What did the gladiators eat?

Roman gladiators depicted in a mosaic in Leptis Magna, Libya

Being a gladiator in Ancient Rome meant first of all working with your body, putting your life at risk in every show. This necessarily meant maintaining constant training and eating a certain diet that could guarantee an ideal state of form.

The image of gladiators that has been built over the years is of men with a sculptural physique - and, consequently, that they ate an adequate diet made up of meat and fish like that of today's athletes - but a series of historical evidences show all 'other. In all likelihood, the gladiators had more subcutaneous fat than one can imagine and their diet had few animal proteins, many carbohydrates and many legumes (the latter fact was typical of the diet of many Ancient Romans).

A group of anthropologists from the University of Vienna made a study of a gladiator tomb in Ephesus, today in Turkey and once an important city of the Roman Empire, analyzing the bodies of 67 gladiators and a female slave (possibly the wife of one of them) buried there about 2,000 years ago. An isotope analysis was made on the remains of these people, which allows us to analyze the presence of some elements and, consequently, to understand something more about their diet.

From this analysis it emerged that the gladiators ate few proteins, many carbohydrates and many legumes (rich in carbohydrates) and a considerable amount of calcium. Legumes were generally widespread in the food of the Ancient Romans and, in addition to this, the gladiators were particularly fond of barley, as is also testified by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, where he calls them hordearii, or "barley eaters".
Pollice Verso, 1872 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

The Ancient Romans, generally known for their frugality at the table (but also for examples of excessive and sometimes gluttonous nutrition, as shown by the figure of Trimalcione), had numerous types of food and not eating meat was typical, for example, of the plebs, that he couldn't afford it. However, this lack of meat in the gladiators' diet is not, according to scholars of the University of Vienna, due to the condition of slavery or poverty of the combatants.

In addition, it should be clarified that although most of the people who fought as gladiators were mainly slaves or prisoners of war, not all were part of these categories, and there were also people (especially ex-military) who freely chose to become gladiators for to gain.

The group of scholars of the University of Vienna has in fact thought that the considerable amount of carbohydrates eaten by the gladiators did not serve to lower the costs of their nutrition, but to gain fat which, on the arena, meant a partial, but still existing - extra layer of protection. If this fact meant an extra defense for the gladiators, it also meant more spectacle for the spectators, who could watch longer shows with less chance of fatal wounds and with more people who could continue the fight even with bleeding wounds.

This fact makes us think that gladiators had very different physicists from those we have imagined over the years, idealizing them. If this happened it is because the Ancient Romans, like us now and all the historical eras that are in between, have always tried to idealize the shapes of bodies in telling them. The ideas of a perfect physique today derive from those of the athletes who competed in Ancient Greece and who were exalted by the Greeks, and the Romans continued to portray gladiators according to those criteria, even if their physique was probably different.

The gladiators, in fact, as well as being a sui generis form of athletes were a source of income for those who managed the organization of the shows. Spectators throughout the Empire were in fact ready to spend money to attend events of this type, and for those who managed them it was important to ensure a show as exciting as possible: nutrition was also needed in this sense.

Proof of this is the fact that, despite their condition of slavery, the gladiators had medical care superior to many other Romans and in their schools, although known for their Spartan discipline, there were bathrooms and infirmaries. If the food contained fat, it doesn't mean it was a way to save money or that they were kept in unhealthy conditions, but it was only functional to their role in the arena.

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