The thing that’s easy to forget about history is that so much of it is bullshit. It’s the result of modern people trying to piece together the past from fragments, all of it skewed by their own point of view. And that screwed-up understanding of the past changes how we think about the present.
For instance, we assume ancient women probably didn’t fight wars or make art because we didn’t allow women to do so until embarrassingly recently. But, it turns out that archaeology has proven a whole bunch of our assumptions to be wrong, which — in addition to tricking Nazis into melting their own faces off — is exactly what archaeologists are supposed to do. Thanks to them, we know that …
#1. Women Fought as Roman Gladiators
Most of what we know about Roman gladiators comes from the movie Gladiator — male slaves and criminals were forced into the Colosseum to maim each other to death, as a means of entertaining the populace and finding a use for all of the exotic animals that the Romans collected like Pokemon. There was one woman in Gladiator, but she got to ride in a chariot and shoot arrows at all of the other gladiators, so that hardly counts.
The gladiatorial arena wasn’t just a meat grinder for male slaves with rippling abs. In fact, many of the people who participated in history’s most notorious blood sport were volunteers — trained soldiers and politicians looking for a little extra street cred. And, as it turns out, plenty of them were women. Written records of female gladiators are persistent, but sparse, almost as if the Romans didn’t think the concept was so bizarre that they needed to specify when the combatants were women.
Lady gladiators weren’t the result of some particularly progressive emperor who believed in gender equality in death sports, either. It was quite the opposite — women’s participation was the norm for 200 years, with evidence of various restrictions (no direct female relatives of a general or a senator could be recruited as gladiators, for instance) until Emperor Septimius Severus finally banned it, possibly because he had a cousin or something that got his ass chopped off by Lucretia the Crusher.
So, why haven’t you heard about this before now? Well, this serves as a nice example of how this kind of unintentional exclusion works: When archaeologists dug up this statue of a female gladiator, threateningly brandishing some kind of weapon in a victorious warrior pose, they originally described it as “a cleaning tool” — because cleaning is a thing that women do. And, if you’re going to clean something, you might as well do it with the power of Grayskull.
Then, back in 2000, archaeologists discovered the grave of a decorated gladiator, but were confused when they saw that the body inside was female — as if a woman had accidentally fallen in the grave by mistake.
This isn’t to suggest that the Romans were any less of an aggressively patriarchal, chest-thumping society of dudes, only that they had a surprisingly equal-opportunity attitude about who could be thrown into a pit to get their head bashed in with a mace for the sake of entertainment. But, for about two thousand years, we have had a really hard time wrapping our heads around that idea. Likewise …
#2. Women Samurai Were More Common Than You Think
In feudal Japan, the samurai were gruff, honor-bound, and invariably male badasses marching single-mindedly toward poetic deaths. This was a society in which women were often relegated to the caricature of demure, heavily painted geishas, whose most important wartime responsibility was crying over their dead fathers/brothers/husbands. But, under no circumstance could they actually join the men in the fight as equals — female samurai just weren’t culturally acceptable at the time, sort of like when people briefly tried to wear their clothes backward in the wake of the heavy Kriss Kross influence of the early 1990s.
Women in feudal Japan would fuck shit up. They were raised with the same Bushido code as their male counterparts — death before dishonor, which basically means “never be taken alive” (women always had daggers at the ready for the specific purpose of lancing them through either an attacker’s chest or their own hearts at a moment’s notice). They didn’t just fight as the last line of defense in an emergency either — DNA analysis of the victims of one particular battle, the battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580, showed that 35 of the 105 bodies tested were female. So, almost one-third of the warriors killed in that fight were packing ovaries.
Upper class women in feudal Japan were actually taught a different form of martial arts than men, specifically training in the use of a type of spear tipped with a curved blade, called a naginata. This doesn’t mean that women were any less deadly, just that the specific method of murder-training received was dealt out along gender lines and according to particular strengths (for the same reason that you wouldn’t give Johnny Hatchetslayer a baseball bat). Wives of samurai were expected to know every bit as much about warfare as their husbands and would sometimes even follow them into battle if the situation demanded it — aka, “if they didn’t feel like staying home to manage the estate while their husbands were out stabbing things.”
It was actually a law that a military commander’s wife would assume command if her husband was absent from duty. By way of analogy, if the president of the United States was kidnapped by ninjas, the line of succession would not go to the vice president, but to the first lady. In fact, one of the more popular samurai legends in Japan is that of Tomoe Gozen, a 12th-century female samurai known for straight-up lopping motherfuckers’ heads off.
But, to this day, say “samurai,” and whoever is listening is going to automatically picture a dude. That’s a real shame — children could really benefit from learning about a heroic lady role model who dealt out powerful life lessons in the form of righteous decapitations.