The thing that’s easy to forget about history is that so much of it is bullshit. It’s the result of modern people trying to piece together the past from fragments, all of it skewed by their own point of view. And that screwed-up understanding of the past changes how we think about the present.
For instance, we assume ancient women probably didn’t fight wars or make art because we didn’t allow women to do so until embarrassingly recently. But, it turns out that archaeology has proven a whole bunch of our assumptions to be wrong, which — in addition to tricking Nazis into melting their own faces off — is exactly what archaeologists are supposed to do. Thanks to them, we know that …
5. Women Fought as Roman Gladiators
Most of what we know about Roman gladiators comes from the movie Gladiator — male slaves and criminals were forced into the Colosseum to maim each other to death, as a means of entertaining the populace and finding a use for all of the exotic animals that the Romans collected like Pokemon. There was one woman in Gladiator, but she got to ride in a chariot and shoot arrows at all of the other gladiators, so that hardly counts.
The gladiatorial arena wasn’t just a meat grinder for male slaves with rippling abs. In fact, many of the people who participated in history’s most notorious blood sport were volunteers — trained soldiers and politicians looking for a little extra street cred. And, as it turns out, plenty of them were women. Written records of female gladiators are persistent, but sparse, almost as if the Romans didn’t think the concept was so bizarre that they needed to specify when the combatants were women.
Lady gladiators weren’t the result of some particularly progressive emperor who believed in gender equality in death sports, either. It was quite the opposite — women’s participation was the norm for 200 years, with evidence of various restrictions (no direct female relatives of a general or a senator could be recruited as gladiators, for instance) until Emperor Septimius Severus finally banned it, possibly because he had a cousin or something that got his ass chopped off by Lucretia the Crusher.
So, why haven’t you heard about this before now? Well, this serves as a nice example of how this kind of unintentional exclusion works: When archaeologists dug up this statue of a female gladiator, threateningly brandishing some kind of weapon in a victorious warrior pose, they originally described it as “a cleaning tool” — because cleaning is a thing that women do. And, if you’re going to clean something, you might as well do it with the power of Grayskull.
Then, back in 2000, archaeologists discovered the grave of a decorated gladiator, but were confused when they saw that the body inside was female — as if a woman had accidentally fallen in the grave by mistake.
This isn’t to suggest that the Romans were any less of an aggressively patriarchal, chest-thumping society of dudes, only that they had a surprisingly equal-opportunity attitude about who could be thrown into a pit to get their head bashed in with a mace for the sake of entertainment. But, for about two thousand years, we have had a really hard time wrapping our heads around that idea. Likewise …
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