One inscription – and one inscription only – from the ancient world unquestionably shows two female gladiators. (Image source: vroma.)
This inscription, originally from Halicarnassus, now in the British Museum, shows two female gladiators and dates from the 2nd century CE. They were called Amazonia and Achillea and were sent away stantes missiones; in other words, they had fought to a standstill.
Women, as well as men, could and did fight in the arena. In 11 CE a law was passed forbidding freeborn girls under 20 from appearing in the arena is passed; then in 19 CE a senatorial decree found in Larinum, a town in Southern Italy, repeated Augustus’ ban on equestrians and the sons and grandsons of senators appearing on the arena floor or on stage and specifically said that the daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters of senators could not appear on stage or in the arena and that rule applied to the wives, daughters, and grand-daughters of equestrians. The laws presumably reflect a problem with some elite women (or ones with connections to elite families) entering the arena.
We hear of elite women appearing in the arena under Nero in 63 CE (Tacitus, Annales 15.32) and they are mentioned by the poet Martial as fighting in inaugural games for the Colosseum:
It is not enough that warlike Mars serves you with his unconquerable weapons, Caesar: Venus herself also serves you.
Martial, On Spectacles 6
Legend used to sing of the lion killed in the great valley, a feat worthy of Hercules – let ancient belief be silent! For after your munera, Caesar, for we now admit that this has been done by a woman warrior.
Martial, On Spectacles 6b
In the middle of this noise and the new luxuries there appear women trained to wield the sword wildly daring to fight like men. You would believe that the Amazons of Thermodon were fighting wildly by Tanais or savage Phasis. Now a bold unit of dwarfs appears, whose growth nature suddenly cut short, binding them in one movement into a knotted lump. They give and receive wounds and threaten death with tiny hands. Mars, our father, and bloody Virtus laugh and cranes hover over the scattered loot marvel at the tiny fighters.
Statius, Silvae 1.6.52-64
Bibliography and links:
Requires Jstor access:
Coleman, Kathleen. (2000). “Missio at Halicarnassus.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100: 487-500.