A female gladiator is apparently a gladiatrix, plural gladiatrices. There, now that I’ve told you that, I’m free to use the word in the rest of this article.
Archaeologists and classicists don’t disagree on whether or not there were female gladiators in ancient Rome. It’s clear from a number of contemporary accounts that there were. Just how rare they were is another question, depictions of them in physical form are very rare, but mentions of them in writing are much more conclusive. There are a number of recorded laws preventing high class women from training as gladiatrices, or banning female gladiatrices outright, opinionated poems calling on high class women to stop playing soldier by learning the fighting arts because no man would want them, and other casual mentions of their existence. The most visual evidence has, up until now, been a carved relief of “Amazon” and “Achillia,” the stage names of two gladiatrices who apparently both fought in heavy armor and received honorable discharges from the arena.
But researchers have recently discovered what may be the second known depiction of a gladiatrix in history.
Here it is in full:
The bronze statue is almost two thousand years old, and Alfonso Manas is confident that it does not depict a female athlete scraping sweat off her body, as was previously thought, but a topless female gladiator, with typical bandages around the knee, and a posture of victory typical to many depictions of gladiators. In fact, the “precise real-life” details of the statue indicate that it may be based on a real person.
That stance is the first clue that Manas took to support his redefinition: certainly an athlete scraping themselves would be bent over, looking at their body or instrument, rather than staring at the ground (possibly at a fallen opponent) and raising their implement in a typical salute to the crowd. The other is the fact that the statue is topless. Female athletes in Roman society performed with both or at least one breast covered, and to depict them that way would have been disrespectful. Depicting a slave or gladiator, however, as toplessness was entirely accepted: they were among the lowest classes in society. According to Live Science, Anna McCullough, gladiatrix expert, is “cautiously optimistic” about Manas’ redefinition of the statue’s subject.
“The gesture is far more similar to gestures of victory than it is to any depictions of athletes actually scraping themselves,” McCullough said. “I think it certainly resembles a female gladiator more than (an) athlete, and I’m kind of happy to tentatively say that it is a gladiator in those terms.”
One potential problem, she points out, is the fact that the “gladiator” is portrayed without a helmet, greaves (shin protectors) or other form of armor.
“The reason for this woman being topless might simply be that whoever made it wanted to sort of emphasize the fact that this is a female gladiator and not a male gladiator,” she said, still “for her to be completely without armor is a little bit odd.”
Manas has proposed that the gladiatrix may have been wearing a shield and helmet. The helmet would be removed in statue, so that the feminine features of her face would be visible, and the shield or helmet may also have been lost from the end of the statue’s broken arm. Manas also says that the gladiatrix may have been depicted topless because gladiatrices held erotic significance for Roman men, to which McCullough disagrees. The authors of contemporary descriptions of gladiatrices simply say that “women fought in the arena and they fought very fiercely and we were excited to see them,” without placing any erotic subtext on the fight. She thinks the nudity of the statue is much more likely to be due to the Roman non-issue of depicting the lower classes and slaves as naked than anything else.
(LiveScience via like a billion tipsters.)