In 1959-1960, Gino Vinicio Gentili, an Italian archaeologist, discovered and excavated the room that became known as the “Room of Gymnasts”, or the “Chamber of Ten Maidens (Sal delle Dieci Ragazze)” in Villa Romana del Casale, an elaborate, heavily embellished Roman villa located about 3 kilometers away from Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
The room had a detailed, Roman fresco, dubbed by scholars as Coronation of the Winner, which illustrates ten muscular women who appeared to be competing in some sort of sports competition, dating back to the 4th century CE.
The women appear to be participating in weightlifting, discus throwing, running, and ball games, all hoping to earn a crown and palm frond, like the victorious athlete center of the bottom row.
There also appears to be a toga-wearing official, holding the prospective prizes to award to the next athlete. Honestly, besides seeing ancient women participating in “masculine” activities, the strangest part is perhaps what these women are wearing.
Yes, these women are wearing “bikinis”, or at the very least, two-piece garments. That’s right, apparently, two-piece “bikinis” were around long before their official invention in 1946 by Louis Réard. Ancient Roman women wore them! In the fresco, their breasts appear to be bound, and they seem to have muscle definition on their stomachs.
Perhaps our previous presumptions of women’s roles in society during the time of Ancient Rome are wrong. History books have taught us that women were not allowed to participate or observe sporting events in Ancient Rome, as they must have been too aggressive and, well, “masculine” for the soft, delicate female. This historic finding certainly challenges that theory.
Who were these women? Were they athletes? Warriors? Bodybuilders? We probably will never know. However, it is reassuring that women who challenge the preconceived notion of what women should be may have existed during ancient times. And they have muscles, a physical feature that has long been reserved for our masculine counterpart, to boot!
Perhaps women weren’t as powerless and subservient during ancient times as society would like us to believe. Even though we’ll never know who these women are, we can still learn how to display the mighty strength within all of us from these women, whether they really lived or not.
We are powerful, have always been powerful, and we should feel empowered to share that force with the world!