What Did Gladiators Eat?

Study reveals gladiator diet was largely plant-based with an ash tonic on the side

“For abdominal cramp or bruises,” states Marcus Varro, and I quote his very words, “your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators after a combat are helped by drinking this.”
Natural History XXXVI.203


Detail of a third–fourth-century C.E. mosaic depicting gladiatorial combat, now on display in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Photo: Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman gladiator calls to mind a fierce fighter who, armed with an assortment of weapons, battled other gladiators—and even wild animals. What did gladiators eat? Roman author Pliny the Elder reported that gladiators went by the nickname “hordearii” (“barley-eaters”) and drank a tonic of ashes after combat (Pliny, NH XVIII.72, XXXVI.203). A study recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE confirmed that gladiators really did eat mostly plants—especially barley and wheat—and may have indeed consumed ashes.

Gladiators were typically enslaved prisoners of war and criminals, though free men as well as women participated in gladiatorial games. What began as a component of funeral rites in the early Roman Republic evolved over centuries into bloody spectacles for the entertainment of the Roman people, reaching their peak in popularity in the second century C.E.

Researchers from the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern and the Medical University of Vienna aimed to investigate how the diet of gladiators compared to the rest of the population. Using spectroscopy to conduct isotopic analysis on the bone remains from a second–third-century C.E. gladiator cemetery in Roman Ephesus in Turkey, the researchers were able to confirm that the individuals buried in the cemetery consumed a mostly plant-based diet—as did the rest of the population in Ephesus.

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Tombstone excavated in the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus. Photo: © 2014 Lösch et al. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110489.g002.

“Gladiators appear to have eaten a diet similar to that of most other occupants of the Roman Empire, and the authors’ isotope data fit well with my own and others’ research into diet in the first few centuries C.E.,” said Kristina Killgrove, bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida, in an email to Bible History Daily.

The study further found that those buried in the gladiator cemetery had higher strontium-calcium ratios than their contemporaries. This suggests that the gladiators at Ephesus may have really drunk a tonic of ashes as described by Pliny (“cinis lixivus potus”).

“Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing,” study leader Fabian Kanz explained to ScienceDaily. “Things were similar then to what we do today—we take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion.”

In an email to Bible History Daily, University of Hawaii at Manoa classicist Daniel Harris-McCoy offers a caution when using Pliny the Elder as a textual source:

“Pliny the Elder is willing to print anything and everything, which makes him fun to read but sometimes hard to use as a source of solid information. He includes wild ‘facts’ about the giant gold-digging ants of India and even talks about ancient hallucinogenic drugs. But the material about gladiators consuming an ash drink seems credible, especially since Varro is his source.”

Read the study in PLOS ONE.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 24, 2014.


Related content in Bible History Daily:

Going Paleo: Prehistoric site in Israel offers menu for a Paleolithic diet

Feeding the Pyramid Builders

A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul


5 Responses

  1. Steuart says:

    After the fights, they had a nice rub down and kicked back with a couple of “light wines”

  2. jeff says:

    What did they do after fights?


  3. ringo says:

    Charcoal is still used as a treatment for ingested poison. What’s the chance they ate charcoal in case they had been drugged before the match?

  4. Kurt says:

    Thrill Seekers—Why the Fatal Attraction?
    IN THE ancient Roman arena, the excited crowds—50,000 strong—were on the edge of their seats. Their anticipation had been building for days as widespread advertising had proclaimed that the events to take place would provide “spectacular thrills not to be missed.”
    While magic shows, pantomimes, clowns, and comedy still drew crowds in local theaters, the events in the arena were very different. The discomfort of the hard seats and the cares of the day would soon be forgotten in the breathtaking thrills to be played out before the eyes of the spectators.
    Now came the singers, followed by the robed priest. Then incense bearers led a succession of idols depicting gods and goddesses, carried aloft for all to see. This gave the events the appearance of having divine blessing.
    Animals Slaughtered
    Now the great entertainment features were about to begin. First, ostriches and giraffes, which few in attendance had ever seen, were loosed in the arena with no way of escape. Scores of skilled archers with bows and arrows slaughtered the helpless animals, down to the last one, to the joy of the thrill-seeking audience.
    The cheering crowds were next treated to a life-and-death battle between two huge elephants whose tusks had been fitted with long, sharp iron spikes. There is thunderous applause as one mighty animal falls to the blood-soaked sand mortally wounded. This scene has only whetted the appetite of the spectators for the main event just minutes away.
    The Main Event
    The thrill-seeking crowds rise to their feet as human gladiators make their appearance in the arena, amid great fanfare. Some are armed with swords and shields and metal helmets or with daggers, and some are lightly armed and lightly clad. They fight hand to hand, often to the death of one or both as the spectators cheer. Records show that at one event 5,000 animals were killed in 100 days. At another event 10,000 gladiators were slaughtered. Still the public clamored for more.
    Criminals and prisoners of war provided a steady supply of manpower for the games. However, states one source, “they should not be confused with the group of skilled gladiators who fought with weapons, who earned considerable fortunes, and who were under no life sentence.” In some places gladiators attended special schools to be taught the art of hand-to-hand combat. Adrenaline flowing, they were caught up in the thrill of the sport and its fatal attraction. The need to fight another day was a dominant passion. “It was a very successful gladiator who completed a career of fifty fights before he retired,” concludes one source.
    You may ask, ‘Who were the gladiators?’ Well, they might have been slaves, criminals condemned to death, prisoners of war, or free men drawn by excitement or the hope of fame and wealth. All were trained in prisonlike schools. The book Giochi e spettacoli (Games and Spectacles) reports that gladiators in training “were always watched by guards and subject to rigid discipline, the severest of rules, and particularly harsh punishments . . . This treatment often led to suicide, mutiny, and revolt.” Rome’s largest gladiatorial school had cells for at least a thousand inmates. Each man had a specialty. Some fought with armor, shield, and sword, others with net and trident. Still others were trained to face wild beasts in another popular type of show, the hunt. Might Paul have been referring to just such an event?
    Show organizers could turn to entrepreneurs who recruited and trained 17- or 18-year-olds to be gladiators. Trafficking in human lives was big business. One exceptional show that Trajan offered to celebrate a military victory fielded 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals.

  5. Bill Lewis says:

    What ages did gladiators live to?

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