There are many archaeological publications about the unique cultural phenomenon of Roman gladiators and the artefacts associated with them, but the recovery of gladiator skeletons is extremely rare and, until now, very few studies have been able to attempt to reconstruct the gladiator diet.
By comparing the mineral composition of bones from a gladiator cemetery in the Roman city of Ephesus with skeletons of the contemporary local population, researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Bern were able to conclude that “Roman gladiators ate a mostly vegetarian diet and drank ash tonic after training”. The question is… how? And why was this the case?
These days, it might be all too easy to assume that such burly warriors would eat large quantities of meat and a protein-rich diet like we do today, but contemporary texts mention a specific diet called “gladiatoriam saginam” consisting of barley (considered to be a poor quality grain leading to the derogatory nickname “hordearii” – barley eaters), vica faba (beans) and explicitly… very little meat.
The researchers used stable isotope analysis of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur (a pretty well-established method in archaeology for collecting important information about nutrition, life history and the migration of past populations) to confirm theories of this vegetarian gladiator diet and compare it to that of the local population. The published results shows that both groups mostly ate a vegetarian diet; meat-free meals consisting primarily of barley, wheat and beans, with little difference in terms of nutrition from the local population.
Next up, however, the researchers compared the ratios of strontium to calcium (Sr/Ca) between the two groups. Unlike the comparison of stable isotopes, the researches found that the Sr/Ca ratio for the gladiator population was twice as high for that of contemporary Romans.
Previous studies of Hopi diets (known to include the consumption of ash) suggest that this shows up in a higher-than-usual Sr/Ca ratio in bone. Although this is a much less tried-and-tested technique than stable isotope analysis, it does seem to suggest that the gladiators had a higher intake of minerals from a strontium-rich (plant-based) source of calcium than the local population.
Interestingly, Roman texts do refer to pyxis (plant ash) as having medicinal qualities, and in his Naturalis historia Pliny the Elder even describes a drink made of stove ashes as something specifically consumed by gladiators after fights and after training to remedy body pain.
Most individuals in the gladiator cemetery exhibited well-healed bone traumas, and much like today when many athletes take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion, it looks like gladiators really may have consumed plant ashes to fortify their body after physical exertion and, perhaps, to promote better bone healing.
So, next time you take a tasty supplement after exerting yourself at the gym, just thank your luck stars… for the gladiators, the victory of surviving another fight probably really did taste like ashes in the mouth… not very pleasant at all.
Source: PLOS One
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