by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Among the most violent organized sports in the world is the Calcio Storico, now held in Santa Croce Square in Florence, Italy. If it could, the crucifix by Cimabue in the basilica nearby would weep at the sight: a bloody, testosterone-fueled melee, players (are any without tattoos or steroids in their system?) punching, gouging, going after a ball and, in some cases, going to court after an especially brutal game. In 1570, the French king Henry III, who saw a match, declared it “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game” (Powell 2015).

Yet the Maya had them beat, as Karl Taube and and Marc Zender (2009) have shown in their pioneering study of “American Gladiators,” the boxers, sap-wielders, eye-gougers, hair-pullers, and eye-socket crushers who combined any and all forms of fierce contact. These contests took place in what we presume to be the arenas par excellence, the ballcourts of Maya cities. The muscled bruisers of the Calcio Storico seem rather to enjoy their punching and smashing, all of them eager recruits to the pain and punishment at hand. But was this true of the Classic Maya?

Taube and Zender provide a key piece of evidence, Tonina Mon. 83 (Figure 1). Mostly found by the French Archaeological Mission on the Fifth Terrace at the site, near Strs. E5-7, -8, and -9, other pieces later came to light in a private collection (Graham and Mathews 1996:113). Additional fragments probably belonged to the same assemblage of carvings (e.g., Mon. 84, 133, Frag. 43). Displaying a series of bound captives, some perched on a running band of their names and dates of capture, Mon. 83  gives more precise information about where they are from (at least one derives from the site of Sak-Tz’i’, in the Usumacinta drainage to the east of Tonina) and who their captor might have been (the very late king known as “Ruler 8” as well as retroactive mention of another ruler, K’inich Baaknal Chahk, about a century before; see Martin and Grube 2000:181–83, 188–289). Probably Mon. 83 was part a composite monument, incorporating an earlier program of sculpture that it strove to copy. The key detail is that the captives are both bound (or bound in part), yet one is abusing the other, pulling his hair while the second figure, a youth (ch’ok), leans back and attempts unsuccessfully to deflect the assault. They seem to be unwilling captives compelled to fight, hampered or restricted by rope. Are they related, as an added misery? The moment is tense, in that fortune has just turned, perhaps, to favor one person over the other. Their bodies, their directed violence–nothing is under their control. They are marionettes of abuse, the outcome amusing or satisfying in some way to their captors.

Tonina Monument 83

Figure 1 Tonina Monument 83 (Graham and Mathews 1996:113, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

There is another twist to the story. The French Mission to Tonina was always prompt in sharing images of new discoveries. It was with some shock to see, in 1981 or 1982, a photograph of Mon. 99, instantly recognizable as a bound woman in the characteristic ripped and cut-out clothing of captives (Becquelin and Baudez 1982:fig. 165). Later, the top of the carving was found, revealing the head of the woman and the verb that describes her “raising” up (to a display platform?), probably during the reign of Tonina Ruler 2 (Martin and Grube 2000:180).


Figure 2  Tonina Monument 99 (Graham and Mathews 1996:99, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University)

A final image from Tonina now completes the picture, again to surprising outcome. This is Monument 148, currently on display in the site museum–it is a large altar, at some 1.5 m diameter–and, like most of the recent finds at the site, without evidence or written mention of its original location (Figures 3, 4, 5; Graham et al. 2006:81). In an earlier publication with colleagues, I had conjectured that this was a scene of a very public rape, somewhat evoking the Roman depredation of the Sabine women (Houston et al. 206:207–8). The text has a precise Calendar Round date, but that is so eroded that one can only make out what appears to be a Mol month (in this area, the month often takes a wa subfix, e.g., Tonina Monument 20:D4). The man is not named, but the female, her breast dangling out of the huipil garment, is clearly the main protagonist and a figure of some importance: the presence of two IX signs indicates a personal name, followed by a title. That the inscription covers her thigh seems consistent, however, with captive status.

Tonina Monument 148

Figure 3  Tonina Monument 148 (sketch by Ian Graham, inking by Lucia Henderson, Graham et al. 2006:81, copyright Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University).


Figure 4  Tonina Monument 148, close-up for Calendar Round, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


Figure 5  Tonina Monument 148, close-up of female personal names, D1, F1, Tonina site museum (photograph by Stephen Houston). 

My impression of erotic violence on this relatively late monument was doubtless correct. But I missed the main point: the format, local visual precedent, the indecorous display of the female, the grappling of hair, and the fact that the elite female holds a sap (a rounded stone) to bludgeon her male opponent force us to an obvious conclusion–that, at Tonina and perhaps elsewhere, females were also compelled to gladiatorial combat. The matching with a male, not, evidently, equipped with a sap, injects some erotic frisson–an added amusement to the captors? Yet her grasp of his hair suggests that she had the upper hand. The moment had turned to her favor.

Long before the Calcio Storico, the Romans opened violent “sport” to women. There is strong evidence, if mostly literary and legal, of female gladiators (ludia [sing.] or “stage performer”). An expensive and ostentatious novelty, prized by emperors, they were far fewer in number than males, yet they shared similar training and expectations (McCullough 2008:197; also Vesley 1998). Many were volunteers, disposed to fight, but there were also some contestants forced into conflict. Both categories of combatant may have existed among the Maya. Nonetheless, at Tonina, the contests projected an air of desperation, wretched for all participants regardless of gender.


Becquelin, Pierre, and Claude F. Baudez. 1982. Tonina, une cité maya du Chiapas (Mexique), Tome III. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisation.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Graham, Ian, and Peter Mathews 1996. Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 2: Tonina. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

McCullough, Anna. 2008. “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact.” The Classical World 101(2):197-209.

Powell, Jim. 2015. “The Calcio Storico, the Most Brutal Sport on Earth–in Pictures.” The Guardian,

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. “American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica.” In Heather Orr and Rex Koontz, eds., Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, 161–220. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Vesley, Mark. 1998. “Gladiatorial Training for Girls in the Collegia Iuvenum of the Roman Empire.Echos du Monde Classique 62:85-93.