Copyright © EJMAS 2003. All rights reserved.
In September 2000, the Museum of London announced a discovery that garnered worldwide media attention and sparked intense debate within the academic community. Specifically, Museum scholars announced that the grave of a purported gladiator, dating to the first century CE, had been unearthed in the greater London area.
Goods found in the grave of the Great Dover Street woman. Copyright © the Museum of London. Reproduced by permission
The museum’s scholars said that only one other similar gravesite (in Trier, Germany) had ever been found. [EN1] Therefore, this was a special find indeed.
However, it was not the rarity of the find that captured international attention nor even the fact that the grave was supposedly that of a gladiator. To the surprise of all, the broken and burnt remains in this grave proved to be those of a woman.
Accordingly, the Museum of London suggested that these remains were the first ever found of a female gladiator. The discovery was unprecedented, in terms of both physicality and interpretation. [EN2]
Classicists have long known that female gladiators existed because of selected references in the ancient texts and inscriptions; the literary and epigraphical evidence is quite convincing. However, if the museum’s scholars were correct, the world now had the first human forensic evidence supporting the existence of female gladiators.
While the traditional textual and archeological sources that depict female gladiators are well known to classicists, the same sources may be unknown to the typical sport scholar who is less schooled in classical languages and ancient history. Sport scholars, therefore, would find it beneficial to have the pertinent information distilled into one concise, readily available, source. The purpose of this paper is to provide that source.
1. Written Records
As previously mentioned, classicists have long believed that women participated in the ancient Roman arena. David S. Potter, a leading scholar on ancient Roman entertainment, states
For instance, several governmental edicts limited and even barred the participation of women in the arena.
In addition, many ancient writers provide "numerous passages… attest[ing] to female athletes and gladiators" (Vesley, 1998, p. 90). Indeed, they often give specific instances and detailed accounts of the actual combats. The Roman historian, Dio Cassius (trans. 1925/2000, lived ca. 150-235 CE), writes of a festival that Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar, reigned 54-68 CE) held in honor of his mother. The festival lasted several days, and featured female entertainers, including gladiators.
Domitian is purported to have had female gladiators fight dwarfs in the arena. As noted in the writings of Dio Cassius, "Often he would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other" (67.8.2).
Pitting dwarfs against women can be viewed as the ultimate in martial sensationalism, a shocking juxtaposition of the maternal expectations of women in Roman society with the adulation of warriors and the death that accompanies them. Such displays also demonstrate Domitian’s extremes—a "lethal sense of humour" accompanying a ravenous hunger for novelty (Grant, 1967, p. 33). Such extremes were mirrored somewhat in the Roman masses. Therefore, Domitian, knowing that these atypical events would titillate the populace of Rome, probably hoped to barter spectacle for the fulfillment of his own political ambitions, the mores of good society notwithstanding (Baker, 2000).
To summarize, the written record of the ancients attests to the existence
of female gladiators. However, that record is quite sparse. This scarcity
of written references "has led some scholars to consider [female gladiators]
a novelty act." However, that many of the references are made "casually"
throughout the ancient writings suggests that female gladiators were "more
widespread than direct evidence might otherwise indicate" (Zoll, 2002,
2. Archaeological Evidence
Direct archaeological evidence also supports the existence of female gladiators. Three main items exist
The second piece of evidence is a shard of red pottery with a hole drilled into it. It is inscribed VERECVNDA LVDIA LVCIUS GLADIATOR, and Jackson (2000) translates this as "Verecunda the dancer (or woman gladiator), Lucius the gladiator" (p. 18). No one knows for sure what the intended use of the item was, but some speculate that it was intended to be worn on a necklace. Meanwhile, the inscription leads one to believe that Verecunda may have been a female gladiator, perhaps fighting with the same troupe as Lucius.
The third piece of direct physical evidence is a marble relief dating from the first or second century CE. [EN4] The relief, found in Halicarnassus and currently displayed in the British Museum, is the most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of female gladiators (Coleman, 2000; Ewigleber, 2000).
Marble relief from Halicarnassus depicting two female gladiators. Copyright © The British Museum. Used by permission
The two women are clothed and equipped similarly to male gladiators (specifically a provocator). Each wears loincloth (subligaculum), greaves, and an arm protector (manica) extending from the wrist to the shoulder of the sword-wielding arm. Both are armed with a shield and a sword, and neither is wearing a helmet or a shirt.
The women are facing each other with their names inscribed in Greek beneath them, indicating "incontrovertibly that these are both women because they are named ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia’" (Zoll, 2002, p. 36). Presumably, these are not their real names, but "singularly appropriate" noms de guerre for female combatants (Coleman, 2000, p. 487).
Listed above the two fighters is a Greek inscription. In Latin, it translates as missae sunt, meaning that the combatants received an honorable discharge (missio) from the arena (not "discharge from service as a gladiator").
Consequently, the relief is a monument to the valiant effort displayed by these two female gladiators. It "marks an engagement that is worthy of commemoration both for the rarity of its outcome and for the fact that its protagonists were women" (Coleman, 2000, p. 495).
The existence of the relief indicates that, at least for these two combatants, female gladiatorial combat was taken seriously enough to warrant "commemoration in an expensive and durable medium" (p. 499).
The ancient written references and physical evidence document, rather
convincingly, the question of female participation in gladiatorial combat
in the ancient Roman world. Equally importantly, however, is another question:
What was life like for these female gladiators?
The Life of the Female Gladiator
In order to answer this question, one must make two assumptions.
Although most gladiators in the ancient Roman world were slaves, some were volunteers (auctorati) who willingly took the gladiator’s oath "to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, to die by the sword" (uri, vinciri, uerberari, ferroque necari). Essentially, individuals taking this oath relinquished all ownership of their lives, forfeiting their rights as freemen (or freewomen) to their new owner, who could do with them as he pleased. Reasons Roman citizens voluntarily swearing the oath to become gladiators included that "they could be released from debt; they might win fame and following; and they would be guaranteed subsistence" (Coleman, 1998, p. 70).
However, in the end, it seems that many who volunteered did so for financial gain. For example, owners could demand higher fees for slaves "presumably because they showed greater enthusiasm" (Grant, 1967, p. 31). In turn, enthusiastic gladiators could profit more with their share of the higher earnings. Potter (1999) states that "even slave gladiators kept all or portions of the monetary prizes that they won in the arena" (p. 312). Ex-gladiators who were enticed to come back to the arena were heavily paid, and Emperor Tiberius had to offer 1,000 gold pieces to attract one freed gladiator back into the arena (Grant, 1967).
Interestingly, the females who appeared in the arena were not all slaves or women of low social status simply in need of money. Tacitus (trans. 1989, lived ca. 56 CE-ca. 117 CE) reports that women of considerable social standing participated in gladiatorial events, evidently for excitement and notoriety, not money, since they were already members of the wealthy class.
Although the mob of the Roman arena appreciated the efforts of female gladiators as one of novelty, society, as a whole, deemed these efforts unacceptable. Gladiators were unique in this respect. While they were considered "the superstars of their day, lusted after by both men and women," at the same time, paradoxically, they were also the lowest of the low in the eyes of Roman society and were held in the "greatest contempt" (Baker, 2000, p. 3). It was one thing for a man of high social status to disgrace himself by appearing in the arena, but "for a noblewoman to do so was utterly beyond the pale" (p. 28).
In what is perhaps the most condemning statement of female gladiators found in the writings from ancient Roman world, Juvenal (55 CE-127 CE) demonstrates his absolute disgust at these women. Indeed, he "brought the full force of his scathing ridicule to bear on" them (Grant, 1967, p. 34), writing
Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres?
These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora.
Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing
For the arena itself. How can a woman be decent
Sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?
Manly feats they adore, but they wouldn’t want to be men,
Poor weak things (they think), how little they really enjoy it!
What a great honour it is for a husband to see, at an auction
Where his wife’s effects are up for sale, belts, shin-guards,
Arm-protectors and plumes!
Hear her grunt and groan as she works at it, parrying, thrusting;
See her neck bent down under the weight of her helmet.
Look at the rolls of bandage and tape, so her legs look like tree-trunks,
Then have a laugh for yourself, after the practice is over,
Armour and weapons put down, and she squats as she used the vessel.
Ah, degenerate girls from the line of our praetors and consuls,
Tell us, whom have you seen got up in any such fashion,
Panting and sweating like this? No gladiator’s wench,
No tough strip-tease broad would ever so much as attempt it. (Satire
6.246-267 as cited in Grant, 1967, p. 34)
Life for the typical gladiator involved living in a gladiatorial school (ludus). The school was run by a lanista. The gladiators of the school formed a troupe (familia), and received training in the art of fighting by doctores and magistri, who in all probability were former gladiators (Junkelmann, 2000).
Training generally involved wooden weapons. (Arming slave warriors with sharpened metal weapons was deemed unwise following Spartacus’ famed revolt of 73 BCE.) One scholar suggests that the auctorati received their training, not in the ludi, but through "private instruction or enrolled in the college iuvenum" (Zoll, 2002, p. 33). [EN5] Another believes that some females who entered the arena received their training from their fathers, who were freed gladiators (Evans, 1991).
No matter how they were trained, numerous types of gladiators, e.g., murmillo, thraex, retiarius, and secutor, fought in the arena, each with specialized armor and weaponry (Grant, 1967; Junkelmann, 2000; Widemann, 1992). Gladiators were specialized combatants. Rarely did individuals receive training in more than one gladiatorial style, and they normally did not compete very often, usually fighting only two to three times a year, much like a modern-day boxer (Coleman, 1998).
Additionally, contrary to popular opinion, gladiators did not typically
fight to the death. In fact, it was relatively rare for a gladiator to
be killed in the arena (Potter, 1999). [EN6] The rationale
is simple: Gladiators were worth a lot more alive—earning appearance fees
in the arena—than dead.
3. Gladiatorial Contests
The evening before fighting in the arena, gladiators ate at a public banquet (cena libera) to which the local populace was admitted. The banquet probably was not a symbolic gift from the sponsor (munerarius). Instead, it probably served as a form of advertising for the next day’s event. Support for this thesis is provided by the inclusion of the condemned prisoners at the feast.
The morning of the fight began with a parade through the amphitheatre that was designed to rouse the attention of the spectators.
Generally, the day’s activities followed a specific pattern. The morning involved the beast hunt (venatio); executions of condemned prisoners were conducted during midday, generally by animals (ad bestias); and gladiatorial fights, the highlight of the day’s events, were offered during the afternoon hours.
The number of fights would depend entirely on the number of pairs of gladiators scheduled. However, generally speaking, if gladiatorial combat was to last the rest of the day, between ten and thirteen pairs would fight, with a single bout lasting around ten to fifteen minutes (Potter, 1999).
The bouts were simply hand-to-hand combat. Eventually, one of the combatants would tire or become wounded, lay down his (or her) shield, and signal capitulation by raising one finger (ad digitum). The umpire would step in, stop the combat, and defer the decision of the defeated gladiator’s fate to the munerarius. He could, with much influence from the crowd, grant missio, have the gladiator slain, or free one or both of the gladiators. (Albeit at a great financial cost, as the munerarius had only rented the gladiators from the lanista. Therefore, freeing someone else’s slave would cost him heavily.)
With the turn of the thumb (pollice verso)—no one knows for sure
if the true meaning were "thumbs up" or "thumbs down"—the decision of the
defeated gladiator’s fate was taken. If the gladiator were to receive missio,
he (or she) returned to the ludus to fight another day. If death
were to be the result, the winning gladiator simply delivered the coup
de grâce. The granting of freedom, however, was more elaborate.
The munerarius would go to the floor of the arena and hand deliver
a wooden sword (rudis) to the fortunate gladiator, signaling that
the gladiator was no longer a slave, but a freeman (or freewoman) (Potter,
The Remains of Great Dover Street Woman
In 1996, construction workers in London unearthed a walled cemetery subsequently dated to the first century CE. Excavations of the site at Great Dover Street in Southwark, near the south bank of the river Thames, resulted in the discovery of several cremation burials, but one quickly got the attention of archaeologists at the Museum of London.
Forensic examination showed that cremated bone fragments found in the grave, specifically the pelvis, belonged to a female, probably in her twenties. For a photograph of the bone fragments, see http://www.kzu.ch/fach/as/aktuell/2000/18_gladiatoren/femglad01.htm.
Remains of the woman from the Great Dover Street site.Copyright © the Museum of London. Reproduced by permission.
Everything, from the construction of funeral pyre (bustum) to the contents of the grave, indicated a funeral that "spoke of wealth, power, and refinement" (Pringle, 2001, p. 51). [EN7] For instance, organic matter found in the grave hinted of an expensive and elaborate funeral feast. Figs, dates, white almonds, and the bones of a butchered chicken and possibly a dove were found, as were flecks of gold (possibly from a garment), iron nails, and molten glass fragments. Therefore, this was not the grave of an unknown pauper, but instead someone who was revered.
In addition, various goods were put into the grave after the cremation was complete. These included eight bowl-shaped vessels (tazze) (Zoll, 2002), and the aroma-producing pinecones that were burned in them. These cones belonged to the stone pine, a conifer native to Italy. The only place in Roman London known to have stone pines was the local amphitheater, where they were burned to mask the smell.
Tazza used for burning pinecones. Copyright © the Museum of London. Reproduced by permission.
Oil lamp depicting the Egyptian god Anubis. Copyright © the Museum of London. Reproduced by permission.
In addition, a fourth lamp depicted a gladiator.
Oil lamp depicting a fallen gladiator. Copyright © the Museum of London. Reproduced by permission.
Consequently, the tazze, lamps, and burnt pinecones in the grave associate the deceased to the amphitheater and gladiatorial sport.
At the same time, however, the grave was outside the walled cemetery. This indicates that the deceased was probably an outcast of normal society. This evidence led the scholars at the museum to speculate: Why was such an elaborate and expensive funeral held for a woman who was buried in an area designated for social outcasts?
Their answer was simple. The woman buried in this grave was "respected, yet not respectable" (Zoll, 2002, p. 231). Thus, Jenny Hall, the curator of early London history at the museum, states it is "70 percent probable" that Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator (Barr, 2000, p. P4C).
Unsurprisingly, the museum’s conclusion shocked the academic world, and several scholars questioned the validity of the announcement.
For example, Kathleen Coleman, the renowned Harvard Latin professor and expert of Roman gladiatorial games, doubts that Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Firstly, she believes that gladiatorial lamps were "popular household items" in Roman London. Therefore, "the very most you could say is the presence of gladiatorial images on some grave goods might suggest that the deceased or a member of the deceased’s family was a gladiatorial fan" (Pringle, 2001, p. 53). Secondly, Coleman has serious doubts that a gladiator would receive such an elaborate burial. "We know that Roman charioteers could often amass enormous fortunes, but we don’t have any hard evidence for a specific patrimony associated with a gladiator" (p. 53).
Another scholar, historian Martin Henig, believes that the evidence found in the grave points to the religion of the deceased, and not her profession. The oil lamps, tazze, and pinecones make him postulate that the grave’s occupant was a "devotee of Isis." Therefore, he asserts that the oil lamps depicting Anubis, a close companion of Isis, indicate that Great Dover Street Woman was a member of a well-known Egyptian cult (Zoll, 2002, p. 172).
Scholars at the Museum of London reject the notion that the faith of Great Dover Street Woman dismisses her from being a gladiator. They note that followers of Isis were not social outcasts. Moreover, Hall believes that one interpretation does not necessarily negate the other:
And what an intriguing idea it is.
Are the remains found at Great Dover Street actually those of a female gladiator? Unfortunately, that question will likely remain unanswered with certainty.
Without doubt, the remains offer an interesting glimpse into the past and provide ample material for debate and investigation. Nonetheless, they only hint at, but do not conclusively prove, that this grave is that of a woman who fought in the arena. On the other hand, the record is clear. Women did participate in the games and likely lived, and died, as combatants.
Thus, the world of the ancient Roman arena was not the sole domain of
men. Women also took up the role of warrior and were a part of that most
peculiar of ancient Roman traditions—that of the gladiator.
About the Author
Murray is associate professor of human performance and wellness at
Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado.
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EN1. At the press conference of the opening of the exhibit displaying the contents of a purported gladiator’s grave, Jenny Hall, the curator of early London history at the Museum of London, stated that the only other purported gladiators’ graves of which she was aware were those excavated in Trier, Germany. As reported by the Associated Press by Robert Barr (2000, September 13). Woman gladiator’s remains discovered. The Charleston Gazette, p. P4C. (Note: Because the Associated Press issued the story, it was published throughout the nation by many newspapers. I am just citing a specific newspaper that is readily available on LexusNexis Academic.)
EN2. Regarding the timing of the announcement, note that Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator, which featured a female gladiator, had just been released. In addition, the Museum of London was staging mock gladiatorial combat the upcoming weekend as a fundraiser.
EN3. Vesley (1998) cites Cebeillac-Gervasoni, M. & Zevi, F. (1976). Revisions et nouveautes pour trios inscriptions d’Ostie. MEFRA, 88.2, 612-618, for the inscription and states that "[a] newly found stone supplied missing text from two previously know inscriptions, CIL 14.5381 and 4616" (p. 91). He further asserts that Hostilianus was the editor of the gladiatorial games for women in the neighboring arena; that he was the patron who conducted "the local edition of the Iuvenalia, the games of the Ostia collegium iuvenum" (a sort of paramilitary training organization), and that the female combatants received their gladiatorial training in the local collegium (p. 91).
EN4. Coleman (2000) details the relief extensively and states that the female combatants for whom this relief was carved were granted stantes missi. Potter (1999), describes missio as the technical term meaning release and explains stantes missi as "released standing" and occurring when "two fighters fought long and hard without either being able to obtain the conditions for a victory, the fight would be a draw" (p. 307).
EN5. Zoll (2002) quotes the work of Vesley (1998) to assert that aristocrats sought training in the "collegia iuvenum, organized social clubs where young men and women could pursue all manner of physical activity, from gymnastics to martial arts" (p. 33).
EN6. Potter (1999) states flatly, "There was no such thing as a mandatory fight to the death between gladiators" (p. 307). The confusion lies in the misunderstanding of the term sine missione, where a clear victory must be present in order for a gladiator to earn missio. "The phrase does not mean, as it has unfortunately been taken to mean in many studies of gladiators, a fight to the death" (p. 307). Potter (personal communication, September 18, 2002) stated that based on his research, only 5-10 percent of gladiators actually died in the arena, and he puts more emphasis on the lower number.
EN7. Zoll (2002) contends that the use of a bustum was "usually reserved for the death of an important individual" and that there are "only about twenty known examples of this custom from Britain" (p. 13) She cites Mackinder, A. (2000). A Romano-British Cemetery on Watling Street. London: Museum of London Archaeological Service.
EN8. Pringle (2001) cites Hedley Swain, the head of
the early history department of the Museum of London, as saying that Anubis
"was the Egyptian counterpart of the Roman god Mercury, who conducted the
soul of the dead to the next world and played a key role in Rome’s amphitheaters.
‘Slaves dressed as Mercury would actually be present in the gladiatorial
ring and remove the dead gladiators’" (p. 53).