Imagine a group of gladiators eating dinner. What do you see? Your brain probably conjures up images of men with big knives sitting around a large wooden table. Dinner is a pig on a spit roasting over an open fire and legs of lamb, still on the bone. After all, if common dietary knowledge is to be believed, protein is what these muscle-bound warriors needed in their diets.
Keeping this image in mind, if you were to give gladiators a nickname related to their diet, what would you choose? “Hog-swallowers” or something similar? Yet researchers are discovering something radically different. Studies conducted on the bones found at a mass gladiator grave in Ephesus (modern day Turkey) offer us several clues about the diets gladiators followed. Instead of the stereotypical, meat-rich diet we envision, gladiators actually ate an almost completely vegetarian diet.
Contemporary reports referred to gladiators as “hordearii,” which means “barley eaters” in Latin. Archaeologists understand this name to be a reference to the gladiator diet, which was built around barley and beans (their main protein source). Is it possible that the gladiators knew the power diet has on the body? A vegetarian diet is a great way to increase performance and ensure good physical health. After all, men with such occupation would certainly want to perform their very best. Perhaps the gladiators also believed the maxim, “You are what you eat,” and preferred not to end up hewn into pieces of meat.
You may be thinking that gladiators were simply given cheap food since they were going to die anyway, but this is unlikely. Although it was bloody, gladiator combat resulted in fewer deaths than Hollywood would have you believe. Gladiators were actually highly trained athletes who made their living fighting. Fights to the death would have been a poor business decisions for those who owned the gladiators and paid for their training. Of course, some battles were fought to the death, but this was less common. Some of the skeletons found in the Ephesus site, “Showed evidence of healed wounds, suggesting that gladiators received medical treatment, and one (skeleton) seemed to belong to a retired fighter”.
Charcoal as a Natural Remedy
Another interesting discovery is the gladiators’ use of charcoal as a dietary supplement or natural remedy. Historical sources document that gladiators used to drink a mixture of water and ash (from wood or sometimes bone) as a tonic. According to Fabian Kanz, a researcher from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna,the drinks, “Were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing”. Gladiators drinking these tonics would have been, “Less likely to receive crippling injuries and wounds”.
The drinks were successful. Analysis of the gladiator bones found very high amounts of calcium and strontium compared with the bones of the time period’s general population. Today, many athletes take calcium supplements to protect their muscles and bones, albeit in a more pleasant form. The strontium levels are also significant as strontium is being looked at as a way to prevent bone loss and treat osteoporosis. In regards to building strong bones, “It has been found that if strontium is administered, the healing process takes place faster and the bones become more stable”. Dr. Kranz noted, “The Romans may have known more about the human body than we ever thought possible”.
Although we may not use charcoal for bone health today, it is still an effective remedy for many ailments. It is used in emergency rooms all over the world to treat cases of poisoning and can also be used topically to treat a variety of ailments. If you would like to learn more about the uses of charcoal, specifically activated charcoal, be sure to check out our series on the subject.
Although gladiator duels were barbaric, people during this time period were much wiser than we often assume. Just because we live in the 21st century does not necessarily mean we are more competent than people were in the past. Let’s also remember the importance of learning from history, as there are many fascinating lessons (and maybe even diet secrets) just waiting to be rediscovered.
References: “Lost Secrets of Gladiators Revealed by Timewatch.” BBC, February 5, 2007. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2007/05_may/02/gladiator.shtml.  “Did Gladiators Always Fight to the Death? — Ask HISTORY.” History.com. http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/did-gladiators-always-fight-to-the-death.  Ibid.  Lösch, Sandra, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser, and Fabian Kanz. “Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet.” Edited by Clark Spencer Larsen. PLoS ONE 9, no. 10 (October 15, 2014): e110489.  “Lost Secrets of Gladiators Revealed by Timewatch.” BBC, February 5, 2007. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2007/05_may/02/gladiator.shtml.  Ibid.  Ibid.