Gladiators, sex, and gender

Posted on June 8, 2010

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Every so often, an archaeological find helps clarify why it is critical that we ask questions about the differences among people of the same biological sex, and reminds us that an archaeology of sex and gender has to be as much concerned about men as women.

The spectacular cemetery in York, England, that has been identified as likely containing the bodies of gladiators, is one such find.

Britain’s Independent noted that

Almost all the skeletons are of males who were extremely robust and mostly above average height – all facts consistent with a gladiatorial interpretation – and most also show evidence of considerable muscle stress…

and adds that an

unusually high number of men with their right arms markedly longer than their left – a feature mentioned in ancient Roman literature in connection with gladiators.

Obviously, we cannot take these bodies as typical of all men in Roman York. They do tell us about the lives of men, but one kind of masculine life.

Archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist made similar points in her book Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past (London: Routledge, 1999), where she writes that “archaeological studies have frequently portrayed masculinity as an essential quality”.  In particular, she reconsiders work by Paul Treherne on ‘a specific form of masculine beauty unique to the warrior’ in Iron Age Europe:

However, the bodily experience of these would-be warriors is left unresolved; for instance, the changes in gendered status that might accompany the onset of facial hair at puberty, and the fading and thinning of hair at later years? To what extent was the warrior status linked with a particular age or ethnicity, and was it exclusive to biological males?

Gilchrist contrasts this with an analysis of fifth to eighth century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries by Heinrich Härke, who found

a clear correlation between physical stature and the presence of weapons….during periods when there was an absence or decline in actual military activity…These graves represent individuals of ‘warrior status’…characterised by men of the highest stature and strongest physique.

In other words: not all men were the same. We should think in terms of multiple forms of masculinity, not a single status as “male”.

Those buried at York– assuming the interpretation holds– give us a window into a specific “gladiator masculinity”. The existence of this kind of masculine experience would have shaped experiences of femininity– including gladiator femininity, banned in the third century AD perhaps because “women were taking up this occupation in alarming numbers“– as well as other experiences of masculinity.

The traces of these varied life experiences were written in the bones, flesh, feelings and consciousness of people in ways that cannot be constrained by a contemporary reduction to a simple dichotomy between men and women. In archaeology, the body continues to speak if we have the ability to listen to it.