Who Was That Naked Female Gladiator Anyway?

5d9f6-female-gladiator-statueAbout two weeks ago, the University of Granada released new research on a statue in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Germany, identifying it as a female gladiator. If this is true, it would be the second known statue of a female gladiator in existence. Despite missing a hand and part of a leg she is pretty intact, which is a lot to say for antiquity sculpture.

There was various reprinting of the original article, all reporting the rarity of the statue and making the case for the existence of female gladiators during Ancient times using a multitude of literary and physical sources. So we all agree now that there were female gladiators. But it got me to wondering, just who was that naked female gladiator in real life?

The bronze statue dates to nearly 2,000 years ago, which aligns nicely to when most of the Roman written record mentions female fighters in the Gladiator games. Nero once held a game in honor of his mother in which “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.”[1]

Was our little warrior perhaps a member of the upper echelon, who sought thrill and adventure, and began competing as a gladiator? If so, she would have fallen out of grace with her fancy friends because even though gladiators could become celebrities, they were of a very low class.

Emperor Domitian was known to hold elaborate games and gladiator spectacles and even staged battles at night with woman. One time, he even pitted women and dwarves together for a novel thrill.[2]

As gladiator games evolved to keep up with the times, sponsors who hosted them had to look for ever increasing ways to shock the audiences and keep them entertained. Mock seat battles. Giant hunts with live animals. And yes, women fighters.

Could our little warrior have been one of these? A professionally trained, volunteer gladiator who lived in the gladiator school, fought 3-4 times a year (like a modern day boxer), kept her prize money, and became a celebrity fighter?

a387f-ps337507_mThis statue from the British Museum is the first known depiction of female gladiators in existence. While difficult to make out, the two figures have braided hair and breasts. The confirmation of their sex is the inscription bearing their names: Amazon and Achilia.

Achilia is the female version of Achilles, the famed Greek hero of the Trojan War. Most likely these were stage names and what we are seeing here is one of the battle plays that female gladiators could play out. An Amazon woman battling a Greek heroine. Battles were staged and billed, with the main event always occurring last.

Or did our little warrior have a more destitute fate? By the late Republic, at least half of the gladiator population was volunteers. The other half were the slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war that originally made up the fighter pool when the Romans began hosting gladiator games in the 1st century BCE. Was this the case here? Was she a poor Roman girl who broke some law and was turned over to the Gladiator Entertainment Machine?

Was she a prisoner of war from some occupied Roman territory, who was unable to commit suicide like Boudica and traded in? Could she have been a foreign princess like our Cleopatra Selene? The only daughter of Cleopatra, Selene was captured by Augustus and dragged through the streets of Rome in chains. She was able to maneuver her way through his household and become a Queen in her own right, avoiding the fate of the Gladiators. But is it possible this was the fate of our little champion? Was she a foreign princess brought to Rome and forced into this life?

We will probably never know exactly who she was and what events in her life led her to the Gladiator ring. But what is evident by her pose is that whatever battle this was, she was victorious.


[1] and [2] Both of these accounts are taken from the Roman record, and sourced from the article “Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World,” by Steven Murray in the Journal of Combative Sport, July 2003.