Female Gladiators in Ancient Rome?


Though Girl in the Arena is set in current day, in Cambridge, MA, here are some things I learned while researching Ancient Roman gladiators:

(photo copyright, lise haines)

There were female gladiators in ancient Rome. They fought in the evenings in the arenas by torch light. Sometimes they were ridiculed and jeered, but they fought hard, and risked life and limb like the male gladiators.

Gladiators lived by a long and exact list of rules. This list has been lost though a reference to it still exists.

Most gladiators were forced into fighting–think Russell Crowe in Gladiator–but there were a number of gladiators that signed on of their own free will. For the most successful who survived, the gladiator life brought affluence, prestige and an almost rock-star quality, especially with members of the opposite sex.

The life expectancy of an average gladiator was about a year. A notable gladiator only fought three or four times in a year. There was more profit in keeping this gladiator alive and in good condition as a cash cow.

To fight with skill was a big focus of the games. This required a solid training in a gladiator school. The ruins of one such school is still visible if you take a walk through Rome today.

If the crowd decided that a gladiator should lose his life, he got a thumbs up, not thumbs down. Somewhere along the way in Hollywood, this changed to thumbs down.

Not only did gladiators fight each other and wild animals kept in pens beneath the arena (in the Coliseum the animals rode up on primitive elevators), but sometimes ships were brought into the arena to reenact large battle scenes, complete with tons of water.

The games or competitions were free to citizens of ancient Rome, as a way to please the masses and keep them in check. They were also given free bread. Thus the term: Bread and Circus.

Gladiators were broken down into various groups depending on the types of weapons and gear they used. The helmet wearers formed one such group.

Despite the sometimes long lines, the Coliseum is every bit as remarkable to visit as you can image. The quality of light at the end of the day is beyond measure.

To read more about ancient Roman gladiators, I recommend two books in particular:

The Gladiators, History’s Most Deadly Sport

by Fik Meijer, St. Martins, 2003

Gladiators and Caesars: the power of spectacle in ancient Rome

By Eckart Köhne, Cornelia Ewigleben, Ralph Jackson

Front Cover