Gladiatrix: The True Story of History's Unknown Woman Warrior

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9780425186107: Gladiatrix: The True Story of History's Unknown Woman Warrior

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE SPECTACLE... THE STORY THAT STUNNED THE WORLD.

 

These may be the only remains of a gladiator ever found. The evidence that they were female not only made history but changed it, giving a new understanding of the role of women in Roman society. Was it really possible for a woman to have embraced masculine virtues and acquired masculine skills—and to have been encouraged to revel in the blood-and-death spectacle of gladiatorial combat?

 

Gladiatrix enters this startling new world for the first time. It also unearths the inspirations for these warrior women of Rome—the legend of the Amazons and the true story of Boudica, the Warrior Queen who almost brought the Roman Empire to its knees. And it recreates the startling life of a female outcast who lived and died like no other, to became history’s most remarkable sister-in-arms.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

 

            From the romantic paintings of the nineteenth century to the epic films of the twentieth, the popular image of the Roman gladiator has been of a life bloody, brutal, and short.  A timeless tragic hero, compelled to fight to the death by forces beyond his control, his fate ultimately resting in the hands of a capricious emperor and a bloodthirsty mob.  He is noble, honorable, and invariably doomed.  He is also a he.This powerful symbol of strength and resolve has always been decidedly male.

            In September of 2000, experts at the Museum of London made an announcement that would challenge such long-held preconceptions.  Not only did they believe they had identified the burial of a gladiator—an achievement in and of itself—but the fragmented remains had proven to be those of a woman.

            The discovery caused a stir within traditional scholarship and garnered media attention worldwide.  The find was unprecedented and its interpretation controversial, certainly, but this was not the first evidence for the existence of female gladiators.  Brief mentions and oblique references can be teased out of the works of several ancient writers, while a relief in the British Museum indisputably depicts two such combatants, going so far as to identify them by name.

            Why, then, did this latest discovery spark such public interest?  Perhaps it comes at a time when, like the Romans two thousand years before, there is a more receptive audience for strong feminine images.  Where the Romans had the legend of the Amazons and Boudica, the Celtic warrior queen, we now cheer professional female athletes competing in sports once considered the exclusive domain of men and follow the exploits of fictional heroines like Xena: Warrior Princess on television.

            In her time, however, the gladiatrix represented the epitome of social contradiction.  Even her male counterparts, while highly celebrated and capable of achieving great fame in their lifetimes, were considered to be of the lowest status imaginable, akin to slaves, even if they had been born free citizens.  A woman who fought in the arena not only went against roman cultural mores but exploded gender definitions as well.

            Difficulties reconciling the conflicts inherent in her life may be reflected in the death of the mysterious woman discovered by the Museum of London team.  The contents of her grave and the care taken in its preparation suggest she was a woman of some renown, possibly high rank.  Yet, she was laid to rest in relative obscurity, not among the monuments and mausolea of Roman London’s notables, but out along the periphery with those of more questionable standing.

            The quality and quantity of items contained in the grave—an assemblage without parallel in Britain—may allude to the beliefs of the deceased and the rituals performed at her graveside.  There are the remains of a sumptuous funeral feast, including such imported delicacies as dates, almonds, and figs.  Eight ceramic incense burners and the remains of burnt pinecones suggest a ceremony heavy with exotic scent.  Even the cones themselves were rarities, coming from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), a species not indigenous to the area, but closely associated with the rites of the Roman amphitheater.

            Also found among these goods, eight small pottery lamps, four of a type produced in Gaul and not often seen in Britain.  Of these, one depicts a fallen gladiator, possibly a direct reference to the person being honored.  Three others bear the likeness of the jackal-headed Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead and conveyor of souls to the underworld.

            How did this enigmatic woman come to rate such an eclectic and worldly collection of artifacts?  Why did she receive such a reverential but, at the same time, ignominious burial?  Curators at the Museum of London argue that few career paths were available to women that could have brought them exposure to cosmopolitan ideas and obvious personal success, yet keep them at the fringes of society: She was a gladiatrix.

            Celebrities and outcasts, gladiators enjoyed great admiration and rewards, but risked paying the ultimate price.  What would drive a woman to such extremes?  This book will explore the little-known world of the gladiatrix: the evidence for her existence, the history and legends that may have given her rise, her life training for combat in the arena, and the bloody spectacle of the Roman amphitheater in which she could well have met her end.

 

 

Camilla stepped out into the light of the arena. As if she needed another reminder of where she was, the sun felt different here. In the Mediterranean lands where she had trained and fought, the heat hit like a wall and quickly made armor burn to the touch. Here it gently warmed her back after the dank coolness of the amphitheater tunnel. This was the sun of home.

Possibly the only familiar thing about the place. Much had changed in the years since she had left. Of course, at the time, London had been little more than a smoking ruin and she had been accused of helping make it so. Since then, its inhabitants seem to have busied themselves with turning this remote outpost of the empire into a poor copy of a proper Roman town.

And how many of her countrymen, Camilla wondered, looking out at the sea of faces, had turned themselves into poor copies of proper Romans? Were they all now falling over themselves to speak a foreign tongue and live in square houses just for the right to drape themselves in bedsheets and swear allegiance to an unseen emperor?

In the distance, she could barely make out the women spectators, uppermost in the stands, laughing and waving the hems of their dresses as they would for male gladiators. If things had been different, had she stayed, would she have been among them, satisfied to be relegated to the back of the crowd?

Agave danced past, leaping and whooping, playing up to the audience, the moth-eaten leopard’s skin tied about her shoulders flapping behind her. The display brought even louder cheers as the small troupe marched around the ring.

Those who had made a day of the games had already been treated to the usual execution of prisoners and animal hunt. Camilla had seen the sad excuse for a lion backstage—the creature had not traveled well, but Rufus was probably back there right now negotiating for its mangy hide to complete Heraklia’s outfit.

She spotted the veteran fighter ahead of her. Although she was trying hard to conceal it, Camilla could tell Heraklia was limping.

“That leg’s still bothering you,” she said, catching up. “You should’ve had Rufus pull you from the lineup.”

Heraklia laughed. They both knew the company’s owner better than that. “Are you kidding, and ruin his big break?”

Rufus had been contracted to provide five fighting pairs for this prestigious—if backwater—event and damned if he wasn’t going to take women off the street and put swords in their hands to do it.

Although only a few years older than Camilla, Heraklia had had a sword in her own hand by the time most girls were starting to weave their wedding veils. She was so close to retirement now she could taste it. Nothing was going to jeopardize that, not even an injury.

“You worry too much. Today’s like any other day—we live or we die.”

Somehow, Camilla failed to be reassured by this sentiment. But it was not until they turned to salute the games’ sponsor that she realized how very wrong her friend’s words had been.

Today was not like any other day, for staring down at Camilla from the stands was her own father.

 

 

Chapter 1: Discovery

 

Who was the mystery woman buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Roman London? Laid to rest with great reverence and ceremony, her burial contained a rich and remarkable array of artifacts, yet it was deliberately set apart from other graves of its stature. Did this seclusion reflect the woman’s status? Had she been an outsider in life as well as in death? Who among those on society’s periphery would have merited such a lavish and ritualized funeral? These were the questions facing members of the Museum of London Archaeological Service when, during a routine excavation, an extraordinary discovery was made.

In a city as rich in history as London, it is sometimes difficult to put spade to ground without turning up some discarded relic of the past: a bit of pottery or broken brick, a centuries-old house foundation, a forgotten road. For nearly two thousand years, people have made their homes along this bend in the River Thames, building and rebuilding on the same piece of real estate. The process continues today, only now archaeologists work in advance of development, protecting and preserving ancient remains that lie under constant threat from the backhoes and bulldozers of progress.

London’s dense settlement and continuous development have left their marks both aboveground and below. On the surface, the signs are easy to spot. The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, centerpieces of the medieval landscape, still draw legions of visitors daily, while many streets in the city center follow the courses of earlier Roman roads and respect the invisible line of long demolished town defenses. Beneath the tower blocks and motorways, however, the evidence is far from clear. Archaeologists are confronted with a muddle of crisscrossing remnants of lives lived, layer upon layer, each successive occupation intercutting and obscuring the last. Through their efforts, London’s long history is taking shape, but gradually, pieced together from glimpses when land is laid bare in preparation for yet more construction.

The story of London begins in earnest in a.d. 43 when the forces of the emperor Claudius poured across the Channel and set about conquering the island in characteristic Roman fashion. The imperial army, intent on securing a foothold in the southeast, built forts and defenses, established lines of communication and supply, and soon set their sights on the native stronghold of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) as the first step in the subjugation of the local populace. To aid in this objective, a bridge was built spanning the Thames, not far from where London Bridge now stands.

Camulodunum fell later that same year and became the site of the first Roman colony in the new province, settled by retired soldiers. Elsewhere, other less official centers also began to spring up as traders and entrepreneurs followed in the wake of the conquerors, attracted by new opportunities in a new land. London was their greatest success story. Ideally situated to exploit the principle north-south routes of the time, this settlement grew quickly along the north shore of the river.

During its early years, London’s development reflected its status as an unofficial frontier town. Rectangular timber-framed buildings mingled with traditional roundhouses, the circular thatched huts used by the native inhabitants. By a.d. 60, however, this mercantile community must have seemed a sufficient reminder of the hated Roman occupation for it to be razed by neighboring tribes when they rose in a brief but devastating mass revolt. In the last decades of the first century a.d., London managed to emerge reborn from its own ashes, acquiring many of the features of a true Roman city, including a forum, amphitheater, and even its own suburbs.

In the fall of 1996, a team led by Anthony Mackinder from the Museum of London Archaeological Service had the task of investigating a block along Great Dover Street in the Southwark district of Greater London slated to become new student housing for the Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital Trust. What they uncovered would enrich our understanding of the city’s formative years and shed light on some of its less well-known—but perhaps most celebrated—residents.

The site, dubbed “165 Great Dover Street” for the address of one of the buildings along the street’s frontage, presented all the typical challenges that beset the urban archaeologist. The Museum of London team had just a few short months to evaluate an enormous area, covering upward of eight thousand square meters, before the heavy-duty earthmovers gouged into the ground and removed any traces of the past.

Archaeological excavation is, by design, a painstaking and laborious process, for the very act of investigation, however meticulous, will destroy the original state of a site. Archaeologists must therefore exercise tremendous care not to overlook even the most subtle and ephemeral of evidence—from stains in the soil left by long- decayed wood posts to tiny seeds to microscopic pollen grains—all of which can provide important clues in the final analysis. In a constantly changing, built-up environment such as London, however, the drive is always to dig deeper to build higher. As a result, difficult choices must sometimes be made. For those archaeologists involved in “rescue” operations, where a site is in imminent danger of destruction, the desire to mount a complete and thorough investigation is tempered by the knowledge they have only a limited time in which to learn all they can from a location before it is lost forever.

Prior to undertaking any full-scale excavation, the history of the lot on Great Dover Street was researched and the land tested to determine where best to focus the team’s energies. Some sections could be quickly ruled out from further consideration. Along the west side of the tract, the building for which the site was named and the smaller brick buildings flanking it were not scheduled for demolition, so no action needed to be taken there. On the east side, bounded by Tabard Street, deep basements sunk as part of postwar development had already obliterated any archaeological remains, as had construction on Black Horse Court at the south end of the site. Based on these assessments, the decision was made to concentrate efforts on the northwest corner of the area, where the chances for finding intact deposits were greatest.

Even with the size of the study area much reduced, the team soon had their hands full. It was not long before they realized they had happened upon the outer edge of an extensive Roman cemetery. Based upon the objects recovered, the burial ground had been in active use during the early centuries of the period. In this small corner alone, the remains of more than thirty individuals were found, many solitary interments, others part of larger mortuary complexes.

Men, women, and children were laid to rest here along a stretch of old Watling Street, a main north-south thoroughfare of the time. Roman custom did not allow burial within city walls, so it was common for necropoli—cities of the dead—to grow just outside the gates. The approaches to the east, west, and north of Roman London, or Londinium a...

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