Author's Note: There is archeological and written historical evidence to confirm that women fought as gladiators. While many were slaves from conquered territories, women from all classes of Roman society fought in the Coliseum and just about every arena in the Roman Empire.
A carved relief from the 1st century AD depicts two female gladiators with shields, swords, helmets and dressed similarly to their male counterparts.
Written evidence, though limited, suggests that female gladiatorial combat was a very popular form of entertainment rivaling that of the men. Pairs fighting in the arena were scheduled during afternoon or early evening, an indicator of their high importance to the games. It is interesting to note that the women always fought before the men.
While segregated from the men, women trained at the same schools, in the same types of combat disciplines and enjoyed the same rights and privileges. They were accorded the same type of hero worship by the Roman citizenry and were the super star athlete's of their day.
Gladiators of both sexes were a highly valued and expensive commodity to their owners. They were treated well with the fortunate few winning their freedom.
The two main protagonists in the story are from the conquered Roman provinces of Gaul and Ethiopia. Captured female warriors from Gaul were prized for their strength and ferocity. The use of Ethiopian women in the games is first mentioned in writings dating from the time of Nero, approx. 60 AD.
As we stood in the sweltering heat of the equipment room in the arena at Tarentum, number eight appeared highly agitated.
"The matron just told me that a very wealthy Senator wanted only the best gladiators for a festival in honor of his forefathers'. He specified that the gladiators are to fight to the death and paid a vast sum of money to the school for the privilege," number eight said with loathing to our group.
A pervasive feeling of gloom descended on us from number eights sobering news. The gladiatorial school that owned us was wise to keep this information secret until we were about to step foot in the arena.
As I laced up my leather fighting sandals and leggings, the pairings for the afternoons combat were announced. I had grown to despise killing, an affliction seriously detrimental to the well being of a gladiator.
"...Number eleven and number twenty three..." the school director barked.
I froze dead in my tracks.
"No, this can't be," I said quietly trying to hide my distress.
"I told you this day might come," twenty three said resignedly and stood still as her manica or arm guard was fitted into place.
Twenty three had her game face on but I could see that she was shaken by the news.
The glow of the oil lamps cast eerie shadows on the brick walls as twelve gladiators prepared for the combat that would end the life of six.
"I won't fight," I said to twenty three in a voice bordering on hysteria.
"Then I will kill you," she replied in a chilling voice.
I stared at her, unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation. We were the best female gladiators at our school. It made no sense to pair us in a fight to the death when the availability of well trained women was scarce.
Fights to the death were uncommon. Occasionally, a gladiator was severely injured during combat and died as a result. If a gladiator disgraced themselves or showed cowardice the spectators could demand his or her death.
The thought of fighting the woman I cherished above all others to the death, had me in the depths of despair. My mind searched vainly for a way out of this awful predicament but there was none.
On the journey to Tarentum, I had seen several tiny towns that reminded me of my home and in an attempt to ease my growing panic, I tried to remember what my village looked like and...
Gaul 90 AD
My village was in the region the Romans referred to as Gaul. In my mind I saw the huts, the green fields and the smell of roasting meat on the spit; usually a fresh kill my father made in the surrounding hills.
We were a warrior people, made so by the conquest of the Roman legions. Our tribes had withstood the attacks from before I was born or so my father said. But, our numbers had declined dramatically, especially among the fighting men.
With the shortage, many able bodied young women fought alongside their fathers, brothers, cousins and neighbors. Some women were more powerful than their male kin and fought with a ferocity that frightened the enemy. I was tall and lanky for a girl of fifteen but also quite strong.
The Roman broadswords that were taken from the vanquished after skirmishes, was our main weapon for fighting. Even at my young age, I handled it with a two fisted grip that impressed my father.
"Daughter, if I didn't know better, I'd swear you were a boy," he would say to me with admiration.
But, head on confrontation with the Romans was suicide. There seemed to be an endless supply of Roman soldiers and far too few of my people. Our chief strategy was to lie in wait and ambush patrols or cohorts that were lost or separated from the main force.
It was during one such skirmish that I made my first kill with an upward thrust through the neck that nearly severed it. My foe lay at my feet, blood spurting in all directions but it didn't last long. In a matter of moments he was dead.
Carefully, I examined his still face and thought that he was probably no older than my brother. His was a handsome face, a youthful face only a short time ago filled with the promise victory.
"Daughter, we must make haste. The enemy will regroup and fall upon us in greater numbers," my father bellowed at me.
During the forced march back to our village, I couldn't shake the image of the dead young man from my mind. My earliest recollections are of the elders teaching us not only to hate the Romans but to fear them as well.
Although I hated the Romans, I had no fear or hatred for the fallen soldier.
"Why do the Romans hunt us down like animals?" I asked my father one evening by the fire.
"They are an evil people who enslave all they don't kill. Many of our kinsmen have been captured and only a handful escaped to tell the tale of their ordeal," he answered forcefully and with disgust.
My father thought I was too young and stupid to hear the grisly details. He thought that all women were dim-witted and foolish but I was smarter than my brothers. I was as skilled a fighter and just as savage.
Even though I fought side by side with the men in my village, I was not treated as an equal. I always had to wait for my father and brothers to eat first just like my mother and sisters who stayed at home.
At tribal festivals during the year, acts of bravery, fearlessness and courage during battle were told but rarely about a fighting woman. Many rounds and toasts of strong drink were hoisted in honor of the heroic but only by the men.
At one such festival when I was sixteen, I was promised to my oldest brother's friend Etr as his betrothed. I disliked him intensely but I had no say in the matter. The men in my village made all the important decisions.
Our union was turbulent because I didn't fear him or respect him as a man. I believed he lacked the sound judgment and strength of character that a man should have when making important decisions.
We quarreled most of the time and because we lived with his kin, I had no allies when the fights reached chaotic proportions. When our first child, a son, died during childbirth, he was furious and blamed me.
During battles, Etr took it upon himself to fight alongside of me. I warned him to stay away but he ignored me like any man would. His fighting style was haphazard and lacked discipline.
When I complained to my brother, he roared at me in anger.
"He is trying to protect you! You stupid girl!"
"I need no one to protect me! I can fight better than him and most men" I screamed angrily in reply.
Of course, it was no use arguing. Etr would do as he pleased; I had no say in the matter. But, unfortunately for him, it would lead to his death.
During winter, the Roman campaigns against us would cease or lessen to just a few. We knew they remained in their forts and outposts with a false sense of security. It was the only time of the year when we made hit and run attacks that minimized our casualties but totally disrupted the Romans.
But, regardless of the weather, The Romans sent out patrols to assess our size, strength and location.
Our scouts tracked down many patrols because the ground was snow covered and their footprints clearly visible. Often they got lost in the thick forests; easy pickings for us.
On a snowy afternoon a Roman patrol was spotted in a dense part of the forest, obviously lost. They camped for the night with sentry's posted every fifteen feet. It was decided that we would attack at dawn before the sunrise.
With the light growing brighter in the east, we poured down the hillside, yelling our war cry. We caught many Romans in their tents and I dispatched two with ease.
A small number of soldiers regrouped and took up a defensive position. With the main part of our force on the other side of the encampment, it would have been prudent to wait until they rejoined us. But, my oldest brother, impatient and bull headed, decided to charge.
During the charge, Etr as usual was at my side. As we ran at full speed toward the Roman line, he kept glancing at me sideways and smiling.
"I will bring much honor and glory to our village today," he boasted in a useless attempt to impress me.
I ignored him because he was making a critical mistake by not focusing his attention on the enemy in front of us. The first line of Roman defense used a long spear in a fixed position to repel the first wave of an attack.
An agile warrior could avoid and break the spears, then engage the enemy. As I approached the soldier directly in front of me, I wielded a swift sword stroke at his spear and it broke in two.
With only a shield for defense I hacked at him until I severed an arm and disabled him. Suddenly, I realized that Etr was not at my side and as I turned to look, I saw him lying on the ground with a spear through the center of his body.
Etr was alive but barely when I got to him. His face had the unmistakable look of imminent death. I was saddened by his passing but only because it meant one less warrior to defend our people.
When we returned to our village, my oldest brother publicly condemned me and held me responsible for Etr's death.
When I explained the fatal error Etr made during the charge, he ignored me. I was forced to give my account before the elders and they refused to believe me.
"You are an ill omen girl, no man will want you now for fear he will die in battle!" My father bellowed.
I kept my silence and in spite of my fear that I would be ostracized, I was allowed to remain in the village and continue fighting as a warrior. But, my father was right, no man wanted me.
For the next two years, the Roman campaigns were sporadic and ceased altogether in the winter. It was during the summer, at the start of my eighteenth year that I was injured in battle. A sword sliced across my belly and almost gutted me.
Most who were injured died with high fevers and half out of their minds with visions. I feared the worst and was taken to a hut on the outskirts of the village.
I was cared for by a young woman who happened to be Etr's sister. Her man had fallen in battle soon after their union was consummated. She was childless like me and forced to live with what little family he had left.
Although she was the same age as me, with the scarcity of eligible men, her prospects for another union were poor.
She applied roots and herbs to my wound several times a day. Each time the searing pain almost made me cry out but I bit my tongue as any good warrior would do.
Eventually, the pain lessened and the fever that signaled death did not appear.
"You will recover, the wound is healing" she said confidently one day as she changed the dressing.
Her words relieved my troubled mind and sleep came easily. Later, she told me that I slept for almost three days.
As my body mended, I found that I enjoyed her company and missed her when she went to do the work that was required of all women in the village. Sometimes, she was gone for many hours and I would wait impatiently for her return.
She was kind and caring towards me even though village lore branded me as responsible for her brother's demise.
"Etr was a good brother but many times he was careless. I was told what you said to the elders and I believed what you testified to be truth," she said with conviction.
Certainly, I was indebted to her for saving my life and one day I expressed my feelings.
"I would do the same for any warrior, man or women. Your gratitude is accepted," she said and smiled at me.
I looked at her kind face and realized that my heart thumped at a quicker pace. A warm feeling enveloped my body and my desire to be in her presence grew stronger.
One very hot day, I was waiting for her to return from her labors in the village. She had taken my clothes to wash in the river and I lay naked and sweating from the stifling heat in the hut. I was still too weak to go outside without help.
As the heat grew worse, I felt light headed and dizzy. Finally, I passed out and was unaware when she returned. She brought fresh straw for our bedding but left it outside when she saw my unresponsive body.
I awoke in a pile of straw under the shade of a tree. She was dabbing my forehead with cool water from a wood bucket.
"You are kind to me woman," I stated thankfully.
Using a cloth saturated with the cool liquid, she gently wiped down my face, neck, arms and started on my chest. She paused for a moment and stared at my arms with an amused smile on her face.
"Warrior, you have muscles like a man," she stated clearly still smiling.
No one had ever said that to me. In fact, not since I was a little girl had anyone showed me tender caring like her.
As she slowly proceeded to wash the rest of my body, she hummed a song that sounded both happy and sad. When she finished the cleansing, my body was tingling as though a colony of ants had taken up residence under my skin.
She sat next to me with the same serene smile, gazing at my body.
"You have a strong body like a man but there is no doubt that you are a woman," she said with a lilt in her voice and looked between my legs.
Indeed, most of the tingling seemed to come out of this area when she washed it.
"You coupled with my brother. Did you not enjoy it?" she asked me with a serious look.
The look in my eyes was all the answer she needed as the tingling feeling increased inside of me.
Her hands were softly running up and down my arms and she was still smiling but it had a different quality. It reminded me of the look Etr got when he wanted to shove his manhood between my thighs.
When her hands moved to my chest her fingers played with the two bumps sticking up. No one including Etr had ever touched me there and it felt good.
The thumping of my heart was faster and my breathing heavier, as though I was going into battle. One of her hands moved over my belly and delicately traced a line along my sensitive scar.
My body jerked in pain from her touch.
"Are you hurting?" she asked while looking at my wound
"No woman," I lied with a warrior's stoicism.
Nonetheless, she stopped touching me.
"You're weak as a newborn pup," she said with some pity and helped me to sit up.
No self respecting warrior would admit to weakness and despised the pity of others but the words failed me.
Gradually, my strength improved and I started training for the eventual return to battle. After my convalescence, I returned to the hut I occupied with Etr's family and was turned away.
"We don't have the means to provide for you," Etr's father said wearily with a troubled look.
His youngest and last son had died in the same battle I was injured. With many mouths to feed, the wife of a dead son was a burden he could no longer bear. In truth, I was capable of eating as much if not more than a man.
I had no quarrel with Etr's father and walked the short distance to my fathers' hut. My oldest brother greeted me with the same hostility he showed the enemy.
"You are no longer welcome here girl," he sneered at me.
The hut was full to bursting with my brothers, sisters and their off spring. My father, once the most feared warrior in our village, was sick and probably dying from wounds he received in a recent skirmish. I agreed to go but wondered why my brother, my kin hated me.
When Etr's sister saw me walking toward her hut, she had a broad smile on her face.
"I am homeless woman. Can you help me?" I asked with a rare dose of humility.
"You are welcome here!" She answered enthusiastically.
"Perhaps you should ask for your father in law's permission," I said reminding her of basic tribal law governing such matters.
"He is a kind hearted man and has already consented," she stated succinctly.
I was impressed. Her actions required forethought and planning, an admirable quality in a woman or a man.
Because it was mid summer, I avoided the stifling heat of the hut and erected a sturdy weather proof lean two under the shade of an enormous maple tree.
My days were spent training with the warriors. In the evenings, I sat or reclined by the outside fire with Etr's sister as she sewed or wove cloth for garments. We spoke very little and she would softly sing or hum a tribal song.
One evening as she sang a sad song about a fallen warrior, I was fascinated by her golden hair and pale skin. In contrast, mine was dark brown and my complexion a little darker.
"What is your name woman?" I asked gently.
"Blanka," she replied shyly.
In our language it literally meant white one. When I was much younger, my father told me that during the time of his father's father, our tribes made peace with the vicious tribes of the far north. They were very tall with golden hair and had the most terrible war cry he ever heard. Their language was harsh but easy to learn and inter marriage was encouraged as a way of joining our peoples together.
Their customs were crude but over time a middle ground for co-existence was established. During my lifetime it was common to see people with gold hair in the villages that made up our tribe.
There were times when disputes and bad blood ended in battles but we learned to stop fighting each other and the Romans became our common enemy. However, they were undisciplined fighters who simply charged and fought with more guts than brains. The Romans were terrified of them and as allies they were invaluable.
Blanka was smiling at me in a demure posture that a wife would assume for her husband. She wanted me to accompany her to the river but with the sun low on the horizon, it was ill advised but I agreed anyway.
"You and your clothes need a wash," she said charmingly.
That afternoon my hunting party killed a large deer and I was coated with blood, guts and dirt. Blanka grabbed a small sack and walked briskly, matching me stride for stride.
At a secluded pool in a narrow bend of the river, Blanka made me sit on a rock with the water lapping at my waist as she washed my clothes. She was using a root that produced a kind of foam.
Finally, she turned her attention to me and used the same root. As she washed my hair, some of the foam fell on my hand and I discovered it was slippery.
Blanka was humming a tune as she covered my upper body in foam. When I stood up, her hands gently washed the rest of me. She splashed water over me as a rinse than stood back a little and looked me over.