The Dangerous Pastime of the Daughters of Rome

Some months ago my girlfriend, who was reading an Anne Rice novel (I don’t know which), asked me if female gladiators existed in ancient Rome. At the time I dismissed this notion as the artistic licence of a cult vampire novelist. However, I was recently proven wrong in my previous assumptions about women fighting in the arena in ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome was, by any standard, a patriarchal society. The Empire was run exclusively by men from the Emperor and the Senate down to the Imperial Army. Women were recognized as playing an influential role from behind the scenes as the wives of important men. Occasionally the women of the Imperial family could even expect to wield, openly, enormous power over the state. Galla Placidia, in the 5th century, is a great example of this and acted as regent for the Emperor Valentinian III for fourteen years. However, women like Galla Placidia were the exception, not the rule, and women could not realistically expect a life where they stood as equals to men.

Similarly female gladiators were a rarity for whom there is little archaeological evidence. What evidence we do have for gladiatrices (plural of gladiatrix – feminine of gladiator) primarily come from sources admonishing or banning them. The oldest source we have for the gladiatrices comes from the reign of the 2nd Roman Emperor, Tiberius. Known as the Larinum decree, it specifically banned “any female whose husband or father or grandfather, whether paternal or maternal or brother had ever possessed the right of sitting in the seats reserved for the equites” from practicing or making paid appearances as gladiators (equites, literally meaning horsemen, were the Roman equivalent of the knightly classes of medieval Europe and were the first rank of nobility). This decree implies that the practice of women gladiators was relatively common enough for the Emperor to feel the need to intervene in this apparently frowned-upon practice.

The earliest explicit reference for gladiatrices fighting in the arena comes from the historian Tacitus in 63 AD who writes, that a certain Patrobius arranged games on behalf of the Emperor Nero to honour Tiridates, the former king of Armenia; the games were full of unusual offerings, including women warriors. According to Tacitus there was even a gladiatrix fighting from a chariot during the Satyricon (an exhibition based on some historical or legendary event like the scene in Gladiator when Maximus fights a recreation of the Battle of Carthage). This chariot is described as being “Celtic style” which implies that it could have been a reenactment of the revolt of Boadicea in Britain only three years previously. The 3rd century historian Cassius Dio further explores the topic of female gladiators during the reign of Nero. According to Dio Nero used to force the wives and children of senators (who presumably had crossed him) to fight in the amphitheatres. However, no other evidence exists for Dio’s assertions and it is possible that he is simply trying to further blacken Nero’s already tarnished name.

Further references of gladiatrix come from Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars when he refers to the reign of the eleventh Emperor, Domitian. According to Suetonius Domitian enjoyed torch-lit spectacle between dwarves and women. The women are described as fighting bare-chested and not wearing helmets. The important Roman games were usually held during the night implying that these fights between dwarves and gladiatrices were used as “filler” between events.

A later reference to gladiatrices comes in the form of a satire by Juvenal during the reign of the thirteenth Emperor Trajan who described them as being the butch daughters of Rome’s upper-class:

Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter

Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres?

These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora.

Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing for the arena itself.

How can a woman be decent sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?

Manly feats they adore, but they wouldn’t want to be men,

Poor weak things (they think), how little they really enjoy it!

What a great honour it is for a husband to see, at an auction

Where his wife’s effects are up for sale, belts, shin-guards, arm-protectors and plumes!

Hear her grunt and groan as she works at it, parrying, thrusting;

See her neck bent down under the weight of her helmet.

Look at the rolls of bandage and tape, so her legs look like tree-trunks,

Then have a laugh for yourself, after the practice is over,

Armour and weapons put down, and she squats as she used the vessel.

Ah, degenerate girls from the line of our praetors and consuls,

Tell us, whom have you seen got up in any such fashion,

Panting and sweating like this? No gladiator’s wench,

No tough strip-tease broad would ever so much as attempt it.

Juvenal’s assertion that the gladiatrices came from Rome’s upper-class is supported by some modern historians who assert that there are no records of any gladiator schools training women. This would suggest that they received private tuition in the Collegia Iuvenum. These schools were regularly used by the wealthy for training men (over the age of fourteen) in martial arts. There are references to women attending these colleges.

This assertion that gladiatrices were from wealthy backgrounds gained new currency in 2001 when a Roman female skeleton was unearthed in Southwark, London. This skeleton’s identification as a gladiatrix (she is displayed as such at the Museum of London) is controvesial among historians. It is clear that she was wealthy from the amount and quality of the objects unearthed with her but the fact that she was buried outside the Roman city marks her out as a social outcast. What makes some believe she was a gladiatrix is that she was buried with several urns displaying gladiator fights as well as a bowl full of burnt Stone Pine cones which were traditionally burnt during gladiator games.

Whilst female gladiators may have not have been common they certainly existed. However, they do not appear to have been gladiators in the traditional sense. Rather they seemed to have mostly been used as freak shows and filler acts between the main gladiator fights. The social stigma against them also did not abate and Emperor Septimus Severus banned the gladiatrices completely in 200 AD although a later inscription in Ostia refers to women competing in the arena suggesting that the ban was ineffective. It is likely that the gladiatrices died out along with their male counterparts when the blood sports were outlawed when Christianity became the official Roman religion in the 5th century.

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