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
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 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
The Emperor Titus held games for the inauguration of the Colosseum; these games included with female .
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.
, Epitome Book 66
His brother and successor 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. 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 – let ancient belief be silent! For after your , Caesar, for we now admit that this has been done by a woman warrior.
Martial, On Spectacles 6b
Juvenal, in a satire on the evils of women, talks of high-born ladies running off and training with gladiators.
Decorate your doors and doorposts with wreaths of laurel, so your noble son, Lentulus, may show in his tortoiseshell cradle the face of Euryalus or of a !
When Eppia, the senator’s wife, ran off with a gladiator to Pharos and the Nile and the ill-famed city of Lagus, 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 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? 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! 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.…
Why do I need to talk of the woollen cloaks 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 www.jstor.org/stable/25471938
- 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.
- Marble relief with female gladiators, 1st-2nd century AD, from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey), British Museum © Photo by Carole Raddato is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Gladiator-Bärenkampf © Uploaded by BC Thurner Hof is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Mosaic museum Istanbul 2007 011 is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Female gladiator © Uploaded by Adi08 is licensed under a Public Domain license
- 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. ↵
- Juvenal wrote a number of satires, all about the various evils of different groups. ↵
- Laurels being display was a Roman sign of victory. ↵
- Presumably the name of a famous gladiator. ↵
- Paris is a traditional name for a mime. Juvenal believed women were especially prone to losing themselves completely over mimes and their sexy dancing. ↵
- Ludia can refer to an actress, a female gladiator or a gladiator’s wife. ↵
- A mythical boy of great beauty, whom the god Apollo loved. ↵
- The reference is to a type of coarse cloak worn by athletes. ↵
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born outside Italy, possibly in Gaul, to an equestrian family and went on to become a senator and eventually consul. One of the greatest Roman historians, whose histories do not survive intact. He wrote the Annals and Histories which survive in part; and a biography of his father-in-law Agricola (the Agricola), an ethnographic work on Germany (the Germania), and one on oratory (the Dialogue on Oratory): these last three are extant.
Beast hunts, sometimes in staged settings. A wide range of domestic and exotic animals were hunted. Although dangerous, a venatio was not necessarily fatal for the hunters, who were given weapons and had some protection.
A trained beast hunter. Not to be confused with criminals who were thrown to the beasts as a form of execution; although fighting wild animals is never going to be a safe endeavour, these were trained professionals, who were armed. There was a ludus in Rome dedicated to training them, the Ludus Matutinus. Venatores were usually part of the morning show.
A consul and a historian, he wrote in Greek. He wrote a 60 book history of Rome from the landing of Aeneas in Italy until 229 CE. Some of the history is extant in its original form, some of it only exists in epitomes or summaries by a range of later authors. His name is sometimes written Dio Cassius.
The third and last of the emperors of the Flavian Dynasty, Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus, he ruled from 81-91. He was assassinated by the Senate and is remembered in the historical record as an example of imperial cruelty and viciousness.
A mythical Greek hero who performed many labours. One of those was killing a great lion.
Literally “gift”, “duty”, or “favour”, particularly one owed to the dead. As gladiatorial shows were given to honour the dead and in accordance with vows they were called munera. A munus in this sense was a private obligation and thus the cost was paid by whoever vowed it, not the state. Later the munera were integrated into the other games and incorporated into imperial spectacles.
A heavily armed gladiator whose helmet had a decorative murmillo, a type of salt-water fish, on it. He had a large oblong shield behind which he crouched and used a gladius, a short thrusting sword.
An town in Egypt on the Nile Delta.