Ancient sources refer to Roman women training as gladiators or fighting in the arena. But did women regularly appear in Roman games or were they novelties?
Various classical sources and inscriptions refer to Roman women fighting as gladiators. They are described as training for and even fighting in the arena. Roman legislation against female gladiators also suggests that, while they were not as socially acceptable as their male counterparts, they still existed in sizable numbers.
Or did they? Closer examination shows that these laws related only to specific groups of women. Many of the other sources also suggest that women gladiators were saved for special occasions and not a common part of the roman games.
So do ancient sources in fact offer proof that women fought in the arena as regularly as men? Or were female gladiators’ ‘novelty acts’ or rich socialites with a taste for notoriety?
Women and the Roman Arena.
Evidence suggests that women fought in the Roman arena as early as the first century AD. They are described as fighting from chariots or as bestiarii hunting lions during the opening games at the colosseum.
Tacitus records female gladiators participating in games hosted by the Emperor Nero. Similarly, Domitian was notorious for his torch lit fights, again included women.
Female Gladiators in Roman Law.
Various edicts survive forbidding the recruitment of women as gladiators. In 200AD, female gladiators were banned outright by the Emperor Septimius Severus.
The existence of legislation might suggest that female gladiators were common-why else pass laws about them? But this is not necessarily the case. What the existence of these laws does show is that the idea of women in the arena was not accepted throughout Roman society.
The historian Dio Cassius, writing around the third century AD states that the ban came about because the women ‘competed so fiercely’ in the arena that their behaviour tainted the reputation of other women in society. In other words, the behaviour of the female gladiators was a threat to the percieved nature of women and their role in Roman society. This led to a ban. But this alone does not suggest that Romans were routinely used to seeing women fighting.
Closer examination of the laws shows that the legislation focuses on the upper classes rather than women per se. The Tabula Larinas dating to 19AD, was inscribed with an edict stating that the law: "prohibit[ed] the gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or of knights, under the age of [twenty]".
Some ancient sources do suggest that upper class women became notorious for training as gladiators. As an invective against the slipping standards of Roman woman hood in the second century AD, Juvenal’s Satire VI, exaggerates female bad behaviour. It also employs truths that his audience would have recognized.
The women in the satire are referred to training as gladiators as some sort of hobby or even to ‘make the real arena’. The inference is they are women of good social standing. Similarly, the women mentioned by Tacitus fighting in Nero’s games also belong to the senatorial class.
So some elite roman women may have trained as gladiators. But it does not seem that they routinely fought in the arena. Many of the women at Nero’s games are described as being forced, suggesting they were some sort of perverse novelty act thought up by the emperor.
Other authors also emphasis the novelty nature of female gladiators. Statius, a poet from Nero’s time describes women fighting in the arena in AD90:
‘with all the new thrills and extravagances the tenuous pleasure of watching goes quickly: the sex untrained in weapons recklessly dares men’s fights! You would think a band of amazons was battling’.
Novelty or not, this does suggest the possibility of a class of female gladiators who were not upper class amateurs. It is possible that the inspiration behind Petronius’s charioteer and Martial’s bestiarii represent a group of women who, like their male counterparts, fought in the arena as slaves or desperate volunteers.
Whilst the ancient sources can be taken to suggest the possibility of professional female Roman gladiators, they do not prove it. Could it be that archaeology can fill in the gaps and help provide a more definitive answer?
Juvenal. The Sixteen Satires. Trans. P Green. Penguin Books: London
Lefkowitz, M R and Fant, M B. 1995. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Duckworth: London
Petronius. The Satyricon. Trans J P Sullivan. Penguin Books : London
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. Guild Publishing: London
Tacitus. The Annuals of Imperial Rome. Trans Michael Grant. Guild Publishing: London
Vesley, M. 1998. “Gladiatorial training for girls in the collegia iuvenum of the Roman Empire.” Echos du Monde Classique, 62(17), 85-93.