“The same year witnessed shows of gladiators as magnificent as those of the past. Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheater.” – Tacitus, Annals 15.32
With Alex Buchel’s new game JUGULA all the rage, what would be more appropriate than to have a look at female gladiators? While today Roman gladiatorial games appear to be the epitome of manly combat, there were women who fought in the arena, as the citation by Tacitus attests.
Female gladiators (by the way, ‘gladiatrix’ is not a word used by the Romans, there was no special female form of ‘gladiator’) first appear in the sources in the late Republican and Augustan eras. We don’t know the number of women that fought in the arenas. In general they seemed to have been an unusual sight, though not as rare as one might expect. Descriptions of female gladiators are often used to illustrate the extravagant nature of an Emperor’s spectacles, such as in this citation from Sueton’s Life of Domitian:
“Besides he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well.”
Some are used to comment on the depravation and excesses of Emperors, especially if noble women were fighting in the arena. It seems that what Romans found most offensive was not the confusion of gender roles – the authors had no problems with lower class women fighting as gladiators – but the upsetting of the social order. Anna McCullough has argued that the passage by Juvenal describing the training regime of a noblewoman aspiring to fight in the arena has to be understood in that light:
“What modesty can you expect in a woman who wears a helmet, abjures her own sex, and delights in feats of strength? […] See how she pants as she goes through her prescribed exercises; how she bends under the weight of her helmet; how big and coarse are the bandages which enclose her haunches; and then laugh when she lays down her arms and shows herself to be a woman!”
Noblewomen such as this wouldn’t join a ludi (school), as fighting for money would have been inappropriate for their status. However, lower class women might have entered contracts with a lanista (manager of a school) or sold themselves to a school because of debt.
What do we know about how they fought? Our only pictorial source is the Halicarnassus relief, which shows two women equipped as provocatores, a type of armament that was modeled after Roman legionaries. They have swords and shields, wear greaves and protective armour on the right arm, but have exposed breasts. The inscription says that the fight between ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia’ ended with a missio, which is something akin to a draw – both get a reprieve and may compete again. Furthermore, literary sources mention female venatores (fighters specialised in killing wild beasts) as well as swordfighters and even an essedaria, a female chariot driver.
So there are plenty opportunities for including women in your miniature ludi. But what about figures?
There are quite a lot of female gladiators in 28mm out there. Foundry offers a broad range encompassing several types of female gladiators, as does Shadowforge. Both companies seem to prefer the topless look as pictured on the Halicarnassus relief. Old Glory have a small sample of different types (e.g. retarius and mirmillo) with more clothing, as does Black Hat. Steve Barber Models offers ‘Achillia’. The latter seem to be more on the side of true 25mm figures, so they might not mix with newer ranges. Recently Arena Rex had a Kickstarter funded for 35mm gladiators, some of them female, and although skimpy dress abounds they may very well fit in with the ‘official’ JUGULA range, which is also scaled at 35mm.
There exists an astonishing variety of 15mm gladiators. Mick Yarrow has several female ones. Highlander Studios has a female dimachaerus on offer and Rebel Miniatures has ‘Carolee’. A good resources for 15mm gladiators is the Irregular Wars blog, where you can also find useful comparison pictures of the figures.
For those preferring other scales, in 1/72 Pegasus has a pack of gladiators which also includes two female figures while in 54mm Irregular Miniatures has a selection of suitable figures.
Coleman, K.: “Missio at Halicarnassus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000), 487-500.
McCullough, Anna: “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact,” Classical World 101 (2008), 197-209.
Vesley, M.: “Gladiatorial training for girls in the collegia iuvenum of the Roman Empire,” Echos du Monde Classique 62 (17) (1998), 85-93.
Highly interesting. Thank you for this article and the furher readings list!