Trendy Female Gladiators

During the Popular Culture and Comedy conference at the University of Glasgow (popular comedy conference Glasgow), Professor Ralph Rosen, pointed out that, although entertainment in antiquity could be public and institutionalised art forms—therefore in some sense popular—we know very little about their actual aesthetic popularity. Take for example, gladiators. The stereotypical idea that comes to mind is… strong muscular men who fought for glory. Is that, however, all there is to it? Or are we just disillusioned and stuck with a stereotype of ‘ancient popular culture’ that has been misconceived and reproduced over and over through the centuries? To begin with, I wish to elucidate our understanding of ‘popular culture’ models, in history, after the event—as it were. Equipped with this, I will proceed to locate current digital and ancient analogue expressions of the genre and the importance of popular culture trends across times.


Street sign in Rome: Antonio Gramsci road

Current cultural theory begins with the notion of ‘popular’ as a cultural and artistic expression that is widely favoured by many people (Bennett, 1980:20-1). Paradoxically, the difficulty of such a definition is that scrutinizing ‘market figures’ could be inapplicable in a historical context. It also implies a distinction from high culture (Bourdieu: 1984). A less problematic definition draws on the development of the concept of hegemony by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony for Gramsci stands for the way in which the dominant groups in society, particularly those of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ seek to win the consent of subordinate of society. Those using this approach see popular culture as the struggle between the resistance of subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation operating in the interests of the dominant groups. Popular culture, in that sense, is a force of incorporation between the two groups- dominant and subordinate. Gramsci’s notion of ‘popular’ is applicable for historical genres as it views them within their historical and cultural context; it further recognizes that popular trends require a historical process: popular culture at the moment, and another kind of culture the next. It also requires a synchronic viewpoint- moving between resistance and incorporation at any historical moment.

Most of these definitions are normally applied to post-industrial, contemporary cultural artifacts. In these terms then, the term popular culture applied to a pre-industrial and premodern cultural environment could be considered to be an anachronism. Instead, what I wish to demonstrate is that popular culture is indeed a term that can be applied to premodern performance/ expression as well as contemporary. The ‘equilibrium of hegemony’ can also be employed to analyse different types of conflict. Bennett (2006) for example highlights class conflict, but hegemony theory can be used to explore and explain conflicts involving ethnicity, race, gender, generation, sexuality, religion etc.

Within the cultural landscape of Rome, then, gladiators can be studied as an example of popular culture, as they reflect social conflicts visible in their timely and spatial context of performance. Although our current cognitive tools of defining popular culture are post industrial- the shape or phenomena presents with as much certainty as we can make any historical claims on what is popular and whatnot. Similarly, the same methodological tools can be applied for the gladiators’ contemporary representation.

In the dawn of the 21st century cultural and social paradigms are circulating more rapidly than ever. Thanks to technology, everything is possible. Chroma key facilitates the video reproduction of visualizations of all sorts, digital reconstruction is used in abundance, and ubiquitous technology makes almost every single reconstructive project (artistic or otherwise) globally available as long as there is a screen, and an internet connection. What is the current trend in gladiator representation? Are there gendered aspects of ancient entertainment as a social and cultural phenomenon? Specifically, how do ancient fighters/entertainers, both analogue, and mediated via screens, communicate trends about the representation of gender then and now? Many Questions! I will only attempt to answer some, here.

So how about contemporary popular culture and representation… of gladiators? Are there any female ones out and about?

Ever since the 1990s we are bombarded with pictures of ‘ancient’ action girls. First, it was Zena. Then, the 2004 pepsi commercial featuring Pink, Beyonce, and (of all people) Britney Spears. Obviously, Pepsi, for the sake of sales went beyond the macho and (very) heteronormative paradigm of Maximus in Gladiator (2004) See relevant video:

Ouch! We will rock you? Enrique Inglesias as Caesar? If Cicero could see, he would perhaps scream ‘O tempora O mores’ twice, thrice, a thousand times!

To paraphrase the most influential popular culture/ classical reception scholar, Professor Monica Silveira Cyrino, Rome in popular imagination projects a variety of visual interpretations and meanings, and it has been reproduced for screens across different and disparate times and cultures. Within mainstream popular culture, historical fantasy inspired by antiquity was popularized after the cinematic trend of the Italian pepla of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, within the context of Sword and Sandal, as well as computer games, the main action hero has been, until recently, traditionally Caucasian and male with females largely cast in a supporting role. Very recently, however, the producers of Spartacus (Starz 2010-3) speculated (and attempted) the incorporation of a gladiatrix; in their own words ‘we want more strong women, fighting’. Here are some ancient action chicks… they might not fight in the arena, but are quite fierce and, oh yeah, they do take down some Romans, one way or another….


Saxa in the TV series Spartacus

And there is of course a marvel comic character called Gladiatrix!



Of course, female action girls are, in contemporary terms, by-and-large highly sexualized (Surprise, surprise!!)… but how about ancient ones? Did female gladiators exist? Were they also trendy? Were they also sexualized and subject to the spectator’s gaze?

Female gladiators indeed, become a ‘trend’ in the Arena around 100 years later than the time of the historical Spartacus. Ancient literary sources mention a handful of female gladiators, some of them brave to fight to a standstill: Cassius Dio (62.3.1) Juvenal. 1.22-3 on “Mevia” a fighting (slave?) with exposed breasts. Also a munus between women and dwarfs (Suet. Domit. 4.2). A strong condemnation against female gladiators of the Flavian and Trajanic eras can be found in the Satire 6 of Juvenal, decrying the fact female gladiators were typically from upper-class families and seeking thrill and attention.

‘Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres? These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora. Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing For the arena itself. How can a woman be decent Sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?’

Obviously, not everyone was favourable of women in the sands. Yet a lot of literary evidence is against men in the sands also. With the advent and popularization of Christianity, these shows are rapidly declining. Female fighters were officially banned around 200 CE (Dio Cass. 75.16) but some of its components slapstick (in the form of comic physical abuse) and bare breasts has survived until later, under the term mime, in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

Moreover, material, archaeological evidence proves further the image we have from literary sources. A marble relief from Halicarnassus shows reveals two honoured female gladiators, curreg Achillia). They are depicted in loincloths and wearing traditional gladiator equipment such as. greaves and a manica. Each is armed with a sword and shield. They are bare-breasted, as in their contemporary sculptural depictions of amazons but perhaps also implying a degree of sexual titillation.


Marble relief from Halicarnassus

Discovered in 1996 and announced in September 2000, in Southwark area of London, England, the Remains of Great Dover Street Woman provided physical evidence to back up the substantial literary evidence we have from antiquity. The woman’s pelvis is all that remains of the body after the cremation but the abundance of expensive oil lamps, together with other evidence of a large and luxurious feast and the presence of pine cones (burned at the arena to cover the smell) all contribute to possibility that this was the grave of a revered gladiator – who was a woman. Most experts believe the identification to be erroneous but the Museum of London states it is ‘70 percent probable’ that the Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Hedley Swain, head of early history at the Museum, stated: ”No single piece of evidence says that she is a gladiator. Instead, there’s simply a group of circumstantial evidence that makes it an intriguing idea. She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London.

Last but certainly not least: a (roughly) 2,000-year-old artwork, on display at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg, shows a bare-chested woman in a loincloth brandishing a an object in her left hand that looks like a sica, a short, curved sword associated with a type of gladiator known as a thraex, or Thracian, just like Spartacus! Thracians typically fought in plumed helmets, with small shields and metal leg guards called greaves. Their unarmored backs were particularly vulnerable—and were likely ripe targets for sica.


Statuette Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg

Experts had previously interpreted the curved implement as a strigil, which Romans used for scraping the body clean. There again… a bare breasted woman cleaning and not performing/fighting yet another (sexist) misconception about female roles through the centuries. The woman’s victory pose, though, does not support the housewife explanation. Reporting his findings in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport, Manas wrote: ‘No doubt the particular appearance of female gladiators would also cause an erotic impact on viewers’. (see full text here)

So, were female gladiators a trend? A product of shifting hegemonic power? An arousing, sexy spectacle? The reasons for the presence of women in the gladiator scene are largely unknown to us. Some potential explanations could be that spectators were in need of something saucier than the male ludi (gladiatorial games) or that the presence of women was corresponding to the increasing role of women in the emperors’ court. So what is going on there? The argument that females tend to be objectified more males throughout the history of performance, although reductionist, describes accurately certain features of female gladiatorial fights. However, at the same time, in associating and interpreting physical power through the centuries exclusively with males and passivity exclusively with females, if anything, we sadly reinforce binary gender models- certainly not always the case. To bring it back to contemporaneity, the fact the very character of Xena has been received by popular culture as a feminist icon, a female action heroine, creating almost a new genre: altfic, alternative i.e. non-heteronormative fiction puts gendered action heroes into perspective while also perpetuating traditional stereotypes.

Swords and shields, anyone?

cross posted from here

When in Rome: Swedish Institutes, Myth, Historical Culture, and Contemporary Marketing

My residential stay, originally planned for the whole month but then sadly postponed (due to a random and rather acute lung infection) offers me the great opportunity to study Roman entertainment in its birth place and original geographical context. That said, I will start my blogging sessions with a rather ‘small’ entry on the academic, cross-disciplinary and transcultural experience of conducting research at the Swedish institute in Rome, and post a few more research-related posts later, before I hand the blog responsibility to someone else.

So, good morning from sunny Rome! Goodmorning from the Swedish Institute! It is the primavera season, the Italian spring, and the sun is slowly returning, shining bright, warming the city up. The wetness of February rejuvenates the surrounding nature. Everything is green, blooming, and fragrant. The benevolent sun accentuates the Eternal City’s details further; sculptures, fountains, majestic, old, adorned buildings that stand shamelessly gorgeous through changing seasons and countless centuries. Here in Rome, every morning feels like a new beginning, yet at the same time, deeply rooted in a dominant, glorious past.

The morning sun reveals some of Europe’s most dominant historical and cultural standpoints that are located in the city of Rome. In the same breath, the visitor experiences every day how contemporary technology shamelessly incorporates itself into the historical landscape. Smartphone sounds, cars and traffic, impatient Mediterranean drivers (like me) who signal one another by blowing their horns. In this rich fair of the senses, and in the very vibrant centre of the city, in via Omero, there is a quiet cluster of buildings, intended for deep thought and academic research: the foreign institutes.

The Swedish Institute in Rome, located near by the Belgian academia, the Dutch Institute, the museum of Modern art, behind Villa Borghese and nearby the Etruscan Museum, feels like a quiet shrine dedicated to research. In terms of infrastructure, it is very Scandinavian and proper, in fact subordinate to the Swedish Ministry of Education (Utbildningsdepartementet). It is the base for scientific research and excavations in Italy. It pursues academic instruction in archaeology and art sciences as well as arranging conferences, workshops, summer schools that hold interest to the institute. The Institute is in fact an attractive building in central Rome with a relatively well-supplied library, archaeological laboratory and around twenty rooms and smaller apartments for the use of visiting researchers and holders of scholarships.

The daily activities of the institute are led by a director. The institute’s premises in Rome include a library, archaeological laboratory and rooms for researchers. There is a supportive society (Föreningen Rominstitutets Vänner) with five sections in Sweden.

In fact, there are also five institutes around the Mediterranean sea: Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Alexandria (see map below).


If research in the Mediterranean is what floats your boat and you are indeed a researcher employed by a Swedish institution, then you should totally have a look at this webpage

There, one can find courses organised by the institutes around the aquamarine waters of the Med. The Swedish institutes are in fact a very thoughtful Swedish government agency with the responsibility to facilitate Swedish (or Swedish based) researchers outside of Sweden. They exist to promote Swedish interests, and to organise exchanges with other countries in particular in the spheres of research, culture, and education.

The board of directors and the chancellery have their seat in Stockholm. The latest statute was stipulated in 1993. The San Michele foundation on Capri is also subordinate to the institute’s board of directors. The institutes are a meeting place for Swedish researchers. In the course of three days, I have met old friends from Göteburg and Lund and even some of our very own premods; young researchers, graduates affiliated with the Umeå Group for Premodern Studies. Our big, fat, academic family makes the entire cosmos feel like a tiny little dot on the map, and the most interesting discussions take place in the sunny balconies, with espresso and pan di stelle.

What is it that makes Swedish institutions in sunny, warmer locations so special? Is it overdosing in vitamin D in combination with the early Mediterranean spring? Is it the ‘other’, so very evident in the incoming Italian Carnevale? The latter concept once inspired Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and for some, it still signifies the reversal of the normal social order, the power of the mask, transformation, transgression, stepping out of ourselves and comfort zones. The same thing applies to research abroad.

For those of us who conduct our research in academic institutions across Sweden, the Swedish institute offers a great opportunity to engage in pure research, novel and intersting, often unspoiled by teaching or administrative duties… like true zealots of humanities/sciences. We hang out at the institute, we drink lots and lots of Italian espresso in the sun, we read, we write, we exchange brilliant ideas, and we take long walks in the city. We attend wonderfully organised seminars within the institute or particularly interesting and innovative exhibitions in other, nearby institutions, such as this one

We spend our luncheon discussing complex concepts such as historical culture, or the importance of an interactive, participatory, and multisensory display of cultural heritage with archaeologists, historians of art, cultural theorists and museologists who are also residents here. But most importantly, we are granted the opportunity to engage first hand with fragments of myth and history as they are embedded in the culture, on an everyday basis, to experience remnants (or, even, the evolution of) the culture we normally try to comprehend through secondary sources and often colourless, sensory-less academic works in print.

And I shall end this post with an interesting example, a remarkable display of historical culture in a popular/ marketing context, which, I reckon, is indeed as Roman as it can be. Let me just simply clarify first that by the term historical culture I mean the expression of a new way of approaching and understanding the effective and affective relationship that a human group has with its past. Historical culture’s scope is to examine of all layers and processes of social historical consciousness, paying attention to the agents who create it, the media by means of which it is disseminated, the representations that it popularizes, and the creative receptions (originally in German: Geschichtskultur- term coined by Erdmann: 2006-7). With this in mind, I mean to examine a popular (re)construction and (re)presentation of historical/mythical topos. The example below displays a paradigm of a European identity that is inspired by classical myth.

So, my case study is a poster that aims to advertise Lavazza coffee. This is in fact a weird ad. Borderline kitsch, almost everywhere in Rome. Provoking, raw, especially if one has lived for 2,5 years in a very gender-equal, moderate, timid, and rather historically sensitive Scandinavian setting.


What first attracted my attention was the background- as it is my current field of research. Here is the Colosseum: a trademark building for Rome. Every city has its trademark buildings: The Parthenon on the Acropolis hill in Athens, the Opera House for Sydney, and so on. The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of Rome. Built of concrete and stone, it was the largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire, and still the largest preserved amphitheatre in the world. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in 70 CE and was completed in 80 CE under his successor and heir Titus. Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81–96 CE). The Colosseum is situated just east of the Roman Forum-the historical centre of the Imperial Rome (see map below) a meeting point for Romans, where news and goods were traded and notables were commemorated.


The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators and it indeed composed the landscape of popular culture in ancient Rome. It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  Although the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome, it ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. Like other ‘organic’ structures in large Mediterranean capitals were later reused housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine. Obviously, The said Italian coffee brand used it as a location of raw ‘power’, a symbol of Roman identity, a glorious component of landscape of the Roman popular culture, of the people, of cultural exchange, of bread and circuses, and so on.

Obviously, the poster’s direct connection with Roman historical culture does not end there. In front of the Colosseum, there is a semi-naked woman on her hands and knees, like a She-wolf with a wolf pelt on her back, two babies in front of her, holding a cup of espresso. Oh dear- too much going on. A few (Scandinavian and otherwise) friends laughed about it. ‘OK, so this the message: Roman mothers, while taking your children out on a Sunday walk to the Colosseum, please, do not hesitate to make a fashion statement by wearing your fur coat over nude-coloured underwear, and make sure you give your babies some espresso’. Please let me repeat: oh dear.

The famous coffee company, in a bold display of patriotism towards the national drink of Italy- espresso, aimed to target the historically conscious audience. But in a Roman context, even if one is not a trained historian, they sure know their foundation myths. All around Rome, one finds similar images if a She-wolf and babies. Even on rubbish bins.


Rubbish bin near Piazza di Spagna. Detail: A She-wolf with suckling human twins.

The She-wolf, Romulus and Remus are a deep-rooted mythical reference that dates a long way back in time. Romulus and Remus are the twin brothers and central characters of one of the most important foundation myths of Rome. According to the myth, Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa conceived the twins by the god Mars (or by the demi-god Hercules, in other versions of the story); once the twins are born, Rhea-Silvia’s evil uncle, Amulius has them abandoned to die in the river Tiber. They are saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the river carries them to safety, a She-wolf (Lupa in Latin) finds and suckles them, and a woodpecker feeds them. A little later, a shepherd and his wife find them and foster them to manhood. The twins, still ignorant of their true origins, prove to be natural leaders. Each acquires many followers. When they discover the truth of their birth, they kill Amulius and restore their grandfather Numitor to his throne. Rather than waiting to inherit the Kingdom of Alba Longa, they choose to found a new city: Rome.

Screenshot 2014-03-17 12.58.13

Lupa Capitolina: She-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 12th century AD, 5th century BC (the twins are a 15th-century addition) – Musei Capitolini.

There you go. So the message is clear. Espresso is as iconic (and intense in flavour!) for the Italian nation as the Roman amphitheatre, as beloved as the affection of the Lupa for the young twin grandsons of the King of Alba Longa, the sons of Mars. Still though, as a humble researcher of culture, I am still in awe of the connection, and furthermore how advertising and marketing can utilise these historical representations and narratives for the sake of the consumer. Obviously, the audience is never neutral in the process. Successful marketing requires that consumers get the message that the advertising poster aims to convey.

Most importantly, Italy’s microcultures, the Lombardians, the Vatican, the Southerners, the Islands, somehow, still relate to the glorious past of the Roman Empire [sic]; let me just add that after a small survey at the institute, I realised that its Italian employees have a totally different opinion. Cultural stereotypes, based on historical culture may still indeed have an appeal on the international consumer, who, unaware of the complexities of cultural identities in Europe, sees the Colosseum as a symbol of Rome, and therefore (somehow) of the Italian nation. It does not matter that the Italian nation as we know it today is a much debated (and certainly much later) construct and creation. History can be a very complicated issue… but I guess even this, last phrase, is infact banal. Such ‘a 500BCE’ statement…

cross posted from here