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What did gladiators eat?

Gladiators are a true myth of ancient Rome, very detailed accounts of their lives have arrived, in recent years, in particular, the world of cinema and television have made us excited about these men with great physical strength who they got involved for social redemption.

There were two types of gladiators, prisoners of war, slaves and condemned men who a sentence forced to fight in the arena, usually, sword fighting without specific prior training, which meant certain violent death.

Then there were the professional gladiators, who obtained adequate training, exercise, fighting first with puppets, then with fake weapons and are after adequate training with real weapons, who could through combat demonstrate their ability to reintegrate socially.

We do not know if the latter were gladiators by their choice but most men who had nothing to lose.

There are various historical publications on the phenomenon of Roman gladiators while the recovery of human remains from gladiators is extremely rare. Presumed fighters have only been found in some excavation sites: Pompeii in Italy, Eboracum (York, UK) Augusta Treverorum (Trier, Germany) and Patrensis (Patras, Greece).

In 1993 during an excavation in Turkey in Ephesus a group of researchers came across a real gladiator cemetery from the 2nd – 3rd century BC, most of the people of this site had been subjected to trauma, the model of the traumas were compatible with the regulation of gladiator fights, so we wanted to check if it was possible also considering the perfect shelf life of their bones.

Historical sources report that the Roman population was highly stratified and each population group had a different diet. Historical texts tell us about a specific diet called gladiatorial Saginaw for gladiators which included barley and beans, in fact, gladiators were called with the name of hordearii (barley eaters).

The study aims to verify whether the diet of the gladiators was different from the diet of the other inhabitants of Ephesus. Using spectroscopy, stable isotopic ratios (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) were examined in bone collagen, together with the proportion of calcium strontium in the bones.

The analysis showed that all individuals ate plants such as wheat, barley, millet, and legumes.

Barley has always been the most used cereal by the Greeks and Romans, it grew at all latitudes, it was easy to store and transport, wheat was later established, as richer in gluten it was more suitable for a bakery.

The use of millet instead was widespread for food in all countries of the Mediterranean coast from North Africa to the Turkish coast, in the early Middle Ages millet was used as a substitute for meat during the period of religious food restrictions such as lean days, it will then replaced by more profitable cereals in the late Middle Ages, leaving millet for animal use even if the tradition of eating millet has not completely disappeared.

What surprised a little in the bones of the gladiators were the low nitrogen values, which according to the researchers indicates few animal proteins such as meat and dairy products, from the analyzes it seems that the gladiators followed a mainly vegetarian diet similar to that of the rest of the Ephesus population was easier to find traces of proteins derived from fish, easy to say Ephesus was on the sea.

This figure should not be surprising as the consumption of meat and dairy products in large quantities is modern history, animals were bred for fieldwork, only those who were devoted to sheep farming or hunting had more easily the opportunity to eat meat Furthermore, it was necessary to eat quickly as there was no possibility of storing food.

According to some sources the Romans suffered from gout due to the consumption of too much meat, in reality, we are not talking about all the Romans but about the noble Roman families, whose eating habits were different from those of ordinary people.

It was possible to notice a difference between the gladiators and the inhabitants of Ephesus regarding the intake of mineral salts, second researchers are to be found in a drink of which there are several historical citations as in Pliny the Elder an ash-based drink used as a remedy for pain. It is said that they were the ashes of plants used to strengthen the body after exercise and to promote better bone healing.

It seems according to the researchers that these ashes dissolved in water also brought other minerals such as calcium and magnesium, in particular, the zinc of which the diet of the gladiators was supposed to be poor.

Correct to mention other sources more than anything else literary on nutrition, we keep in mind that the study was made in Ephesus and not in Rome that according to which gladiators were not given meat as of a lower social status, as well as barley and legumes, barley buns rich in oil and honey were given to give immediate energy in the near moment of the fight or infusions of fenugreek to feel less pain.

The conclusion of the study published on PlosOne indicates the concrete possibility that the gladiators’ diet was a vegetarian diet, the lower presumed intake of meat and dairy products are compatible with the nutrition of the May part of the population of Ephesus, interesting that contribution of salts minerals sign that the physical activity of the fight was evaluated as a wasteful activity that needed more mineral salts, a bit like today’s athletes.

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