The history of gladiators and gladiatorial combat is one that conjures to mind crowds cheering for blood and the armed athletes in the arena who would oblige them. In short, we think of the violence. But outside of the arena gladiators sometimes doubled as husbands and lovers; even to some of Rome’s highest-ranking women.
Gladiators were viewed as belonging to the lowest of social classes: prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves. Even free-born citizens who volunteered to fight as gladiators, called auctorati, were considered little more than pimps or actors, “selling their blood”, as it were [i]. Despite this, as athletes held to the highest physical standards, perhaps in all of history, they would have been paragons of masculinity. As such, they were just as popular in Roman society as modern professional athletes are today; their power over women equally as strong. Girls or women would scratch graffiti on the walls of gladiator schools declaring their love for those who had captured their hearts. Graffiti in Pompeii, for example, identifies “Creces, with his trident, who catches the girls at night in his net” and who is the “lord of the girls”. And “Celadus, the Thracian, who makes the girls’ hearts beat faster”[ii].
Some gladiators took mistresses and even wives. In the gladiatorial school of Pompeii, the bodies of eight men and one woman were found. Expensive jewelry lay next to the woman, allowing us to hypothesize that she was a woman of means engaged in a rendezvous with a gladiator lover [iii]. This, along with other accounts, tells us that female members of the Roman aristocracy were just as vulnerable to their charms as anyone else.
SENATORS' WIVES AND EMPRESSES
One curious case involves a gladiator named Sergius and the wife of a senator, Eppia. Eppia fell in love Sergius and ran off with him to Alexandria. Their story is documented by Juvenal. He begins by asking,
“Was it good looks and youthfulness set Eppia on fire?
What did she see in him to endure being classed with
The gladiators? After all, her Sergius had already begun
To smooth his throat, an injured arm presaged retirement;
And his face was seriously disfigured, a furrow chafed
By his helmet, a huge lump on the bridge of his nose,
And a nasty condition provoking a forever-weeping eye.”
Sergius was decidedly not a looker. Juvenal can only justify Eppia’s attraction to him by saying:
“He was a gladiator, though. That makes them Hyacinthus;
That’s why she preferred him to children and country,
Husband and sister. They love the steel.”[iv]
His description captures what must have been a common sentiment among “ordinary” Roman men at the time – that were it not for the fact that they were gladiators, no one would have looked once in their direction.
Another story involves Faustina, the daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pious (AD 86-161) and the wife of Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). It was said that she had fallen in love with a gladiator and that she grew obsessed with him. When she confessed this to her husband, he consulted with Chaldean soothsayers on how best to remedy her obsession. They advised him that the gladiator must be killed and that Faustina needed to bathe in his blood. According to the Historia Augustina, “When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince;…[and that] Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators.” [v] Cassius Dio (AD 155-235) likewise describes how another empress, Messalina, third wife of Emperor Claudius (10BC – AD54), intervened to save a defeated gladiator who was one of her lovers. [vi]
Although we mostly think of gladiators in terms of their activities in the arena, like modern professional athletes, they held a strong appeal to women from all walks of life. Their claim to definitive masculinity (all modern gender theories aside) gave them a halo that many found hard to resist. It also allows us to consider them in a more nuanced light. They were more than just fighters engaged in life and death spectacle. They were the male sex symbols of the Roman world. And they were the ones who got all the girls.
[i] Nossov, Konstantin. Gladiator: The Complete Guide to Ancient Rome’s Bloody Fighters, Lyons Press, 2011, p 148.
[ii] Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators, Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, p 70.
[iii] Nossov, 155.
[iv]Juvenal. The Satires, translated by A.S. Kline, 2011, web.ics.purdue.edu/~rauhn/Hist_416/hist420/JuvenalSatirespdf.pdf, SatVI:82-113.
[v]“The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part 2.” Historia Augusta, Loeb Classical Library,
1921, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Marcus_Aurelius/2*.html, 19.
[vi] Cassius Dio. Roman History. Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1924 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/60*.html Book 60, 28.