Gladiators were vegetarian carbo-loaders

Trident holes in a gladiator's skullThere is only one known gladiator graveyard. It’s in Ephesus, Turkey, and dates to around 200 AD. More than 60 gladiators are buried in a small cemetery on the road to the Temple of Artemis.

A study of the bones interred there has turned up some unexpected facts about the gladiatorial diet. No feasting on entire sides of beef whatsoever.

Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men.” Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”

They made up for the inevitable calcium deficiency by taking vitamins. Since it was then instead of now, the supplements took on the form of something disgustingly unpalatable: brews of charred wood or bone ash. It did the trick, though. The bones found have enormously higher concentrations of calcium than the general population.

Knee perforated by 4-point daggerThe skull bones indicate gladiators received serious but non-fatal head blows often, despite the fact that all of the combat styles but one used helmets. Three of the skulls had holes from a trident in them.

The marks of a four-skewer dagger found in a knee bone explain how this weapon — heretofore only known from inscriptions — was actually used.

10 thoughts on “Gladiators were vegetarian carbo-loaders

  1. Why do they think gladiators were fat? Wouldn’t they burn off calories with their extensive exercise? Modern vegetarian athletes like Carl Lewis are not fat and none of the ancient images of gladiators show them as fat. Perhaps they were just “carb loading” for energy on a grand scale. The ‘fat’ characterization seems more a modern bias and not based on evidence.

    1. I’m not sure what modern bias you mean exactly, but perhaps the paleo-pathologists overstated the case, or used “fat” in a colloquial way to indicate gladiators were probably not skin and sinew like they are in the movies today.

  2. I just stumbled across this blog looking for stuff on gladiators. I find it funny that the writer assumes high carb diets make someone fat. As a college athlete a few years ago I can tell you how important high carb diets are for athletes as you need the energy (so are high calorie diets for that matter). To say gladiators were fat can’t even be considered a nomenclature error. Olympic sprinters require high carb diets for energy as much is needed, yet they’re not fat (funny how that works isn’t it?). I find it hard to believe that many gladiators would’ve been fat considering their rigorous training. High carb diets do not lead to weight gaining as they’re for energy, high calorie is another story however. You can do simple google searches and discover that high carb diets are not weight gaining diets. Anyways, thought I’d point that out as it somewhat casts a confusing shadow over our perceptions of what gladiators must’ve been like.

  3. The comment made by brian is correct. I, too, was a college athlete, and became a body builder. (No, I do not look like those stereotypical mountainous freaks you see on those body-building competitions. Nor am I nearly as strong as those guys on those strongest men competitions either. There is one thing brian did get wrong: such a diet (depending on the type of excercising you do,) does lend itself to gaining weight. But if you are into weight training, those plant proteins help you to put on more muscle, while the carbs are used for the energy before your body burns the protein.

    Also, the notion that being fat somehow deadens pain caused form a knife or sword wound in battle (indeed, the nation that fat people feel less pain than skinny people) is totally unfounded. And quite frankly, I find it rather discriminatory. It would be like saying black people feel less pain than whites. It just simply is not true.

    In fact, the reverse is actually true: The fatter a person is, the more sensitive they would be to pain.

    I am not sure where this notion about how the human body works has come from. Did the scientists who found the findings of the gladiatorial diets give this information to the author, or did the author of the article just state these notions in an incomplete OP-ed piece?

    If the former, are those scientists experts in health an nutrition? It seems to me they wouldn’t be, because that is not necessarily their field of expertise. If the latter, well, all I can say is: watch what you read, and do not believe a single word a writer writes. (See: The so-called “Penn State scandal” and the Duke Lacrosse team. There are a lot of talking heads out there who hand out judgements not based on any feasible facts. Everyone seems to have something to say and the desire to express their own unfounded opinions.)

  4. You should be ashamed of your self go back a try to find a fat gladiator in the history texts, yes they were vegans and they got there calcium from plants you lost me thank you. Fat gladiator jajajajajaja shure!!!!!!

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