dover Street Woman
A London burial discovered in 2000, held the remains of an elaborate funeral pyre, dating to the 1st century CE. The burial included rich grave goods such as pottery and oil lamps, which indicate the deceased was powerful and wealthy. Their burial outside of the city walls, however, suggests that they were an outcast of society. As one of the lamps depicts a gladiator and other lamps portray gods associated with the sport, the evidence indicates that the deceased was a gladiator during their lifetime. Forensic examination of bone fragments revealed that the deceased was a woman in her twenties. The grave is an exciting piece of forensic evidence for the existence of female gladiators and led to many scholarly publications about other tidbits of evidence.
The Halicarnassus Relief
A marble relief dating from the 1st or 2nd century CE depicts female gladiators fighting. Their clothing and equipment, such as loincloths, arm greaves, shields and swords, are very similar to the clothing and equipment of male gladiators. The relief is from what is now Bodrum, Turkey, whereas most other evidence of female gladiators is from the city of Rome. This relief and the burial in London imply that female gladiators were present throughout the empire.
The Bronze Statuette
A 1st century CE bronze statuette from the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe of Hamburg has been interpreted as a female athlete holding a bladed grooming instrument, though Alfonso Manas argues it actually depicts a female gladiator holding a curved sword. Her body position is a key indicator: her arm is raised in a victory gesture and she looks towards the ground, as if she is looking at a defeated opponent. She also wears fascia, strips of fabric that were wrapped around the limbs of gladiators to offer protection. The sword, body position and body protection led Manas to believe she is a female gladiator as opposed to an athlete.
Female gladiators appear in contemporary written sources rarely. During a festival in honour of Emperor Nero’s mother, Cassius Dio (c.155 - c.235 CE) writes that women of both senatorial and equestrian rank “drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly, some sore against their will” (Roman History, 62.17.3). Suetonius (c.69 – c.126 CE) writes of games held by Emperor Domitian in which women as well as men took part as gladiators (Life of Domitian, 4.1). Tacitus (c.56 - c.120CE) writes that “many women of rank… disgraced themselves in the arena” in gladiatorial games held by Nero (Annals, 15.32). Elite women taking part seems to be an issue of status rather than gender, as the participation of elite men was shocking as well. High classes must not entertain lower classes, as they were at risk of being seen as below their observers.
Legislation during the reign of Augustus is a key clue. It threatened freeborn females with infamia (public disgrace) should they participate as gladiators. Legislation is rarely pre-emptive, and historians such as Murray and McCullough agree that legislation in general existed to curb behaviour that was socially unacceptable. In essence, for punishment to be warranted, the crime must have occurred. This legislation therefore implies that female gladiators existed.
Lastly, an inscription at Ostia describes a local magistrate Hostilianus who was the first since the city was founded to set women fighting against each other (CIL IX, 2237). This implies that though female gladiators were rare, they nevertheless existed.
What Does This Mean?
The evidence for female gladiators is rare, but pretty conclusive. This suggests that female gladiators themselves were rare, but were grand spectacles when they did appear in the arena, which is why they are depicted in art and written about. Their depictions indicate that female gladiators were equipped and trained very similarly to men, though they were probably housed in different quarters. The sources refer to duelling with swords and fighting with wild animals. This implies that female gladiators were trained and skilled, and specialised in different modes of fighting like male gladiators did. McCullough argues the only difference between male and female gladiators was that females did not fight male opponents.
The implications from this evidence is clear: female gladiators did exist, and their lives look very similar to those of male gladiators.
- Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World, Murray, 2003
- Female Gladiators at the Roman Munera: a Fact or a Fantasy? Miaczewska, 2012
- New evidence of female gladiators: the bronze statuette at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe of Hamburg, Manas, 2011
Dio Cassius. Roman History trans. E. Cary (Cambridge, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2000)
Suetonius Life of Domitian in The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957)
Tacitus The Annals of Imperial Rome trans. M. Grant (London, Penguin Classics, 1989)
“The Halicarnassus Relief” in Murray, S. R. “Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World” The Journal of Combative Sport July Issue (2003) pg. 6, fig. 2
“The Bronze Statuette” in Manas, A. “New Evidence of Female Gladiators: The Bronze Statuette at the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe of Hamburg” The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28:18 (2011) pg. 2727, fig. 1
Manas, A. “New Evidence of Female Gladiators: The Bronze Statuette at the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe of Hamburg” The International Journal of the History of Sport, 28:18 (2011) pp. 2726-2752
McCullough, A. “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact” The Classical World 101:2 (2008) pp. 197-209
Murray, S. R. “Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World” The Journal of Combative Sport, July Issue (2003) pp. 1-16