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THE GLAMIATOR; Remains of warrior woman prove fairer sex fought as hard as men in Roman times.


THE cheers of the crowd in the amphitheatre turned to gasps when the triumphant gladiator's helmet was removed - to reveal a woman.

Beautiful and athletic, wearing little more than a loin cloth under her armour, the potent sexuality and ferocity of the gladiatrix drove the crowd wild.

As unlikely as it sounds, archaeologists and historians believe female gladiators were a key part of the Roman empire.

Far from being a sexual side-show to titillate the mainly-masculine crowd, these women were fully-trained gladiators with fighting skills that equalled their male counterparts.

And the remains of a 2000-year-old female gladiator, unearthed recently in Southwark, London, provide the most conclusive evidence yet that women as well as men fought to the death before thousands of spectators.

Nick Bateman, of the Museum of London, says there has been much speculation about whether the grave really did belong to a woman.

He says: "Most people have always thought that gladiating was something that big, butch men did in the arena. The idea that it could have been a woman was a complete surprise to many people."

But after studying the bones and artefacts in the burial site, experts have now shattered the existing beliefs about the role of women in Roman Britain.

The accepted academic view that a gladiatrix was a novelty act has been turned upside down as new evidence shows these women had the status and wealth of successful fighting men.

According to broadcaster and Amazon specialist Lyn Webster Wilde, their stunning appearance would be a natural crowd-pleaser.

She describes the female fighters as "incredibly beautiful, with well-developed, erect breasts and wearing something skimpy probably - well armed and well protected".

And she added: "Their character would be a combination of extraordinary ferocity and ruthlessness."

Judging by the extravagant contents of the grave site unearthed in London, that ruthlessness won the gladiatrix respect and a high standing in society.

RICH in expensive ceramics and containing the remnants of a funeral feast, the grave was found with 30 other graves, away from the rich, in an area of exclusion, which included prostitutes, criminals, actors and slaves.

It suggested that the dead person, although honoured, was considered an outsider and someone who would have been banished to the fringes of a Roman cemetery.

Gladiators were also outcasts, but if they had been successful champions of the ring, they could have merited the honour of a privileged funeral.

The grave contained scraps of a funeral feast such as fragments of dates, figs, the bones of four chickens, a dove and pine cones - then an exotic import from the Mediterranean, used to mask the smell of carnage in the amphitheatre.

Three pottery oil lamps depicting the Egyptian God Anubis, associated with the cult of the dead, were also found, along with one showing a fallen gladiator. The remains of a pelvic bone proved without a doubt that the grave belonged to a woman.

The body was burned on a wooden platform with the grave goods heaped around it, then collapsed into a pit - an unusual burial associated with eastern Europe, which also provided many of the gladiators who often fought in travelling troupes.

Bone expert Jackie McKinley says: "It was a woman in her 30s, slight and without evidence of disease, buried with care, ritual and ceremony in a grave laden with an unusual combination of goods which link her to the amphitheatre."

More than 50,000 people from all corners of the Roman empire were living in Londinium in the 1st century AD and the amphitheatre on its outskirts was the home of the gladiators.

They would perform an extreme spectacle to entertain troops far from home and appease the masses.

By the end of the century, audiences - which in London were as many as 6000 people - were looking for new forms of entertainment and wanted the action in the arena to become wilder and ever more extreme.

Wild animals were brought in from Africa and Syria, along with bears, hunting dogs and bulls. Elaborate machinery was built beneath the amphi-theatre as it became a giant spectacle.

It also coincided with a time when fighting woman were at the forefront of the Roman mind after recent events involving British warrior queen Boadicea.

After her daughters were raped by Roman soldiers and she herself was flogged, she led an enormous army of aristocrats and ordinary people on a campaign of vengeance and destruction, leaving several new Roman towns across Britain smoking ruins.

Harvard classical scholar Kathleen Coleman, who advised director Ridley Scott during the filming of Gladiator, says historians know there were female chariot-borne fighters.

But her study of a stone relief from Halicarnasos in Turkey, which depicted two bare-breasted women dressed as gladiators, called Amazon and Achilia, reveals they too were real fighters.

She says: "It shows they were fully trained gladiators, equipped with proper costumes and in the stance of regular combat.

"There is nothing mocking about their attire and nothing wimpish about their stance either."

The graves of gladiators found in Pompeii, the site of the oldest amphitheatre in the world, which contained jewellery, is further evidence that women fought.

As the Roman empire spread across Europe and Africa, the gladiatorial combat which was initially between slaves and criminals evolved into professional matches between trained gladiators. Wherever there was a Roman fort, an amphitheatre was built and gladiators were put to fight in it.

Whether the Britons' own warrior Queen Boadicea or the Amazons - the giant warrior women who fought the ancient Greeks - were the inspiration for female gladiators remains a mystery.

Gladiators had a special place in Roman society. which was about more than just bloodlust.

Initially, games began as a fight to the death at the cremation burials of wealthy individuals and were all about courage in the face of death.

A gladiator who died nobly was judged a suitable spirit to guide the dead aristocrat through the underworld, the entrance of which was the amphitheatre.

But the blood of a gladiator was also believed to have healing or aphrodisiac powers, and the spear with which a gladiator was killed would bring luck and fertility if a man parted his wife's hair with it on the night before marriage.

THE life of a gladiator, which tended to be brutally short, was filled with ritual and, for a woman fighting in the ring, it would have been no different.

A top player might just fight two or three times a year, spending the rest of her time in the ludus, a training school for gladiators where they practised with wooden swords and wicker shields.

In general, gladiators were outcasts who suffered ignominy in death, yet a handful had become the popstars of their day, accruing wealth and a following.

Professor Mike Fulford, an archaeologist at Reading University, says: "Gladiatorial contests didn't necessarily end in death. It depended on the crowd and circumstances and how the gladiators fought and both could have lived to fight another day.

"A successful gladiator would have earned considerable sums and would have retired wealthy. In that respect, he would have earned a place in society.

"Like a retired sportsman today. he would have been a leading person and very famous."

In death, a successful gladiator or gladiatrix would have earned the right to an honoured funeral to mark their bravery in life.

The barbaric gladiatorial contests were outlawed by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 200AD, marking the end of the rare fighting women.

Whether the British gladiatrix was a feminist or an aberration, she would have been an extraordinary sight in the middle of an amphitheatre standing triumphantly over her slain rival.

Eventually, though, even her cold ruthlessness could not prevent her luck in the ring running out.

Gladiator Girl will be shown on Channel 4 on Monday at 9pm.
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 12, 2001
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