Ancient Roman gladiator games possibly developed from a combination of Etruscan rites for the dead and Greek funeral games. Although most of those who fought in the arena were slaves or of very low status, they proved hugely popular among Ancient Romans. And, of course, they still fascinate us today.
I write children’s books, and my main aim is to entice children to explore the ancient world. Gladiators are always tasty bait for boys but less frequently for girls, partly because there were no female gladiators in the ancient world. Or were there?
There are plenty of mythical female warriors dating back to Ancient Greek times, in particular the Amazons, a race of warlike women who only used men to breed and who abandoned all of their boy babies. Amazons often appear on Greek vases and reliefs where they usually represent “barbarian” Persians clashing with “civilised” Greeks. Penthesilea is a mythical Queen of the Amazons. She stars on a superb amphora in the British Museum, shown at the moment of her death by a spear thrust from Achilles.
Hippolyta, another mythical Amazonian queen, features in tales of Hercules: for his ninth labour he must grab her famous girdle, the gift of Ares himself. And Theseus beds the Amazon Antiope who gives him his ill-fated son Hippolytus.
In Roman literature, Virgil created a sympathetic princess called Camilla who leads a band of female warriors against Aeneas in Book 11 of The Aeneid. She even bares one breast, Amazon-style, and dies because she is distracted by the lure of pretty armour on an enemy warrior, a bizarre blend of feminine and masculine desires (Aeneid 11.780ff.).
Real female gladiators were rare but not unknown in Roman times. Tacitus writes of women of high status flaunting themselves in the arena during the time of Nero (Annals 15.32). Cassius Dio tells of the Emperor Titus putting on a combat where women were pitted against dwarves, indicating that women fighters were a novelty act (Historia Romana, 67.8.4).
Petronius mentions a troupe of professional gladiators which included a woman fighting on a chariot (Satyricon 45). According to the gossipy Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian sponsored torch-lit combats at night between men and also between women (Domitian 4). And Juvenal in his diatribe against women scathingly writes about elite Roman matrons who dress up in gladiator’s gear such as helmets, belts, arm pads and greaves (Satire 6.252ff.).
There are also a few bits of archaeological evidence for female gladiators. The British Museum possesses a relief from Halicarnassus commemorating the “release” of two women armed as gladiators, named “Amazon” and “Achillea”. Many Roman oil lamps feature gladiators, a handful of which show what seem to be female gladiators.
A recent find in Southwark, part of the first Roman settlement in London, shows the sexy scene of a woman dressed as a Thraex (a type of gladiator) on top of a Murmillo. He has dropped his sword and shield and is giving the gesture for mercy: a raised hand. Although this may be an erotic joke for the bedroom, it might also reflect entertainment acted out in London’s arena just the other side of the Thames.
Over the past couple of decades I have attended many reenactment events in order to get ideas for my books. Children love concrete details and these events are perfect for providing those. They engage all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch – as when the legionary lets you pat his shield or try on his helmet – and even taste: I have nibbled roast sausage wrapped in a cabbage leaf and sipped posca from a replica glass beaker. These events are among the best forms of experimental archaeology as well as a fabulous educational experience, especially for children. You can interact with legionaries, medics, weavers, dyers, cooks and gladiators.
All the reenactors are fascinating people, full of passion and respect for the worlds they inhabit. One of the most charismatic is Alisa Vanlint. She has been inhabiting various personae such as a female barbarian or an enslaved person. She is especially memorable in her guise as a female gladiator or “gladiatrix”. (This Latin word, although not attested in ancient texts, is the feminine form of gladiator, its –trix suffix marking a female profession, as in ornatrix “hairdresser” and sutrix “shoemaker”.)
I have seen Alisa fight as a gladiatrix on a patch of grass in front of the British Museum, on a village green near Ribchester, in the Guildhall Yard above London’s Roman amphitheatre, and even in the real Roman amphitheatre at Nîmes in 2016 for Les Grands Jeux Romains, an international extravaganza of reenactment.
Recently I was invited to speak at a big Roman Day celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Lytham St Anne’s branch of the Classical Association. I chanced to travel up on the same train as Alisa and asked whether I could interview her. Alisa graciously agreed, even though she was exhausted from lugging her Roman kit and weapons for several hours on train and underground.
I began the interview by asking what her childhood was like. Alisa told me she grew up with her parents and older sister in Rowner near Portsmouth. In 1978 they moved to Helensburgh in Scotland, and she spent the rest of her childhood there until she joined the Navy and moved back to England.
Caroline: Did you have a blissful childhood in Scotland, running through the heather?
Alisa: I enjoyed living near mountains because I was into woods and nature, but I didn’t have a very good time at school. I was bullied at school. But it made me a stronger person.
Caroline: What made you join the Navy?
Alisa: My dad was in the Navy. I wanted to do something for my country, to serve my country. I respected the royal family – the Queen was obviously my boss when I was serving – and I liked adventure and excitement. It ticked all the boxes for me.
Caroline: Did you ever meet the Queen?
Alisa: Yes, many times: Buckingham Palace, the Royal Tournament, November ceremonies… I’ve met all the Royal family at different times.
Caroline: Who’s your favourite Royal?
Alisa: The late Queen. She once told me, “You’re very brave.”
Caroline: And what got you interested in Roman reenactment events?
Alisa: My love of history. Maybe five years after joining the Navy I met a chap who ran a medieval group and taught me how to fight. It was a theatre group and we were learning stagecraft. Some reenactor gladiators from outside the Navy asked us to teach them to fight. One day the gladiators asked me if I wanted to come along to one of their Roman events. I had an interest in ancient history so I said “Yes, I would love to.” After that experience, I thought, “I want to do this.”
Caroline: When I think of Navy, I have an image of you standing on the deck of a giant aircraft carrier, but I guess you were on land a lot of the time?
Alisa: (laughs) Yes, I was on land a lot because I trained to be a dental nurse. But after September 11th, I went on a troop carrier called HMS Ocean to Afghanistan. There I did boarding parties, where I jumped out of helicopters onto decks of ships, doing drug raids and that sort of thing. Later I went on HMS Newcastle to Nassau in the Bahamas, to treat people there. This was with a charity called Hearts and Minds. We did dental treatment there, and also in Africa, for people too poor to afford it. Until we arrived, many of them thought of dentists as guys on the streets with pliers.
Caroline: Like in Roman times! Did you train as a dental nurse before or after joining the Navy?
Alisa: After. I chose what I wanted to do.
Caroline: What feeling did you get when you first started the stage fighting? Did you get lots of knocks and bruises?
Alisa: (laughs) I enjoyed it. It was exciting. I liked the adrenaline, the action, the physical stuff. And it tied in with my interest in history.
Caroline: Did you ever practice Tai Chi or any other martial arts?
Alisa: The person who taught me sword-fighting was my karate instructor, so I did karate and I’m now a first dan. He taught me karate as well.
Caroline: Karate! Presumably first dan is a black belt? Maybe a higher level of black belt?
Alisa: Yes, it’s black belt. I couldn’t go any higher because of my knee. I stopped at first dan.
Caroline: How do you keep so fit? You look amazing.
Alisa: (laughs) I’m a qualified personal trainer and fitness instructor; the Navy paid for all my courses. I have a gym at home in my spare bedroom and I work out there every day. I do an hour and a half, first thing in the morning, but I have weekends off. When I’m not at home I don’t usually bother; I make up for it when I get back.
Caroline: So, what will you do tomorrow when you wake up in the four-star hotel?
Alisa: Have breakfast and chill.
Caroline: Of course! It’s the weekend! (both laugh)
Caroline: When you’ve been in costume at places like Archeon Historical Theme Park in Holland or Carnuntum in Austria, sites which are built to look like ancient Rome, have you ever had a revelation: “This is what it was like”?
Alisa: Yes. We did some filming recently at The Newt in Somerset, the reconstructed Roman villa. And that was the closest I’ve ever got to stepping back in time. I was playing a servant – they call them “servants”, not “slaves” – in a new BBC series called The Caesars. I was playing the servant of Julius Caesar and Pompey, and it actually felt like I was really in the villa and really doing it. It was phenomenal.
Caroline: I’ve heard of that place. Apparently, it’s very expensive but presumably you got paid?
Alisa: Yes. I got paid to visit one of the best reconstructed Roman villas in the world.
Caroline: You’ve just mentioned that you’ve done documentaries and you told me earlier that you were filming at Elstree Studios for one of my all-time favourite TV programmes, Andor. What else have you done recently?
Alisa: I’ve done a lot of big movies with a lot of big stars. I wasn’t in the original Gladiator but I was supposed to be working on Gladiator Two. At first they were going to film in the UK, but then they moved it to Morocco and I couldn’t go. I was in Guardians of the Galaxy, Beauty and the Beast…
Caroline: So not all Roman films?
Alisa: No, no, no…
Caroline: Is it because you’re a stunt woman?
Alisa: I do “special action”, which is fighting. But the last film I was working on was Roman. It’s Boudicca for Netflix, I think, out in November.
Caroline: (checking IMDB) Oh here it is! Boudicca Queen of War (2023), starring Olga Kurylenko.
Alisa: That’s the one.
Caroline: I promised this would be short, but I could go on and on; this has been so exciting. I think you should write your autobiography. My last question is this: are you ever going to retire?
Alisa: No. The straight answer is no. Until I end up in a wheelchair or I’m in a mental home: No.
The interview concluded, we both pulled out sandwiches. Alisa had two big ones as well as a pear from her garden. She told me she has a crazy metabolism and finds it almost impossible to put on weight. The next morning at breakfast she ate a giant bowl of muesli, two pieces of fruit, toast with honey and a full English breakfast.
In the sunken garden of AKS Lytham, the independent school where the event was being held, Alisa put on her gladiatrix costume and I saw for myself how muscular and lithe she is, with not a spare ounce of fat on her body. She is tanned from a summer of events and has a tattoo on her left shoulder from her “mad karate fighting days”.
She told me that while in the Navy a field gun had crushed her right foot. “They told me I would never walk again.” She has since run three London Marathons.
As Alisa put on her carbatinae (sandals) she told me they are not Roman but rather a Dacian model. Done in one piece of leather, cleverly cut, with a thong, they are exactly like a pair I wear to events on the rare occasions when I dress up. Alisa has added hobnail soles and insoles, the former for safety and the latter for comfort. The shield she made herself. Carpentry was another skill she acquired in the Navy. The helmet, like many of the best replicas, was made in India. One of the swords was an exact replica of a pugio (dagger) with an ivory handle. There’s even a painted wooden sword for kids to handle.
The iron slave chains were a gift for her last birthday, made by another reenactor; many of them have impressive skills. The chains will be powerful and poignant for the times when Alisa takes on the role of an enslaved person.
It was a chilly Lancashire day in Lytham St Annes and Alisa was feeling the cold. Usually, she has a partner to spar with to warm up, but her colleague got Covid at the last moment and couldn’t drive her – hence the trek on tubes and trains with two big bags and a Roman shield. Alisa endured the cold without complaint, spoke eloquently at the end of one of my talks and interacted with good humour all day. Her travel home took nearly eight hours; she did not step through her door until 11 that night. “I sometimes end up out of pocket,” she had told me earlier, “but I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I’m passionate about it.”
The late Queen of England was right: Alisa is very brave. And any little girls of a sporty disposition will surely find her inspirational.
Caroline Lawrence is a best-selling author who writes historical fiction for children and young adult readers. In 2007 the BBC made a glossy TV series of her Roman Mysteries books and in 2009 Caroline won the Classical Association Prize for “a significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics”. To date, she has written over 40 books set in the Classical world, including The Gladiators from Capua (2004) and The Time Travel Diaries (2019) both of which feature gladiatorial combats. She can be found on Instagram at @flaviagemina, on Twitter X at @carolinelawrenc and Bluesky at @carolawrence.bsky.social.