Ancient sources suggest women gladiators fought in the Roman Arena. But does archaeological evidence really tell us more about female gladiators?
Tantalising descriptions of women gladiators exist in ancient texts. But these sources are often limited by the writer’s preoccupations and often do not relate to society in general, making it difficult to decide how common female gladiators actually where.
Archaeological evidence can provide some extra pieces of the puzzle. But the matter is not always clear cut. Finds can be open to interpretation and debate amongst the experts. In other cases, over eagerness to report the discovery of a female gladiator can lead to the media sensationalization.
The Missio of Halicarnassus
‘Missio’ is the term which refers to a discharge or release of gladiators from a bout in the arena. The missio of Halicarnassus is a relief which commemorates the survival of both participants of a bout that occurred in the first or second century AD.
The marble relief from Turkey is now housed in the British museum. That so much effort and expense was put into commemorating two gladiators is unusual in itself. But what makes the relief unique is that the fighters are women.
The relief depicts the gladiators fighting. We know they are women from their arena names ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia’ which are inscribed on the stone in Greek. The final evidence for their sex comes from their heads which are without helmets.
But in every other respect, the women are dressed and fighting in the same way as male gladiators. They are depicted as provocatores.Their legs are protected with greaves or subligaculum, as are their arms and they fought with short swords and shields.
The relief shows that professional female gladiators existed and that they were outfitted in the same way as their male counterparts. They were also expected to fight in the same way-even to the death. Their bravery was also acknowledged as the stone commemorates the survival of both women for putting up a good fight.
Great Dover Street Woman-a London Gladiatrix?
Great Dover Street Woman was discovered during excavations in London of a Roman cemetery in the late 1990s. Archaeologists from the University of London believe that she was once a female gladiator. Other experts, however dispute this.
From fragments of the pelvis which survived, archaeologists identify the grave as belonging to a woman in her early 20’s.The body was cremated directly over the pit which contained the remains and grave good. This type of cremation, known as a bustum was rare in Britain
Several pieces of evidence from the grave were used to support the theory of Great Dover Street woman as a gladiatrix.
The location of the grave. This occupied a peripheral position in the graveyard, usually assigned to social outcasts. But the contents of the grave contradicted this idea. Remains of high status food stuffs were found including the first complete date found in roman London, four chickens, and a dove. Eight tazze, open vessels used to burn incense during the ceremony was also found.
Lamps. The grave also contained eight unused lamps imported from Gaul. Four were plain but the others were decorated with motifs significant to the arena. Three depicted the Egyptian god of judgement, Anubis, who in Roman religion was associated with the god mercury. Slaves dressed as the Mercury dragged away dead gladiators. The final lamp showed a fallen gladiator.
Pine cones. Hundreds of stone pine cones were found which were added to the pyre to mask the smell of the cremation. But these pine cones had an added significance. They were native to Italy rather than Britain where they were often grown around amphitheatres.
The archaeologists had found a woman buried away from the respectable dead, who had been well mourned and given an expensive funeral. She had also been sent into the afterlife with grave goods suggesting a strong link to the arena. Even the incense on her pyre related to the amphitheatre. They concluded that there was a strong possibility she had once been a female gladiator, possibly from abroad who had fought in large arena of Roman London.
Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University dismissed this evidence as proof that the woman was a female gladiator. In Discover magazine’s 2001 article Gladiatrix by Heather Pringle, she explains that lamps decorated with gladiators were popular household items and that a costly funeral is no proof either as there are no records that gladiators, unlike charioteers became wealthy from their profession.
This last point could now be contended based on evidence from a potential gladiator cemetery in York. But the case of Great Dover Street Woman does show the difficulties of drawing firm conclusions without defining evidence such as weapons or detailed bone analysis.
A New Female Gladiator near Hereford?
Sometimes, however, a whole skeleton can lead to erroneous conclusions by the press rather than archaeologists.
In 2010, the remains of a large powerful woman were found in modern Kenchester, just outside the city of Hereford in the UK. The site was once a small Roman town called Magnis. The woman was once again buried outside of the Roman graveyard.
Her bones suggested a life of hard physical labour. Yet her coffin with its decorative bronze bindings suggested someone of higher status than a labourer.
The archaeological Project Manager of the site, Robin Jackson, was at pains to draw no conclusions about the body saying he would leave theories of the woman’s remains being those of a female warrior ‘to people’s imaginations’.
However, despite the lack of any nearby amphitheatre in the area or any weapons in the grave, stories began to rise in the press that the woman was a female gladiator leading Herefordshire council to issue a statement setting the record straight.
So does archaeological evidence tell us more about female gladiators? In certain cases, it can increase our understanding of the phenomenon. But interpretation is the key. In the case of Great Dover Street Woman, the conclusions are only suggestive and open for further investigation.
By the experts. Not by the popular press.
- “Archaeologists Refute Reports of Female Gladiator.” Herefordshire Council Website.
- “Female ‘Gladiator’ Remains Found in Herefordshire” BBC website
- Hall, J, June 2001. “Girl Power” Classical Association News No 24
- Murray, S, July 2003. “Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman world” . Journal of Combative sport.
- Pringle, H, 2001. “Gladiatrix”. Discover Magazine