In October of 2008, by the banks of the Tiber river, the tomb of the proconsul Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a friend of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was unearthed. The find generated great excitement in that Macrinus, or aspects of his life, were used as the model for the character Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000). Many who wrote on the find, and mentioned Gladiator, seemed to forget an even more momentous discovery in 1996: the tomb of a female gladiator in the Southwark area of London, England.
The Female Gladiator
Discovered in 1996 and announced in September 2000, the Remains of Great Dover Street Woman provided physical evidence to back up the substantial literary evidence we have from antiquity that women fought as gladiators in the arena. The woman's pelvis is all that remains of the body after the cremation but the abundance of expensive oil lamps, together with other evidence of a large and luxurious feast and the presence of pine cones (burned at the arena to cover the smell) all contribute to the conclusion that this was the grave of a revered gladiator - who was a woman.
The Games and The Gladiator
The Roman writer Seneca described an afternoon at the arena thusly, "These noon fighters are sent out with no armor of any kind; they are exposed to blows at all points, an no one ever strikes in vain...The crowd demands that the victor who has slain his opponent shall face the man who will slay him in turn; and the last conqueror is reserved for another butchering" (Durant, 387). As there are numerous accounts of the gladitorial games which support Seneca's view of the brutality and butchery, one may well wonder why anyone would voluntarily become a gladiator. Contrary to popular view (ingrained more deeply in imagination by Gladiator) not all combatants were slaves or Christians killed for sport. Gladitorial schools abounded in Rome and, by extension, in her colonies. Gladitorial schools existed in Rome as early as 105 B.C.E. Upon entering a Gladitorial school the novice took a vow to allow himself to be whipped, burned and killed with steel and gave up all rights to his - or her - own life. The gladiator became the property of the master of the school who regulated everything in that person's life, from diet to daily exercise and, of course, trained the person to fight. Some in the schools were, indeed, slaves, but many men - and it seems women as well - joined the schools voluntarily for the fame, the excitement, for the large amounts of money which could be made (gladiators kept most of what they earned fighting) or to erase personal or family debt.
The Role of Women in Rome
As women in Rome were not thought to be men's equal, and their public, if not always private, lives strictly regulated, the female gladiator could never achieve respectability, no matter how great a warrior she was. In 116 C.E. the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote, "And what about female atheletes, with their purple track-suits and wrestling in the mud? Not to mention our lady fencers - we've all seen them stabbing the stump with a foil...just the right training needed to blow a matronly horn at the Floral Festival" (Lewis, 335). Even so, based on archaelogical evidence pre-dating the 1996 find of the tomb of the Great Dover Street Woman, female gladiators engaged regularly in the sport whenever the reigning emperor deemed it convenient - or popular - to allow it.
This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2009 Joshua J. Mark