Roman Gladiators Were Vegetarians, Scientists Say

Forget the Paleo Diet. When it comes to rending flesh from bone, the ancient Roman gladiators stocked up on grains, beans, and a concoction of plant ashes and vinegar in a drink some are referring to as “gladiatorade.”

A team of German researchers studied the bones of Roman corpses found in a 2nd century cemetery and confirmed theories of the gladiators’ vegetarian diet. Using spectroscopy, researchers looked at stable isotope ratios, including levels of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur. They also observed ratios of strontium, a chemical element found in ash, to calcium.

Historians theorized these meatless diets after studying ancient texts referring to the gladiators having their own diet, primarily composed of beans and grains. The gladiators themselves were even referred to as “hordearii,” or “barley eaters.” The title was perhaps given due to the gladiators being fed inferior grains.

The research, conducted by the Department of Forensic Medicine at MedUni in Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, found evidence in the bones to support the theory. Additionally, the findings suggested these meals were washed down with a drink comprised of plant ash and vinegar as a kind of ancient sports drink.

Professor Fabian Kanz, leader of the study, explained the “gladiatorade.”

“Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing. Things were similar then to what we do today—we take magnesium and calcium, in the form of effervescent tablets, for example, following physical exertion.”

The bones studied were from 55 Roman skeletons, at least 22 of which were gladiators. They were initially discovered and exhumed back in 1993 from a gladiator graveyard in the ancient city of Ephesus, which is in now modern-day Turkey. At the time, Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and was home to over 200,000 people.

Despite being depicted in modern fictions such as Russell Crowe’s Gladiator as slaves whose only purpose was to act as meat for the grinder of the arena, gladiators were, in reality, seen as assets to Rome and were well cared-for.

Further research is being conducted to determine the migration of gladiators, who often came from all parts of the Roman Empire to Ephesus. The researchers conducting the study hope to find trace differences in the bone data that yield clues into the local fauna from the gladiators’ place of origin.

What are your thoughts on the Roman gladiators’ vegetarian diet? Is it enough to change your current diet plan? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.