Subsequent fights and constant effort required the gladiator’s body to receive the right amount of food with the right nutritional values. We know about what ancient gladiators ate thanks to discoveries from Turkey and ancient records.
Lots of carbohydrates
In 1993, in Ephesus (western part of Turkey), the former capital of the Roman province of Asia, an ancient burial ground was found, where, according to researchers, gladiators were buried. A total of over 60 people were buried in the cemetery, of which 22 gladiators and 31 other people buried on the spot, not fighting in the arena, were examined. Researchers conducted detailed studies of the bones and skulls of the buried bodies for comparison purposes1. The conclusions were surprising: the gladiatorial diet was, in today’s view, very vegetarian and high in carbohydrates; or rather low in protein. After the isotope analysis was performed, it turned out that the gladiators, compared to the rest of the city’s inhabitants, ate much more vegetables and less meat. Hence the colloquial term for gladiators – hordearii used by Pliny the Elder, meaning “barley-eaters”2.
Moreover, gladiators were not perfectly muscled men, with an impeccable figure in our opinion, but rather had significant amounts of fat. We also have sources describing the catering of gladiators. It is, for example, Galen, a Roman medic, who in 159-161 CE he worked in a medical school that looked after the health of gladiators in Pergamon (now western Turkey). Galen mentions that gladiators ate mainly barley (either in the form of a pudding or with water as a drink) and legumes (such as broad bean soup). Another type of meal was broad beans mash (vicia faba) mixed with peeled barley3. Dried fruit was also eaten. Food was easy to prepare and cheap. Carbohydrates allowed the gladiators to fill their stomachs and provide the necessary energy for exercise and fighting in the arena.
Scientists believe that such a diet was aimed at acquiring significant amounts of subcutaneous fat. It was extremely helpful in the arena because it protected the most important parts of the body, such as ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels from cutting. It guaranteed a better spectacle for the masses, as the gladiators were injured, you could see cut and bloody bodies, and yet they were still fighting in the arena.
Coming back to Galen – we know that as medicus he was able to save two gladiators when as many as 60 of them died during his predecessor. Working at the gladiators’ school was a huge challenge for Galen, but also an important lesson that taught him tops. His vast knowledge of anatomy enabled him to become the personal physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
However, a diet based on grain products (the so-called sagina or gladiatoriam saginam) caused significant calcium deficiencies. To maintain strong bones, a special decoction of charred wood (or plants) and bone ash, which was very rich in calcium, was drunk. In this way, the bones could heal faster and were much more durable. Compared to the bones of other inhabitants of Ephesus, gladiators had really strong bones. So it was an early form of supplementation.
In the evening before the fight, the gladiators feasted together (cena libera) as part of their family, which on the one hand was to be a form of relaxation and a possible farewell to the world in case of failure. At that time, the menu was probably more sophisticated and supplemented with meat (venison, pork, fish). Interestingly, Plutarch mentions that the food was good, however gladiators were not very interested in it. Perhaps it was due to the stress before the fight.