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

By Brian Gilmore

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." 

The Social Stigma of Being a Female Gladiator

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There's actually little to no evidence for female gladiators even receiving any kind of training. Ancient Rome had many a gladiator schools, but scholars have suggested that some women may have trained in "Collegia luvenum" which were basically schools for kids to learn how to become more masculine. This is likely the only place where a woman would be allowed to learn at this time.

Now, being a Roman Gladiator meant that you were of a low class. As of 22 BC, any men of senatorial class (except for equites) all the way down to their grandchildren were not allowed to participate in games, or else they would face "infamia" which meant that they would lose certain legal rights and be considered of lower citizen rank. So therefore, any arenarii, people who were part of arena games, were all technically "infames." This was a purely class-driven, and not gender-driven bias, though, which meant that women who were already considered to be of lower class all had the opportunity to become gladiators/gladiatrices. Caligula, for example, didn't respect this and made infames of upper class citizens, and he held in poor regard for this. Titus, on the other hand, used female gladiators of "acceptably low class" and was lauded for his efforts.

An inscription from around 200 AD has mention of female gladiators and describes them as low class, some of them suffering from being seen as self-indulgent and bringing shame on themselves, their gender, and Rome's "social order." Female beast hunters on the other hand had great reputations for courage and skill (but still faced the fact that they were essentially low class citizens for their achievements). One woman killed a lion, known as a Herculean feat, which reflected well on her magistrate-editor Titus. But then there were women like Mevia, who hunted boars "like a man," and then squatted down to urinate in front of a stadium full of people.

Female gladiators were a sign that something was amiss or a symptom of corruption or poor morals and sensibilities, in general. One emperor, Commodus, included traditional Greek female athletics in Olympic Games and was met with cat-calls and jeers from the entire crowd, banning that practice as of 200 AD.

Gladiators received special burials upon their death, usually in separate cemeteries usually meant for people of their class and profession. There is one cremation burial from 2001 that was somewhat apocryphally, but very possibly, a female gladiator buried outside the cemetery with Anubis pottery lamps, who would lead her into the afterlife. Her burial held the image of a lamp, a fallen gladiator, and Pine Stone Pine cones used like burning sage to fragrance the area. This apparently is "~70% probable," but is also likely to have been an enthusiast or a gladiator's lover, but given the amount of credit that the society chose to give women at the time, it's quite likely that many remains of any kind of recognition were the best that anyone could get at the time, for what were likely more impressive, huge, and more challenging achievements than that of their male counterparts. Female gladiators were a force to be reckoned with since they had to overcome their status, social class, gender, lack of training, and physicality, to even get some of then recognition; but you are reading about them, and about how great they likely were, on a history site, so all justice has not been lost to the history books or the ages. 

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.