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The Gladiatrices, the Fearless Female Gladiators of Ancient Rome

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

A modern, superhero, comic book re-interpretation of a female Warrior Gladiator holding a weapon in an arena

A modern, superhero, comic book re-interpretation of a female Warrior Gladiator holding a weapon in an arena

The Ancient Romans Loved Sex, Entertainment and Novelty

Yes, that is true and a female gladiator also called ‘gladiatrix’ ticks all the above three boxes perfectly.

These women wore the same costume as their male counterparts which essentially means they fought topless and only wore a loincloth to cover their lower half. This also meant that they provided exotic, lewd entertainment to the male-dominated Colosseum crowds devouring these fights.

That said, women had few rights and zero freedom in the Roman Empire. It was considered taboo and sometimes even a bad omen to see women fighting like men. They were expected to be domestic and were not even considered Roman citizens.

That was why we find some women adopting the gladiatrix route as a quick way to gain independence, wealth, and fame. Not to mention, a rich and independent woman would always be an eyesore for misogynistic Roman nobles.

And these beautiful, powerful girls quickly acquired a huge fan following among Romans. People came to see the ‘winning’ performers again and again and soon souvenirs like dolls, lamps, and pieces of art started getting made with their images sold like hot cakes in gladiator stadiums all across the empire.

Soon females fighting became lavishly held affairs and one of the key sexual indulgences of the wealthy Roman elite.

As Cassio Dio, the historian mentions them in his book on Roman history.

“What sense of shame can be found in a woman wearing a helmet, who shuns femininity and loves brute force… If an auction is held of your wife’s effects, how proud you will be of her belt and arm-pads and plumes, and her half-length left-leg shin guard! Or, if instead, she prefers a different form of combat, how pleased you’ll be when the girl of your heart sells off her greaves! Hear her grunt while she practices thrusts as shown by the trainer, wiling under the weight of the helmet.”

Thumbs down, from a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), illustration from Nuova illustrazione Universale, Year 1, Vol II, No 39, August 9, 1874

Thumbs down, from a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), illustration from Nuova illustrazione Universale, Year 1, Vol II, No 39, August 9, 1874

The Story of the Gladiatrices

The historian Tacitus notes that gladiatrices first came into prominence during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. Tacitus expresses disapproval over the high-ranking women who enter the gladiator arena just for thrills as he writes.

"Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheater."

But not all women belonged to the nobility. There were many women who were prisoners sold into slavery and enter the arena to get freedom and wealth. It was a high-risk gamble but the fame that comes along with it was worth it.

And since most gladiators fought without their shirts, so when women started to fight, they needed to wear the same outfits as the men. That meant they would be fighting topless with a loin cloth covering their lower parts that would easily fly much to the delight of a voyeuristic crowd.

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While some people argue that fighting topless was a convenience so that they can freely use their arms and legs but the fact that there was intense hooting, shouting, and whistling every time a woman’s derriere gets exposed meant that the show was meant to excite the lusty crowd.

In many ways, gladiator shows worked like TV soap operas where TRP ratings are important and it is obvious that a half-naked, sweating, bloodied gladiatrix will push the ratings up like crazy.

Woman of the catacombs, 1st century AD; gladiator fighting with a lion in the Colosseum, 3th century AD, drawing taken from mosaics at Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy, Roman civilization

Woman of the catacombs, 1st century AD; gladiator fighting with a lion in the Colosseum, 3th century AD, drawing taken from mosaics at Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy, Roman civilization

The Gladiatrices Were Treated as Outcasts

Another interesting point was that, unlike male gladiators who become respectable Roman citizens after they taste fame and get their freedom, the female gladiators were still treated the same as prostitutes and were seen as a disgrace to society.

Their male admirers would openly curse them accusing them of polluting society while secretly lusting after their bodies and even paying them to perform in private gatherings. They were outcasts in society and were seen as off-limits for any Roman man to marry.

But as slaves, the suffering was the same as their male counterparts. Emperor Nero loved to make them hunt wild animals in the arena with only a small pocket knife to defend themselves irrespective of man or woman. The emperor Domitian would make them fight in the dark with Roman soldiers whipping them all around. The cruelty imposed on them was exactly the same, be it man or woman.

For most gladiatrices, all the humiliation meted on them was tolerated as part of the larger plan, to work for a few years, survive, and then retire in peace with wealth without depending on any man. They absorbed all the insults with a pinch of salt while continuing to entertain the bloodthirsty crowd with a gory concoction of blood, brutality, and sex.

Marble relief depicting two female gladiators, Amazon and Achilia, from Halicarnassus. Dated 1st Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Marble relief depicting two female gladiators, Amazon and Achilia, from Halicarnassus. Dated 1st Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Female Gladiators Were Forgotten

The end of female gladiator games came in 200 AD when Emperor Septimus banned woman gladiators or any women from fighting in the arena. And after that, the memories of these brave women who dared to be independent in a misogynistic society were pushed away deep into the dusty annals of history.

It was more than 2000 years later when archaeologists discovered the existence of these gladiators through a tomb found in a small cemetery just outside of the Roman Colosseum built in London. The woman was tall and in her 20s. Her mortal remains were surrounded by her gladiatorial achievements with trinkets, medals, and even oil lamps with her image implanted on all of them.

According to Roman law, gladiators were not allowed to be taken outside the city to be buried in a proper cemetery. The fact that this woman was buried near the amphitheater showed her immense social standing among the people.

The people loved her so much that they surrounded her remains with her glorious achievements in the arena, which speaks volumes about the kind of fame she had in her lifetime.

It is time we give these obscure, hidden women their rightful place in society.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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