Although their existence is often overlooked, female gladiators fought, died and could even win their freedom from the Roman arena.
In films like Gladiator, the depiction of Roman fighters within the Colosseum or the myriad other amphitheaters around the Mediterranean that hosted gladiatorial shows are often exclusively male. When women are presented in the arena today, they are often cast as victims. The example of the 3rd century CE early Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas being killed within the amphitheater at Carthage is just one example. Film and TV might lead the modern viewer to see women as passive parts of the Roman games, but in reality, both literary and archaeological examples attest to the use of trained female fighters within the arena.
The use of the word 'gladiatrix' (pl. gladiatrices) is a pseudo-Latin term for these fighters not actually applied in antiquity. In reality, there was a great deal of ambiguity about how one should refer to them. The Roman satirists Martial and Juvenal employ the word 'ludia', which could also be used to refer to an actress or a theatrical dancer, but is most often used to refer to a gladiator's wife.
The status of these fighters is an oft-discussed point in the literature on these women. Those that were a part of the arena were given a debilitating legal and social stigma called infamia. Yet this did not stop some Roman elites from fighting anyways. The historian Tacitus notes that during the reign of Nero, there were high-ranking women who entered into gladiatorial combat and fought: "Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheater." Historian Barbara Levick has argued that the ban on elite women participating in the arena likely first came into effect under the emperor Augustus, in 22 BCE. We know that the emperor Septimius Severus re-banned elite women from fighting in the arena in 200 CE. Clearly there was a lure for both men and women.
Women who chose a life in the arena – and it does seem this was a choice – may have been motivated by a desire for independence, a chance at fame, and financial rewards including remission of debt. Although it seems a woman gave up any claim to respectability as soon as she entered the arena, there is some evidence to suggest that female gladiators were honored as highly as their male counterparts. Women in Rome – whether during time of the Republic or the later Empire – had few freedoms and were defined by their relationship to men. Scholar Brian K. Harvey writes:
"Unlike men’s virtues, women were praised for their home and married life. Their virtues included sexual fidelity (castitas), a sense of decency (pudicitia), love for her husband (caritas), marital concord (concordia), devotion to family (pietas), fertility (fecunditas), beauty (pulchritude), cheerfulness (hilaritas), and happiness (laetitia)…As exemplified by the power of the paterfamilias [husband or father, head of the house], Rome was a patriarchal society. (59)"
Whether upper or lower class, women were expected to adhere to traditional expectations of behavior. Women’s status is made clear through the many works by male writers which deal with the subject in depth and well as various legislative decrees. It is not known how women felt about their position since almost all the extant literature from Rome is written by men. Harvey notes that “we have almost no literary source that reveals a woman’s perspective on her own life or the role of women in general” (59).