Sunday, April 22, 2012


I am very excited to watch the Olympics (from home) this summer, but today let us turn from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome. Alfonso Manas of the University of Granada has reexamined a statue at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein to determine that it portrays a female gladiator. The bronze statuette (1st image) is only the 2nd known representation of a female gladiator, the 1st being a bas relief from Halikarnassos (see below). The scythe-like object in her left hand, previously thought to be a "strigil" used for scraping the body clean, has been reinterpreted as a weapon called a "sicca," used by fighters who protected themselves with small shields and metal leg guards. If she had been washing herself, she would be nude and her stance would have been different; instead, she is shown wearing a loincloth and making a typical victory gesture over her opponent, having already put down her helmet and thrown her shield to the ground. Like men, the women would have fought bare-chested and to the death, except under special circumstances. Manas writes in the International Journal of the History of Sport, "No doubt the particular appearance of female gladiators would also cause an erotic impact on viewers." The rarity of depictions of women gladiators is matched by the scarcity of written accounts (10 literary fragments and an inscription), suggesting that all-female contests were rare.

This 1st-2nd c. Roman relief from what is now Bodrum, Turkey, shows the honorable release of 2 female gladiators. "Amazon" and "Achilia" probably earned their freedom after a series of outstanding performances. Women attended the games, but were seated separately, which raises questions about why the remains of a richly adorned woman of high social status were found among the gladiators by the excavators of a gladiatorial school in Pompeii. "What these women love is the sword," wrote Roman poet Juvenal, but more of them were in the audience, obviously, than in the arena.

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