Two women. Two swords. One victor.
An action-packed tale that exposes the brutal underside of Imperial Rome, Sword of the Gladiatrix brings to life unforgettable characters and exotic settings. From the far edges of the Empire, two women come to battle on the hot sands of the arena in Nero’s Rome: Afra, scout and beast master to the Queen of Kush; and Cinnia, warrior-bard and companion to Queen Boudica of the British Iceni. Enslaved, forced to fight for their lives and the Romans’ pleasure; they seek to replace lost friendship, love, and family in each other’s arms. But the Roman arena offers only two futures: the Gate of Life for the victors or the Gate of Death for the losers.
Busting Gladiator Myths
By Faith L. Justice
Thanks Jenny Q for hosting me on your beautiful blog (please give a shout out to your designer). (That's me! Thank you!) I almost hate to dirty it up with my brutal topic, but here goes. (Oh, we get dirty around here. Let her rip!) Before I researched Sword of the Gladiatrix, I got most of my ideas and impressions of gladiators from the media: Russel Crowe in Gladiator and (for those of us of a certain age) Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. More recently Starz had a fantastic (in more ways than one) show that ran for three seasons titled Spartacus: War of the Damned. All of these shows perpetuate some myths that I hope to bust wide open in this guest post.
Myth #1: All gladiators were men.
Most were, but not all. Here I’ll give Gladiator a weak thumbs up—they had women in chariots fighting against a group of men in a re-enactment” of a classic battle in an arena scene, but other than that, women gladiators don’t show up in most visual media. It’s left to us lowly writers to correct the balance. If you look closely, women in the arena show up in art, literature, and law. Sword of the Gladiatrix was inspired by a particular stone carving of two female gladiators that I saw in the British Museum. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Martial, and Juvenal all write about female gladiators—usually (except for Martial) with some element of dismay or sarcasm. An organizer in Ostia brags on his tombstone that he was the first person to put women in the arena as fighters. My favorite evidence is in the law: The first Roman Emperor Augustus forbade recruiting noble and free women as gladiators. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Septimus Severus banned single combat by women in the arena. If women weren’t being recruited and fighting, why have a ban? Human nature being what it is, these prohibitions probably made the fights all the more popular because they were illegal. I’m sure female gladiatorial contests continued for some time.
Myth #2: All gladiators were slaves or criminals condemned to the arena.
Myth #3: Every gladiatorial contest ended in death.
This myth, perpetuated in the movies, is rooted in gladiatorial history. The first gladiator contests took place during public funerals for upper class people where pairs of slaves fought to the death as an honor for the deceased. The more dead slaves, the more “honor.” However, politicos quickly realized how these public funeral games pleased the crowds and started paying for gladiator match-ups at religious festivals and civic celebrations. At that point, the invisible hand of the market took over. Lanistae—gladiator providers—spent a lot of money procuring, training, and maintaining their stock. They didn’t want to lose 50% or more of their prized possessions at every game and the editors—those who gave the games—didn’t want to pay the price of dozens of dead and wounded gladiators. It was rare (except for emperors who could afford it) that an editor demanded a fight to the death, so the death rate for gladiator games was one in nine with most deaths occurring among the tirones—new recruits.
Top gladiators also inspired rabid fans who did not want to see their favorites killed. Early in Gladiator, Russel Crowe’s character (a former General named Maximus) is chastised for quickly and efficiently killing his opponent in the arena and depriving the audience of a show (no fancy twirling or leaping). The top gladiators entertained as well as fought (a little like wrestling today). They trained to show off their skills and fought only two or three times a year. Fans bought souvenirs with their likenesses and hired them to attend parties. Women paid to have sex with them and bought the sweat scraped off their bodies as an aphrodisiac. During an actual contest in the arena, most top fighters aimed to defeat their opponents without killing them. The defeated fighter could then appeal to the giver of the games for mercy and the editor could avoid paying a hefty fee for the dead fighter by granting it. Of course, if the crowd was unhappy with the performance and the editor needed the publicity, he could always swallow the loss and order the killing stroke.
Myth #4: Gladiators had body builder physiques that made their fans swoon.
Other than Sumo wrestlers, have you ever seen a fat fighter in the movies or TV? Even if Kirk Douglas doesn’t live up to modern standards of hunkiness, he’s still athletic in Spartacus. Real gladiators? They packed on the pounds—particularly around the middle—to protect muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and vital organs. They could take shallow cuts (lots of blood, but no death) and survive—a crowd and owner pleaser. Contemporaries called them hordearii—barley men—because of their plentiful but monotonous diet of barley and beans cooked together to make a thick soup or potage, probably seasoned with onions, leeks, and local herbs. They also bulked up on barley bread. The result of this diet of simple carbs is…fat. Recent studies of bones from gladiator grave yards found another interesting physical fact: gladiators had much higher levels of bone calcium than in the general population, resulting in denser, heavier bones. This calcium boost probably came from a disgusting-sounding brew of charred wood or bone ash dissolved in vinegary wine which the ancient writers mention as a staple in the gladiator’s diet. I think I’ll stick to protein shakes.
Thanks again, Jenny Q, for letting me share my passion for history and gladiators with your readers!
Sword of the Gladiatrix is on a blog tour!
FAITH L. JUSTICE writes award-winning novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, the Circles in the Hair anthology, and many more. She is a frequent contributor to Strange Horizons, Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine, and co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.
For more information visit Faith L. Justice’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.