During the Popular Culture and Comedy conference at the University of Glasgow (popular comedy conference Glasgow), Professor Ralph Rosen, pointed out that, although entertainment in antiquity could be public and institutionalised art forms—therefore in some sense popular—we know very little about their actual aesthetic popularity. Take for example, gladiators. The stereotypical idea that comes to mind is… strong muscular men who fought for glory. Is that, however, all there is to it? Or are we just disillusioned and stuck with a stereotype of ‘ancient popular culture’ that has been misconceived and reproduced over and over through the centuries? To begin with, I wish to elucidate our understanding of ‘popular culture’ models, in history, after the event—as it were. Equipped with this, I will proceed to locate current digital and ancient analogue expressions of the genre and the importance of popular culture trends across times.
Current cultural theory begins with the notion of ‘popular’ as a cultural and artistic expression that is widely favoured by many people (Bennett, 1980:20-1). Paradoxically, the difficulty of such a definition is that scrutinizing ‘market figures’ could be inapplicable in a historical context. It also implies a distinction from high culture (Bourdieu: 1984). A less problematic definition draws on the development of the concept of hegemony by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony for Gramsci stands for the way in which the dominant groups in society, particularly those of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ seek to win the consent of subordinate of society. Those using this approach see popular culture as the struggle between the resistance of subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation operating in the interests of the dominant groups. Popular culture, in that sense, is a force of incorporation between the two groups- dominant and subordinate. Gramsci’s notion of ‘popular’ is applicable for historical genres as it views them within their historical and cultural context; it further recognizes that popular trends require a historical process: popular culture at the moment, and another kind of culture the next. It also requires a synchronic viewpoint- moving between resistance and incorporation at any historical moment.
Most of these definitions are normally applied to post-industrial, contemporary cultural artifacts. In these terms then, the term popular culture applied to a pre-industrial and premodern cultural environment could be considered to be an anachronism. Instead, what I wish to demonstrate is that popular culture is indeed a term that can be applied to premodern performance/ expression as well as contemporary. The ‘equilibrium of hegemony’ can also be employed to analyse different types of conflict. Bennett (2006) for example highlights class conflict, but hegemony theory can be used to explore and explain conflicts involving ethnicity, race, gender, generation, sexuality, religion etc.
Within the cultural landscape of Rome, then, gladiators can be studied as an example of popular culture, as they reflect social conflicts visible in their timely and spatial context of performance. Although our current cognitive tools of defining popular culture are post industrial- the shape or phenomena presents with as much certainty as we can make any historical claims on what is popular and whatnot. Similarly, the same methodological tools can be applied for the gladiators’ contemporary representation.
In the dawn of the 21st century cultural and social paradigms are circulating more rapidly than ever. Thanks to technology, everything is possible. Chroma key facilitates the video reproduction of visualizations of all sorts, digital reconstruction is used in abundance, and ubiquitous technology makes almost every single reconstructive project (artistic or otherwise) globally available as long as there is a screen, and an internet connection.
What is the current trend in gladiator representation? Are there gendered aspects of ancient entertainment as a social and cultural phenomenon? Specifically, how do ancient fighters/entertainers, both analogue, and mediated via screens, communicate trends about the representation of gender then and now? Many Questions! I will only attempt to answer some, here.
So how about contemporary popular culture and representation… of gladiators? Are there any female ones out and about?
Ever since the 1990s we are bombarded with pictures of ‘ancient’ action girls. First, it was Zena. Then, the 2004 pepsi commercial featuring Pink, Beyonce, and (of all people) Britney Spears. Obviously, Pepsi, for the sake of sales went beyond the macho and (very) heteronormative paradigm of Maximus in Gladiator (2004) See relevant video:
Ouch! We will rock you? Enrique Inglesias as Caesar? If Cicero could see, he would perhaps scream ‘O tempora O mores’ twice, thrice, a thousand times!
To paraphrase the most influential popular culture/ classical reception scholar, Professor Monica Silveira Cyrino, Rome in popular imagination projects a variety of visual interpretations and meanings, and it has been reproduced for screens across different and disparate times and cultures. Within mainstream popular culture, historical fantasy inspired by antiquity was popularized after the cinematic trend of the Italian pepla of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, within the context of Sword and Sandal, as well as computer games, the main action hero has been, until recently, traditionally Caucasian and male with females largely cast in a supporting role. Very recently, however, the producers of Spartacus (Starz 2010-3) speculated (and attempted) the incorporation of a gladiatrix; in their own words ‘we want more strong women, fighting’. Here are some ancient action chicks… they might not fight in the arena, but are quite fierce and, oh yeah, they do take down some Romans, one way or another….
And there is of course a marvel comic character called Gladiatrix!
Of course, female action girls are, in contemporary terms, by-and-large highly sexualized (Surprise, surprise!!)… but how about ancient ones? Did female gladiators exist? Were they also trendy? Were they also sexualized and subject to the spectator’s gaze?
Female gladiators indeed, become a ‘trend’ in the Arena around 100 years later than the time of the historical Spartacus. Ancient literary sources mention a handful of female gladiators, some of them brave to fight to a standstill: Cassius Dio (62.3.1) Juvenal. 1.22-3 on “Mevia” a fighting (slave?) with exposed breasts. Also a munus between women and dwarfs (Suet. Domit. 4.2). A strong condemnation against female gladiators of the Flavian and Trajanic eras can be found in the Satire 6 of Juvenal, decrying the fact female gladiators were typically from upper-class families and seeking thrill and attention.
‘Who has not seen the dummies of wood they slash at and batter
Whether with swords or with spears, going through all the manoeuvres?
These are the girls who blast on the trumpets in honour of Flora.
Or, it may be they have deeper designs, and are really preparing
For the arena itself. How can a woman be decent
Sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?’
Obviously, not everyone was favourable of women in the sands. Yet a lot of literary evidence is against men in the sands also. With the advent and popularization of Christianity, these shows are rapidly declining. Female fighters were officially banned around 200 CE (Dio Cass. 75.16) but some of its components slapstick (in the form of comic physical abuse) and bare breasts has survived until later, under the term mime, in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Moreover, material, archaeological evidence proves further the image we have from literary sources. A marble relief from Halicarnassus shows reveals two honoured female gladiators, curreg Achillia). They are depicted in loincloths and wearing traditional gladiator equipment such as. greaves and a manica. Each is armed with a sword and shield. They are bare-breasted, as in their contemporary sculptural depictions of amazons but perhaps also implying a degree of sexual titillation.
Discovered in 1996 and announced in September 2000, in Southwark area of London, England, the Remains of Great Dover Street Woman provided physical evidence to back up the substantial literary evidence we have from antiquity. The woman’s pelvis is all that remains of the body after the cremation but the abundance of expensive oil lamps, together with other evidence of a large and luxurious feast and the presence of pine cones (burned at the arena to cover the smell) all contribute to possibility that this was the grave of a revered gladiator – who was a woman. Most experts believe the identification to be erroneous but the Museum of London states it is ‘70 percent probable’ that the Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Hedley Swain, head of early history at the Museum, stated: ”No single piece of evidence says that she is a gladiator. Instead, there’s simply a group of circumstantial evidence that makes it an intriguing idea. She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London.
Last but certainly not least: a (roughly) 2,000-year-old artwork, on display at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein in Hamburg, shows a bare-chested woman in a loincloth brandishing a an object in her left hand that looks like a sica, a short, curved sword associated with a type of gladiator known as a thraex, or Thracian, just like Spartacus! Thracians typically fought in plumed helmets, with small shields and metal leg guards called greaves. Their unarmored backs were particularly vulnerable—and were likely ripe targets for sica.
Experts had previously interpreted the curved implement as a strigil, which Romans used for scraping the body clean. There again… a bare breasted woman cleaning and not performing/fighting yet another (sexist) misconception about female roles through the centuries. The woman’s victory pose, though, does not support the housewife explanation. Reporting his findings in a recent issue of the International Journal of the History of Sport, Manas wrote: ‘No doubt the particular appearance of female gladiators would also cause an erotic impact on viewers’. (see full text here)
So, were female gladiators a trend? A product of shifting hegemonic power? An arousing, sexy spectacle? The reasons for the presence of women in the gladiator scene are largely unknown to us. Some potential explanations could be that spectators were in need of something saucier than the male ludi (gladiatorial games) or that the presence of women was corresponding to the increasing role of women in the emperors’ court. So what is going on there? The argument that females tend to be objectified more males throughout the history of performance, although reductionist, describes accurately certain features of female gladiatorial fights. However, at the same time, in associating and interpreting physical power through the centuries exclusively with males and passivity exclusively with females, if anything, we sadly reinforce binary gender models- certainly not always the case. To bring it back to contemporaneity, the fact the very character of Xena has been received by popular culture as a feminist icon, a female action heroine, creating almost a new genre: altfic, alternative i.e. non-heteronormative fiction puts gendered action heroes into perspective while also perpetuating traditional stereotypes.
Swords and shields, anyone?