Purported Gladiatrix Statue Followup

Generally when something comes in on the newswire and I’m blogging things, I like to wait to get more than one version of the story. Similarly, when I think I’ve ‘got it’, I tend to wait a bit to give any ideas I may have some time to percolate and, if need be, grow cold in the pot. As readers know, yesterday there was all sorts of interest in a LiveScience story in which it was claimed that a long-known statue of a nude female was actually an example of a female gladiator or a gladiatrix. The story is continuing to make the rounds of various newspapers, blogs, and is still percolating through various blogs and social media, generally with enthusiastic acceptance. Just to remind you what the image in question looks like:

As readers know (hopefully), I expressed skepticism at the claims and was all prepared to do a followup post in which I was actually going to suggest it might be an image of summer and be carrying a scythe (this was the result of a brief discussion on facebook last night with Dan Diffendale and Amy Vail). But instead of that, I was very pleased this a.m. to read that amicus noster Nigel Kennell had commented on one of our ‘Blogosphere’ mentions of the subject, and since it may have been lost in the shuffle, I reproduce it here:

The ‘gladiatrix’ is a obviously a female athlete. The idea that female athletes wore a tunic exposing only one breast comes from Pausanias’ description of the Heraia held at Olympia (5.16.2-7). There’s no reason to think that this particular dress was widespread. On the other hand, Atalanta is depicted topless but wearing trunks as she wrestles Peleus on Athenian vases (see Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, p. 152). Also, a series of sixth-century bronze mirror handles that imitate Laconian work are in the form of topless young girls with trunks on as well. This ‘female gladiator’ story is manufactured from nothing: of course, it’s a strigil!
Nigel M. Kennell
Athens, Greece

I’ll pat myself on the back for also suggesting Atalanta in our initial coverage of the subject, but the wrestling example is even better. Here’s one example from a vase as Dr Kennell mentions:

From Greece.org ... in the Munich Archaeological Museum

The pale one on the right is Atalanta; it seems appropriate that someone would have a strigil session after wrestling … that’s enough comparanda for me; the ‘gladiatrix’ ain’t.

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

York Gladiators Redux

The BBC has a very nice little slideshow of some of the skeletons from that dig at York which are claimed to be of gladiating victims. There’s actually some good stuff here, and since I can’t really embed the slideshow, I do want to make some comments (the numbers refer to the slide):

1. 60 of 80 appear to have died violent deaths; the implication is that all sixty were gladiators?

2. The one arm longer than the other “being consistent with one-sided work from an early age …” I’m not sure how this fits in; I highly doubt we’re dealing with people ‘raised’ to be gladiators. If this is an indication they were non-Roman warriors or something, that could work.

3. Very impressive deep cut going upward; does seem consistent with a gladiator-fight-style wound …

4. Very impressive bite marks; it should be possible to identify the animal from these, no?

5. shackled burial; I really wish we’d stop getting this sensationalism like “yet he received a proper burial” … outside of tossing emperors into the Tiber, the Romans seem to have long allowed execution victims’ remains to receive a proper burial.

6. the ‘hammer’ victim … shouldn’t there be some ‘point of impact’ mark? And shouldn’t the cracks radiate therefrom? This looks more consistent with being hit with a large sword across the top of the head …

7. very nice vertebrae cut; They might be solid ground with this one, although the ‘dispatching’ cuts in gladiating situations tended to be down the windpipe toward the heart rather than across the neck, no? 50 of the 61 skeletons had been so dispatched. In some of the early coverage from this site, though, there was the suggestion that many of the marks indicate the cuts had come from ‘behind’.

Taken together, I think 3, 4, and 6 have me leaning toward the ‘gladiator’ theory. At the same time, though, I think we should remind folks of Anthony Birley’s theory from a few years ago, that these might be victims of Caracalla‘s ‘killing spree’ shortly after Septimius Severus‘ death in 211. This ‘killing spree’ is hinted at in the first three sections of Dio 78, but it’s not clear whether this ‘spree’ happened at York. The Historia Augusta hints similarly, but is far too compressed to be useful.  Again, I wonder aloud whether anyone has thought whether many of these victims might not be examples of decimation (although, of course, proving such would be difficult) Whatever the case, I think it safer to suggest that we’ve got a pile of execution victims … some of them might have died in the arena that hasn’t been found (yet?).

Another Gladiator Grave Claim — This Time Female?

The BBC seems to be first off the mark with this one, and it will likely be picked up:

Archaeologists in Herefordshire have uncovered the remains of what could possibly be a female gladiator.

Amongst the evidence of a Roman suburb in Credenhill, they have found the grave of a massive, muscular woman.

She was found in an elaborate wooden coffin, reinforced with iron straps and copper strips, which indicate her importance.

Her remains were found in a crouched position, in what could be a suburb of the nearby Roman town of Kenchester.

The archaeological Project Manager, Robin Jackson, said: “When we first looked at the leg and arm bones, the muscle attachments suggested it was quite a strapping big bloke, but the pelvis and head, and all the indicators of gender, say it’s a woman.”

“The coffin would have been made of wood – we haven’t got any of the wood left, but we’ve got the nails around the outside then three huge giant straps that run all the way around the coffin, and also bronze strips on the corners which would have probably strengthened it, but probably decorated it.

“It’s quite an elaborate and probably a very expensive coffin, and yet the person in it looked like they had a hard working life, and so there’s an anomaly there.”

An offering of beef and a fired pot were also found in the grave, and she was buried on top of a base of gravel.

Also unusual was the place where she was buried – in the suburb, instead of in a cemetery on the edge of the settlement, which was the law in Roman times.


This archaeological find is as a result of excavations in advance of the construction of the Yazor Brook Flood Alleviation Scheme, which will protect homes and businesses in Hereford.

The road east from Kenchester was constructed by the Roman army in the mid 1st century AD, as they pushed westwards into Wales.

Very little was known previously about the suburb which grew up beside this road, however, preliminary results suggest that the main period of development for the suburb was the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and that it was much more extensive and densely occupied than had previously been thought.

Trial work, undertaken in 2009, showed that the area contains the well-preserved remains of Roman buildings, yards and rubbish pits situated to either side of a major Roman road, which ran east out of the town.

These form part of an important Roman suburb, which developed alongside the road, but now lies buried, along with the rest of the town, beneath fields and a footpath.

A team of archaeologists from Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, working in close co-operation with Amey Consulting and Herefordshire Council’s archaeology team, are carefully excavating a 10-metre wide corridor, to allow the flood culvert to be built across this area.

A huge amount of information has already been gleaned, and this is beginning to allow the archaeologists to gain an understanding of this part of the town.

It is hoped that by the time the excavation is completed, at the end of July 2010, the archaeological team will have built up a detailed understanding of the development and nature of this Roman suburb.

The original report also includes a brief audio interview with the archaeologist (Robin Jackson) … much of it is transcribed in the above interview, of course, but something extremely important has been left out. We seem to start in medias res with:

It’s an outside possibility, but we have a very interesting female body on the site …

… so we wonder what that ‘outside possibility’ might be, then later we hear from the journalist after the ‘there’s an anomaly there’ bit in the written piece:

Because if it was somebody that was working in the fields, the strength came from that they would have been buried in a shroud out of the way of the way of the settlement. This is why we’re thinking she’s a fighting lady …

The response:

Well that’s one theory that can be pursued; I can’t say that I can come up with any better … [I omit bits about the burial, the joint of beef, the pot, etc. as evidence of ‘elaboration’ which doesn’t “sit happily”] … so maybe the warrior idea is one that you can pursue, but I’ll leave that to peoples’ imaginations rather than what I formally write down.

So clearly we’re just dealing with some ‘thinking out loud’ rather than a formal theory at this point. I highly doubt we’re dealing with a female gladiator in these environs (someone like that would have surely been sent to Rome). The burial in the ‘crouched position’ would also suggest that she’s probably buried in a coffin that wasn’t made specifically for her … I wonder what other burials in the area are like.

UPDATE (A few hours later):

The incipit of a brief item from the Hereford Times:

EXPERTS at an archaelogical dig near Hereford say reports they have found an ancient gladiator are inaccurate.

A local radio station has this morning stated that a female warrior had been unearthed during the dig at Credenhill.

But Robin Jackson, of the Worcestershire Historic Environment and Archaeology Service, said the body was merely of a woman of “considerable stature” representing a lifetime of hard work.