Breakfast of Champions… Roman Gladiators Ate Vegetarian Diet Washed Down With Plant Ash


Researchers from the MedUni Vienna examined bones from a 2nd century gladiator cemetery (pictured) in Ephesus, Turkey. Using spectroscopy, stable isotope ratios were investigated in the collagen of the bones, and results show that gladiators mostly ate a vegetarian diet and drank a ‘tonic of ashes’ like a sports drink after exercise.

These days, city workers power through the day fuelled by caffeine, athletes by energy drinks, body builders by protein shakes and celebs by an endlessly bizarre combinations of super foods and crazy diet regimes. Now, archaeologists think they’ve unlocked the secret diet that helped gladiators keep their strength up.

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?

Beans, beans good for the heart

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.

Ash, ash good for the bones

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.

A diet fit for gladiators

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

Love archaeology?

DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!


Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

Read more from Maiya Pina-Dacier +

Get Dig Mail

Keep up with the latest fun, facts & features from the world of archaeology.

Easy opt-out at any time - Privacy Policy

Archaeology / In Your Hands

Courses for anyone who wants to learn more about archaeology, and have fun while they're doing it!

Archaeology Courses

Our fab archaeology merch: dig team tee-shirts, Tatty Devine jewellery range, tote bags, and more!

Archaeology Shop