Ancient Rome: The Female Gladiator Part I

When it comes to the gladiators of ancient Rome, some of the last people you think of are women. However, entertaining audiences in the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, females known as gladiatrices (gladiatrix in the singular) were armed fighters just like the men and would participate in violent contests to the death. Sometimes, they fought humans, while other times, they battled against animals , just like the men.

What Was the Larinum Decree?

In literary publications and findings from archeologists, the existence of gladiatrices has been proven , although they were quite rare. One of the most shining examples of the female gladiator is the Larinum decree. Under Tiberius (who served as the second Roman Emperor), he banned the daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters of senators from training or making paid appearances as gladiators. This degrees also includes the women “whose husband or father or grandfather, whether paternal or maternal or brother had ever possessed the right of sitting in the seats reserved for the equites.”

Archeologists have used the Larinum to argue that women had already been participating in gladiator contests. It is said that the first recorded or acknowledge appearance of a woman at a gladiator contest was under the leadership of Nero. At the games organized for Tiridates I of Armenia, it was written that a female was an attraction at the games who fought in a Celtic-style chariot.

Emperor Domitian’s Role in Female Fighters

In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Domitian has a habit of staging fights between dwarves and women that took place by the light of torches. Bare-chested and oftentimes without helmets, the fighters were clash. Since a female gladiator was a rare sight to see, their contests would occur at the important time slot for fights , at night.

Helmets were commonplace for warriors, but in the case of the female gladiators , this was not the case. One theory is that people watching the contests would most likely want to see the faces of the woman fighting.

Another piece of evidence that points to female gladiators was written by Dio Cassius , a Roman consul and respected historian, who wrote endless volume on the history of Rome. He stated that women and children found at gladiatorial spectacles when Nero was a sponsor in 66 AD. Nero had a reputation for forcing the wives of some Roman senators into the amphitheaters, but it is not known if they were made to fight.

The Importance of Halicarnassus

If you take a look at a marble relief from Halicarnassus that dates back to the 1st or 2nd century, women are depicted as fighting in heavy armor. An inscription that accompanies the image mentions that the names of the women were Amazon and Achillia. The words go on to mention that they both received an honorable discharge. In the arena, the two women fought one another, but they were still both called a winner.