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 as gladiators.

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.