The gladiatrices

In ancient Rome, as we well know, combat shows between gladiators were widespread throughout the Empire. These performances were very popular among the people, many gladiators reached notable levels of popularity, and they were divided into different categories, different for armaments and fighting style. A spontaneous question, also arising from the way in which the collective imagination has evolved around these shows, is whether only men were fighting or even gladiators existed: the answer is that women also fought, as evidenced by different testimonies, which vague and limited in number they provide us with important information on this phenomenon.

 A very important testimony in this sense dates back to the 19th after Christ, when the Emperor Tiberius issued the Senatus consultum of Larinum, in which he forbade men and women linked by kinship to senators or equites to appear on the scene with gladiatorial robes. This fact in itself shows us how the possibility of a woman being a gladiator was contemplated.

 In addition to this document, there are also other testimonies in important Latin texts: Suetonius in the Life of the Caesars tells how Domitian had organized night fights between gladiators both between men and women, an episode that would also be confirmed by Martial and Stazio.

A funerary inscription found at Ostia Antica - and now preserved in the Lapidarium of the excavations - recalls instead a certain Hostilianus who in the epigraph is proud of having been the first to bring the shows between gladiators in Ostia. This testimony dates back to the II Century after Christ and as such makes us understand how these fights were a niche phenomenon compared to the male ones.

 But how much of a niche? This we cannot know. On the one hand the writer Amy Zoll has noticed how the Roman authors speak - albeit little - very naturally of the phenomenon of the gladiatrici, and for this reason one might think that it was a fact much more common than one thinks. On the other hand, even without contradicting this thesis, the historian Mark Vesley noted how the gladiatorial schools that existed in the main centers of the Empire were not for the time to be particularly suitable places for women: here they studied above all the young people from the upper classes who were trained in martial arts, while women tended to be followed by a tutor. Despite this, testimonies of women who have studied in these places are not lacking, like Valeria Iucunda, who died at 17 years old.

The bas-relief Alicarnasso
The most famous testimony in this regard, in any case, is the bas-relief of Halicarnassus, dating back to the I or II Century after Christ, which shows two gladiators fighting each other. The two women have the names of Amazon and Achillia and it says that after the fight they received the missio, or suspension, for having both fought with value.

 This bas-relief is very important for us because it gives us a testimony about the clothing of gladiators: in fact the two women wear subligacum - a loincloth widespread in Ancient Rome - and numerous elements typical of gladiators, such as greaves and sleeves, but neither of them wears the helmet and both are bare-breasted. In the art of the time, the Amazonomachies were widespread, which depicted fights between the Amazons with naked breasts: we are not able to know if the gladiatorial shows wanted to recall this image or, otherwise, this was a way to exalt the qualities of the gladiatrici of Alicarnasso.

Poster of the 1974 movie The Arena
The theme of gladiators has however aroused interest over time, has become present in the collective imagination and as such has entered popular culture: for this reason gladiatrices have appeared in numerous works of fiction such as films or books.

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