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The unknown spectacle of the Roman gladiators: women who fought half-naked

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The peculiar morality of Ancient Rome He did not look favorably on women with initiative, empowered women. Anything other than rigid, discreet behavior was considered prostitute behavior. Any woman whose conversation was intelligent and uninhibited, says historian Tom Holland in his magnificent work Rubicon (Attic of Books), she was exposed to being accused of being a libertine. The ladies of the aristocracy “had no choice but to exercise their influence behind the scenes, covertly, encouraging and seducing those they wanted to influence, cajoling them into what moralists were quick to denounce as a feminine world of gossip and sensuality”.

They also faced uncomfortable restrictions: the emperor August, for example, relegated them to the back rows of theaters and circuses. But although their independence may seem limited if we base it on modern parameters, the Romans were privileged compared to their counterparts in Classical Greece or the Near East. Furthermore, as pointed out Mary Beard in SPQR (Criticism), “on the death of his father, an adult woman could own property in her own rightbuying and selling, inheriting or making a will, and freeing slaves: many of the rights that British women did not achieve until the 1870s.

They were even allowed fight like gladiators, as men did. This is attested to by classical sources: at the time of NeroAccording to the historian Dion Cassius, gladiatorial combats were held, for example, during his mother’s funeral; while Suetonius evokes the women’s combats offered by the emperor Domitian during the night and by torchlight. In addition, legal evidence is known: a law from the year 11 AD specifically prohibited freeborn females under the age of 20 from appearing in the arena. Restrictions that would increase in 19, when the daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters of senators, as well as the wives, daughters and granddaughters of gentlemen, were added to the veto.

Gladiator mosaic.


“Many women were true professionals of the amphitheater arena, and they not only served to be part of specific gladiatorial shows. Gladiator combats were always organized at the same time as those of men and were highly appreciated by the Romans,” write researchers Mauricio Pastor and Alfonso Mañas, from the University of Granada, in their study Munera gladiatorum. Gladiator women.

Although they were rare cases – the Romans did not have a word like gladiator to describe women who fought in the arena—to achieve the title of gladiator you had to train in a school (ludus). And Roman sources have also left evidence of this preparation: the poet Juvenal mentions in one of his works that women of any social class They were training for gladiatorship with the means and weapons of their male colleagues.

“As for the upper class (feminae), it does not seem likely that they trained to fight in the amphitheater and much less for money, but rather, mainly, they would train as a means to spend free timepartly to stay in shape, partly to reaffirm their independence from the patriarchal society in which they lived,” the experts say. “As for lower-class women (mulieres), without money or free time, if they trained as gladiators, it was to get money; That is to say, this preparation made it possible for them to fight as gladiators at a level spectacular enough to receive money in exchange.”

breasts in the air

Archaeological evidence confirming this practice is a 1st-2nd century marble relief found in the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus, on the southwestern coast of modern-day Turkey. The piece, which is kept in the British Museum in London, depicts two female gladiators, Amazonia and Achilia, equipped with the same weapons and clothing as men. Also like them and following the rules of combat, they appear with a naked torso, revealing that their breasts were exposed, connecting with the image that the Romans had of the exotic and barbaric Amazons.

Was this exercise a sexual fantasy for the Romans or did they accept it as a true sporting confrontation? “We believe that the spectators, upon seeing two wrestlers naked from the waist up“, they would only see two fighters and they would focus on appreciating the sporting competition, causing little interference with the erotic charge that could have on them,” Pastor and Mañas assess, citing other elements of a clear sexual nature during the celebration of the gladiator shows (munera gladiatorum).

Bronze statue of a supposed gladiator.

Hamburg Museum

Since their presence in the arena is quite sporadic, sources relate the appearance of the gladiators with luxury and exoticism, hence in a good handful of cases they were natives of Ethiopia. They were a highly sought-after and attractive asset, also for celebrations organized by the State. In fact, most of the authors who refer to female gladiators in munera They place them in spectacles offered by the emperor, especially during the reign of Nero, who was not short of sumptuousness and pomp.

In a feminist key, the researchers make a division of Roman society in terms of attitudes towards aristocratic women: on the one hand there would be a more progressive part that would welcome the movement of certain upper-class urban ladies to conquer spaces traditionally reserved for men like the gladiatorial sport—to the disgust and humiliation of their parents and husbands—; while on the other, his skill and courage with weapons would be a source of pride for the paterfamilias.

In any case, the presence of gladiators of any social condition in the arena would end in the year 200 by order of Septimius Severus. “It should not be understood as the emergence of greater interest in protecting mulieresbut it is only due to the fact that the actions of the mulieres it led the spectators to make jokes about them; jokes that were also disrespectful to any kind of woman—including upper-class ladies—”, the experts conclude. One more curious example of the strange morality of Ancient Rome.

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