Katniss Everdeen returns to the big screen Friday in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and though she left the arena behind at the end of Catching Fire, she’s still a gladiator at heart.
Or rather, a gladiatrix.
It turns out there is some historical evidence that women may indeed have fought in the Roman games—though not necessarily alongside their male peers, as Katniss does in the Hunger Games, and likely not with such high stakes.
Kathleen M. Coleman, Professor of Classics at Harvard University, says there are accounts of the emperors staging gladiatorial spectacles in which women also participated, and that a decree of the Senate from A.D. 19 forbade both male and female descendants of the upper class from participating in such spectacles. “This doesn’t prove that women were fighting as gladiators,” she says, “but it suggests that the society was afraid that they might want to.”
More famously, a marble bas relief sculpture from between the first and second century A.D. depicts two gladiatrices in battle, with an inscription saying they fought to a draw. They are named Achillia, the feminine form of Achilles, and Amazon, the name of a group of mythical female fighters. It was common for gladiators to adopt epic stage names after their favorite heroes.
Since neither woman died in the fight, the sculpture is clearly not an epitaph, so Coleman says it might have been “something put up in a gladiatorial barracks,” where the fighters lived separately from civilians, “commemorating the sort of greatest hits of that barracks.”
Like Katniss, gladiatrices likely had humble beginnings. While some gladiators did choose of their own volition to take on the profession and thus enter the lowest rung of the social ladder, the majority were slaves. Those who did volunteer were likely in it either for the valor or to escape debts—after all, as Coleman says, “if you can’t own, then you can’t owe.”
Is that really so different from the Girl on Fire, the volunteer from District 12 who sacrifices herself to pay her sister’s debt?
There were many types of gladiators, and each type came with its own weapons, armor and moves. You sometimes might see two styles pitted against each other, Coleman says. “So the one style might be very heavily armed and protected, and will therefore be relatively impregnable—but slow. The opponent might be very scantily armed, and therefore very fast and unencumbered, but vulnerable. These kinds of pairings seem to have interested Romans.”
Katniss might have been at ease in the arena with her weapon of choice: the Sagittarius gladiator was known for using a bow and arrow.
Unlike the young combattants in the Hunger Games, the gladiators didn’t usually fight to the death. Though “occasionally a very poor performance might result in the gladiator losing his life,” Coleman says, losers would often be sent back for more training, and might even have the option to retire.
The odds may not have been ever in their favor, but they sure got a better deal than Rue.