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Life Arts    H2'ed 6/11/14

Melodies for the Gladiatrix: Uppity Women in the Roman Arena

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Message Vicki Leon

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Number Three in the monthly Uppity Women Wednesday Series, started in April, 2014.

Musical bloodbaths: who knew? Oh, those edgy, extravaganza-crazy Romans! Not only did they put on the most extreme and murderous shows in the arena--they did it to live music! AND warrior amazons and uppity women were part of the act, as gladiators and as musicians.

The Gladiatrix: Infamous and Loving It

In Rome 2000 years ago, it was surprisingly difficult to keep a female vixen down, especially one with a yen for the high-risk, low-status job of gladiator. Roman senators kept passing laws to forbid women from becoming a gladiatrix, and feisty females kept flaunting them. One law even prohibited "the gladiatorial recruitment of daughters, grand-daughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or knights."

Matters got far worse under Emperor Nero. In 55 A.D., in direct opposition to the laws, he sponsored games with gladiatrices and he had the chutzpah to do it again in 63 A.D. At an exhibition show in Puteoli, he even pioneered the use of Ethiopian warrior women.

Emperor Domitian was just as reckless, putting on events where women fought by torchlight. Like rock concerts, the late-night slots were reserved for headliners.

A century later, Emperor Severus began whining about gals in the arena, and banned single combat by them, citing "an upsurge among upper-class women." He should have saved his breath: a certain breed persisted, determined to adopt this career.

Not that gladiating was a prestige job. Most fighters were male slaves or war captives; the rest were auctoratii, or freeborn volunteers who automatically lost their civil rights and were labeled infamous to boot. Women, however, had few civil rights to lose. Maybe that "infamous" label had its own allure. Gladiators were scorned yet ardently admired, with groupies galore.

Thus most gladiatrices were freeborn women who took the job for reasons of their own. Some wanted to flirt with the forbidden, and play with terror. Others feared boredom more than death. Still others chose to test themselves as men did. Test their ability to show courage in the face of the very real possibility of injury, disfigurement, or death.

Risk was a relative matter, however. A gladiatrix who was good at her job attracted fans and higher fees. If a volunteer, she was guaranteed a minimum per fight. Games officials had a vested interest in her longterm survival. Even though events were huge, days-long productions, they did not occur that often. Even seasoned gladiators might only see a few weeks of work per year.

Although the film "Gladiator" gave an inaccurate nod to the gladiatrix by having a chariot-driving chick rip around the arena, the actual fighting done by women was on foot, in one-on-one duels, just like male combatants.

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Vicki Leon, author of over 35 nonfiction books on women's history, ancient history, and travel, along with pictorial books for younger readers on wildlife and earth's fragile habitats, lives on the California coast but often returns to her favorite (more...)
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