Women Gladiators? Really?

Faith Justice author photoRelevant History welcomes Faith L. Justice, who writes award-winning fiction and articles in Brooklyn, New York. Her work appeared in such publications as Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, and The Copperfield Review. She is a frequent contributor to Strange Horizons and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. For fun, she likes to dig in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites. To learn more about Faith’s books, check out her web site and blog. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


Yes, really! Whenever I pitched Sword of the Gladiatrix as my “lesbian gladiator novel,” I encountered raised eyebrows and skeptical snorts. The first question everyone asked: “Were there really lesbian gladiators?” My answer: “Of course!” We know there were female gladiators fighting in arenas for several centuries. Some had to be lesbian.

What really surprised people was the fact of female gladiators. They rarely appear in popular culture. Despite the popularity of “Xena Warrior Princess” and the myths of the Amazons, female gladiators don’t come to mind in the media-soaked imaginings of brutal, bloody, gladiatorial games. Women warriors? Maybe. Women gladiators? No. Yet they are there in grave markers, classical literature, laws, and art. All you have to do is look.

The Writers
One organizer in Ostia brags on his tombstone that he was the first person to put women in the arena as fighters. Tacitus in his Annals mentions that Emperor Nero regularly had female gladiators in his shows. Suetonius tells us in his Life of Domitian that the Emperor once staged a performance at night where women fought other women by torchlight. Martial in his description of the entertainments in the Flavian Arena (the Coliseum) compared the women’s feats to those of Hercules.

These women fighters weren’t all captives, slaves, or from the lower classes. Juvenal in his Satires mocks women from the senatorial class who chose to join the gladiatorial ranks: “…and look how their little heads strain under such weighty helmets and how thick bandages of coarse bark support their knees.” Dio Cassius wrote of Nero, “There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem…they drove horses, killed wild beasts, and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will.”

The Lawyers
Some of the strongest evidence we have of female gladiators is in the law—recruiting and fighting women was banned, not once, not twice, but three times! Augustus, the first emperor, implemented lots of laws restricting women. Among them, in AD 11, he decreed that freeborn females under the age of twenty were forbidden from appearing on the stage or in the arena. In AD 19, he extended that to prohibit “gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or of knights, under the age of twenty.” In 200, Emperor Septimus Severus banned single combat by women in the arena because of “recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience.” These prohibitions probably made the fights all the more popular, human nature being what it is.

The Artists
Gladiatrix reliefAlthough we have no mosaics showing female gladiators, we do have a couple of art depictions: a bronze statue of a woman in gladiatorial dress and a stone relief found in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey) showing two women equipped as gladiators and fighting without helmets. The Greek inscription on the stone relief says Amazon and Achillia (obviously stage names) fought bravely. I saw this piece in the British Museum and the image of those two women haunted me. They were real women who lived and died centuries ago. Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they feel about their lives? That’s when I decided to tell their story. Well, not their story—no one knows their background or fates. I had to create my own characters.

One of the non-fiction authors I consulted felt Nero encouraged the expansion of women in the games, so I looked closely at his reign and found two remarkable events that happened, in the same time frame, at opposite ends of the Empire: an expedition to Kush and the British revolt. Both involved cultures where women were valued as more equal partners in life and government than in Rome, and both had powerful queens who defied Roman power—one unsuccessfully in battle, one successfully with guile. These cultures provided plausibly strong (both in body and character) female protagonists. I created Afra and Cinnia to stand in for those two women carved on the stone. I hope you enjoy their story in Sword of the Gladiatrix.


Sword of the Gladiatrix book coverA big thanks to Faith Justice. She’ll give away a copy of Sword of the Gladiatrix to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide. (A winner in the US or Canada may choose between an ebook or trade paperback.)


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Women Gladiators? Really? — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks for stopping by, Kaye. I hadn’t thought about it, either, because I’ve read that women in Ancient Rome were either tucked away in the home or considered wantons, prostitutes.

    So this brings up a question for Faith. From your post, it sounds like these female gladiators came from a range of backgrounds. What kind of reputation did they have in Rome? Were they considered among the wantons? Or did they form some special class?

    • Gladiators–male and female–had a mixed relationship with the public. Even free people who signed on to be gladiators (usually a five-year contract in exchange for a signing bonus) gave up their class rights under the law. They were considered in the same class as slaves and couldn’t be buried in “respectable” people’s graveyards, if they died in service. However, if a gladiator was popular with the crowds, he had considerable social prestige, a little like our sports celebrities of today. People followed their careers, bought souvenirs with their likenesses on them, wrote graffiti boasting about their prowess (in the arena and in bed), bought the sweat scraped from their bodies as an aphrodisiac, etc. There’s no evidence, that I could find, that the women were treated differently than the men. They gave up their class privileges when they joined the ludus (gladiator school), just as the men did.

      I’m not sure about their sexual availability. Masters could exploit their slaves (both male and female) for sex, but gladiators–particularly freeborn–had a few more privileges and wouldn’t automatically be considered “wanton.” Rich women paid for the services of male gladiators, but I haven’t run across anything that says the female gladiators were available in the same way. I personally doubt that a noble Roman man would want to bed a successful athletic woman. They seemed to like their women plump and meek, but who knows?

        • Absolutely! We historical fiction writers delight in filling in the unknown with our imaginations. I have my characters dealing with a tricky power/sex situation in the sequel.

        • That’s what makes it SO fun to write about Neanderthals. I can pick whichever theory suits me, and make up my own. My tribe is matriarchal, just cuz I can.

  2. This sounds like a great basis for a book. With new discoveries helping us to envision our ancient past with new understanding, showing us how similar we are to our ancestors hundreds of generations ago, I’m sure we’re in for lots of surprises and twists! I can’t wait to see what Faith has in store for Afra and Cinnia.

    • Thanks, Stace! Admittedly, we know of only a few women who took the roles of gladiator, soldier, doctor, mathematician, etc., but they did exist. I like to point out, whenever I can, the evidence for women in a huge range of occupations throughout history. Working and merchant class women (and their children) labored along side their fathers and husbands and frequently took over the business or profession during the man’s absence or after death. It was only the rich who could afford to keep an idle person (the original trophy wife!) as a symbol of their wealth. And guess who wrote the history books?

  3. I love this idea! I’ve recently begun studying the longsword, and even though I’m on the petite side, fencing with one is definitely doable for a woman. Looking forward to reading this book!

    • Fascinating isn’t it? Women have fought with swords, spears, arrows, and guns down through the ages. One of the Roman writers reported that their soldiers feared the Celtic and German women fighters more than the men!

      • The Romans found many things about Britain disturbing, not the least of which were the women warriors like Boudica.

  4. MacGuyver and I used to watch the recent cable version of Spartacus. I give the writers of the show some credit because what you said “rings bells” from my memories of the series. One of the main early characters is a free man who went into the ludus to pay off a debt. He was treated just as hideously as the slave/gladiators. Also, female gladiators fought against the ludus featured in the show, so I’m guessing some luduses/ludusus (is there a plural?) may have been “co-ed,” but others weren’t.

    Gosh, “co-ed ludus” sounds like a bad drive-in movie from the ’60s.

    • Hi, Rhonda! I watched the first two seasons of Spartacus, but missed the third (will have to see if it’s available on Netflix or Amazon). I was happy to see the writers got some stuff right like the freeborn man. I’m not sure about the females fighting in that time period. I think they came a century later, but at least they did show women fighting. It is entertainment, after all!

      The plural of ludus is ludi. I haven’t found any evidence of separate ludi for the women–they never fought in large numbers–so I assume they trained in the same places as the men. In my book that causes some minor difficulties and Cinnia and her colleagues have a separate training building. In another ludus, Afra is the only woman who survives the training and works out with the men. She has a unique way of keeping them out of her bed.

  5. Throughout history, women have always done stuff normally forbidden to their sex, such as fight in wars, but usually they did so disguised as men, which I would have thought would have been the case here, too. I’m pleasantly surprised that they apparently did so openly as women.

    • Welcome back, Tracy. During wartime, it’s interesting the way cultures relax the “forbidden” status on certain activities and roles, allowing women to become involved as women, without having to disguise themselves as men.

    • Hi Tracy!The Greek and Roman cultures didn’t have the taboo against nudity that later cultures did, so it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to pass as men in the army or the ludus. Athletes practiced and performed in the nude. Gladiators fought bare-chested and men of all classes were expected to regularly bathe in public facilities. Kind of hard for a woman to pass in such company! That given, women outside the Roman world regularly ruled and fought as women and were respected–by their cultures. Roman women did break the rules, but infrequently and they paid a price.