Gladiatrix is set in the 2nd century, at the height of the Roman Empire, whose rulers were a discordant mix of classical learning and extreme cruelty. Under Domitian the spectacles of human slaughter have grown to epic proportions, and each sponsor of gladiatorial games seeks novelty. Set in the Eastern Mediterranean, Gladiatrix explores the world of female gladiators.
Lysandra is an educated Spartan warrior priestess who is captured by Lucius Balbus, the owner of a school for female gladiators in Asia Minor. Lysandra overcomes the shame of slavery to become a skilled and ruthless gladiatrix. The crowds love her stubborn hubris and she attracts the attention of Sextus Frontinus, the region’s governor. Within the palisade of the school, Lysandra finds the love and hate of both men and women; the resolution of these conflicts drives the plot at a cracking pace.
Whilst Lysander is the dominant voice in the narrative, the story offers several other points of view; this lessens the intensity of Lysander’s emotional turmoil, but does offer external perspectives on her plight. What to us are small acts of kindness are depicted as important in the world of powerless slaves. The portrayal of the training regime, the slums in towns and the crowded arena felt genuine. I sweated and feared in the heat of the day and expired in the cool evenings.
Whitfield adopts a violent vocabulary in keeping with the vicious nature of the gladiatrices’ way of life. Sexual encounters are an escape from the imposed external persona, rather than the lynchpins of developing relationships. His descriptions of combat are highly charged and exciting. The violent narrative and brutality of the characters imposes an authentic distance between the present day reader and the 2nd-century gladiatrix.