Gladiators had wives

Rare but deadly: the gladiators of Rome

Male gladiators are mainly known from the media. Many are not even aware that in the Roman Empire women also fought for life and death in amphitheatres. No wonder, because reports and references to such spectacles are rare - but they do exist. One such example can be admired in a Hamburg museum in the form of a small statue.

The bronze statue is one of two previously known depictions of a female gladiator, as the scientist Alfonso Manas from the Spanish University in Granada reported in a study in 2012.

The approximately 2,000 year old work of art, which is exhibited in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, shows a bare-breasted woman in a loincloth holding a sickle-like object in her left hand.

Manas believes this is a sica. The short, curved dagger was used by gladiators of the Thraex type, among others. They were distinguished by their heavy armament and usually wore feathered helmets, small shields, and metal leg guards. Her back, on the other hand, was unprotected and therefore likely a popular target for a sica.

Previously, researchers had mistaken the curved instrument for a strigilis that was used for personal hygiene.

According to Manas, however, the posture of women does not support this thesis.

WINNER POSE?

If she was washing, "it doesn't make sense to hold the instrument up to clean while looking down," says Mannas.

She also "wears a cloth over her genital area," he added. "If she washes she would be completely naked."

The bowed head and the raised arm - in Roman art "a typical victory pose of the gladiators" - instead seem to indicate one of these trained fighters who stands above his defeated rival, explained Manas.

The gesture could also explain why the figure is neither wearing a helmet nor a shield.

At the end of a competition, "they took off their helmet so that all spectators could see the face of the winner," explained Manas. "They also threw their shield on the ground."

AN EROTIC EFFECT "

As for the bare upper body, that was the norm among gladiators. "A rule of gladiatorial combat was that men and women fought bare-breasted," explained Manas.

Considering the mostly male audience at such competitions, there was perhaps another reason why female gladiators fought bare chests.

In his report on the find, which appeared in the "International Journal of the History of Sport", Manas wrote: "There is no doubt that the special appearance of female gladiators also had an erotic effect on the audience."

The only other known depiction of female gladiators is a 2nd century relief from a Roman site in what is now the Turkish city of Bodrum. The artifact is currently in the British Museum.

The rarity of such finds suggests that there were comparatively few competitions between these fighters in antiquity. However, references to such events can already be found in reports by Roman scribes.

There are eyewitness accounts of female gladiators in Rome, and according to the 1st century Roman writer Suetonius, Emperor Domitian made women fight by torchlight at night. In 200 another emperor, Septimius Severus, is said to have banned gladiatorial fights.

The origin of the statue from the Hamburg Museum is not known, according to Manas, but according to him it was made "in the style of the Italian peninsula of the 1st century AD".

The article was originally published in English on NationalGeographic.com.