Scourge of Alexandria
|Joined: 17 Dec 2010|
|Location: Imperium Americanum|
| Posted: Mon Dec 20, 2010 2:12 am
"What did she see worthwhile in being labelled 'the Gladiatress'?"
In Ancient Rome, the gladiator and the prostitute were considered the male and female versions of the same concept. Both of them used their body for the entertainment of others - some by their own choice, others, because they had no choice. Indeed, gladiators and prostitutes were known to form legitimate romantic bonds; an inscription found in Britannia reads "Lucius the Gladiator loves Verecunda the Performer".
Rome was a male-dominated society in which women very seldom had a chance - on the battlefield, or in the arena - to take up weapons and fight. Women did commonly appear in the arena, but only as noxi - "arena fodder". Such women were slaves, barbarian captives, and occasionally Christians who were used for the darkest side of Colusseum entertainment - some were fed to wild animals whilst others were used to act out some of the most brutal and perverse moments of Greek mythology.
But there are a few fragments of evidence - most from the 1st Century AD - to suggest that there were indeed female gladiators, and that they were not considered particularly rare or shocking.
Though arena-fighting was predominately the occupation of powerfully-built slaves and captured enemy warriors, it was not particularly rare for a freeborn Roman citizen - even a senator - to try his hand in the arena. Combats involving men of rank were obviously not as brutal - they were effectively fencing matches that extremely rarely, if ever, resulted in deaths or serious bloodshed. Emperor Commodus was the most infamous of many great Romans to indulge in such combats. But - according to Petronius Arbiter - at least one well-bred lady, the daughter of a senator - participated in such fights. Unfortunately, he tells us little else about her.
The concept of a decent Roman woman - and to a lesser extent, any woman - donning armor and trading swordstrokes with a man, was considered twisted and vulgar in the Roman mindset. The few literary references we have to female fighters express the disgust that the writer held for the concept. Juvenal wrote with particular disdain about one or more female gladiators that were fighting in the Colusseum at the time. He mentions that they wore extra padded armor wrapped around their legs to lessen the chances of receiving unsightly scars. Juneval laughed bitterly at what he perceived as the persistance of feminine vanity even in this most brutal and desperate enviroment.
The Roman Emperor Domitianus had a twisted fascination with the concept of fighting women; unsurprisingly, his favorite figures in Greek mythology were the Amazons and he sought to recreate them using women trained to fight as gladiators. He was said to have staged fights between female gladiators and midgets - but he always "arranged" for the dwarf to win the fight, for fear of a revolt of the women of Rome should they see one of their number defeat a man in battle.
Women were sometimes trained to supply the role of specialist fighters in the arena. Martial tells of at least one British woman who was made to drive a Celtic chariot in battle in a reconstruction of one of Rome's recent victories in her homeland. Female archers are also recorded, undoubtedly in imitation of Amazons, who were said to be proficient with the bow.
Outside of a few 1st Century literary references, there is only once source for female gladiators. That is a relief from Roman Londinium, dated to c. 60-70 AD. It depicts a combat between two female gladiators whose stage names are Amazonia and Achillia.
Both women are armed with short-swords and defend themselves with rectangular shields like those used by contemporary legionaries. But Amazonia is depicted wearing a tunic or kilt, as well as a manica (plated armor for the swordarm), whereas Achillia wears nothing but a loincloth and no discernable armor. It was common to pit heavily-armored fighters against lighter, more manuerable foes - such as the famous match between the myrmillo, who was equipped like a legionary, and the retiarius, who had only a net and a trident.
It is true that an ancient Roman woman was far more likely to be sitting in the stands, cheering in support of her favorite gladiator. But there is a small but convincing amount of evidence that reveals that for some women this was not enough; whether by their own choice or by the choice of their employers or owners, some women actively partook of the carnage and mayhem that was ancient Rome's gladiatorial games.