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.

Before The Great Fire of London Celtic Warrior-Queen Had Already Burned the City to the Ground

Just north of the London Bridge is a two-hundred-foot-tall memorial for the Great Fire of London that devastated the Old City in 1666. However, this was not the first time London had been engulfed in flames. Almost two thousand years before that, in 61CE, a warrior-queen known as Boudica burned down London as she led an uprising of 100,000 Celts against the Romans occupying Britain.

The Roman Empire had made its way to the British Isles around 43 CE and quickly began assimilating the native Briton population — made up of Celtic Tribes — by bribery, coercion, or force. Boudica (pronounced Boo-di-ka) and her husband, Prasutagus, were the King and Queen of the Iceni Tribe located in the present-day county of Norfolk, along the east coast of Great Britain.

Prasutagus and Boudica realized that by cooperating with the Romans, instead of resisting, they could earn power and wealth and lead a Roman life, seen as exotic and prestigious at the time. In exchange for their allegiance, they were allowed to maintain their aristocratic status among their people. Upon his death, Prasutagus left half his kingdom to his wife and the other half to the Roman Empire. But just like that scorpion who suckered the frog into taking him across the river and then stung him anyway, the Romans didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. They seized the entire kingdom, sold half the royal family into slavery, publicly beat Boudica, and raped her daughters.

Boudica rallied neighboring Celtic kingdoms who had their own grievances with the Romans and so began Boudica’s Rebellion. They began in Camulodunum (present-day Colchester) and drove out the Romans and burned down the city. Next, they marched into Londinium (London) and burned it down and massacred 25,000 inhabitants. They then turned their torches north and set their eyes on Verulamium (St. Albans).

At this point, Roman Emperor Nero (about 23 years old at the time) got word of the revolt. His man on the street, Governor Suetonius, had been busying himself trying to conquer Wales. He hightailed himself back to Britain to crush the rebel alliance. He took a stand along the major trading route known as Watling Street, and scholars believe Boudica’s last battle was somewhere along this road in the West Midlands area. Encountering the trained and heavily armed Roman army, the Celtic warriors didn’t have a chance in an open-air combat scenario. The Roman army defeated Boudica and put an end to the rebellion. Most agree that up until this Roman victory, Nero would have pulled out of Britain all together.

Route of Buodica’s Rebellion:

What happened to Boudica at this point is a mystery. The only ancient sources referring to Boudica are Roman sources written after the rebellion. Tacitus included her story in two of his writings, Agricola (98CE) and The Annals (109CE), and Cassius Dio wrote of her exploits a century afterwards, in The Rebellion of Boudica (163CE). According to the authors, its possible she either poisoned herself to avoid being taken prisoner, or she died after the battle. Regardless, her rebellion was enough to make Emperor Nero think twice about how he handled Britain. Shortly afterwards, he cleaned house and replaced the Governor and administrators with non-military politicians.

Once again, Melvin Briggs is busting it wide open with his BBC4 radio show In Our Times. In the first nine minutes, his guests drop the bomb that Boudica may not even exist because there is no archaeological evidence of her. The only physical evidence for Boudica are coins related to her husband, Prasutagus, and the geological layer of burnt ash in the cities she sacked.

After the Roman sources, Boudica’s name is lost in literary tradition. Her story is revived during the Renaissance and Tudor times as another feisty queen, Elizabeth I, identifies with her as a leader that challenged foreign invasion. Later, Queen Victoria channeled her as a national British hero. A bronze statue of Boudica now stands near the London House of Parliament which was commissioned in 1905.