Gladiators are a popular topic of modern-day movies. The idea of athletic, ripped men fighting to the death seems to have a certain appeal to us.
But what did Roman Gladiators eat to fuel their bodies for the fights on life and death? And were the Gladiators really as muscular and ripped as movies like to portray them?
Let`s find out!
The diet of a Gladiator was mostly plant-based and high in carbohydrates, mostly barley (earning them the nickname Hordarii (Barley-eaters). On special occasions, they would also eat meat. A higher bodyfat-percentage was the goal since the body fat offered an extra layer of protection.
What did Roman Gladiators eat?
In contrast to popular myth roman gladiators were not vegetarian. They also ate meat. But since meat was more expensive than grains they would only be able to eat it on special occasions.
By the way, gladiators didn`t differ in that aspect from the vast (poor) majority of free Romans.
Do you want to find out more about how the gladiatorial games and the opportunity to eat meat were linked for the roman poor? You can find the answer here in my article.
Special occasions on which gladiators could eat meat were for example the feasts before the gladiatorial games. Click here for my article with more information on how the gladiatorial games worked and how the feasts fit in.
It was common that the gladiators who would fight the next day would have a last public meal together. During that meal, they would consume meat, sweets, and alcohol.
But they would also be watched by the public since the feast gave the spectators a good idea of the gladiators’ physical condition. It is important to realize that gladiator fights were extremely popular. And betting on what gladiator would win a fight was even more popular.
By the way, I wrote an entire article on how gladiators actually fought and how the actual fighting style didn`t have a lot to do with the style that is shown in movies. You can check it out here. There you can also find reenactment videos of gladiator fights.
The bulk of the gladiatorial diet was vegetarian.
The main food that a gladiator would consume was called Ptisane. Ptisane is barley slime that was usually cooked with beans or lentils for extra protein.
Gladiators even got a nickname from their massive consumption of barley: They were called Hordearii, which can be translated to barley porridge eaters. Source.
But why would gladiators be fed with grains that were seen as less quality than wheat?
A good example of the lower reputation of barley can be found amongst the Roman military.
Every legionnaire would normally get a ration of wheat. Getting barley rations instead of wheat rations was a popular way of punishment for minor offenses.
The reason why gladiators would be fed barley is probably quite boring: Barley was usually used as fodder and as such was much cheaper than wheat.
Since training and selling (or renting out) gladiators was a business it is not surprising that the entrepreneurs (the so-called lanista) would try to keep the costs for food as low as possible. But that doesn`t mean that the diet was neglected!
You can find out more about how gladiators trained here in my article.
The isotopic analysis of bones and teeth that were found at a gladiatorial graveyard in Ephesos gave historians a huge insight into the diet of a gladiator:
While the diet mainly consisted of barley, beans, lentils, and bread gladiators would also eat vegetables, fruit, and a special drink made of ash.
The ash drink
That ash drink was used like a modern-day tonic drink after exercise. The main problem with that kind of mostly vegetarian diet is that the gladiators would not have consumed a sufficient amount of calcium.
But isotopic analysis shows that gladiators had much higher levels of calcium in their diet than the average roman.
There are two possible explanations:
1. Gladiators would eat much more dairy than the average roman.
The problem with that thesis is that the gladiatorial diet is pretty well documented. And doesn`t show the number of dairy products that would be necessary.
2. Gladiators did get their extra calcium from another source.
That other source is the famous ash drink. Gladiators would drink plant ash mixed with water and vinaigrette to help their recovery after training.
Now the concept of drinking a mixture of ash, vinaigrette, and water probably doesn`t sound too tempting to you (at least not to me). But when you think about the types of supplements that modern professional athletes use it doesn`t sound so unappetizing anymore.
So the diet of a roman gladiator mainly consisted of barley, beans, and lentils. Vegetables and fruits enriched the diet and the ash drink made sure that gladiators would get enough calcium.
The main goal of that kind of carb-loaded diet was to provide the gladiator with an extra layer of body fat. And that leads us to the next question: What was the physique of a Roman gladiator like?
Physiques of Roman Gladiators
The Media and Hollywood loves to portray gladiators as huge, jacked men with six-packs and veins on their arms. But that depiction does not represent how real gladiators looked.
Now don`t get me wrong, gladiators were in excellent physical shape, but they weren`t ripped!
And there were good reasons why a gladiator would not be ripped.
The first reason is pretty simple.
Anybody who has ever dieted knows that the physical strength and performance dwindles the lower the body fat percentage gets. Now that is not necessarily a problem when you are the average modern gym member who just wants to look good.
But it is a problem if you are training for a fight that could end in your death! Do you wonder if all gladiator fights ended in the death of one of the fighters? You can find the answer here in my article!
The second reason is that it was just not necessary. Gladiators did not have weight limits like modern-day athletes. And they weren`t judged on their appearance like modern-day bodybuilders.
A gladiators` job was to fight and to fight in a way that excited and entertained the spectators. These spectators would look upon the fighters from their seats.
Most of the viewers wouldn’t even be close enough to tell if a gladiator had a six-pack anyway!
The last and probably most important reason is that body fat functions as protection.
In order to classify the impact of that extra layer of fat, we have to look at the kind of injuries that were typical in the arena. There are basically two types of injuries (not counting in blows with the shield). There were stab wounds and cuts.
Stab wounds were the more dangerous of the two. They could be treated if they occurred at certain places of the body. But injuries of the inner organs like the liver couldn`t really be cured.
An extra layer of fat would usually not help in case the gladiator got stabbed.
But an extra layer of body fat helped when the gladiator was cut. The most dangerous part of cuts were the following infections and nerve damage.
Roman surgeons, gladiatorial schools would usually have really good physicians, were able to even stop the bleeding of large blood vessels. The famous physician Galen, who started his career as a physician for gladiators in Epesos, even bragged about his skills in that area.
Damaged nerves on the other hand could not be cured by Roman physicians.
In order to prevent nerves and tendons from getting damaged by cuts, a higher body fat percentage was helpful.
If the blade had to cut through fat first then it could not cut as deep into the muscle. And even with the impressive roman medical skills, it was still always better to prevent a serious injury than to cure one.
Do you want to learn more about the surprisingly low mortality rate of Roman gladiators? You can find more information in my article here.
Why do roman frescos show ripped Gladiators?
Now there is one question left. If gladiators indeed had a higher body fat percentage then why do frescoes show them as ripped?
Just like modern influencers ancient artists wanted to show the best, most aesthetic version. And just like today, they would not always focus on a realistic depiction of the persons they modeled their frescos after.
The only difference is that instead of photoshop these antique artists had to use their imagination to create bodies that were „better“ than the ones they saw during the gladiatorial games.
By the way, that is not limited to frescoes about gladiators.
The statues and depiction of roman emperors were also highly optimized to fit into the artistic ideal of how a ideal body should look.
But that kind of antique photoshop is a story for another time. If you haven’t gotten enough of the Roman gladiators jet I would like to encourage you to look read my other articles on the blog.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K. Nossov; Gladiator: The complete Guide to Ancient Rome`s Bloody fighters (2011).
F. Meijer; Gladiatoren. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod (Amsterdam 2003).
M. Junkelmann, Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren (Mainz am Rhein 2000).