Overview

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.

Evidence

Female-gladiator fights appear to have been rare spectacles in the Roman Empire. But new analysis of a statue in a German museum adds to the evidence that trained women did fight to the death in ancient amphitheaters, a new study says.

The bronze statuette is only the second known representation of a female gladiator, according to study author Alfonso Manas, of Spain's University of Granada. The roughly 2,000-year-old artwork, which resides at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg, shows a bare-chested woman in a loincloth brandishing a scythe-like object in her left hand.

Manas believes the woman is holding a sica, a short, curved sword associated with a type of gladiator known as a thraex, or Thracian. Thraexes typically fought in plumed helmets, with small shields and metal leg guards called greaves. Their unarmored backs were particularly vulnerable—and were likely ripe targets for sica. Experts had previously interpreted the curved implement as a strigil, which Romans used for scraping the body clean.

The woman's pose, though, doesn't support that explanation, Manas said. If she were washing herself, "raising the cleaning tool in her hand while she's looking at the ground doesn't make sense," Manas said. Furthermore, "she is wearing a cloth around her genital area," he added. "If she is cleaning herself, she would be completely naked." The figure's lowered head and raised arm—"a typical victory gesture of gladiators" in Roman art—instead suggest a gladiator standing over her defeated rival, according to Manas.

The only other known visual record of female gladiators is a first- or second-century A.D. relief from a Roman site in Bodrum, Turkey (now in the British Museum). The scarcity of such finds suggests that the ancient world staged relatively few all-female contests, although Roman writers do refer to them. There are eyewitness accounts of female gladiators in Rome itself, and, according to the first-century historian Suetonius, Emperor Domitian made women fight by torchlight at night. In A.D. 200 another emperor, Septimius Severus, banned female contests. Manas added that the origin of the Hamburg museum statuette isn't known, however, "it's in the style of the Italian peninsula in the first century A.D."