Women Gladiators: Sensational Spectator Sport For Roman Audiences

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Women Gladiators: Sensational Spectator Sport For Roman Audiences

Women Gladiators: Sensational Spectator Sport For Roman Audiences

It may all have started when female sword fighters performed at funerals in the very early days of Rome. There may also be some connection between women participating in chariot racing and women gladiators. The Greek Heraean Games were pivotal: they were a four-yearly female sports event dedicated to Hera and founded by the legendary Queen Hippodameia; they would later become a template for the Olympics and continued for centuries until suppressed by the Christians. Apart from the usual foot races, javelin throwing and so on, the games included female chariot races. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece Hippodameia assembled a group known as the ‘Sixteen Women’ to organize the Heraean Games, during which the women competitors, incidentally, wore men’s clothes. A first-century AD inscription from Delphi records that two young women competed in races, possibly those at the Sebasta festival in Naples in the Roman Empire and during Emperor Domitian’s reign there were races for women at the Capitoline Games in Rome in 86 AD.

Hippodameia greeted by a seemingly genteel Centaur in a wall painting from Pompeii (ArchaiOptix/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hippodameia greeted by a seemingly genteel Centaur in a wall painting from Pompeii (ArchaiOptix/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

There is a tendency to think of gladiators only as men, thanks largely to some epic Hollywood films. However, women were not uncommon competitors in the amphitheaters around the Roman world, playing out the phony fights and grappling in close combat, much to the delight and carnal titillation of the audiences: the nearest the modern world has come to it, is probably female wrestling. The women were usually warm-up acts providing light relief in between the top-of-the-bill, crowd-pleasing gruesome and gory acts.


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