A small bronze statue dating back nearly 2,000 years may be that of a female gladiator, a victorious one at that, suggests a new study. If this is the case, it would only be the second known depiction of a female gladiator.
The gladiator statue shows a topless woman, wearing only a loincloth and a bandage around her left knee. Her hair is long, although neat, and in the air she raises what the researcher, Alfonso Manas of the University of Granada, believes is a sica, a short curved sword used by gladiators. The gesture she gives is a “salute to the people, to the crowd,” Manas said, an action done by victorious gladiators at the end of a fight. The female fighter is looking down at the ground, presumably at her fallen opponent.
The “precise real-life” details of the statue suggest the depiction was inspired by an actual person, a real woman who fought, Manas told LiveScience in an interview.
It’s not known where the statue was originally found, though it is currently in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein Hamburg, Germany.
The rarity of such statues likely reflects the idea that female gladiators in ancient Rome were scarce. They were banned by Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 200 with only about a dozen references to them in ancient writing surviving to present day. The only other known depiction of them is a carved relieffrom the site of Halicarnassus (now in the British Museum) that shows two female gladiators fighting. There have been claims made in the past of burials of female gladiators being uncovered, but none has attracted widespread support among scholars.
Scholars had initially suggested the statue represented a female athlete scraping herself with a strigil (a cleaning implement that can look similar to a sword). However, Manas noted several aspects of the artifact to suggest it instead represented a female gladiator.
One was the woman’s stance. It would make little sense for an athlete to raise a cleaning instrument high in the air while looking down at the ground.However, raising a sword into the air was a common victory pose among ancient gladiators.
In addition, female athletes in the Roman world did not go completely topless, as they would wear a bikini or “a tunic that left one breast exposed,” Manas pointed out. “In any case, female athletes never performed with bare breasts,” at least not with both exposed. Gladiators, on the other hand, tended to be slaves or people of low social status; depicting them topless would have been considered more acceptable. The bandage the woman is wearing on her knee is also a common feature of gladiators. [Roman Gladiator’s Gravestone Reveals Fatal Foul]
Altogether, this evidence “seems to indicate that the statuette at the MKG [the museum] represents a gladiator, thus becoming the second piece of visual evidence we have of female gladiators,” Manas writes in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport.
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