12 Female Gladiators and Spectators
INTRODUCTION TO FEMALE GLADIATORS
A relative rarity within the arena, the Romans never developed a standardized terminology to describe female gladiators. Ludia, despite popular misunderstanding, refers to a gladiator’s wife, mistress, or woman who works or is enslaved at a training school for gladiators, not a female gladiator, and the term gladiatrix is of contemporary origin. Often fighting bare-breasted under noms de guerre against other women in the arena, there is not enough evidence to say how they may have ended up in gladiatorial schools, although many of them were likely sold as slaves. Their performances were genuine events, intended to provoke amazement through their portrayal of a male role and their resemblance to the Amazons, a legendary race of female warriors. Elite women were also interested in gladiatorial combat, however, and it was this breach of traditional social structure, rather than their gender, that warranted censure. The romans differentiated between a femina, or high-class woman, and a mulier, or lower-class woman. From the Roman perspective, a respectable individual of any gender should not debase themselves by providing entertainment or spectacle for an audience. It was degrading for anyone of a senatorial or equestrian class to participate in the arena, while they seem to have had no issue with the participation of lower-class women. the earliest account of women in the arena dates to the reign of Nero [54-68 CE], under whom Dio recalls upper-class women driving chariots, hunting beasts, and fighting as gladiators in the arena. Domitian [81-96 CE] also included mulieres in his games [86 CE], to which he received no criticism that we have evidence of. Under Septimius Severus in the third century CE, women of any status were banned from facing each other in the arena, echoing an earlier edict by Tiberius [DATES] limiting the participation of senatorial and equestrian citizens in the arena more broadly.
DEPICTIONS OF FEMALE GLADIATORS
The following is an image of a significant piece of archaeological evidence for the role of female gladiators, a 2nd century CE marble slab from Halicarnassus that was acquired by the British Museum in 1856 . Its relief sculpture depicts two women wearing traditional gladiatorial attire, including loincloths, greaves, and arm protectors, facing off against each other as paired opponents with curved, oblong shields. Their breasts and heads are bare, although their upright helmets can be seen on either side of the podium near their feet. An inscription on the podium records their stage names, Amazon and Achillia, in Greek, while the inscription above their heads records the result of their match. Both women have been judged stantes missae, which means they have fought to a draw and have been granted temporary reprieve by the sponsor of the games. Following this judgement, they would have been dismissed and allowed to return to their barracks for further training and fighting.
Such a monument “marks an engagement that is worthy of commemoration both for the rarity of its outcome and for the fact that its protagonists are women” (Coleman 2000, 495). The removal and placement of their helmets, in conjunction with the inscription granting them missio, or reprieve, is also symbolic of the outcome of their fight and the women’s acceptance. It also indicates that their performance was in fact regarded as a legitimate gladiatorial event bound by traditional rules and regulations. There is no explicit indication that female gladiators were ever considered parodies or informal combatants. It is also important to note that women in the arena, regardless of status, are often associated with both private and state wealth. This relief was likely expensive to commission, and thus was indicative of the sponsor’s wealth.
FEMALE GLADIATORS OUTSIDE OF ROME
A partially preserved inscription from Ostia, the port of Rome, offers the only other definitive evidence for female gladiators outside of Rome. Dated to the mid to late second century CE, it commemorates the magistrate Hostilianus as the first person to provide a gladiatorial show incorporating women since the founding of Rome. The wording used, ad ferrum dedit, has been translated as “to provide women for the sword”, and thus it may potentially be understood that the women were in fact being sentenced to execution in the arena. The majority of academic sources, however, agree that it is more likely they participated in the games as gladiators.
Some scholars date the inscription to the mid second century, on account of the emperor Septimius Severus’ ban on the performance of aristocratic women towards the end of the century. According to Coleman (2000), however, the use of the term mulieres implies that the women involved were not of high status . Thus, the text may also be dated to a period after Septimius Severus’ ban, as the participation of lower-class women, as opposed to the more aristocratic feminae, would not have violated the restrictions. Additionally, this particular inscription is significant in that it indicates the infrequency with which women appeared in the arena. Based on the pride in Hostilianus’ claim to be the first provider of female gladiators, as late as the second century CE and in a relatively large and central city, it seems evident that female gladiatorial fights were in fact an uncommon, and likely expensive, phenomenon.
In this passage, the historian Tacitus [56-120 CE] discusses seating arrangements in the arena under the Emperor Nero [54-68 CE] in the year 63 CE. In the arena, spectators were divided into various tiers according to their gender and social status . The first tier was a place of honour reserved for the emperor, senators, and other important governmental and religious figures, including the Vestal Virgins. The second tier was reserved for the equites, members of the equestrian class who were in charge of administration and finance. They were followed by ordinary Roman citizens, called plebeians, and lastly by all other women, despite their status, and freed slaves.
Importantly, Tacitus also references elite women appearing in the arena. Here, “matron” is a popular translation of femina , the Latin for a woman of high class who was considered worthy of respect. Such women included the daughters and wives of free-born Roman citizens. The emphasis is not placed on the fact that Nero is hosting games featuring female gladiators, but on the participation of women, and men, of a senatorial, equestrian, or otherwise respectable social class, as it was considered degrading for citizens of such a rank to perform in the arena in any capacity.
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
Historian Cassius Dio [c. 150-235 CE] and poet Statius [45-96 AD] provide further evidence for female gladiators. Chronicling the Emperor Domitian’s [81-96 CE] elaborate festival in affiliation with the Saturnalia, one of the most popular celebrations in honour of the Roman god Saturn, they record him as having women fight alongside dwarfs in the Colosseum. While some sources claim that female gladiators fought directly against dwarves in these games, Brunet (2004) problematizes this understanding, proposing that while dwarfs and female gladiators may have performed during the same spectacles, there is no definitive evidence that they ever appeared together in the arena. Gladiatorial opponents were intended to be fairly matched, and female gladiators and dwarfs were likely quite disparate in terms of size, strength, and armour. An alternative reading of the passages may suggest that Domitian in fact matched women with other women, and dwarfs with dwarfs. Brunet (2004) credits the popular pairing of female gladiators with dwarfs to an understanding of women as novelty spectacles.
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
PERCEPTIONS OF FEMALE GLADIATORS
poems regarding Emperor Domitian’s inaugural games for the colosseum in 80 CE also provide evidence of female gladiators. He goes as far as to compare a female gladiator to Venus herself, a goddess associated with victory and imperial power.
It is not enough that warlike Mars serves you with his unconquerable weapons, Caesar: 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
Juvenal, in a heavily problematic and misogynistic satire on the evils of women, talks of high-born ladies running off and training with gladiators. It is largely directed towards those rich, high-status matrons whom he considers to have lost all sense of their dignity and responsibilities as women. According to his criticism, noblewomen betray not only their gender, but more seriously their social order. This is evident in his emphasis on matrons practicing for the arena. In his eyes, by training to be a gladiator and performing in the games, women not only bring shame to themselves and their family, but also to the senatorial and equestrian orders more publicly. Thus, Juvenal is illustrating the perceived threat that made female gladiators so problematic, that of an upset social rather than a simple violation of traditional gender roles. Additionally, his note that female gladiators were the same women who “find the thinnest of thin robes too hot for them; whose delicate flesh is chafed by the finest of silk cloth” emphasises their association with the elite as representations of indulgence, both personal, in the case of noblewomen, and public, in the case of sponsors who sought such expensive novelty acts.
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 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 home, she shamelessly abandoned her weeping children; and–more marvellous still–deserted Paris and the games. Though born wealthy, though as a baby 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 6.82-133 (extracts; translation adapted from A.S. Kline)
- 17590535705_cafee88404_o (1)
- 200 CE ↵
- See Coleman (2000). ↵
- Originally members of the cavalry selected from the senatorial class. They later became members of a distinct political, financial, and administrative equestrian class just below the senators in rank. ↵
- A large and open-air building used for various public events, often including chariot racing and other performances. ↵
- A law passed by tribune Lucius Roscius Otho in 67 BCE that reserved the first fourteen rows in theatres for the equestrians as the second noble class. These seats were directly behind the podium reserved for the emperor, Senators, Vestal Virgins, and priests. ↵
- A matron was free-born and respectable woman who was usually married. ↵
- The Amazons were a legendary race of female warriors who were thought to live by the River Thermondon. ↵
- Tanais and Phasis are rivers in Scythia – the Tanais is the modern Don and Phasis is the river Bion. ↵
- The Roman god of war. ↵
- Roman goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. ↵
- References the first labour of Hercules in Greek mythology, in which he kills the Nemean lion. ↵
- Singular munus. A gift or service, often performed out of obligation for the benefit of a community or the Roman state on behalf of a high-status individual. See glossary for further information. ↵
- A specific reference to female venatores. These individuals participated in staged hunts including a variety of wild animals. ↵
- Presumably the name of a famous gladiator. ↵
- A type of gladiator who fought with a rectangular, curved shield and straight sword. They also wore a distinctive, wide-brimmed helmet with a crest in the image of a fish. ↵
- An ancient Egyptian town ↵
- Paris is a traditional name for a mime. ↵
- Ludia can refer to an actress, a female gladiator or a gladiator’s wife. ↵
- Men in ancient Rome were often considered most attractive when they were younger, before going through puberty. ↵
- A mythical boy of great beauty, whom the god Apollo loved. ↵
- Aulus Didius Fabricius Veiento. A Roman politician who was exiled in 62 CE for defaming priests and senators. Here it may be meant to be a reference to any highly aristocratic man, given that this was an ancient Roman family. ↵
- This reference is to a type of coarse cloak worn by athletes. ↵
- Gladiators were organised and trained according to their classification. Training focused largely on a wooden post called a palus, against which gladiators practiced by repetitively stabbing with their swords and striking with their shields in order to perfect their techniques. ↵
- A recurring public festival instituted in 238 BCE in honour of Flora, the goddess of blooming plants and flowers. Celebrations included games and various mimic and theatrical performances, often involving naked actresses and prostitutes. ↵
- Auctions were often used to humiliate or honour individuals through the public exhibition of their effects and patrimony. They were also sometimes employed as economic strategies. Caligula [37-41 CE] is recorded as having sold paraphernalia from the circus and surviving gladiators. ↵
- A type of leg armour that protects the shin, stretching from the ankle to just below the knee. ↵
Marcus Valerius Martialis was a Latin poet whose poetic language was influenced by Catullus, Horace, and Ovid. He was born in Augusta Bilbilis, in Hispania (present day Spain). He wrote many vicious epigrams attacking various members and groups of Roman society as well as a number of poems about spectacle. His earliest work the Liber spectaculorum, the Book of Spectacles, was published for the opening of the Colosseum by Titus, but the version we have now is one published under Domitian, Titus’ successor.