The modern image of the Gladiators is one of contradiction. We see them as freedom fighters and as slaves, as victims of gruesome spectacle, but also practitioners. And while there is some truth to this, the image of a lean, oiled and blood-thirsty brute is not.
First introduced by the Etruscans, but made famous by the Romans, Gladiators appear in the historical record in Rome as early as 264BC. While the popular image of Gladiators as slaves is true, many other peoples also became Gladiators. Criminals (damnati ad ludos) were sentenced to death for the adoration of the crowd in the arena. Free men (auctorati) also joined up, particularly in the later Roman Empire, hoping to win glory and fortune. Prisoners of War also fought in the arena, comprising a large amount of the staggering numbers that fought and died for sport. Emperors and senators even fought sometimes, most notably Commodus who boasted he was undefeated for a thousand bouts.
Despite the lowly rank of Gladiators, evidence from a mass grave in Ephesus (north-western Turkey today) suggests that Gladiators ate well by the standards of the time. Over sixty individuals were found in at the site, all showing sights of injury and grizzly ends, but, perhaps more surprisingly, giving us a glimpse into the diet of these original pop-culture icons.
Isotopic analysis, a method of measuring chemical elements in bones, shows that Gladiators were, for the most part, vegetarians. What’s more, far from the lean, toned and rippling muscles we’ve come to expect, many were what we would call stocky, perhaps even a little chubby.
The reason is quite simple — they ate a very carb rich diet. Accounts of the day often refer to Gladiators as hordearii or ‘barley men’ and it is said one of their staple meals was barley and beans. They are also recorded eating various other vegetables and legumes of the day, but very little in the way of meat. While this may appear to be a cost cutting measure, and indeed there was likely an element of this, there are other reasons why this made sense for Gladiators.
The extra layer of fat that Gladiators developed as a result of their carb heavy diet was an excellent way of providing more protection in combat. Essentially, the layer of fat results in less sensitive nerve endings and ensure that if a Gladiator is say, slashed with a sword or stabbed, that the wound isn’t as deep.
Since the life of the Gladiator was ultimately at the whim of the Emperor and the crowd, he needed to put on a good show. Any Gladiator that went down from one blow would be guaranteed no mercy from the mob, his life snuffed out for not putting on a good show. The extra layer of fat would allow them to keep fighting longer, putting on a good show with their spilt blood, but avoiding serious injury and perhaps making the crowd merciful.
Secondly, if he survived the fight, which most Gladiators did despite common wisdom, he had a much greater chance of recovery. It’s known that Gladiators were given far superior medical treatment to the average Roman of the day and many did indeed survive some horrific injuries. More fat meant that the Gladiators were more likely to recover and thus more likely to live to fight another day, a benefit to both them and their owners, suggesting that they were both well aware of the link between diet and performance.
But while the vegetarian diet of Gladiators was guessed at based on ancient texts, what was much less understood was how they managed to get their calcium. The intense physical requirements of being a Gladiator required strong bones and the discovery in Ephesus finally clarified what until then had been suspected hearsay.
It’s likely that Gladiators got most of their calcium from a drink concocted of charred wood, bone ash and plant ash. Long thought to be a myth, the evidence now suggests that this revolting concoction was indeed consumed to foster bone development and strength. It was often taken after a bout, so it can be crudely compared to today’s protein shakes after a particularly life-threatening workout.
The rare occasions they did eat meat were few and far between, but likely occurred at banquets. Called coena libera or ‘public banquet’ by the Romans, the Gladiators were invited to eat and drink their fill at what could very likely be their last meal. It’s not too much to imagine that as Gladiators being less associated with religious festivals and more with the politics and power of Rome, an element of showmanship was developed by their patrons as to how lavish these feasts could be. Essentially, ‘I can afford to feed my Gladiators meat, can you?’
At a time when the majority of Rome also ate a vegetarian diet, through financial necessity, not choice, this last meal might have been the best these men had ever eaten.
Why we have an image of the Gladiator as a lean, oiled, demi-god-like figure can be attributed to people of the day’s desire to idolise the perfect form. A kind of continuation from ancient Greece’s ideas of beauty, the lean, muscular, slightly feminine form of the perfect male came to be applied to everyone. Statues of Gods, emperors, thinkers, and yes, Gladiators all slowly adopted this form. Ironically, this form would have meant almost certain death in the arena; muscle and sinew, are little protection against the sword, abs and high-cheek bones do nothing to withstand a hammer blow.
The life of a Gladiator may have been brutal, cruel and challenge our modern understanding of the Romans being any kind of civilising force, but what is clear from the remains of Gladiators found is that many did live a good life, some even earning their freedom. Life and death at the whim of the crowd turned these soldiers of the arena into hardened warriors, but warriors take many different forms, and, for Gladiators that form was far closer to ‘the dad-bod’ than any modern-day gym bro.