THE INCONCEIVABLE - ASSumptions About the Gladiatrix
Updated: Jun 19
--GLADIATORS HIJACK MY LIFE - How I Started Writing My Gladiatrix
--GLADIATRIX?! - "Gladia-what?" Female Gladiator
--STAMINA - Academia's Opinion of My Gladiatrix Novels
--TAKE THE HIT - Asking Fighters to Critique My Gladiatrix
--JERRY RIGGING - My Intro to Being a Female In Armor
--A YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE - If you haven't read this sex, language & violence content warning with its (non)binary discussion of the Feminine & Masculine polarity, I suggest you do before reading this next series. If you skip it...well...you've been warned.
I have lost friends over my Gladiatrix story. There have been other people who really-really thought they wanted to be my friend, then ghosted me after getting a peek at the undercarriage of my psyche through the lens of my fiction. I have had cracks blasted into the foundation of multiple romantic relationships while letting a significant other read it.
This tale seems to unearth interpersonal issues and incompatibilities that were festering under the surface all along. They're brought roaring up into our faces to be popped and squeezed like pus from a wound. Sometimes we come to an understanding and are better for it. More often, the relational limb needs to be amputated.
That's why, when people beg me for the pages, I warn them. Especially now.
These days it’s got all sorts of explicit sex, with way more non-heteronormative relationships, non-binary characters, and kinky fuckery than it ever did in the early days because I no longer have to do cataclysmic feats of acrobatic language to keep it hidden in code words. And ooooh...the kink is sometimes spiritual!
"Hold yer horse-crops. Kinky sex is the opposite of spiritual! It's sinful! It's evil! It can't be--"
Yes, it can.
We're now way beyond the veiled hints I gave back in the days when I was trying to squeeze this story into the appropriate boundaries of mainstream Speculative Fiction in the 90s through--well, just a few years ago. I guess my gladiators and I have been waiting and waiting...inhaaaale...and waiting for the societal atmosphere to be more conducive to all my sex-, identity-, and feminism-tainted "fantastical tripe."
I have no idea if that time has actually come. Maybe it's far too late, or maybe I will never see it in my lifetime, considering that I got banned from Instagram for putting my dastardly heart and mind to the pen, and I refuse to be yanked around by Amazon's erratic, illogical "dungeoning" whims. (12) But it's certainly closer than it's ever been. The ever-expanding alternatives to traditional publishing and corporate-Titan self-publishing also help a great deal.
Upon finally letting go of my publishing dreams after my 2nd-4th brain traumas, I've just let myself write the way I want to.
😻 Because it's fun. 😻
Writing about violence, on the other hand...now that is a tricky issue.
Undoubtedly my obsession with the Roman world, and especially the amphitheater, came from the very mindsets I was surrounded by when I wrote it. I could not begin to wrap my brains around how people could treat each other, animals, nature--anything--with such callousness and cruelty. I wanted to be Spartacus and lead a rebellion against that. One of the first places I did that was on the page.
As such, you'd think it would be obvious when I say the word "gladiators" that this story is violent. I mean, come on. My primary protagonists and a boatload of the supporting cast double as executioners and entertainers who fight for a living, sometimes to the death. In order to write these characters, I have to dive into the mindset of what could transform a human-about-to-become-fertilizer into someone who would rather kill than be killed. Someone who would rather throw the punch than get punched.
I am, by nature, a pacifistic life-preserver. I even have trouble killing black widows in my house, so where would I stand if I was ever thrown into the arena and forced to fight on threat of execution? I honestly can't answer that. I might choose to become fertilizer.
Having been put on disability from a drunk committing vehicular assault upon me (yes, that's the criminal definition), then being punched in the face by an angry, insulted man, my stance on violence is a question I've been asking myself for a long time. I've been wrestling with it since before I went to kindergarten, so it's no surprise to me that by the time second grade rolled around and I saw that glorious gladiatrix on TV, my psyche had already started trying to figure this out in my most instinctual way: by making up fantastical tales about it.
I have always had an extreme aversion to attacking others. In fact, my steadfast refusal to commit psychological and physical warfare upon the misfits of my class ensured my already teetering social doom. But after too many years of taking it and taking it, I also knew myself well enough to know how easily I could have slipped and fallen across that Dark Side line of no return if I'd let myself hit back while I was terrified, in pain, and enraged. That's why, at my earliest opportunity, I took it upon myself to study this aspect of human existence from people who were trained in it.
I didn't learn how to fight because I wanted to whupp ass. Neither was it for people to fear me so much they would hesitate attacking me. When I started taking karate, I actually kept my lips zipped about my training for a long time. There are ways in which I still do. Even the social, exercise, and recreational benefits that turned martial arts from a necessity and a long-held desire into one of my obsessions were an unexpected bonus.
Nope, I originally wanted to learn how to fight so I could stand a chance at stopping people from doing things to me that I didn't want them doing, with the least amount of damage to myself and them as possible. At its foundation level, this meant becoming better at seeing conflict in its seed form, and either avoiding it or developing the courage to do something about it right then, while it was still small.
Violence is icky territory. It makes me uncomfy. It's perplexxy and vexxy to this day, and it's constantly on my characters' minds. A lot. Um...duh, because my protagonists--antiheroes?--are gladiators.
But people don't believe me. Or something.
They ask me for the pages, they slough off my warnings, and then run screaming from me like I suddenly transformed into a Gorgon out of nowhere.
Originally, I had a champion gladiatrix for a protagonist. Gobs of people found that premise audacious enough (read: stupid, unbelievable, asinine, offensive). Oh. Unless she had supernatural powers to make up for what she didn't have between her legs.
Around here, we refer to this as THE INCONCEIVABLE. (1-6)
This offense was compounded into a triple-whammy by the fact that I am a female writing this fighter-tale, and that I had chosen to write it in the male-dominated genre of Fantasy. (11) I even got sniffed at down the nose-of-condescension at my last writer's conference when a group of guys asked me what I write.
Still patronizing and condescending in 2019.
It's no shocker to me. It took until 2013 when Ronda Rousey signed with the UFC and became the first champion in their new Bantamweight Women's division to finally put a crack in The Inconceivable. (7)
Although Queen Rousey was dethroned in 2015, the gladitrices were here to stay, even earning Main Event status. (6) For the first time in my life, I started finding consistent new readers who didn't bat a skeptical eye at my concept of a champion female fighter. A bunch were even super excited about it. A bunch of those were even male!
And get this. Some of them--greatest miracle of all--weren't trying to get into my pants by encouraging my writing. In other words, lying to me, only to sneer their true opinions when we broke up or they realized they were "stuck" in the Friendzone. (Because it's so awful to put up with my friendship if you don't get to tap ThatAss.)
But even with this cultural shift, a lot of people still turn their noses up when they realize that the way I go about telling this Gladiatrix story isn't the way that they've already seen it told countless times.
Here’s the deal.
I didn’t rewrite the movie Gladiator by putting tits on Maximus. I didn’t write Spartacus With a Snatch. (14) Neither did I write a historical fiction novel about a woman who solely battles other women since that’s the way it was set up in Ancient Rome’s arenas just like it is in the UFC. (6, 7)
I wrote fantasy.
And no. Not the fantasy of that thong slicing up ThatAss. Not the fantasy of those long, skull-crushing legs wrapped around your face as your tongue goes crazy and she throws her sword aside to ride astride your hawt, throbbing member!
I mean, yes, there's some of that. There's butts and bits and thongs and tits. These are gladiators and this is my writing, so there's a bunch of steamy, sweaty fighter-sex in these tales. There are plenty of takedowns and crotches in faces and sand-rolling and sexually charged bodies slamming together.
Duh. Write what you wanna read.
Roman gladiators were also sexual icons so it's part of the profession. (8)
But that's not the point of the story. It's icing. It's yummy dark-chocolate filling squirted into the orifices of the bulk. Sex scenes are merely one of the many life activities that I don't leave to our imagination behind closed doors when what goes down is important to our characters' development and to the plot. (Plus it's hawt.)
But it's not the main event, so I only write short stories in the Erotica genre, not novels. There's way too much fantastical world building and plot in between the steam for that. I am a storyteller in the deep, meaningful, geek-out tradition, just like I do everything else, and my fantasy always has roots in my college major: History.
Amazon & Achillia - Gladiatrices of Ancient Rome
Khutulun - The Mongol Warrior Princess, Undefeated Wrestler & Army Builder
Boudicca - the Celtic Warrior Queen who Ravaged the Romans
Before Wonder Woman - there were Warrior Women
Did the Amazons Really Exist? (with bonus material like the origin of my favorite finger by one of my favorite YouTube history nerds.)
I could go on. And on. If you still need to doubt that The Inconceivable is possible, I really can't help you any further. Perhaps you're still death-gripping outdated myths and omissions from HIStory, and just need to catch up. 👆 (1-6)👇
Me? I've always been working against them, sniffing and sleuthing for any hint of what I felt in my guts and what I suspected from the tidbits I could find in history books--that female fighters in the Roman amphitheaters were a real thing. For the first decade, the breadcrumbs were few and far between.
Back when I first sat at that long table in my high school library, scribbling notes of historical details in preparation to draft the short story of my coed arena battle, we had a few books on Ancient Rome and we had a few encyclopedia sets with small entries on gladiators. Upon transforming my arena fight short story into a novel a few years later, I had the state-wide university’s library system as well as a much bigger public library for research.
In all of this reference material, the most I would occasionally come across were tiny blips about ancient sources citing females in the arena. But they only ever talked about entertainers in the morning and between fights. These were said to be mock battles by “pretty girls and dwarves"--mere titillation or disparaging humor. Not legit combat.
But I had seen that movie in second grade, man, and the idea would not let me go! (🎶 Let me gooooo... It would not let me go-go-go-go... 🎶)
Not like sword-n-sandal movies of the 30s through 70s were the remotest indication of historical accuracy, but the notion was branded into my brain, and something kept telling me in my guts that gladiatrices had been real--that it hadn’t been merely a Hollywood fantasy like Orion Girls and Twi'leks.
Remember that weird stuff I talked about waaaaay back in #6 of the HSP Series: Extrasensory Hypersensitivity? Yeah. This is one of those things I'm talking about. Because I knew what The Academic & Historical Authorities said about it, and I was bombarded by misogynistic pooh-poohing from every direction. Yet somehow, I just felt that females genuinely did fight in the arena.
And so they did.
Lo and behold, in 1996, a grave from Londinium (ancient Roman London) was excavated and the findings were shared a few years later. They’re pretty sure that one of the graves belonged to a gladiatrix from the 1st Century AD. (9) It was an expensive burial for a highly esteemed woman. Yet the grave was placed outside the walled cemetery and mausoleum--outside the customary site for a matron of wealth and status.
So what does that mean? This was the grave of a woman who had carried a social stigma, yet she had amassed riches and enough honors to receive a noteworthy burial. For example, the fact that she was buried with eight oil lamps, half of them decorative, is remarkable.
More remarkable was that her grave not only had three lamps decorated with Anubis, the Egyptian God of Judgment and the Gatekeeper of the Underworld, there was also a lamp showing a defeated gladiator. Another indicator of this woman's ties to the amphitheater was the plethora of incense and burners, specifically cones from the stone pine. In her time period, there was only one place in all of Roman Britain that boasted these specific pine trees beloved of the Romans.
Around the amphitheater in Londinium.
Planting these trees was a common arena practice, as they provided shade for spectators, and the incense helped cover up the stench of gore.
Stone pines - a familiar skyline in Rome, 2004.
Could all this evidence have marked the woman in the grave as a devotee of the Egyptian Goddess Isis? Sure. But this does not exclude her from also being a gladiatrix, as the cult often attracted many fringe members of society. It was that fallen gladiator lamp that pushed archeologists further toward the certainty that she had fought in the arena.
When one of my friends sent me the Discovery Channel special about this grave and the ripples of change it sent through long-held interpretation of gladiatorial history, I leaped and spun and danced for joy, elongating my pointy-fingers to shout, “HAH!” at my decade of detractors. (There may or may not have been another finger involved.)
In some cases, these women didn't merely fight in the arena. In Domitian’s time, gladiatrices were said to have fought at night by torchlight. In other words, they had earned the prestigious spot at the end of the spectacle. Back then it meant the same thing that it means in the fighting rings today.
Female fighters had become the Main Event.
It makes sense. The Romans made a practice of enacting things that were on their political minds through the spectacles on the sands.
The scale is enormous. Trajan, when he celebrated his victory over, effectively, Romania, had four months of celebration day after day, in which 9000 gladiators were occupied and 11,000 animals killed. There was a lot of meat, a lot of carcass to be disposed of. What did they do with them? The humans were presumed to be flushed out into the Tiber. It was a demonstration to the population of, "This is what we do with people whom we don’t like." ...showing off all of the animals to marvel and wonder at, to fear, to be curious about--and then to dominate. They hunted them for the arenas so intensely that they eventually wiped out all of the big fauna of Europe and North Africa. It’s all about predator versus prey. Whether that’s the Roman state going after somebody that is doing something they don’t like or an enemy...or animal upon animal, animal upon criminal, or human upon animal. Rome saw themselves as an island of civilization surrounded by a sea of barbarism and savagery. In the arena it was reversed. The savage world was surrounded by civilization and contained. A flesh-and-blood demonstration of Rome's might.
~Professor Keith Hopkins, King’s College, Cambridge
~Discovery Channel Civilizations: Gladiators
Only a decade before the time of the buried gladiatrix in London, the Roman British Province had been rocked by Boudicca, the Iceni Queen who raised an army against them after officials abused their power over the native peoples, subjected her to savagery, and raped her daughters. In answer, she laid waste to multiple Roman towns, including Londinium. 👆(More about her up there, if you missed it.)👆
👇 (More about the London Gladiatrix and her grave down there.) 👇
Ferocious female warriors were definitely on Roman minds as they rebuilt Londinium, so it would be only natural that this concept should infiltrate the amphitheater they erected as part of the renovations. Control was key after Boudicca's victories, and that meant a higher military presence. What more handy way to provide diversion for soldiers and citizens alike, as well as touting the latest Imperial propaganda?
A stone relief from my trip to the Colosseum in 2004
The Romans also had an affinity for portraying myths on the sands. Another stone relief from the 2nd Century in Halicarnassus (Bodrum in modern-day Turkey) shows a pair of female fighters named "Achillia" (the female version of Achilles) and "Amazon." 👆(More up there about this pair.)👆The Iliad theme doubly makes sense, as the archeological remains of the legendary fallen city of Troy were found in Turkey. (13)
The London gladiatrix brought about a reinterpretation of the two fighters carved into this chunk of stone. It is now believed that the round objects at ground level behind each gladiatrix could be the women's helmets, removed and placed on the ground as a symbol of stalemate, rather than the long-held notion that these objects were the heads of spectators.
If they were spectators, the women's bare-headed presentation has been interpreted by some as evidence that they couldn't have been engaged in a legit fight, but this is not at all a sound assumption. The Retiarius fought with net, trident, dagger, and no helmet. (8) Having a fighter's feminine hair and face bared, along with her breasts, would have helped give credence to the fact that this was the genuine article as advertised, one of those exotic creatures: a gladiatrix. Ooooooh...
Although these two combatants are obviously female, given the names and the bared breast peeking out from behind a shield, this symbolic stalemate theory and the fact that they are shown in the standard armor and stance of legit gladiators gives weight to the notion that this was not a humorous mock-battle between sexy-sexy girls.
Granted, gladiators were the sex symbols of the time, so engaging in an authentic fight wouldn't have stopped bare-breasted female combatants from being titillating.
You can smack me later.
In an entertainment field that constantly had to one-up itself every time they opened the arena, one way to draw crowds would be the elevation of these outrageous, scandalous women too strange to be believed. Gladiatrices were vastly different from the model ideals of Roman femininity. (9) Proper matrons were expected to be chaste and moral, focused on domestic duties and child-rearing. In contrast, the gladiatrix was extolled for virtues customarily reserved for men.
They were reviled for the exact same reasons.
Status was everything to the Romans. One look at the strictly tiered seating of the Colosseum carved it in stark relief. The ringside seats were reserved for the most high-status males and the Vestal Virgins, revered priestesses who tended the ever-burning sacred flame. Status went downhill as one rose through the tiers. The nosebleed seats were reserved for the lowest of the low: slaves and women. (10)
So an athletic, confident female bearing arms and exhibiting virtus--manly courage and excellence? The gladiatrix was a shocking figure, as exciting as she was notorious, as squirm-inducing as she was thrilling. She was an exotic paradox who must have embodied the Roman male's worst fears: that inside every docile matron and dutiful daughter lurked an inner Boudicca just waiting for the right moment to spring free and maul.
As such, early in the 1st Century AD, free women under the age of twenty were banned from entering the arena. Later it was changed to women or men of high status. They must have had people from these demographics stepping onto the sands, otherwise why else would they have needed the bans?
Which brings me to one of my Spock-eyebrow curiosities about the creation of my gladiatrix. The Discovery Channel documentary and other articles about this new archeological evidence in London also confirmed some eery things I had instinctually written all the way back in the first draft of my seventeen-year-old short story.
I hadn't made this woman a slave or prisoner-of-war, like so many people assume that all gladiators were, especially back in 1990. Nope, I had made her a free citizen who chose to fight. And she wasn't merely free. I had made her of high birth, which scads of people have called “unbelievable” but which the documentary confirmed.
Yes, indeed, some of these gladiatrices were wealthy, aristocratic women looking to break the bounds of traditional Roman society, to hack out a life of personal accomplishment beyond the names of their fathers and sons, and to gain financial independence.
Exactly the scenario I wrote when I was a teenager and have refused to change, no matter how many people told me it was too far-fetched.
*wooooo...spooky HSP stuff*
🖕So there, and neh.🖕
I have no idea how my guts knew these things in spite of females being barely mentioned--or not mentioned--in my initial arena research. On the occasions when women were discussed, every bit of information I found prior to 2000 demoted them down to wank-fodder and comedy. This was the main reason I changed my genre from Historical Fiction to Fantasy.
(Okay, I also wanted certain villains to do certain things that I couldn't have done historically, as well as wanting to have certain unhistorical things happen to said villains...ahem.)
If you missed it in previous chapters about this topic:
If you'd like to go on the deep dive with me about all this stuff, here is the Discovery Channel series "Gladiatrix" in 9 parts on YouTube, compiled in a playlist just for our geeking pleasure. My version has Lucy Lawless Her Xena/Lucretia Self narrating, but alas, they've changed it here:
So after watching the documentary, I was left with only two major issues for my novels.
The Inconceivable: disbelief that a female could ever defeat a male in combat. (1, 2, 5...and all those articles up above, because Khutulun wrestled males, and I didn't read that any of those wars segregated their battles by gender. I can hear it now. "Hey, all you people with vaginas, you fight on this hill and y'all with penises over here--" NO.)
The Gladiator Trope.
Said to me by my (ex) literary agent while discussing the fact that I had written an entire fantastical series about my gladiatrix, rather than an 85K word Sparta-porn beach read:
“Listen. Your story is very simple. It’s about a gladiatrix. In the arena. Taking down the Emperor. Period.”
Lips: scraped up from carpet and mashed tight.
Eyebrow: lifted. (No. The other eyebrow.)
Thought by me but not spoken aloud in the efforts of professionalism: Wow. You didn’t actually read my manuscript, did you? You only skimmed enough to act like you were behind me and this story while providing the necessary escort through the door I had already opened when I pitched to this editor. You really just wanted an ambulance-chaser percentage for none of the work. Because if you’d actually read it and if you’d listened to me in our conversations, you would know that this is 100% the opposite of what I’m writing.
That's always been the problem with this story. Not just The Inconceivable, but people's expectations about my character arcs and plotlines. So many people expect me to CGI Xena or Callisto onto all of Russell Crowe's scenes from Gladiator.
I love that movie. But no flippin' way I'm doing that. Y'all know how much I adore Spartacus but I'm not doing it with him either. Suzanne Collins already gave us that with Hunger Games--woot! (14)
Heck, I'm not even writing a story about how a once-weak, pampered girl in jewels and pretty clothes learns to stand up and fight for what she believes in, ultimately smiting the Evil Oppressor: rawr, the end.
My gladiatrix always wanted to be a warrior, but alas, she had tits and a vagina. So she stole any bit of training she could in her youth, and finally set off on that Hero's Quest where the monsters, allies, and obstacles herded her through the arena doors.
Man, that's all backstory. By the time we meet her, she is already an arena champion and she has recently shocked her world by defeating men while disguised as one.
“Ohhhhh, that could never happen. The way a woman moves is too distinctive.”
Huh. Tell that to the men who have confused me for a male fighter on the field. And yes. It happened even more often in my second set of armor--a breastplate subtly molded to accommodate my feminine shape--because by then I was a more competent fighter than in my days wearing those velcroed back-braces.
Oh, yeah - did you know I was in Life Magazine?
Me and my ratty jerry-rig at Pennsic XXIV. 🤣
It’s amazing what someone’s ASSumption will do to the way they view the armored fighter slamming a weapon into their gut with such force it makes them grunt and catch their breath a little. Could only be a dude. Right? (15)
Ohhhhh, but you said Ishavanni is nearly six feet tall! I get it, so she's basically Xena or Korra. With that much ass-whuppery, of course she's a lesbian--
Wait, she likes guys? Like...guy-guys? Yet she can go toe-to-toe and even kick some of their asses? Well, surely none of them like her back.
Ohhhh, then she must be supernatural like Wonder Woman. Cool!
Wait...not a supernatural Glamazon? Are you sure you don't wanna write her more like Maximus or Spartacus in a woman's body?
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--OR: I've written a bunch more about My Obsession with the Gladiatrix
--OR: I've also written about how I started fighting in armor
--OR: You can find all the tales about my martial arts and self-defense experiences HERE.
SOME MORE LINKS about stuff I constantly have to research to write my gladiator tales.
1) Why don't we see male vs. female fights?
7) My original MMA gladiatrix she-ros:
8) The Gladiators of Ancient Rome
-- 10 More Things You May Not Know About Gladiators - especially if all you know is the Hollywood version
--The Insane Real Life of a Gladiator (Bwahaha! He said, "Commode-us.")
--What did the Gladiators wear and fight with? - way more than the Usual Suspects we see onscreen
--The Retiarius--light-armored net & trident fighter
--The Argument: Were Gladiators Vegan? - major carbs, some protein & fats and YES - a mineral-bomb drink made of ash. Yummy. My gladiators have named this concoction "Ass--I mean, Ash Swill."
--Fascinating Facts About Those Ancient Arena Sex Symbols
9) The Gladiatrix
10) Socially tiered seating of the Colosseum
11) That Female Author Crap
--The Fantasy genre's "I don't read female authors" Nonsense - including publishers' and marketing prejudices, and readers’ subconscious bias to consider male authors “better” or “more authoritative” even if they don’t consciously have a gender preference.
--My Novel Wasn't the Problem, It Was Me - a female author pitches the same manuscript under a male pen name and receives abominably different results.
-- "Women Write Family, Men Write War" - The gender-loaded words reviewers STILL in this century subconsciously use while assuming what female and male authors write about.
12) Amazon's illogical, whimsical "dungeoning" of whichever fiction writing content they deem "too adult" this week, even though they sell adult videos and sex toys.
14) A few Gladiator tales
--Roman Empire - Reign of Blood: docu-story of Commodus, the emperor who entered the arena
--The Lightbearer by Donna Gillespie - another gladiatrix
--Mark of the Lion by Francine Rivers - lions and Christians and gladiators, oh my!