Thumbs-Up: A Woman Gladiator in Roman London?
by Josephine Balmer
In 1996, a 2nd-3rd century CE Roman grave was discovered in Southwark London containing some fascinating grave goods of eight clay lamps, one of which shows a fallen gladiator. Three more depict Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead in the Isis cult, who accompanied souls on their journey to the underworld and was often associated with gladiators (all are now on display in the Museum of London). So was this the grave of a professional gladiator? Possibly. But there was one further piece of the puzzle. This was the grave of a woman.
Female gladiators are known from imperial Rome and great excitement followed, particularly in the press, about the idea of one being buried in London. Archaeologists, as they are apt, were rather more wary. Some suggested that the woman could have been simply a devotee of the Games (Juvenal’s Satires reveal that many Roman women followed them avidly). Others concluded that the grave goods suggested a more general belief in the afterlife and the possibility of resurrection, represented by gladiatorial conquests and, in particular, their missio or respite after being defeated: the thumbs-up. In my poem from Ghost Passage, inspired by the grave, I wanted to admit to both possibilities. To keep things open, as poetry can do perhaps more easily than scholarship. The eerily atmospheric remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre, hidden away beneath the Guildhall in the City of London, also provided inspiration.
Gladiator grave lamps, Southwark, London, 220 CE
Even as a girl I was besotted, mesmerised.
For my tenth birthday my father sent me
to the Games. He told me we were Isaics,
Syrians, who honoured the boundaries
between passing worlds, this and the next.
We did not come, he warned, to watch men die
but to rehearse our own, approaching deaths.
I learnt that we all stare through the cracks
of the Underworld. Gladiators report back.
That day I understood how it feels to breathe
by common lungs; how our fear pulses
through a shared vein, a spider’s thread spun
across from warrior to warrior to spectator.
Time passed. Once, somewhere, I gave birth;
my first kill was on account. The rest
without remorse. Thrust by thrust, lunge
by lunge, roar by roar, I matched the men
in battle lust. Now my own death is here.
I light its rusted path with lamps for Anubis
keeper of secrets, weigher of souls. I wait
at his trembling threshold to beg for missio
and redemption. Thumbs up. As I hesitate
in that closing light, I hear the hushed slow
hum of blood. And then walk with courage
from arena into gore-sluiced darkness.