Romans watched women fight to the death in the arena.
We have both literary and archaeological evidence for female gladiators in the Roman world, but the evidence is sparse, often vague, and usually misleading if taken out of context. A female gladiator is now often referred to as a gladiatrix, but this word is not attested in ancient literature.
One of the main problems we face in understanding female gladiators is that Roman writers often don’t specify the performer’s purpose within the entertainment, and an appearance in the arena does not mean that a woman is a gladiator. Women could perform in the morning beast hunts, either as untrained and usually doomed bestiarii, or highly skilled venatores. Neither class was considered a gladiator.
Women could also be executed amongst the noxii (condemned criminals) during the lunchtime intermission. Some executions involved the condemned being forced to fight a gladiator or face a beast blindfolded, or with a wooden weapon, and yet the criminal was not considered a gladiator. Some of these women gained fame upon their death, many as Christian martyrs such as Perpetua and Felicity, who were canonised for the bravery they displayed during their execution in Carthage’s amphitheatre.
True gladiators were highly trained, valuable fighters who fought bouts in the afternoon of the day’s entertainment. There were several categories based on style and equipment, and the bout had strict rules which we sadly cannot fully reconstruct, though we know from depictions in art that each bout was carefully monitored by referees. When a writer says they saw a woman “appear in the arena”, unless they specify exactly what they witnessed the woman do it is difficult to categorise that woman as a gladiator.
So let’s look at what the writers do say:
The first mention we have of women fighting in the arena comes from the reign of Nero; upper-class ladies fought in hand to hand combat in games he staged as part of a festival to honour his recently murdered mother Agrippina in around 59-60 AD (Cassius Dio 61.17).
Elsewhere, Dio also mentions women appearing at Puteoli’s amphitheatre within a group of Ethiopians during games staged in honour of Tiridates of Armenia in 66 AD. The problem is, Dio doesn’t state what the Ethiopians were doing there, but the mention of wild animals elsewhere in the passage suggests that the group may have been part of a staged hunt and not combat (Cassius Dio 63.3).
Tacitus also writes about women participating in the arena throughout the mid-60s AD, presumably in Rome, though the only specifics he gives are that they were all women of high rank and that they ‘disgraced’ themselves with their appearance. (Tacitus, Annals 15.32)
Dio makes it clear that not all the high-ranking participants he mentions were willing, and Tacitus is also of the opinion that Nero was not a man one could refuse. Considering the characterisation of Nero given by Roman historians and the infamia that came with gladiatorial combat, it seems safe to assume that the female fighters were coerced into the arena, possibly to humiliate them or their patrician husbands. Romans were comfortable watching blood sports, but participation was reserved for outsiders. Should we count these ladies among trained gladiators? Probably not.
The Colosseum was completed in 80 AD and Titus threw magnificent inaugural games; by now Roman audiences craved and expected novelty. In the epigrams written to commemorate the event, Martial wrote (On Spectacles 7(6)):
It is not enough that warrior Mars serves you in unconquered arms, Caesar! Venus serves you too.
By which he meant that Titus has included women in his roster of performers. But does Martial mention female gladiators? He mentions a female venator who wowed the crowd by slaying a lion, just as Hercules had at Nemea (8(6b)). Evidently this venator was extremely talented and meticulously trained, but she was not a gladiator.
The other woman Martial mentions is again compared to myth; Titus has proved that even the most fantastical of myths are credible, for a condemned woman was fatally raped by a specially trained bull in a violent recreation of Pasiphae mating with the Dictaean bull. Titus drew great praise for making the dull (by Roman standards) lunchtime executions more interesting by recreating myths (see Coleman 1990), but this unfortunate woman cannot be classed as a gladiator.
Dio also wrote about the 100 days of inaugural games, but the only women he mentions are female venators hunting the exotic beasts imported for this purpose (Dio 66.25). Here, Dio is careful to specify that these women weren’t highborn, so their participation was acceptable.
Given the detail both men devote to the marvellous innovations of Titus’ games it is safe to assume that female gladiators were not presented by him, but his brother Domitian certainly did. Suetonius records that he presented all kinds of expensive shows regularly, including nocturnal gladiator fights by torchlight. Suetonius rather helpfully states clearly that women fought as gladiators on the same roster as their male colleagues (Suetonius, Life of Domitian 4).
Statius published a poem describing a show Domitian provided for a Saturnalia festival in the early 90s AD. He is awestruck by the fighting women. He describes them as ‘audax’ - bold and courageous enough to fight in a masculine fashion (Statius, Silvae 1.6):
One would think them troops of Thermodon in battle heat!
Thermodon being the mythical homeland of the fierce Amazons. These women and their enthusiasm obviously left a clear impression on Statius, but he also clearly specifies that they are “untrained and ignorant of weaponry.”
Two cemeteries have been firmly identified as gladiator burial sites, at York and Ephesus. Archaeologists found no female skeletal remains in either, and no female skeleton elsewhere has been recovered that displays “typical” gladiator wounds. No tombstones of female gladiators have yet been excavated in the Roman world. We have a wealth of gladiatorial souvenirs and merchandise that survives, including figurines and decorated lamps, but none featuring a woman. No female gladiator is depicted on surviving mosaics or frescoes. Pompeii, an absolute treasure trove of gladiatorial graffiti, has provided no doodles or references to fighting women. While attempts to identify the remains of Roman women as gladiators, such as the Great Dover Street lady of London, are often influenced by the desire for a good story rather than conclusive material evidence.
What we do have is a single fragmentary inscription from Ostia, in which a magistrate named Hostilianus boasts of being the first to present “women for the sword” (EAOR 4.29). Our sole artistic depiction of female gladiators can be found in the British Museum: a relief from Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey) of the second century AD shows two bare-breasted women engaging in gladiatorial combat. The relief was presented to the museum in 1846 and any context of its excavation has been lost, so it is difficult to interpret fully, but the fight was evidently important enough to warrant an expensive commemoration. Was this due to novelty?
The women are identified with their stage names, Amazonia and Achillea. We’ve already heard of women in the arena being described as Amazonian and male gladiators from the Greek speaking East often chose stage names from mythology. The women are depicted with a stance that matches other artistic depictions of combat and they are dressed the same as their male counterparts.
Each has a gladius (the short sword that gave gladiators their name), a guard on their exposed arm called a manica, greaves on the exposed area of their shins and the subligaculum, or loincloth. Their helmets are placed behind them on the arena floor, and the inscription records that both women were released from the match with a reprieve from death. The result of the bout was a draw, a rare occurrence which may also explain why this fight deserved to be immortalised in stone.
It’s safe to say that women did fight in the arena, and that Roman writers were more scandalised by deviation from class boundaries than they were from gender roles. That said, it seems that seeing a woman in the arena as a beast-hunter or condemned criminal was far more likely than as a gladiator, and that some of the women we have read about did not receive the strenuous training required of their male gladiatorial counterparts or have comparative careers.
There is no record of a female gladiator dying for the entertainment of the crowd, but we cannot know that it never happened. What we do know is that female gladiators remained a rarity throughout the history of Roman blood sports.
- Stephen Brunet, “Women With Swords: Female Gladiators in the Roman World”, in: Paul Christesen and Donald G Kyle (eds), A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2014), pp. 478-491
- Kathleen Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments”, Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990), pp. 44-73
- Kathleen Coleman, “Missio at Halicarnassus”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000), pp. 487-500
- Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (1998).
- Anna McCullough, “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact”, Classical World 101.2 (2008), pp. 197-209.