Female Gladiator Statue? Skepticism ….

Last night the social media airwaves lit up with Owen Jarus’ report for Livescience which we excerpt below (tip o’ the pileus to Lyndsay Powell on Twitter for first drawing this to my attention):

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 confirmed the statue would represent only the second depiction of a woman gladiator known to exist.

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.

Okay … here’s where we break off to include a photo (which accompanies the LiveScience piece; I can’t find a photo of this object at the MK&G musem site):

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.

Immediately, I have problems with this. This salute to the crowd gesture which is mentioned is — as far as I’m aware — a rather more modern construct. I know of no ancient image of a gladiator supposedly in this position. Second, the purported sica seems a bit short, but that might be foreshortening in the photograph. Still, it seems more likely that she’s brandishing a strigil or a stlengis … Manas has anticipated this objection (skipping through the article a bit):

[…] 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.

… to which one might suggest that one does this when cleaning a strigil (i.e. using centrifugal force to expel the oil and dust) when one is using it on one’s self.

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.

Again, we’re into a situation where we don’t have evidence, as far as I’m aware.  Perhaps it would have been ‘more acceptable’ for a gladiatrix to appear topless, but again, we don’t have any ancient attestation of that.

Anna McCullough seems to be sitting on the fence on this one  and adds some further reasons:

Anna McCullough, a professor at Ohio State University who has written about female gladiators, but is not affiliated with the research, is cautiously optimistic about this identification. “The gesture is far more similar to gestures of victory than it is to any depictions of athletes actually scraping themselves,” McCullough said. “I think it certainly resembles a female gladiator more than (an) athlete, and I’m kind of happy to tentatively say that it is a gladiator in those terms.”

One potential problem, she points out, is the fact that the “gladiator” is portrayed without a helmet, greaves (shin protectors) or other form of armor.

“The reason for this woman being topless might simply be that whoever made it wanted to sort of emphasize the fact that this is a female gladiator and not a male gladiator,” she said, still “for her to be completely without armor is a little bit odd.”

Both Manas and McCullough pointed out that it wasn’t uncommon for men to go into the arena topless, although typically equipped with defensive gear such as a helmet, shield, greaves or even a breastplate.

McCullough said that, in real life, female gladiators would likely have worn more than a loincloth and bandage into the arena. Without the protective gear, the fighters would have been killed in large numbers. “If gladiators died every time that there was a fight in the arena, you would have a really hard time keeping up your population of gladiators in your gladiatorial school,” she said.

Manas said that in real life, a gladiator like this would have had at least a shield and possibly a helmet. Perhaps she had taken off the helmet for the victory gesture or because the ancient artist wanted to show her hair, he speculated. Or maybe she did in fact go into the arena without a warrior’s helmet so that people could see her face. As for her shield, she may have been holding that in her right hand, which is no longer present on the statue.

The article continues, but I just can’t buy it. What I’m wondering, though, is why no one seems to have suggested (perhaps someone has) that this might just be an image of Atalanta after one of her many footraces. Perhaps her toplessness is a hint that this was the race that Melanion won or something and the strigiling is part of the ‘preparations’, for want of a better term. Or perhaps it’s just a regular female athlete.

Something else worth mentioning and/or drawing attention to is an item called the ‘Strigil Bearer’ in the Frick Collection, a small image of which is online and depicts a somewhat similar pose:

Here’s the offical description that accompanies it (you have to scroll down the page to get to this):

The Strigil Bearer’s subject was inspired by ancient literary descriptions of a famous lost classical statue. The nude athlete bears the curved strigil (skin scraper) and oil vial used for grooming the body after exercise. His wide stance and elegant gesture present his idealized torso to the viewer. While the Warrior’s modeling is loose, in the Strigil Bearer Riccio meticulously articulates every muscle and coiffed lock of hair. The athlete’s body is overtly displayed, yet his face is introspective: he narrows his eyes and wrinkles his brow in thought. Classically inspired and psychologically complex, this statuette and others here demonstrate Riccio’s contributions to one of the most important artistic genres of his time, the idealized male nude.

I realize this piece is early sixteenth century, but I’m intrigued by the suggestion that it was inspired by an ancient literary description … I’ll be checking Pliny (this can’t be the Apoxyomenos, can it?), but perhaps someone knows already? Seems to be a precedent that needs to be tracked down …

ADDENDUM (a short time later): The original article is : “New evidence of female gladiators: the bronze statuette at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe of Hamburg”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, Volume 28, Issue 18, 2011 … if you want to shell out 36 bucks, you can get it online.

ADDENDUM II (the next day): please see our subsequent post  ~ Purported Gladiatrix Statue Followup

2 thoughts on “Female Gladiator Statue? Skepticism ….

  1. Hi!

    Thanks for the article. I read about Alfonso Manas´ study this morning and found the theory really far fetched. I agree with you, the object in her hand looks more like a strigil than a sica, and I think your ideas are interesting. Here´s a twist: what if it´s a female gladiator washing herself before or after a game?

    Best regards,
    Jessica, Sweden

    1. There’s really nothing about her that suggests ‘gladiator’ other than the strigil being interpreted as a sword; take away the sword and you have non-gladiator …

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