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Monday, 6 August 2012

Part I – An unusual kind of Gladiator.

No one should bring on to the stage a senator's son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, great-grandson, great-granddaughter, or any male whose father or grandfather, possessed the right of sitting in the seats reserved for the knights, or induce them by means of a fee to fight to the death in the arena

The above is a small extract from a Roman law instituted in 22B.C. Take a look at it. There is one slight oddity…..

If you can’t spot it, don’t worry I’ll tell you; it’s the mention of daughters and granddaughters. What this law, in its fullest form, prohibits is any member of the upper classes appearing in the amphitheatre. That’s any member, both men and women.

Now, it’s extremely rare to introduce a law to prohibit something which hasn’t happened yet. So, what this law in fact testifies to is the existence of female gladiators fighting in the arena.

This might seem rather tenuous evidence by itself but once introduced to the idea that female gladiators existed, the evidence starts to stack up.

A relief from Halicarnassus depicting two gladiators, currently in the British Museum
This relief from Halicarnassus may look like two ordinary gladiators but believe it or not they are two female fighters. We can tell this for certain because their stage names have been helpfully inscribed below them, Amazon and Achillia, clearly female names.

The fact that they look no different from their male counterparts tells us a little about the equipment these fighters used. Essentially it appears to be exactly the same as that which the male gladiators used and yes gentlemen, that means the women also fought bare-chested.

It’s possible that equipment for women was slightly lighter, in order to compensate for the difference in strength between the sexes. Evidence of this can be seen on the relief. Take a look at the bottom corners and you’ll see that their helmets have been placed to the side. One major difference between these helmets and ordinary helmets is the lack of a crest on the top. This crest made the helmet much heavier and may have been removed in order to lighten the load. But otherwise the equipment for men and women appears to have been much the same.

As the equipment was similar we might also assume that their style of combat was similar and that they complied with the same rules. It was probably just as brutal as well (although Amazon and Achillia appear to have fought to a standstill and a draw was declared, leaving them both alive).

The author Juvenal also refers to female gladiators, but only in order to mock them. But then, Juvenal mocks almost everything the public enjoyed and we probably shouldn’t take his derision too seriously.

The historian Dio mentions that the Emperor Domitian ‘had women and dwarfs fight by torchlight’ (Dio. Roman History. 67.8.2. ) although it’s not clear whether he means that bouts were woman vs. woman and dwarf vs. dwarf or woman vs. dwarf.

So, it seems that women were included in the action of the arena, but there are still several problems with the notion of female gladiators; where did they train? How many of them were there? How did the populace of Rome view them? And even, who exactly were they? But don’t worry; all of these questions will be answered next time.

Emma P. s


Coleman, C. (2000) ‘Missio at Halicarnassus’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 100, 487-5000

Kyle, D. (2007) Sport and spectacle in the ancient word. Oxford.

Murray, S. (2003) ‘Female gladiators of the ancient Roman world’, Journal of Combative Sport, (Electronic journals: http://ejmas.com/jcs/jcsart_murray_0703.htm)

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