The image of a gladiator in ancient Rome is traditionally male. However, female gladiators – known as ‘gladiatrices’ – existed and, like their male counterparts, they fought each other or wild animals to entertain audiences.
In ancient Rome, gladiatorial fights were popular and widespread throughout the Roman Empire, and they were attended by everyone from the poorest members of society to the emperor. Gladiators were divided into different categories depending on their weapons and fighting styles, and some achieved widespread fame.
The ancient Romans loved novelty, the exotic and the outrageous. Female gladiators encapsulated all three, since they were rare, androgynous and were radically different to most women within ancient Roman society, who had to dress and behave in a more conservative fashion. As a result, gladiatrices became increasingly popular during the late Roman Republic, with their presence sometimes being regarded as proof of the host’s high status and enormous wealth.
Gladiatrices were lower class and had little formal training
Ancient Rome prescribed a number of legal and moral codes to gladiators and gladiatrices. In 22 BC, it was ruled that all men of the senatorial class were prohibited from participating in the games on the penalty of infamia, which involved loss of social status and certain legal rights. In 19 AD, this was extended to include equities and women of citizen rank.
As a result, all who appeared in the arena could be declared infames, which limited the participation of high-status women in the games but would have made little difference to those already defined as one. Roman morality thus required that all gladiators be of the lowest social classes.
As such, gladiatrices were typically low-status (non-citizen) women, who may have been slaves or emancipated slaves (freedwomen). This indicates that discrimination was primarily class-based rather than gender-based.
There is no evidence of a formalised training school or similar for gladiatrices. Some may have trained under private tutors at official youth organisations where young men of over 14 years could learn ‘manly’ skills, including the basic arts of war.
Gladiatrices were controversial
Gladiatrices wore loincloths and fought bare-chested, and they used the same weapons, armour and shields as male gladiators. They fought each other, people with physical disabilities and occasionally wild boars and lions. In contrast, women in ancient Rome traditionally occupied conservative roles within the home and were dressed modestly. Gladiatrices offered a rare and opposing view of femininity that was perceived by some to be exotic, novel and sexually titillating.
However, this was not the case for all. Some regarded gladiatrices as a symptom of corrupted Roman sensibilities, morals and womanhood. Indeed, an Olympic Games under Emperor Septimius Severus that included traditional Greek female athletics was met with cat-calls and jeers, and their appearance in Roman histories is extremely rare, invariably being described by observers as everything from exotic to abhorrent.
From 200 AD female gladiatorial performances were banned on the basis that they were unseemly.
Did gladiatrices really exist?
We only have 10 brief literary references, one epigraphic inscription and one artistic representation from the ancient world offering us an insight into the lives of gladiatrices. Similarly, the Romans had no specific word for female gladiators as a type or class. This speaks both to their rarity and the fact that male historians at the time likely wrote about male gladiators instead.
A testimony from 19 AD states that Emperor Tiberius forbade men and women linked by kinship to the senators or equities to appear in gladiatorial robes. This in itself demonstrates that the possibility of a female gladiator was considered.
In 66 AD, Emperor Nero wanted to impress King Tiridates I of Armenia, so organised gladiatorial games with Ethiopian women fighting each other. A few years later, Emperor Titus implemented duels between gladiatrices at the grand opening of the Colosseum. One of the gladiatrices even killed a lion, which reflected well on Titus as the host of the games. Under Emperor Domitian, there were also fights between gladiatrices, with Roman propaganda marketing them as the ‘Amazonians’.
Most striking is the only surviving artistic depiction of gladiatrices, a relief discovered in what was known as Halicarnassus, now Bodrum in Turkey. Two female fighters known as Amazonia and Achillea, which were stage names, are depicted in a reenactment of the combat between Amazon queen Penthesilea and Greek hero Achilles.
Both women are bareheaded, equipped with a greave (shin protection), a loincloth, belt, rectangular shield, dagger and manica (arm protection). Two rounded objects at their feet likely represent their discarded helmets, while an inscription describes their fight as missio, meaning they were released. It is also written that they fought honourably and the fight ended in a draw.
Ultimately, we know little about gladiatrices. But what we do know offers us an insight into the lives of women in ancient Roman society who defied gender limitations and occasionally achieved widespread fame.