Female Gladiators and Venatores

In this section you will learn

  • female gladiators and venatores
  • when they were introduced to Rome
  • who they fought alongside
  • public reaction to women in the arena


This is the only inscription we have showing female gladiators; it shows two women, Amazonia and Achillea, and says that they were stantes [pb_glossary id="101"]missones[/pb_glossary] – released after they had fought to a standstill. We do however have another inscription from Ostia that refers to the first fight involving female gladiators there, and several literary references.

In modern terms

We have no specific word for a female gladiator, the closest is the rare word, ludia used for a female slave attached to a gladiatorial school, but this word is used for the girlfriend or lover of a gladiator rather than a female gladiator.

It is difficult to talk about the reality of life for female gladiators, because our sources often dwell on their sexy or unusual aspects, as a way to show what a special treat the audience is being given. (Special in gladiatorial games means expensive.) And the amount of sexy female gladiators in modern reimagining of the games shows that we haven’t changed that much. Kathleen Coleman (2000), however, argues that female gladiators were, on the whole, professionally trained speciality gladiators. Her work is invaluable for any discussion of female gladiators and I follow her in what I say below.

It is also difficult to say for sure when women appeared in the arena as gladiators first. We have a law from 19 CE, called the Senatus Consultum from Larinum; Larinum (modern Larino) was a town in the South of Italy.  It says, among other things, that the daughters, grand-daughters, and great-grand-daughters of senators cannot appear on stage or in the arena – nor can the wives, daughters. and grand-daughters of equestrians. This law mentions an earlier one of 11 CE that forbid freeborn girls under 20 from entering the arena. As generally you don’t forbid things unless they are actually happening it seems likely that some elite women were appearing in the arena.

Later, the historian Tacitus mentions elite women appearing in the arena under Nero in the year 63 CE:

To the Roman equestrians he assigned places in the circus in front of the seats of the people, for up to that time they used to enter in an indiscriminate mass, as the Roscian law extended only to fourteen rows in the theatre. The same year witnessed shows of gladiators as magnificent as those of the past. However, many prominent matrons and senators disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre.

Tacitus, Annales 15.32

Either Gladiator Venator or Hunter fighting a bear

The Emperor Titus held games for the inauguration of the Colosseum; these games included venationes with female venatores.

There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants; nine thousand animals both domestic and wild were killed and women (not those of any prominence, however) took part in dispatching them.

Cassius Dio, Epitome Book 66

His brother and successor Domitian also had female gladiators fight in the Colosseum, along with dwarfs.

Domitian would also frequently stage the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other.

Cassius Dio, Epitome Book 67

In the middle of this noise and the new luxuries there appear women trained to wield the sword wildly daring to fight like men. You would believe that the Amazons of Thermodon were fighting wildly by Tanais or savage Phasis.[1] Now a bold unit of dwarfs appears, whose growth nature suddenly cut short, binding them in one movement into a knotted lump. They give and receive wounds and threaten death with tiny hands. Mars, our father, and bloody Virtus laugh and cranes hover over the scattered loot marvel at the tiny fighters.

Statius, Silvae 1.6.52-64

Martial’s poems on Domitian’s games in the Colosseum also mention female gladiators and venatores.

That warlike Mars serves you with his unconquerable weapons, Caesar, is not enough: Venus herself also serves you.

Martial, On Spectacles 6

Legend used to sing of the lion killed in the great valley, a feat worthy of Hercules – let ancient belief be silent! For after your munera, Caesar, for we now admit that this has been done by a woman warrior.

Martial, On Spectacles 6b

Two Venatores fighting a tiger.

Juvenal, in a satire on the evils of women,[2] talks of high-born ladies running off and training with gladiators.

Decorate your doors and doorposts with wreaths of laurel,[3] so your noble son, Lentulus, may show in his tortoiseshell cradle the face of Euryalus[4] or of a murmillo!

When Eppia, the senator’s wife, ran off with a gladiator to Pharos and the Nile and the ill-famed city of Lagus, Canopus itself cried shame upon the monstrous morals of our town. Forgetting her home, husband, and sister, without thinking of her country, she shamelessly abandoned her weeping children; and–something that will astonish you–deserted Paris[5] and the games. Though born wealthy, though as a tiny body she slept in a gaudy cradle on the paternal down, she cared nothing about the sea, just as she had long cared nothing for her good name—a loss thought trivial among our soft, litter-riding matrons. And so she bravely endured the tossing and the roaring of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, and all the many seas she had to cross. For when danger comes in a right and honourable way, a woman’s heart freezes with fear and dread and she cannot stand upon her trembling feet: but if she be doing a bold, bad thing, her courage fails not. For a husband to order his wife on board ship is cruelty: the bilge-water sickens her and the sky goes round and round. But if she is running away with a lover, she feels no qualms: then she vomits over her husband; now she messes around with the sailors, she roams about the deck, and loves hauling at hard ropes. And what were the youthful charms which captivated Eppia? What did she see in him to allow herself to be called a ludia?[6] Her darling Sergius had already begun to shave; a wounded arm gave promise of a discharge, and there were a range of deformities in his face: a scar caused by the helmet; a huge boil on his nose; and a nasty fluid always dribbling from his eye. But then he was a gladiator! It is this that transforms these fellows into Hyacinths![7] It was this that she preferred to children and to country, to sister and to husband. What these women love is the sword: had this same Sergius no longer been a gladiator, he would have been no better than a Veiento.…

Victorious gladiator brandishing a sica.

Why do I need to talk of the woollen cloaks [8]and the wrestling-oils used by women? Who has not seen one of them striking a stump, piercing it through and through with a blade, lunging at it with a shield, and going through all the proper motions?—-a matron truly qualified to blow a trumpet at the Floralia! Unless, indeed, she is nursing some further ambition in her bosom, and is practising for the real arena. What modesty can you expect in a woman who wears a helmet, rejects her gender, and delights in feats of strength? Yet she would not choose to be a man, knowing the superior joys of womanhood. What a fine thing for a husband, at an auction of his wife’s effects, to see her belt and armlets and plumes put up for sale, with a greave that covers half the left leg; or if she fights another sort of battle, how charmed you will be to see your young wife disposing of her greaves! Yet these are the women who find the thinnest of thin robes too hot for them; whose delicate flesh is chafed by the finest of silk cloth. See how she pants as she goes through her prescribed exercises; how she bends under the weight of her helmet; how big and coarse are the bandages which enclose her haunches; and then laugh when she lays down her arms and shows herself to be a woman!

Juvenal, Satire 6 (extracts; translation adapted from A.S. Kline)

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Coleman, Kathleen. (2000). “Missio at Halicarnassus.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100: 487-500.
  • McCullough, A. (2008). Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact. The Classical World, 101: 197-209. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from


  • Natalie Hayes discusses the Hunger Games and female gladiators in Rome for the BBC
  • Female Gladiators – an informative and well referenced article from the Notae section of Penelope.


  1. The Amazons, a legendary race of female warriors, were thought to have lived by the River Thermondon. Tanais and Phasis are rivers in Scythia – the Tanais is the modern Don and Phasis is the river Bion. 
  2. Juvenal wrote a number of satires, all about the various evils of different groups.
  3. Laurels being display was a Roman sign of victory.
  4. Presumably the name of a famous gladiator.
  5. Paris is a traditional name for a mime. Juvenal believed women were especially prone to losing themselves completely over mimes and their sexy dancing.
  6. Ludia can refer to an actress, a female gladiator or a gladiator’s wife.
  7. A mythical boy of great beauty, whom the god Apollo loved.
  8. The reference is to a type of coarse cloak worn by athletes.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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