Female Gladiators in Archaeology and Re-enactment
Article by Forum member Medusa.
Many people are still wondering if female gladiators existed or if they are a mere Hollywood fantasy. Yes, they did exist and the Canadian scholar Stephen Brunet did in his article "Female and Dwarf Gladiators" a classification of evidence of female gladiators as follows:
Cassius Dio (61.17.3-4) and Tacitus (Ann. 15.32.3) both report that Nero induced women of highest rank to appear in the arena, but not only noble women but also men of the senatorial and equestrian rank. It is not clear if they refer to the games in 59 AD upon Agrippina's death or to the year 63 AD. But it seems to have been only one occasion where Nero made upper class women become gladiators.
Martial Sp.6 and 6B and Cassius Dio 66.25.2 mention female venatores (beast fighters) at the inauguration games of the Colosseum. Dio praises Titus that the Emperor did not use high class women in this spectacle.
Suetonius Dom. 4.1, Statius Silv. 1.6 and Cassius Dio 67.8.4 testify that Domitian used women for his shows. Statius referring to only one definite occasion, while the other two remain vague about the number of shows.
CIL xiv 5381 & 4616 mentions the duumvir (a kind of mayor) of Ostia being the first one to offer the people of Ostia a gladiatorial show involving women. Because the word mulieres instead of femina is used in the inscription, we can assume that they were not of high status.
In Petronius 45.7, Echion describes that a rather shabby show became a crowd-pleaser because of the appearance of female essedarii (chariot fighters).
Juvenal 1.22-23 is about a venatrix named Mevia who has the habit of killing Tuscan boars and holding spears in her right hand with her breast uncovered.
Juvenal 6.246-267 is about Roman matrons practicing wrestling and playing at being gladiators; going through their gladiatorial training in full armor and heavy helmet. This is not about them appearing in the arena though.
The notice in Athenaeus (4.154a) mentions a man whose will required that the most beautiful female slaves in his household had to fight as gladiators, although in the end this provision was not implemented because the people forbade it as being contrary to law.
The Senatus Consultum of AD 19 from Larinum forbids the appearance on stage of members of the senatorial and equestrian orders, and their participation in certain activities concerning gladiatorial combats. This contemplates that women of the upper class might potentially appear in the arena, but it does not prove that they actually did or that it was a common problem.
Hadrian banned the sale of a slave or maidservant to a pimp or a lanista unless the owner gave a reason for doing so (SHA Hadr. 18.8-9). We can assume that female gladiators came from the same sources as male gladiators, i.e. volunteers but most often by some sort of purchase.
Septimius Severus banned performances by women (Cassius Dio 75.16.1).
Here we have only one definite depiction, i.e. the famous relief from Halicarnassos (today's Bodrum in Turkey), which can be found today at the British Museum, showing the two female gladiators Amazone and Achillia who fought so bravely that they got a draw (stantes missio).
It is not clear if the funerary relief from Maastricht shows two female gladiators, or if the defeated Essedarius is just shown in a womanly manner with his knees together and legs turned in to express his inferiority. According to Marcus Junkelmann, who conducted a vast amount of research on gladiators, this relief shows two male essedarii (chariot fighters); there are no breasts or anything else seen which would imply that they could be women.
Not mentioned by Brunet is an oil lamp exhibited at the museum in Arles, France which shows an erotic representation where the woman sits on the man. In her hands she holds a parmula and a sica which are the small shield and the curved sword of a thraex (Thracian gladiator). It is not clear from the inscription on the lamp if she is a gladiatrix fighting in the armatura of a thraex, or if she is only holding the weapons of her lover.
Further reason for speculation is the grave of a woman which was found in 1996 in London. She was buried at the edge of the cemetery, indicating that she might have been excluded from society. Nonetheless she had received a lavish funeral with a pyre which was erected over a pit, with eight oil lamps that were placed into the pit after the pyre had burned down. One of the lamps shows a defeated gladiator, and three others the Egyptian death god Anubis, who was seen as the Roman Mercurius. Furthermore, there were eight tazze (cups for burning incense) in which pine cones were burned. It is not clear if she was a gladiatrix or just a fan of gladiatorial games.
Stephen Brunet also pointed out in his article that the misconception that women gladiators fought against dwarfs is derived from six passages mentioned by ancient authors. But when having a closer look at what they are writing it says that Emperor Domitian liked to have spectacular games and therefore had munera at torch light and women and dwarfs appearing at his shows. But they were never pitched against each other, but only appeared at the same occasion.
Combat between female gladiators was a serious undertaking allowing the women to show the courage normally expected only of men, but the ancient authors point out the outstanding martial valor of women gladiators. Amazons were traditionally the only women able to match men in bravery on the battlefield, and this was represented by female gladiators. Matching women against dwarfs would not allow them to demonstrate their real skill with weapons; in fights between gladiators both opponents should have an equal chance. This was also a reason why women were not matched against men, because then the chances would have been to the disadvantage of the woman. Therefore, women were matched only against other women, or when talking about venatores, against animals such as boars.
Not much is known from the ancient sources about gladiatorial training. The main source is the hallmark book by Dr. Marcus Junkelmann when it comes to gladiatorial re-enactment. He was the first doing gladiatorial fights as experimental archaeology. He mentions that the basic training of a tiro (recruit) gladiator was similar to that of a legionary recruit as described in Vegetius' Epitoma Rei Militaris. Also, he finally shed light onto the various types of gladiators, which in most older works are classified incorrectly.
Following his classification and the interpretation by Kathleen Coleman in her article "Missio at Halicarnassos" I fight in the armature of a provocator. On the aforementioned relief found at Halicarnassos (today's Bodrum in Turkey) the women wear the armor of provocatrices, though due to artistic reasons the pectorales (breast plates) are not shown but bare breasts to make clear that they are women. I wear the subligaculum (loincloth) as all gladiators did and as is shown on that relief as well. Concerning the breast band there is only the mosaic available showing several women executing different kinds of sports and gymnastics found at Piazza Armerina, the mosaic of the so-called "Bikini Girls". Some of them are shown with a strap across their shoulder so I tried to reconstruct this and have found a solutions which is workable so that nothing could slide down during a fight.
Since not much is known about how to use the weapons it is logical thinking of how to do it and the advice from other re-enactors such as legionaries who have already experience with the scutum. The way of throwing the net is a try-and-error method by our retiarius who already tried out various versions.
At the moment I cannot fight in the attested pairing i.e. against another provocatrix because I still lack another female fighter so I fight my murmillo instead for the time being. The pairing murmillo against a provocator is shown on a earthen ware pilgrims flask dating 2nd to 3rd century AD. Usually the provocator fought against another provocator and the murmillo against a thraex or hoplomachus. But in an itinerant troupe when not enough fighters were available the provocator fought the other scutarius like the murmillo.
For further information on my gladiator impression and my gladiator group please visit my homepage.
Did you know...
There is evidence that Roman women especially idolized gladiators, sometimes to the dismay of their husbands. The mother of Commodus, Faustina, is said to have preferred the gladiator Martianus over her husband, Marcus Aurelius.