Some forms of athletic activities (including combative ones) were known since ancient times. However, real regular athletic exercises and competitions were born in the Ancient Greece with its famous Olympic Games.
Amazons in combat (Bas-relieves from the British Museum)
Females in single combats first appeared in the Greek mythology. This is first of all, the belligerent Amazons, who were skillfully fencing in the extreme warship situation (you can learn more about combative fencing tactics of Amazons in the article by Nemytov). This is also famous Atalanta (“unswaying"), one of the most beautiful woman of her time, who vowed to remain a virgin. She managed to over wrestle a man, and what a man - legendary Peleus, the future father of powerful Achilles. Defeated by Atalanta, Peleus recouped his losses on semi-goddess Thetis who he had been ordered by gods to wrestle against. Having overpowered her in the wrestling match he gained not only the victory but also a wife. Unlike Atalanta, Thetis didn’t rely on her wrestling skills but attempted to use goddess’ tricks - she consecutively turned into fire, into water, and into a beast. But Peleus firmly seized her by waist and was holding her tightly in spite of her shape-shifting. He did not let her go until finally she resumed her former shape, gave up and became his wife and later gave him the son Achilles.
Mithological Ancient women in combat. The three top pictures represent wrestling Atalanta against Peleus; single combat Peleus and Thetis is drawn on the bottom one.
Women in many Ancient Greek city-states were involved in some athletic exercises and even in competitions. Every four years the most respected married Greek women organized The Heraea Games, the Olympics for maiden competitors which included just running. As opposed to male Olympic athletes who competed nude, during the Heraea, the girls performed in tunics. However, there are no indications that women participated in combative sports anywhere except Ancient Sparta. While Ancient Athens at its peak at Pericles times restricted its females to minimal participation in athletics, another patriarchal society, Sparta encouraged female athletism. In the all-Greece Olympic Games there were restrictions for female spectators (even under penalty of death execution). Some authors state that all women were banned from watching the games whereas others insist that the ban was only for married women but unmarried women were allowed to be present. There was the incident when a woman was caught who turned out to be a mother of a fist fighter trained him in the sport. She was allegedly not punished though but was just taken out of the stadium...
Eugene Delacroix. Wrestling Spartans
In contrast to other Greeks, ancient Spartans prized the physical fitness and courage of girls as well as boys. According to Xenophon, who seems to have approved wholeheartedly both of women’s sports and of Sparta’s armed-camp atmosphere, the legendary Spartan legislator Lycurgus encouraged girls to run and wrestle. “Lycurgus believes that the highest function of a free woman was the bearing of children and in the first place he insisted on training of the body as incumbent no less on the female than the male; and in pursuit of the same idea instituted rival contests in running and feats of strength for women as for men". Plutarch, writing five centuries later, may have drawn Xenophon for this account in The Life of Lycurgus, but he added a number of details (which may or may not be authentic): “He ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing discus, and casting the javelin, to the end that the fruit they conceived might, in strong and healthy bodies, take firmer root and find better growth, and withal that they , with the greater vigor, might be the more able to undergo the pains of child-bearing". The physical education of Spartan girls was, then, intentionally eugenic. Sports, by definition competitive, doubtless contributed as well as the legendary psychological toughness of Spartan women, who were said to have sent their menfolk off to battle with the chilly admonition: “Bring back your shield or be brought back upon it". Women in Sparta were encouraged to perform their athletics in the nude so they would attract a husband who would get them pregnant. Weddings of Sparta were simple to the extremes, completely contrasting the elaborate ceremony of the other city states in Greece - the groom would wrestle the bride to prove his superior strength. Once he'd won, he would carry the bride off over his shoulder to his home. This method of marriage was unique to the lifestyle of Sparta. In fact, any Spartan man could abduct a wife (if overpower her).
Andromache, written in the early years of the Peloponnesian War (between two coalitions led by Sparta and by Athens), Euripides mentions the “bare thighs" and co-ed racing and wrestling (“The wrestling contests by the river's muddy edge.").
As a matter of fact, Spartan women were not trained for actual combat and Plato in “Laws" and Aristotle in “Polity of the Athenians" noted that despite their excellent physical abilities, they were no better than other Greek women when it came to defending their country.
Later Romanian writers and historians expanded the list of athletic activities which Spartan women participated in, also including (besides wrestling) fistfighting and Pancration (combination of wrestling and fistfighting). Having skeptical opinion about late testimonies (by when several centuries had past since Sparta) we still should take into account possibility of existence some lost written sources describing the Spartan life. In fact, due to Christians’ actions against paganism a lot of Ancient written documents have been lost forever.
Fragments of paintings representing Spartan girls in wrestling. From left to right: Giovanni Demin, Edgar Degas, Emmanuel Croise. The detailed description of these three paintings can be seen in the material “Spartan wrestling girls inspired artists".
The fact that Spartan girls were wrestling (and wrestling nude) surprised, outraged and delighted people during centuries. Writers in Ancient Rome, who lived in the completely different era, emotionally reminisced about Spartan girls-wrestlers. Many artists were inspired by the subject; the most known pieces are made by Edgar Degas and Emmanuel Croise (see details in the material “Ancient female Spartans inspired artists" on our site). Other famous artists (Renoir, Pissarro, and Rodin) have drawn nude wrestling girls - the subjects induced by Spartans.
Unlike Greeks with their athletism, Romans were more sports spectators, at gladiatorial combats or at the chariot races, than sports participants. Those who were enthusiastic about sports met with disapproval from sterner citizens. It was common for Roman moralists to comment on the military useless of Greek sports, to profess horror at the nudity of Greek athletes, and to associate the erotic element in sports with perversity and decadence. One might expect no-nonsense Roman utilitarianism to have implemented women’s sports as eugenic measure but this didn’t occur. In his Tusculan Disputations, the late republican orator Cicero, apparently misunderstanding the connection between sports and motherhood, criticized the Spartan girls who spent their days wrestling on the banks of the Eurotas instead of bearing children. He did not seem to realize that the first activity abetted the second. Gladiatorial contests though, derived from Etruscan funeral rites, were a part of Roman life, but not even the Spartans had taken their enthusiasm for women’s sports to the point where they staged deadly armed combats.
The love poems of Propertus testify that at least one Roman poet was enchanted by the bewitching of physically active Spartan girls. His extravagant tribute deserves quotation:
"I must admire the Spartan wrestling schools,
But most of all I like the women’s rules:
For girls and men can wrestle in the nude -
The Spartans think such exercise is good;
Naked girls throw the ball too fast to catch,
They bear the brunt of the Pancration match,
Put pugilistic straps on hands, so soft and fair,
They whirl the heavy discus through the air,
Gallop the circuit, helmets on their brow,
Buckling a sword too thighs as white as snow;
With hoar-frost on their hair, they join the chase
With the determination on the face
Like Amazons, breasts naked to the fray,
Who battled in Pontic streams at the end of the day?
Like Helen training on Eurotas’ sands
With nipples bare and weapons in their hands…
But all the sadden, boys start approaching,
While girls are acting, and don’t blush watching,
Girls aren’t afraid, or locked up under guard;
No stern-faced husband makes the going hard;
In Spartan customs lovers may embrace
Without concealment in a public place.
You need no go-between to pave the way;
Speak to yourself, and suffer no delay;
The wear no purple robes to cheat and lure,
No perfumed hair with overworked coiffure.
In Rome your little finger is too large
To make its way through woman’s entourage.
The lover can’t get close enough to find
The proper way to ask – he’s working blind.
If Roman girls would do as Spartans do.
Then, Rome, I’d have caused for loving you!"
Propertius mentions famous Helen who allegedly provoked the Trojan War. Roman poet Ovid in the poem Heroides wrote of a nude Helen wrestling in the palaestra (a special stage for wrestling or other athletic activity) on the banks of Eurotas river.
Despite some historical nonsense and inaccuracies of the English translation, the poem reflects the sincere admiration of the poet. We should note that Propertus was captivated not only by the female athletism, not only by the fact that Spartan girls participated in all imaginary sports (including wrestling, fistfighting and Pancration), not only by their strength, adroitness and grace, but also by their nudity. Besides, he was ecstatic about Spartan allegedly frivolous customs.
In the Roman Empire things changed a bit and Imperator August founded the Actia in 28 B.C. with Greek-style games to celebrate his victory over naval forces of Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Did women compete in the Actia and other games? We just know that Greek girls like Tryphosa and her sisters were admitted in the Roman era to competition in various Greek athletic festivals.
Despite not developing female athletism in Rome (as well as sports in general), women participated there in the most brutal imaginary “sport" - gladiatorial combats. There is no reason to doubt that women did enter the arena in Rome. Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals asserted that infamous Nero in 63 A.D. commanded aristocratic women to descend into the arena and fight as gladiators. The scandal was not that women fought but that the wives of senators were forced to violate the conventions of social class. Gladiators, after all, were "hoi polloi". There is no evidence though that those patrician women participated in mortal battles on the arena rather than just trained and compete in fencing. The historian Cassius Dio tells how Nero aimed to impress the visiting Parthian king Tiridates by arranging an expensive show at Puteoli in 66 A.D. consisting entirely of Ethiopians, male and female, young and old who were fighting as gladiators.
Many of female gladiators were captives from the north, able-bodied bellicose women of the sort Tacitus described in Germania. Domitian too offered the populace the spectacle of female gladiators. Roman historian Suetonius remarked disapprovingly that he “gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well". A number of scholars have added that Domitian, who rivaled Nero in eccentricity and cruelty, titillated the crowd with a perverse combat between a woman and a dwarf, but this assertion probably derived from an interpretation of the poet Statius.
Halicarnassus gladiatrixes (British Museum)
The taste for these “Amazons" was not confined to the Latin half of the Empire. That is spread to the Greek parts as well as attested by a stele found at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. The stele, now in the British Museum, pictures two female gladiators locked in combat. The area over which gladiatrixes is to found is not limited even by the Greek-Roman world. Recently, there is one more material evidence of ancient gladiatrixes existence. During archeological excavations in the Ancient Roman amphitheater in London female remains were found with gladiator armor. Scholars suggest that the woman 20-25 years old was an essedaria – a female gladiator participated in chariot battles – assumed form of gladiatorial games in the ancient Britain.
How did the Romans respond to females in the arena? The poet Martial was ironic when women fought beasts at the inauguration of the Collosseum in 80 A.D.:
“That Hercules the Nemean Lion slew / Was thought a mighty deed, a fabled touch. / Forget that passй stunt! Today our Caesar true / Shows us that fighting women do as much".
Gladiatrix combat on the theatrical stage
Martial’s epigrams are mild compared to the venomous disgust concealed in the lines of Juvenal’s Satires. Juvenal (60-140 A.D.) not only reviled aristocratic women who lusted after gladiators, he also lampooned upper class women who trained for the arena:
“Why need I tell of the purple wraps and the wrestling-oils used by women?
Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter
Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the moves?
These are the girls who blast on trumpets in honor of Flora.
Or, it may be, they are really preparing for the arena itself?
How can a woman be decent, sticking her head in a helmet,
Denying her sex she was born with?
Manly feats they adore, but they wouldn't want to be men,
Poor weak things (they think), how little they really enjoy it!
What great honor it is for a husband to see, at an auction
Where his wife's effects are up for sale, belts, greaves and plumes!
Hear her grunt and groan as she works at it, parrying, thrusting;
See her neck bent down under the weight of her helmet.
Look at the rolls of bandage and tape, so her legs look like tree trunks,
Then have a laugh for yourself after the practice is over,
Armor and weapons are put down, and she squats as she uses the vessel.
Ah, degenerate girls of the line of our praetors and consuls!
Tell us, whom have you seen got up in any such fashion,
Panting and sweating, grunted and groaned like this?
Have you ever seen breasts Amazon-naked face wild boars at the games?
Isn’t that more disgusting than the gladiator’s wench or the striptease broad?
There can be no doubts about Juvenal’s attitude toward female gladiators, but the rage that flows through the satires was engendered by the undeniable popularity of the satirized customs. Juvenal was appalled, but Petronius, one of Nero’s favourite writers, in his famous Satyricon makes it clear that other sports fans were thrilled by the news of women called “essedaria" who fought from battle chariots. The passion for combative women, like the demand for “bread and circus," survived Juvenal’s frustrated condemnation.
Undoubtedly, gladiators (and gladiatrixes) might be considered as real athletes. Gladiatorial games were brutal and blood competitive spectacles but participants had to have strength, courage, good physical and technical skills. At last, the strongest one won in the contests.
The female gladiators saw the end of their days in 200 A.D. when the Emperor Severus banned them.
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