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The Female Gladiators of Ancient Rome

Marble relief with female gladiators
Marble relief of paired fighters, Amazonia and Achillea, found at Halicarnassus. Their names, written in ancient Greek, identify them as females.1st-2nd century CE. Credit: Carole Raddato / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

In Ancient Rome, female fighters were known as “Gladiatrix” and were basically the equivalent of Roman male gladiators. However, instead of fighting other men, they fought other Gladiatrix or even wild animals. These battles took place during special events in arenas and festivals.

It’s important to note that there are no Latin words from the Roman period that specifically referred to the Gladiatrix. The term “Gladiatrix” is more of a recent term used to describe these female fighters. There is limited historical evidence and documented accounts of their existence, according to Heritage Daily.

To the ancient Romans, seeing women gladiators in combat was quite an unusual and novel thing, and they didn’t always view it positively. Oftentimes, they would match a Gladiatrix against opponents of similar skill and strength, creating exciting but sometimes controversial battles in arenas.

Women gladiators in ancient Rome got trained the same way as men

Decimus Junius Juvenalis, an ancient Roman poet, noted that women gladiators trained for combat using the same methods and weapons as men. However, it is essential to also note that there are no records of a ludus, or gladiator school, dedicated to training females in this way.

Juvenalis explained that women from all social classes, whether they were high-class (feminae) or common women (mulieres), engaged in gladiatorial training. However, it’s doubtful that upper-class females would actually step into the arena to fight, mainly because of the social stigma associated with it.

In Roman society, the activities of common women (mulieres) didn’t often draw much attention or concern from the public. Thus, if a common woman chose to appear on stage as a performer (ludi) or participate in the arena, it was, according to Heritage Daily, unlikely to result in significant social criticism or bring shame to her family.

Evidence of arena combats in 2nd century AD

We can find evidence in support of the existence of arena combats by female gladiators of ancient Rome in an inscription at Ostia Antica, which documents the arena games that took place in the 2nd century AD.

The inscription mentions a local magistrate’s involvement in providing “women for the sword,” specifically categorizing them as mulieres rather than feminae, wrote Heritage Daily.

Furthermore, written sources, such as a contemporary account by the historian and chronicler Cassius Dio (AD 155-235), describe a festival held in honor of the Roman Emperor Nero’s Mother.

During this festival, women took part in various activities, including horseback riding, hunting wild animals, and even engaging in gladiatorial combat. Some women participated willingly, while others may have been forced to do so against their own will, according to Cassius Dio.

Archaeologists discovered a lamp with an image of a fallen gladiator as well as other lamps depicting gods related to gladiatorial games. Alongside these discoveries, they also uncovered pinecones, which were typically burned at the arena for purification purposes, reported Heritage Daily.

This finding has led to the suggestion that the deceased individual may have been a Gladiatrix, and in the UK media, she’s been referred to as the “Gladiator Girl.”

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