Female gladiators - did they really exist?
This question is posed by many who watch women fighting in
movies or gladiatorial shows. The answer is: Yes, they existed!
Only female combats were not as frequent as male bouts.
Even though we do not have have depictions of gladiatrices
on devotional objects such as oil lamps, knife handles, candle
holders, glass and pottery because no gladiatrix became
famous, we do have written sources which clearly prove that
women fought in the arena. They have not been only women of
low social status or slaves but also noble ladies who underwent
a training at a ludus and appeared even in the arena.
Tacitus mentioned in his annals that in the year 63 AD noble
ladies (and also senators) appeared in the arena at games
of Emperor Nero. This was very condemnable since gladiators
were considered as infamia (socially disgraced). Already
in the year 11 AD a senatus consultum (senate decision)
stated that women under the age of 20 and men under the age
of 25 were not allowed to appear in the arena and on stage.
In the year 19 AD this decision was amended: Additionally
to infamia there could be further punishments for men
and women of equestrian and senatorial rank if they appeared
Because of their rarity women combats were considered as
very entertaining. They were never a regular part of the games
and not everyone ever got the chance to see women fighting.
Therefor the duumvir (mayor) of Ostia gloated about
on an inscription that he had been the first to stage fights
of female gladiators in Ostia.
One can assume that women fought only against women in regular
bouts. But there had been some pairings which seem pretty
weird to us nowadays. For example the freedman of Emperor
Nero organized in the year 66 AD fights where only Ethiopians
appeared, men as women, young as old. The poet Martial reports
that Emperor Domitian let women fight against midgets. Further
he let women fight at night at torchlight.