In the relief the gladiatrices are clothed and equipped similarly to that of their male counterparts, but with significant differences. A description of the two female gladiators is as follows:
They do not wear helmets
They do not wear a tunic, just a loincloth (subligaculum)
They wear an arm protector (called a manica)
They both hold a gladius (sword)
They both wear an Ocrea, or metal greave, on the lower leg
They hold a body shield called a scutum
The lack of helmet is important. Very few gladiators fought without a helmet, including the Retiarii, but these gladiators were always lightly armored so they had the advantage of agility, mobility and speed - the depiction of the female gladiators shows they are heavily armored. The lack of helmet, displaying the feminine hairstyle, must have been to emphasis the sex of the fighters. The male gladiators who were armed and clothed in a similar fashion to these gladiatrices were called Secutores. The Secutores were some of the later types of gladiators.
Female Gladiators and the Emperor Nero
The Roman historian, Dio Cassius wrote about of a festival of gladiatorial games sponsored by the Emperor Nero which was held as a tribute to his mother. Dio Cassius wrote:
"In honour of his mother he [Nero] celebrated a most magnificent and costly festival, the events taking place for several days in five or six theatres at once…There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when 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…; they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will."
The Emperor Nero later went on to instigate the assassination of his mother and to kill his wife Poppaea Sabina. This dissolute tyrant commanded absolute power. If a senator offended him he had the power to murder him and sentence his wife to death in the arena, as the above testimony states. The sight of pampered patrician women fighting for their lives no doubt amused him. But what of the Roman women who chose to fight as female gladiators. What would motivate them to take on such a role?
Wealthy Roman Women (Patricians) who fought as Female Gladiators
What would motivate wealthy Roman women to undertake the role of a female gladiator? Tacitus (56 – 117) who was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire, wrote that, "Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre" (Annals, XV.32). These women gladiators did not fight for money, they already had money. These women might have wanted attention, excitement, thrills and notoriety. But they must have had permission from their male 'guardian'. As long as the women did not receive a participation fee they would be exempt from the stain of 'infamia' which was a legal disability attached conscripted gladiators, actors and prostitutes.
Female Gladiators - The Role of Women in Roman Society
A famous line of Cicero describes the status of Roman women as follows, "Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians." It was only during the reign of Augustusthat guardianship was no longer applied to women, whose father and husband had died and who had already borne three children (3 children for freeborn women, 4 for freedwomen). So perhaps the wealthy women who fought as female gladiators were encouraged, or even ordered, to do so by ambitious husbands who wanted to attract the attention of powerful Romans to their family.
Female Gladiators and the Emperor Domitian
It is documented by Dio Cassius that the Roman Emperor Domitianarranged for female gladiators fight dwarfs in the arena. As noted in the writings of Dio Cassius, "Often he would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other" (67.8.2).
Edicts banning Freeborn Female Gladiators
By the end of the Roman Republic and the at the beginning of the period of the Roman Empire the sight of wealthy women fighting in the arena had become intolerable to many Romans and several governmental edicts limited, and even banned, the participation of women in the arena. In 11 AD, during the reign of Augustus, freeborn females under the age of twenty were forbidden from appearing on the stage or in the arena (as well as freeborn males under the age of twenty-five). In 19AD 'prohibited the gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or of knights, under the age of twenty'.
Emperor Septimus Severus Female Gladiators
In 200AD, Emperor Septimus Severus banned female gladiators when he issued a decree banning single combat by women in the arena for "recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience". It took a number of years for this edict to be enforced throughout the Roman Empire. The Emperor Honorius, finally decreed the end of gladiatorial contests in 399 AD. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404 AD.
For additional information refer to:
Women Gladiators -Satires of Juvenal