The more I find out about the Roman empire the more I’m impressed. Yes, it was brutal and there are things for which it is rightly condemned (especially infanticide and its treatment of children). Yet in many areas it was quite remarkable.

Eva Cantarella, the eminent professor of ancient Greek and Roman law declared that Roman women of the 1st century ACE achieved a level of autonomy not seen until recent history. Under Christianity all of the freedoms were reversed.

Relief showing two gladiatrices named Amazon and Achillia

This is not to say that Roman women weren’t subjugated, just that they were given more opportunities than later Christian women. One of the more surprising ‘freedoms’ is that some Roman women could become gladiators (f: gladiatrix). I hasten to add that the many women who were raped and died in the arena were slaves and criminals and had no choice. But there were women who freely chose the arena and who became professional gladiatrices. Indeed, the emperor Tiberius found it necessary to ban senators’ female descendants and ‘any female whose husband or father or grandfather, whether paternal or maternal or brother had ever possessed the right of sitting in the seats reserved for the equites’.

There is no doubt the desire of upper class women to fight in the arena was controversial and it was eventually banned. But the point is that it happened. Juvenal ridicules the ambitions of such upper class girls in Satire VI.

Hear her grunt and groan as she works at it, parrying, thrusting;
See her neck bent down under the weight of her helmet.
Look at the rolls of bandage and tape, so her legs look like tree-trunks,
Then have a laugh for yourself, after the practice is over,
Armour and weapons put down, and she squats as she used the vessel.
Ah, degenerate girls from the line of our praetors and consuls,
Tell us, whom have you seen got up in any such fashion,
Panting and sweating like this? No gladiator’s wench,
No tough strip-tease broad would ever so much as attempt it.

I think the more interesting question is why girls were attracted to the arena, and some of them were girls. They might undertake private martial tuition from the age of 14. The records of one such tutor records the death of one Valeria Iacunda at age 17 and 9 months.

These gladiatrices fought animals and each other. They often fought topless but a few donned heavy armour. We do not have many examples of art from the period, but this series of early postcards seem to be a fairly accurate representation, including the fact that many of them (like male gladiators) would have been muscular and heavy set (nudity was not unknown in the arena).

It seems that at least some Roman girls were able to challenge gender expectations. We know from modern gender studies that girls are quite capable of martial desires and of wishing to participate in traditional male sports. As such, as I have argued elsewhere, they express the archetype of Artemis.

This is a good thing (so long as it doesn’t involve actual harm) and we are seeing more young female warriors in popular culture. I have already mentioned the film Hannah, but in more recent times we have Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Arya Stark from Game of Thrones.