Were there female gladiators in ancient Rome? Although scarce, evidence exists in art, law and written accounts that women participated in this brutal sport during the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, fighting fiercely with weapons to have fun. But they didn’t fight to nearly the same degree as the men – and did so mostly as novelty acts.
Written history has many tales of gladiators. Historians of the time described women sparring with each other as after-dinner acts in the first century BC and battling beasts, dwarves and other women in shows held by emperors Nero , Titus and Domitian. Gladiators fought in the flourishing city of Pompeii. And an inscription found in the port city of Ostia shows a local magistrate boasting of being the first to “provide women for the sword” since the city was founded.
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Some female gladiators come from the elite
Women of all classes participated. Enslaved women typically worked for wealthy families, and a business owner might sense an opportunity, says David S. Potter, a University of Michigan classics professor who has written extensively on ancient sports. “He was like, ‘You’re strong. Let’s train as a gladiator. You’ll make a lot of money fighting.'”
Middle- and upper-class women also fought – for the same reasons as privileged young men, Potter says: “It’s exciting. It’s different. It annoys their parents.
Back then, women played a variety of sports and were keen to stay in shape, Potter says. The Roman authorities encouraged them to strengthen themselves for childbirth. Affluent women could afford training and had free time to train. Managers of professional gladiatorial troupes encouraged those who excelled in wrestling to try gladiatorial combat, which offered money and glamour. “If we think of it as a form of entertainment, it’s clearer why women would want to do it,” Potter says.
The Roman Senate passed laws in AD 11 and 19 prohibiting middle- and upper-class women from fighting as gladiators – apparently to little effect, as tales of high-born women doing so continued for two centuries afterwards. .
Representations of female gladiators in art
Only one surviving work of art, housed in the British Museum, clearly depicts gladiators: an ancient marble relief found at Halicarnassus, in present-day Turkey, shows two women fighting with shields, swords and greaves. The characters are labeled Amazon and Achillia, stage names likely to evoke Greek mythology. An inscription above their heads indicates that they fought for an honorable draw.
Other works depicting female gladiators may have been misinterpreted for centuries, scholars say. A bronze sculpture from the first century AD, housed in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Germany, has long been believed to be a woman holding a cleaning tool. A 2011 reassessment by a Spanish scholar suggests she was more likely a gladiator wielding a short, curved sword, called a if it, up in triumph. She is also shirtless, as gladiators usually fought.
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One of the most intriguing discoveries came in 1996, when archaeologists from the Museum of London unearthed a fragment of a woman’s pelvis among cremated ashes in an elaborate Roman-era tomb in London’s Southwark borough. . Decorative objects and the remains of a lavish feast suggested that this was the burial place of a gladiator. Jenny Hall, curator of ancient history at the Museum of London at the time, said it was “70 per cent likely” the deceased was a gladiator, although some skeptics said the Great Dover Street Woman, as she was nicknamed, could have been a gladiator. wife or girlfriend or fan instead.
The tradition of gladiators
There is much more surviving evidence of male gladiators, who fought for almost a thousand years throughout the Roman Empire, which at its height stretched from Western Asia to the British Isles. In Rome itself, gladiatorial combat began as part of lavish funeral services during the early centuries BC, especially among politically ambitious aristocrats. In 65 BC, Julius Caesar used 320 pairs of gladiators ostensibly to honor his long-dead father. Although the fighting was bloody, gladiators were seen as paragons of strength and bravery who could inspire the crowds to greater loyalty to Rome.
Many male gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war, but young freemen could also volunteer to risk their lives in hopes of fame and fortune. Popular gladiators were revered as sex symbols and celebrated in the equivalent of fan bars in Rome. Training schools are multiplying; the event’s sponsors rented entire troupes of gladiators from professional managers. Fighters often shared the costs. Slaves could hope to buy their freedom after winning a few successful fights.
Unlike Hollywood depictions, gladiators rarely fought to the death. A defeated gladiator would raise a finger, leaving the sponsor to decide his fate, often with crowd input. But getting a Gladiator killed required the sponsor to pay the Troupe Director a hefty fee – 10 times the cost of the hire, Potter says. He estimates the odds of a gladiator dying in any contest at around 1 in 20.
The novelty of female gladiators
However, the public has a thirst for novelty, which has prompted sponsors to offer ever more exotic acts. Gladiators fighting each other fit this bill. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, Nero held an exhibition in AD 59 “which was both most shameful and shocking, when men and women not only of the [middle class] but even of the senatorial order…drove horses, slay wild beasts, and fought as gladiators, some voluntarily and some against their will. “In AD 66, Nero had gladiators fight in games in honor of his mother, whom he had murdered.
Emperor Domitian staged gladiator fights at night by torchlight, sometimes pitting women against dwarfs as well as each other, according to Cassius Dio and Suetonius, another Roman historian.
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What Roman Society Thought
Roman society still took a dim view of married women competing in the arena. The Roman poet Juvenal mocked men who allowed their wives to fight, writing, “What a great honor it is for a husband to see, at an auction, where his wife’s effects are for sale, belts, shin guards, arm guards and plumes!… Hear her growl and moan as she works at it, parrying and pushing. See his neck bent under the weight of his helmet.
In 200 AD, Emperor Septimius Severus banned all female gladiatorial combat, apparently after hearing such lewd jokes directed at women in an athletic contest that he feared the sport was causing a lack of respect for all women.
Fervor for gladiators in general had waned considerably by the 5th century, partly because of the spread of Christianity, which found it distasteful, and partly because the costs of holding such events became untenable as the Roman Empire of the West was collapsing.