Gladiatrix: The True Story of History's Unknown Woman Warrior

Gladiatrix: The True Story of History's Unknown Woman Warrior

by Amy Zoll


These may be the only remains of a gladiator ever found. The evidence that they were female not only made history but changed it, giving a new understanding of the role of women in Roman society. Was it really possible for a woman to have embraced masculine virtues and acquired masculine

…  See more details below



These may be the only remains of a gladiator ever found. The evidence that they were female not only made history but changed it, giving a new understanding of the role of women in Roman society. Was it really possible for a woman to have embraced masculine virtues and acquired masculine skills—and to have been encouraged to revel in the blood-and-death spectacle of gladiatorial combat?

Gladiatrix enters this startling new world for the first time. It also unearths the inspirations for these warrior women of Rome—the legend of the Amazons and the true story of Boudica, the Warrior Queen who almost brought the Roman Empire to its knees. And it recreates the startling life of a female outcast who lived and died like no other, to became history’s most remarkable sister-in-arms.

Editorial Reviews

Nineteen centuries ago, Londoners amused themselves by wandering down to the city's great amphitheater to watch bloody battles between sword-wielding slaves. These gladiatorial battles, which sometimes featured wild beasts, attracted as much as one-third of the burgeoning city's population. In 1996, a routine scientific inspection of the outskirts of Roman London uncovered an impressive gravesite that archaeologists identified subsequently as the burial place of a female gladiator. Gladiatrix is the story of that female warrior and the world that she inhabited.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


            From the romantic paintings of the nineteenth century to the epic films of the twentieth, the popular image of the Roman gladiator has been of a life bloody, brutal, and short.  A timeless tragic hero, compelled to fight to the death by forces beyond his control, his fate ultimately resting in the hands of a capricious emperor and a bloodthirsty mob.  He is noble, honorable, and invariably doomed.  He is also a he.This powerful symbol of strength and resolve has always been decidedly male.

            In September of 2000, experts at the Museum of London made an announcement that would challenge such long-held preconceptions.  Not only did they believe they had identified the burial of a gladiator—an achievement in and of itself—but the fragmented remains had proven to be those of a woman.

            The discovery caused a stir within traditional scholarship and garnered media attention worldwide.  The find was unprecedented and its interpretation controversial, certainly, but this was not the first evidence for the existence of female gladiators.  Brief mentions and oblique references can be teased out of the works of several ancient writers, while a relief in the British Museum indisputably depicts two such combatants, going so far as to identify them by name.

            Why, then, did this latest discovery spark such public interest?  Perhaps it comes at a time when, like the Romans two thousand years before, there is a more receptive audience for strong feminine images.  Where the Romans had the legend of the Amazons and Boudica, the Celtic warrior queen, we now cheer professional female athletes competing in sports once considered the exclusive domain of men and follow the exploits of fictional heroines like Xena: Warrior Princess on television.

            In her time, however, the gladiatrix represented the epitome of social contradiction.  Even her male counterparts, while highly celebrated and capable of achieving great fame in their lifetimes, were considered to be of the lowest status imaginable, akin to slaves, even if they had been born free citizens.  A woman who fought in the arena not only went against roman cultural mores but exploded gender definitions as well.

            Difficulties reconciling the conflicts inherent in her life may be reflected in the death of the mysterious woman discovered by the Museum of London team.  The contents of her grave and the care taken in its preparation suggest she was a woman of some renown, possibly high rank.  Yet, she was laid to rest in relative obscurity, not among the monuments and mausolea of Roman London’s notables, but out along the periphery with those of more questionable standing.

            The quality and quantity of items contained in the grave—an assemblage without parallel in Britain—may allude to the beliefs of the deceased and the rituals performed at her graveside.  There are the remains of a sumptuous funeral feast, including such imported delicacies as dates, almonds, and figs.  Eight ceramic incense burners and the remains of burnt pinecones suggest a ceremony heavy with exotic scent.  Even the cones themselves were rarities, coming from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), a species not indigenous to the area, but closely associated with the rites of the Roman amphitheater.

            Also found among these goods, eight small pottery lamps, four of a type produced in Gaul and not often seen in Britain.  Of these, one depicts a fallen gladiator, possibly a direct reference to the person being honored.  Three others bear the likeness of the jackal-headed Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead and conveyor of souls to the underworld.

            How did this enigmatic woman come to rate such an eclectic and worldly collection of artifacts?  Why did she receive such a reverential but, at the same time, ignominious burial?  Curators at the Museum of London argue that few career paths were available to women that could have brought them exposure to cosmopolitan ideas and obvious personal success, yet keep them at the fringes of society: She was a gladiatrix.

            Celebrities and outcasts, gladiators enjoyed great admiration and rewards, but risked paying the ultimate price.  What would drive a woman to such extremes?  This book will explore the little-known world of the gladiatrix: the evidence for her existence, the history and legends that may have given her rise, her life training for combat in the arena, and the bloody spectacle of the Roman amphitheater in which she could well have met her end.

Camilla stepped out into the light of the arena. As if she needed another reminder of where she was, the sun felt different here. In the Mediterranean lands where she had trained and fought, the heat hit like a wall and quickly made armor burn to the touch. Here it gently warmed her back after the dank coolness of the amphitheater tunnel. This was the sun of home.

Possibly the only familiar thing about the place. Much had changed in the years since she had left. Of course, at the time, London had been little more than a smoking ruin and she had been accused of helping make it so. Since then, its inhabitants seem to have busied themselves with turning this remote outpost of the empire into a poor copy of a proper Roman town.

And how many of her countrymen, Camilla wondered, looking out at the sea of faces, had turned themselves into poor copies of proper Romans? Were they all now falling over themselves to speak a foreign tongue and live in square houses just for the right to drape themselves in bedsheets and swear allegiance to an unseen emperor?

In the distance, she could barely make out the women spectators, uppermost in the stands, laughing and waving the hems of their dresses as they would for male gladiators. If things had been different, had she stayed, would she have been among them, satisfied to be relegated to the back of the crowd?

Agave danced past, leaping and whooping, playing up to the audience, the moth-eaten leopard’s skin tied about her shoulders flapping behind her. The display brought even louder cheers as the small troupe marched around the ring.

Those who had made a day of the games had already been treated to the usual execution of prisoners and animal hunt. Camilla had seen the sad excuse for a lion backstage—the creature had not traveled well, but Rufus was probably back there right now negotiating for its mangy hide to complete Heraklia’s outfit.

She spotted the veteran fighter ahead of her. Although she was trying hard to conceal it, Camilla could tell Heraklia was limping.

“That leg’s still bothering you,” she said, catching up. “You should’ve had Rufus pull you from the lineup.”

Heraklia laughed. They both knew the company’s owner better than that. “Are you kidding, and ruin his big break?”

Rufus had been contracted to provide five fighting pairs for this prestigious—if backwater—event and damned if he wasn’t going to take women off the street and put swords in their hands to do it.

Although only a few years older than Camilla, Heraklia had had a sword in her own hand by the time most girls were starting to weave their wedding veils. She was so close to retirement now she could taste it. Nothing was going to jeopardize that, not even an injury.

“You worry too much. Today’s like any other day—we live or we die.”

Somehow, Camilla failed to be reassured by this sentiment. But it was not until they turned to salute the games’ sponsor that she realized how very wrong her friend’s words had been.

Today was not like any other day, for staring down at Camilla from the stands was her own father.

Chapter 1: Discovery

Who was the mystery woman buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Roman London? Laid to rest with great reverence and ceremony, her burial contained a rich and remarkable array of artifacts, yet it was deliberately set apart from other graves of its stature. Did this seclusion reflect the woman’s status? Had she been an outsider in life as well as in death? Who among those on society’s periphery would have merited such a lavish and ritualized funeral? These were the questions facing members of the Museum of London Archaeological Service when, during a routine excavation, an extraordinary discovery was made.

In a city as rich in history as London, it is sometimes difficult to put spade to ground without turning up some discarded relic of the past: a bit of pottery or broken brick, a centuries-old house foundation, a forgotten road. For nearly two thousand years, people have made their homes along this bend in the River Thames, building and rebuilding on the same piece of real estate. The process continues today, only now archaeologists work in advance of development, protecting and preserving ancient remains that lie under constant threat from the backhoes and bulldozers of progress.

London’s dense settlement and continuous development have left their marks both aboveground and below. On the surface, the signs are easy to spot. The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, centerpieces of the medieval landscape, still draw legions of visitors daily, while many streets in the city center follow the courses of earlier Roman roads and respect the invisible line of long demolished town defenses. Beneath the tower blocks and motorways, however, the evidence is far from clear. Archaeologists are confronted with a muddle of crisscrossing remnants of lives lived, layer upon layer, each successive occupation intercutting and obscuring the last. Through their efforts, London’s long history is taking shape, but gradually, pieced together from glimpses when land is laid bare in preparation for yet more construction.

The story of London begins in earnest in a.d. 43 when the forces of the emperor Claudius poured across the Channel and set about conquering the island in characteristic Roman fashion. The imperial army, intent on securing a foothold in the southeast, built forts and defenses, established lines of communication and supply, and soon set their sights on the native stronghold of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) as the first step in the subjugation of the local populace. To aid in this objective, a bridge was built spanning the Thames, not far from where London Bridge now stands.

Camulodunum fell later that same year and became the site of the first Roman colony in the new province, settled by retired soldiers. Elsewhere, other less official centers also began to spring up as traders and entrepreneurs followed in the wake of the conquerors, attracted by new opportunities in a new land. London was their greatest success story. Ideally situated to exploit the principle north-south routes of the time, this settlement grew quickly along the north shore of the river.

During its early years, London’s development reflected its status as an unofficial frontier town. Rectangular timber-framed buildings mingled with traditional roundhouses, the circular thatched huts used by the native inhabitants. By a.d. 60, however, this mercantile community must have seemed a sufficient reminder of the hated Roman occupation for it to be razed by neighboring tribes when they rose in a brief but devastating mass revolt. In the last decades of the first century a.d., London managed to emerge reborn from its own ashes, acquiring many of the features of a true Roman city, including a forum, amphitheater, and even its own suburbs.

In the fall of 1996, a team led by Anthony Mackinder from the Museum of London Archaeological Service had the task of investigating a block along Great Dover Street in the Southwark district of Greater London slated to become new student housing for the Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital Trust. What they uncovered would enrich our understanding of the city’s formative years and shed light on some of its less well-known—but perhaps most celebrated—residents.

The site, dubbed “165 Great Dover Street” for the address of one of the buildings along the street’s frontage, presented all the typical challenges that beset the urban archaeologist. The Museum of London team had just a few short months to evaluate an enormous area, covering upward of eight thousand square meters, before the heavy-duty earthmovers gouged into the ground and removed any traces of the past.

Archaeological excavation is, by design, a painstaking and laborious process, for the very act of investigation, however meticulous, will destroy the original state of a site. Archaeologists must therefore exercise tremendous care not to overlook even the most subtle and ephemeral of evidence—from stains in the soil left by long- decayed wood posts to tiny seeds to microscopic pollen grains—all of which can provide important clues in the final analysis. In a constantly changing, built-up environment such as London, however, the drive is always to dig deeper to build higher. As a result, difficult choices must sometimes be made. For those archaeologists involved in “rescue” operations, where a site is in imminent danger of destruction, the desire to mount a complete and thorough investigation is tempered by the knowledge they have only a limited time in which to learn all they can from a location before it is lost forever.

Prior to undertaking any full-scale excavation, the history of the lot on Great Dover Street was researched and the land tested to determine where best to focus the team’s energies. Some sections could be quickly ruled out from further consideration. Along the west side of the tract, the building for which the site was named and the smaller brick buildings flanking it were not scheduled for demolition, so no action needed to be taken there. On the east side, bounded by Tabard Street, deep basements sunk as part of postwar development had already obliterated any archaeological remains, as had construction on Black Horse Court at the south end of the site. Based on these assessments, the decision was made to concentrate efforts on the northwest corner of the area, where the chances for finding intact deposits were greatest.

Even with the size of the study area much reduced, the team soon had their hands full. It was not long before they realized they had happened upon the outer edge of an extensive Roman cemetery. Based upon the objects recovered, the burial ground had been in active use during the early centuries of the period. In this small corner alone, the remains of more than thirty individuals were found, many solitary interments, others part of larger mortuary complexes.

Men, women, and children were laid to rest here along a stretch of old Watling Street, a main north-south thoroughfare of the time. Roman custom did not allow burial within city walls, so it was common for necropoli—cities of the dead—to grow just outside the gates. The approaches to the east, west, and north of Roman London, or Londinium as it was then known, had once all been crowded with polished stone monuments, inscribed with the names and achievements of deceased notables, each vying for the attention of passersby.

Although located clear across the Thames, the growth of a funerary complex in north Southwark echoes the area’s own rise as the southern gateway to Londinium. Originally composed of a number of broad sandy islands set in marshy terrain, this shore had only ever been sparsely inhabited prior to the Roman conquest. Despite its low-lying geography, the Southwark islands provided the narrowest crossing point in the immediate area and the Romans wasted no time in establishing this vital link. Once the bridge was constructed, many of the major arteries leading to and from points south came to converge in Southwark, and settlement at this important crossroads began as early as a.d. 50. Southwark’s history became inextricably tied with that of the city on the opposite bank. It seems to have shared in London’s fate only a scant decade later, when British tribes rebelled against their Roman oppressors and set the city alight. Across the river, recent excavations have revealed a corresponding horizon of burnt material—the charred timber and mud walls of fallen buildings—suggesting the Southwark settlement was not spared the torch.1

Throughout the Roman period, occupation in Southwark clustered around the bridgehead on the north island, the largest of the river islands. The exact boundaries of the settlement are difficult to determine, as they tended to shift over time, but it is likely that the expansive burial ground that developed just to the south of the islands would have been situated along the settlement’s fringes. Together, the numerous graves and mortuary monuments form a larger funerary zone that rivals in extent, if not density, those found directly outside the gates of Londinium. The site of 165 Great Dover Street lies on the southeastern edge of this community of the dead.

The 165 Great Dover Street excavation was located about a kilometer southeast of the Roman bridge along Watling Street. Originating on the Kent coast, the line of Watling Street in Southwark is believed preserved by present-day Tabard Street.2 Indeed, excavation quickly revealed a section of a broad avenue, graveled and graded in typical Roman manner, paralleling Tabard and demarcating the eastern extent of the study area.

When the course of Watling Street was laid out in the mid–first century a.d., the surrounding countryside seems to have been mostly open farmland. Ghostly impressions left in the soil attest to the land’s initial use. A series of ditches, running parallel and perpendicular to the road, may have served as agricultural field boundaries. The function of a large wooden structure that stood amidst the ditchwork, however, is unknown. All that remained when its presence was detected in the site’s earliest occupation level was a rectangular set of pits where its upright wooden posts had once stood. The building, though substantially constructed, appears to have been short-lived, having been purposefully demolished when the plot was given over to funerary use.

The construction of a small stone building at the end of the first century a.d. marks the beginning of the site’s transformation. The square masonry structure was either a shrine or a mausoleum designed to emulate the plan of a Romano-Celtic temple, an architectural type well-known from Britain and other western Roman provinces. Thought to reflect a fusion of ideals of the Mediterranean world and local Iron Age peoples, these buildings consisted of a central roofed chamber, or cella, bounded by a walled precinct. The open area within the walls of the Great Dover Street example contained a stone-lined well, likely intended for ritual use, as well as the base for a tombstone or altar. A small group of associated burials was also found set close behind the cella in the space between it and the surrounding curtain wall.

Around this same time, an unenclosed and seemingly unremarkable graveyard began to develop on the patch of ground set back from the road, just north of the temple-like building. Over the course of a few decades, the frontage along this section of Watling Street would become an upscale neighborhood for the dear departed, lined with individually walled family cemeteries, funerary monuments, and mausolea decorated with fine carvings and imported stone. Behind these more impressive memorials, however, the small graveyard continued to attract a much humbler clientele.

The final resting places of those interred in this plot must have been poorly marked, if at all. Later burials were found cutting into earlier ones, churning up the earth and the bones of previous occupants along with it. Several skeletons were found truncated and incomplete, while random remains turned up in the backfill of other burials. One man seems to have been disposed of in a particularly haphazard fashion. He was found facedown with one arm outstretched, as though his body had been tossed or dragged into its poorly dug grave. Few others in this graveyard were buried in coffins or with artifacts.

In such modest surroundings, archaeologists were astonished to come upon one burial that differed so dramatically from the rest that it would defy comparison. It was filled with a generous assortment of grave goods, and the body had been carefully prepared in a rare cremation process. Although the objects accompanying the deceased spoke of wealth and status, it quickly became clear these were the bones of no ordinary affluent citizen.

The unusual location of the grave was just the first of many curious aspects of this discovery. Somewhat removed from the rest, it was so far to the north that it nearly fell outside the study area. Nick Bateman, an archaeologist with the Museum of London Archaeological Service, recalls:

It did at first appear from the reports that were coming from the excavation that the burial was actually in a quite different context to the other burials there, and more particularly that it was isolated, by itself, but in fact the Dover Street burial, although to some extent peripheral, was indeed part of the whole cemetery complex.

A part of the cemetery, yet apart, the burial did not fit at all comfortably among the paupers but was physically segregated from the local leading lights in their roadside crypts. Another archaeologist with the Service, Jenny Hall, notes the apparent contradiction:

There was a walled cemetery with a possible mausoleum, but this burial was actually beyond that, outside the area. Now, if you’ve got someone who’s wealthy and influential and part of Roman society, you would expect them to be buried in the walled cemetery, perhaps with their own mausoleum.

Although no standing monument or memorial appears to have been erected to mark the burial’s location, the deceased had been given an extraordinary send-off. The body had been cremated on an elaborate type of funeral pyre known as a bustum. Usually reserved for the death of an important individual, there are only about twenty known examples of this custom from Britain.3 The bustum was a uniquely Roman practice and consisted of a large rectangular pit overtop of which was built a substantial wooden platform. Distinguishing it from ordinary cremation techniques, the bustum’s underlying hollow improved airflow and kept the slowly descending tiers of the platform from smothering the blaze as they burned and fell. The wooden superstructure served the dual purpose of supporting the body as the flames consumed it, while at the same time fueling those flames. At one end of the pit at Great Dover Street, stake holes could still be seen, remnants of the pyre’s stabilizing posts.4 As they were reduced to ashes, the pyre and its contents would have dropped into the pit, where the remains would have been covered over with earth after the fires were spent.

Experiments conducted by forensics expert Jacqueline McKinley have shown that such a configuration would have burned very efficiently, producing high temperatures and a steady rate of consumption over many hours. An intense, sustained heat, at times reaching one thousand degrees centigrade, would have been hot enough to burn away muscle and fat, melt copper and even glass, but not quite sufficient to incinerate an entire corpse. Under such conditions, skeletal material shrinks and twists and changes color, bone fractures and becomes highly friable, but some amount is still recognizable. McKinley explains:

It’s a bit of a fallacy with cremated remains in that everything sort of disappears to a dust, or an amorphous blob. What actually happens is that you’re oxidizing and dehydrating the body so all the organic components of the body, the soft tissues and the organic components of the bone, which is about 30 percent, are being burnt away, and you are going to be left with the inorganic components of the bone.

The inferno of the pyre had reduced the body in the Great Dover Street bustum to a confused jumble of hundreds of fragile and splintered bone fragments. Weighing a mere one kilogram in total, the pieces were carefully collected and sent back to the museum laboratories for analysis.

Just as intriguing as the body’s location and treatment were the goods that accompanied it: items drawn from far and wide, consciously selected for their ritual significance. Some showed signs of having joined the deceased on the funeral pyre, while others had been added to the assemblage afterward. Together, they hinted at a lengthy and involved graveside ceremony.

In addition to the charred skeletal fragments, the burial also yielded a startling array of other organic matter. Some seventy liters of soil were collected from the fill of the bustum pit and sifted using a technique known as flotation. The process employs water to separate lighter particulates that may be mixed in with the soil but are so small they might otherwise be missed by standard excavation methods. In this manner, archaeobotanist John Giorgi and faunal analyst Kevin Rielly were able to identify a wide range of carbonized plant and animal remains: leftovers from an elegant meal.

Evidence for figs, dates, white almonds, barley, and several varieties of wheat were all found among the charred wood and earth. None of these ingredients, save for the cereal grains and possibly the figs, could have been grown locally and had to be imported from more southerly climes at some expense. Fig trees may have been introduced to Britain by this time, as their seeds are plentiful in other Roman period deposits, but this was the first instance in which a portion of the actual fruit had been preserved. The fruit and seeds of the dates found here also represented a first for a London excavation.

Along with these rare and exotic fruits and nuts, the bones of what appears to have been a whole butchered chicken and portions of another bird, perhaps a dove, were also recovered. These showed burn patterns that suggest the feast was intended to be symbolically enjoyed by the deceased alone, having been placed uncooked on the funeral platform with the body.

Other objects were almost completely devoured by the flames, leaving only the faintest of traces behind. Flecks of gold could be discerned in the soil samples, all that was left of some richly made textile, possibly a garment. Burnt and corroded iron nails implied the presence of a coffin or other container for offerings. Fragments of fire-distorted glass from one or more small bottles were also found melted by extreme heat. Glass vessels of this size often held sweet-smelling unguents that may have been used in the preparation of the body.

Scent, it seems, played a very important role in this funerary ritual. In addition to the remains of the food offerings, the pit’s fill was littered with the remnants of numerous pinecones. These were identified as all coming from the same species of tree, the stone pine. Although such cones may have been consumed as a high-status food item, they were also frequently used as incense and are present in a number of ritual and religious contexts, including at the Vestal Virgins compound at the Forum in Rome.5

Like many of the foodstuffs found in the grave, the stone pine was originally native to the Mediterranean and later introduced to Britain with Roman occupation. According to Damian Goodburn, a specialist in ancient woods and woodworking with the Museum of London, there was only one place this species was growing in Britain at the time of the Great Dover Street burial: directly outside the London amphitheater.6 The tall, fragrant trees were frequently planted around the exterior of amphitheaters to provide shade for the masses while its cones were burned as incense to mask the stench of blood and gore from the arena. The presence of their  cones provides a direct link between the grave’s occupant and the world of gladiators, according to Nick Bateman:

The interesting thing is that we know that stone pine was used extensively for incense and we know that what went on in the amphitheater was intensely ritualized. There was an elaborate series of preparatory and concluding rituals and it’s almost certain that the burning of incense was an essential part of it.

Eight small ceramic lamps had also been set at various points in the pit. Vessels of this type were ubiquitous throughout the Roman world, the ancient equivalent of modern lightbulbs, although they did not emit anywhere near the same amount of light. Mass-produced from multipart reusable molds, their basic components consisted of an enclosed round reservoir for holding oil and a tapering spout from which a wick would generate a tiny, flickering flame. Although a common form, the white clay used in the lamps found at Great Dover Street indicate that they had been imported to Britain from manufacturing centers in Rome’s Gallic provinces. All had originally been dipped in a dark coating that, after firing, ranged in color from a rusty orange to a dark gray, possibly meant to mimic similar lamps fabricated from terra-cotta or bronze.

Of these eight lamps, four are undecorated. Although identical in style, these “factory lamps,” or Firmalampen, appear to have been formed in different molds, with varying degrees of care taken in their execution. The other four lamps are of a volute type, with scrollwork at the spout and a raised figural design on the flat discus that makes up the top of the oil reservoir. The choices of subject matter on these vessels provide the strongest clues as to the identity of the grave’s occupant.

Three lamps bear depictions of the Egyptian god Anubis, his jackal head shown in profile with its distinctive long pointed ears and snout. In these small, schematic representations, he wears a short, knee-length kilt or tunic and in his left hand he carries a wand or herald’s caduceus, a symbolic attribute of the Roman deity Mercury. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for the divinities of one civilization to be adopted by another. Mercury himself had long become synonymous with the Greek deity Hermes. Both were messengers of the gods and conveyors of souls through the underworld, much like Anubis himself. Indeed, the close association between Hermes and Anubis is reflected in the Greek tradition by the composite deity Hermanubis.7

According to Andrea Wardle, finds specialist for the Museum of London, the choice of subject matter on these three nearly identical lamps was deliberate, perhaps referring to the occasion of the funeral itself or else some aspect of the deceased’s own life.8 Whether the presence of Anubis directly connects this individual with the cult of Isis, a popular Egyptian-inspired faith at the time, is a matter of some debate, however. Anubis’ divine counterparts, Hermes and Mercury, also loomed large in the highly ritualized world of the arena and the lamps’ motifs could be seen to allude in some way to the life and death struggles of gladiators, especially in light of the fourth picture lamp found in the grave.

The image on the final lamp is that of a fallen gladiator. The fighter wears the crested helmet and armament characteristic of the Samnite type.9 Still grasping his sword, he is shown at the moment of defeat, collapsing backward with left arm upraised, either to shield himself from his unseen opponent’s killing blow or to plead for mercy from the crowd. Gladiators, too, had close conceptual ties to the underworld. Their origins can be traced back to early funerary rites in which combatants would battle to the death to prove themselves worthy to escort departed aristocrats through the land of the dead. Later, much of the symbolism underlying these acts was retained in the arena even after their funereal associations were lost.

All of the lamps, both plain and decorated, were found broken but complete or nearly complete, indicating they had been placed whole into the grave. Not only were they intact, but they had been brand-new as well. Lamps of this sort typically became darkened and sooty at the spout where the wick guttered, but none showed such telltale signs of use. This suggests they had been selected for a symbolic purpose, perhaps intended to light the way for the deceased in the afterlife. An expert on Roman lamps, Hella Eckhardt found not only the types but the number of lamps remarkable:

In Roman Britain, it is very unusual to find multiple lamps in a burial. Normally I’d expect to see one, maybe two lamps, but to find eight is unique and outstanding.

Based on the manufacture dates of the various forms, Eckhardt was able to provide a date for the burial itself. Picture lamps such as those found here entered the British repertoire around a.d. 20, preceding the Roman invasion by more than two decades. They became increasingly less common after the province had been established, petering out after the first century. Importation of the undecorated lamps, on the other hand, did not begin until around a.d. 70. The waxing and waning of these two types suggest that the burial most likely took place at the point at which their periods of popularity overlap and  both were widely available, around a.d. 70 or 80.

Eight ceramic tazze, open pedestaled containers believed used for the burning of incense, were also found in the grave, either directly on top of or in close association with the lamps. These vessels probably held the smoldering cones of the stone pine, but their contents had been spilled out among the ashes when most were set on the pit floor intentionally inverted. Although these vessels varied somewhat in size, all were strikingly similar in form and decoration. Each had a flaring frilled rim, a pattern repeated lower on the body just above where it began to taper to the base. All had been thrown on a potter’s wheel and were made of a local clay known as Verulamium Region White. This material was named for the commercial pottery workshops that grew up along Watling Street south of the Roman town of Verulamium (modern St. Albans in Hertfordshire). Production began at this center shortly after the Roman conquest in a.d. 43 and was at its peak between a.d. 70 and 120.10       

Tazze were not unknown from burials in Britain during this time, but like the lamps, it was extraordinary to find so many in a single grave: Until the Great Dover Street discovery, only twelve such vessels had been recovered from all four of London’s cemeteries combined.11 Similar to the lamps, these tazze do not appear to have seen heavy use prior to being committed to the earth. They were used at least once, however, as the interiors of most were sooted and charred. The irregular pattern of scorch marks, rising up along one side to the rim, suggests they were lit outside, where the prevailing winds caused their burning contents to lap against the vessel wall.12

Both the lamps and the tazze show no indication of exposure to the heat of the pyre, but rather had been carefully arranged on the floor of the bustum pit, possibly as offerings left by the mourners to mark the completion of the memorial service. Most of the cremated human remains were found beside or beneath one of the upturned tazze. They had been gathered up and redeposited after the embers grew cold: the final act in a complex funeral rite.

Grave goods of such exceptional quality and quantity attest to the care and respect with which this individual was laid to rest. Why, then, was the grave itself so anonymous? If this person had been a prominent member of the community, why were they not commemorated in a more permanent fashion or buried with the other members of their affluent and influential family? These are questions pondered by Nick Bateman:

Obviously one starts to speculate. Why is this so? Why have we got this pretty elaborate rich burial ceremony going on? That speculation, to some extent, starts to fuel the idea of social exclusion. Is this person deliberately being excluded from the normal burial area?

In the rigid class system of Roman society, those of the lowest caste included slaves, criminals, and prostitutes. Their burials would have echoed their outsider status and been relegated to the fringes of the cemetery. None, however, would have been mourned in such a refined and costly manner as was the case at Great Dover Street. Only one group among such outcasts would have been able to overcome deeply ingrained social stigma to achieve great wealth and renown: the gladiators.

But, if this was a gladiator, she was female: a gladiatrix. That was the stunning revelation to come from osteologist Bill White, who performed the initial assessment of the human remains from the Great Dover Street bustum. Although the material recovered hardly comprised a complete skeleton, portions of the pelvis, a key indicator of gender, were found sufficiently intact to make a definitive determination. A woman’s pelvic bones tend to be wider and more bowl-shaped to facilitate childbirth, while a man’s are larger and slightly more vertically oriented. White concluded that this individual was undoubtedly female.

Shortly after the pronouncement, however, the pelvic fragments and some other bones that had been separated from the rest for study were packed away. They have since been mislaid amidst the tens of thousands of other similar boxes stored in the Museum of London’s vast warehouse. To date, Great Dover Street woman’s missing pelvis has yet to be rediscovered, but the rest of her remains were kept on public display at the museum and were available to be reexamined by White and McKinley several years later.

From the pile of fragments and scraps, they were able to pick out a few bones that provided further information about the woman’s age and stature. Vertebrae were small, even allowing for shrinkage during cremation, suggesting she may have been slight of build. Her bones appeared fairly mature, but showed no signs of degenerative diseases common among Roman populations as today, such as osteoarthritis. From this, they were able to estimate her age at death as somewhere around thirty years old. Slender and healthy, in the prime of her life, Great Dover Street woman captured the popular imagination, as well as that of the archaeologists responsible for bringing her to light. Jenny Hall remembers:

People then started saying well, what have we got here, could we possibly have a female gladiator? That really made everyone go: no, can’t, don’t believe that. But when you sort of looked at all the facts you realized that it was a possibility, that this could be something really quite amazing.

—Reprinted from Gladiatrix by Amy Zoll by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Yorkshire Ace Pictures. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Meet the Author

Amy Zoll has a Masters Degree in Roman Archaeology from the University of Durham, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked at Roman sites in England and France, in addition to two summers in Pompeii. She is the author of several articles for academic journals, and Gladiatrix is her first full-length work.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >