There is a single image that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the word “gladiator.” They imagine peak physical form, the classic outfit, flowing hair, and… a man. Pretty much everyone thinks of all gladiators as being male. But interestingly enough, that’s actually not the case. History is rarely as black and white as it seems, and that era in particular is commonly misunderstood. There were actually many female gladiators in Ancient Rome. Here’s what you should know about them.
What Did They Do?
Much like male gladiators, female gladiators (or gladiatrices, as they are now referred to as) had the duties of entertaining Roman crowds through physical combat. Gladiator fights were immensely popular at the time, and female gladiators would step into the ring to fight either animals or each other. One unique part of female gladiator history is that they would occasionally fight dwarves, something seen as very exciting and exotic at the time. For the most part, they carried themselves in the same way that the men did. They had the same weapons and armor, and they were basically expected to do the same things as men, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.
They Were Popular
The popularity of female gladiators arose from a number of factors, but one thing is certain: the crowds loved them. First of all, they served the very same purpose as male gladiators. They provided violent entertainment that was a welcome break from daily life. Second of all, they were rare. This meant that seeing a female gladiator was something of a special event, and people flocked just to get a glimpse of something new and exciting. And finally, female gladiators had a visual appeal to the male gaze that the male gladiators did not. They would often perform scantily-clad; while they did indeed need to wear armor, they would bare certain parts of their bodies to make the performance more intriguing.
Female Gladiators and Class
It is well-known that male gladiators were almost always from a lower class than those who were watching them fight. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that they were just strict rules forbidding anyone from a high class from participating. This same level of discrimination was extended to female gladiators. If you were a woman from a well-respected family, you could not become a gladiatrix. This resulted in many of the female gladiators being women who previously had been or were currently slaves. In a sense, it’s interesting to think that the same level of class discrimination was given to both men and women in Roman society.
Breaking Gender Roles
In almost every single way, gladiatrices broke gender norms of Roman society. They were strong, boisterous, and adept at fighting, just like their male counterparts. This meant that they were adopting male characteristics to get by in their gladiatorial pursuits, breaking from what was normally expected of women at the time. Not only that, but they also did not conform to the conservativeness that was the regular. They were bare-chested when fighting, and they had a tendency to perform for the crowd rather than acting shy and modest. For some people, this was the main draw of the gladiatrices. For others, it was just one more reason to reject them.
Why Have They Been Forgotten?
Despite gladiatrices being a relatively big part of Roman history, they are very rarely discussed. This is in part due to history’s male-centric focus. Whenever you study any ancient civilization, most main storylines will focus on what men were doing rather than on what women were doing. Additionally, the Romans did not record nearly as much about female gladiators as they did male. One final reason for why female gladiators seem to have been forgotten is that there simply weren’t very many of them. Although it was a big deal when they were fighting, it just didn’t happen all that often.