I knew gladiatrices — female gladiators — were a thing.
I didn’t realize how big a thing they apparently were.
I’ve been reading a book called Working IX to V (because who doesn’t love a Roman numeral -based pun?), which examines a lot of odd professions in the Roman world. The tagline for the gladiatrix is “flirting with death but not going steady.” The book points out that male gladiators were generally slaves or freedmen, whether born to slavery or captives of war, or else volunteers who, by signing up as gladiators, lost their civil rights and were declared infamous under Roman law. “Women, however, had few civil rights to lose” — and as such, many if not most gladiatrices were not slaves, but rather freeborn women who took the job for reasons of their own. Some might have been in it for the money. Some may simply have wanted to test and to prove themselves, as men did, but without the military route available to them.
What’s particularly fascinating is that this seems to have caught on as a fad among the upper classes. Daughters of the nobility, bored to tears with their lives and seeking a bit of risk and scandal, trained as gladiatrices and performed in public. It was evidently enough of a problem that several emperors felt the need to legislate against it. That, for me, is a powerful indication of just how prevalent the practice must have been — not so much as male gladiators, to be sure, but more than an occasional novelty.
The 19 CE Tabula Larinas placed penalties on anyone of the senatorial or equestrian class who performed publicly, in addition to the counts of infamia that would already be laid against them. It also prohibited the recruitment of any daughters, grand-daughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or equestrians who were under the age of 20. In 200 CE, Septimius Severus banned all female gladiatorial matches, citing “a recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience” as the reason for his edict. Considering that later inscriptions at arenas continued to advertise women competing, the ban seems to have been totally ineffective. Female participation in gladiatorial matches seems only to have ended entirely with the end of the games at the start of the 5th century.
Other emperors, of course, decided they’d rather support the scandal than challenge it. Nero and Domitian, ever the classy ones, defied the laws of their own empire by sponsoring games and late-night torchlit matches between well-known gladiatrices. (The term, incidentally, is modern; the Romans referred to such women as ludiae, or by using mulier or femina to modify the usual terms for gladiators).
Outside of these laws, written records of gladiatrices are somewhat sparse and generally critical. The satirist Juvenal lambasts women of the upper classes who performed as gladiators, decrying them as unwomanly and unattractive. Historians like Cassius Dio and Tacitus called the practice shocking and disgraceful. (Cassio Dio also noted women of the upper classes as performing in dramas, playing music, participating in beast hunts, and driving horses in the races). The archaeological record fills in some gaps. This article provides a good look at some of the material evidence. Inscriptions on tombs provide some glimpses into their lives as well as their deaths. Many studied privately, though a few attended gladiatorial schools. Like their male counterparts, most were teenagers, and most died young. Gladiatorial battles were not always or even often to the death, as modern media would have it — gladiators were expensive, and you got better investment by keeping them alive. Still, death and serious injury were very real possibilities, and so it makes sense that gladiatrices would have short careers, ended either by death or, in the case of those noble ladies, by means of their relatives pulling them out of the games.
I’m finding this whole notion terribly interesting. It’s interesting to think outside the bonds of the condemnations given by the ancient writers, to think about what circumstances might have compelled women of varying classes to enter the arena. Something to keep in mind for future books, certainly.