Gladiators Were Vegetarians

Plant-based diets high in carbohydrates made the Roman ‘barley men’ appear more spectacular.

Kathryn Hadley | Published in 09 Sep 2009

Musée Saint-Remi à Reims.
Gladiators depicted in a mosaic, c. second century AD. Musée Saint-Remi à Reims. Wiki Commons/Vassil.

According to a recent study, gladiators were mostly vegetarians and their diets consisted, above all, of barley and vegetables. They were neither too poor to buy meat nor staunch defenders of animal rights; instead, their carbohydrate-rich diets made them put on weight, which both protected them during fights and made them appear more spectacular, which pleased the crowds.

A 200-square-foot plot of land in the city of Ephesus (now in western Turkey), alongside the road that originally led from the city centre to the Temple of Artemis, is the world’s only known gladiator graveyard. The plot contains the bodies of just over 60 gladiators. Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist from the Medical University of Vienna, recently led a research project about gladiator life, the diets of gladiators and the causes of their deaths. Scientists carried out isotopic analyses of bone fragments from the graveyard, measuring trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium and zinc. The results of the study were reported in an article by Andrew Curry published in the November/December issue of Archaeology magazine (a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America).

In contemporary accounts of gladiator life, gladiators were often referred to as hordearii, which literally means ‘barley men’. The results of the bone analyses revealed that gladiators ate considerably more plants and very little animal protein compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus. Their diets were extremely high in carbohydrates such as barley and legumes, which made gladiators put on weight. The extra layers of subcutaneous fat helped to protect them from surface wounds during fights. However, their diets lacked in calcium and gladiators allegedly drank brews of charred wood or bone ash, which contained particularly high levels of calcium, to keep their bones strong.

What was the purpose and significance of gladiatorial shows in Ancient Rome? For further information, read our article Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome