Gladiator Grrrl

In September, archaeologists at the Museum of London announced that what may be the remains of a female gladiator had been discovered near the London Amphitheatre, where gladiators are believed to have fought. The woman, who lived almost two thousand years ago, was probably in her early twenties. She was identified by a charred pelvic bone found in her grave, which served as a funeral pyre. While archaeologists say they may never know if the woman was actually a gladiator, several clues point to her likely association with the sport. Her grave, located outside a walled Roman cemetery, was littered with ceramic objects, such as oil lamps, decorated with gladiator imagery. “Here we have an exotic burial with symbolism associated with gladiators, so it could just be that we have a professional gladiator,” says Hedley Swain, head of the museum’s Early Department (pre-1700 C.E.). “The grave was outside the bounds of a regular Roman cemetery, which suggests the person was important but outside the bounds of normal society, which was exactly the position gladiators had in Roman society.”

The grave was also filled with preserved dates, almonds, figs, chickens, and a dove, apparently left from a lavish funeral feast meant to send her off with blessings. This elaborate burial indicates to researchers that she may indeed have been one of a few females who competed in the professional ranks. Professional gladiators were practically superstars in the ancient Roman world. That would make her different from slave-women gladiators who were used for titillation—forced to dress as Amazons or to fight male dwarfs. Though the masses reveled in this spectacle, the upper classes frowned on it. Around 200 C.E., all female gladiators were banned. The discovery of the gladiator’s remains—if she was indeed a gladiator—stands as the world’s first archaeological evidence linking women to the sport.

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