by Russell Whitfield

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Gladiatrix by Russell Whitfield, book cover Some who relish violent video games may enjoy Gladiatrix, which borrows superficial aspects of the first century Roman world for a story reminiscent of the XXX "women in prison" movies of decades past. Whitfield has studied Wikipedia entries about Roman gladiators and gets some of the details right. He makes little attempt, though, to portray the authentic spirit of the ancient world, blithely ignoring details that don't suit his story, such as recent scholarship showing that the majority (around 80%) of gladiatorial combats did not end in the death of a gladiator.

The plot is simple for such a long novel. Lysandra, formerly a Spartan priestess (of a religio-military sect Whitfield invented for the novel), is forced into slavery in a gladiatorial school that specializes in training female fighters. Abrasive and supremely arrogant, Lysandra is repeatedly threatened with rape and mayhem by a brutish male trainer with scant regard for his employer's monetary investment in her. (He is the only black character, and the descriptions of him carry unpleasantly racist overtones.) After some hot lesbian sex, she also makes an enemy of a jealous rival gladiatrix.

From chapter 1, it is clear what the novel's climax is to be: Lysandra and her rival are to be pitted against each other in the arena in a grand orgy of bloodshed. Meanwhile, the novel meanders through scenes of sexual humiliation, rape, consensual sex, lesser gladiatorial combats, and team-spirit bonding. (2008, 437 pages, including an author's note separating history from fiction)

More about Gladiatrix from Powell's Books

Other novels about gladiators:

Sand of the Arena by James Duffy (2006), about a wealthy Roman, enslaved after a disaster, who becomes a gladiator to win his freedom; #1 in a series. More info

Gladiator by Dewey Gram (2001), a novelization of the 2000 film starring Russell Crowe as a Roman general who becomes a gladiator to avenge his family's murder. More info

Caligula by Douglas Jackson (2008), about an elephant trainer and a gladiator who become involved in a plot to kill the insane Emperor Caligula. More info

A Gladiator Dies Only Once by Steven Saylor (2005), a short story collection in which the title story involves a gladiator; Saylor is a student of Roman history who portrays the alien culture of ancient Rome both authentically and gracefully. More info

Nonfiction about gladiators, male and female:

Gladiatrix: The True Story of History's Unknown Woman Warrior by Amy Zoll (2002). More info

The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport by Fik Meijer (2007). More info


"Roman Gladiators Were Fat Vegetarians" by Robert Koch at ABC News in Science.

"Female Gladiators of the Ancient Roman World" by Steven Murray in Journal of Combative Sport.

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