Gladiatrix: This Is What Life Was Like For Female Gladiators In Ancient Rome

By | February 1, 2021

The Way Female Gladiators Were Seen In Ancient Rome

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Were there female gladiators in Ancient Rome? Of course there were, and they often fought animals and children due to their highly patriarchal (in the traditional sense of the word) society, but they were a part of culture, and were valued, although rare, entertainers at popular events or festivals. They were popular kind of how exotic dancers, fire breathers, professional wrestlers, or Cameos app gifts are today: they were not the norm of how people entertained themselves, but they certainly weren't an invisible part of the media landscape, and were meant for special occasions.

Roman history rarely mentions Gladiatrices, because once again, it was very much a patriarchal society, and not like how people use it on social media today, there really was less of an equality-kick than what we're experiencing these days, so whenever Ancient Roman female gladiators show up in Roman histories, they were mostly "exotic markers of truly lavish spectacle." They weren't exactly taken seriously, and they were brought to various kings and people of great importance to try to impress them with something outlandish. The marketing used to shine light on the kind of fight that people would be watching when they watched a female gladiator is not at all unlike how female WWE wrestlers are marketed today.

If you watched the cancelled-too-soon Netflix show GLOW, you know about characters like Zoya the Destroya, a Soviet "heel" (which means "villain," in wrestling terms) from the '80s era based on a real wrestler from that same time period. There's also Liberty Belle, an All-American, "patriotic" hero who celebrates and upholds the "truth, justice, and the American way." Based on real characters from an actual wrestling league from the 1980s in the United States, none of these characters are people who existed, but are characters that were portrayed for a fringe group of audiences through the '80s until they gained at least ancillary recognition in the media in general. Female gladiators were not at all unlike this, because their fights were sold as "Amazonian." Writings from 89 AD feature this description of female gladiators, and is one of the only real writings about the concept of the Gladiatrix. Writings of them are rare, but are always exaggerated and meant to provide novelty or spectacle. 

The Marketing and Tone Behind Ancient Roman Gladiatrices

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In 66 AD, the guy credited with watching Rome burn and with playing a fiddle while it happened (which is apocryphal since fiddles didn't even exist at the time), Nero, apparently had Ethopian women and children fight as part of a "Munus" to impress King Tiridates I of Armenia. Now, to understand what that even means you kind of need to know what a munus was. Gladiator fights weren't like monster truck rallies. You didn't just show up and have Grave Digger grace the stage within an hour of when you got there. All the pomp and fanfare that you see in movies and TV were real. A "munus" was a whole darn thing. These events would start out with a procession led by bodyguards and servants of the people throwing the event, who would show off displays of what was essentially that ruler's coat of arms called a "fasces." This was meant to "signify the magistrate-editor's power over life and death." Then, literal trumpeters would come out and play an actual fanfare while images of deities adorned everything so that every act in the munus would be "seen" by the gods. This was then followed by a scribe who was the ancient Roman version of a sports announcer as well as the TV and referee since he would record the outcome of the minus. A man would then come out carrying palm branches that the victors would be honored with, after which the magistrate-editor would come out and set down the arms and shields and armor that the gladiators would use.

Now, in Ancient Rome, gladiators were very much like MMA fighters both in fame and in riches (for the most popular ones, to the point where the highest paid athlete of all time, adjusted for inflation, is still a Roman Gladiator. They also had sponsorships. Read our article on this if you have the time.) So, imagine that Connor McGregor would usually come out, but in this case, you brought out something completely out of the ordinary. This is what Nero did when he brought out Ethiopian men, women, and children to fight for a minus. The idea was supposedly novel, entertaining, and meant at least in some form to be completely absurd.

One Gladiatrix was named "Mevia," a beast-hunter who killed boars in the arena "with a spear in hand and breasts exposed." There was one named "Petronius" who mocked the pretensions of a rich, low-class citizen whose whole schtick (or "munus," as in the whole spectacle) featured her fighting from a chariot or a cart, showing her exalted privilege while still being kind of trashy.

Some of the only evidence of female fighters feature nameforms in a Relief where two are fighting and are named Amazonia and Achillea. Not at all unlike female WWE wrestlers now. The nice part about this particular relief is that it describes that they may have fought tooth and nail to the point of finally meeting an honorable "tie."