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The Vegetarian Gladiators

The Vegetarian Gladiators

The old adage of eating all your greens so you grow up to be big and strong is true, according to analysis on the bones of Roman gladiators.

A study from researchers from Switzerland’s University of Bern and Austria’s Medical University (MediUni) of Vienna, published online in PLOS ONE, examined remains from the Roman town of Ephesus.

The graves in Ephesus – which is in what is now Turkey – date back to the second and third century. The remains of 53 men, women and children were originally uncovered between 1992 and 1994.

From bone samples taken from these remains, the team analysed the collagen and mineral content to try and establish what kind of diet the people would have survived on. At least 22 of the remains belonged to gladiators, or at least remains that were discovered inside a gladiator cemetery.

All of the people, apart from two individuals, appeared to eat a diet high in vegetables and grains, with very little animal or dairy protein. The two people whose diets varied from this – a male and female both found in the gladiator burial site – are thought to have probably migrated from a different geographical region.

Little variation between the other people’s diets was observed, even with the gladiators, aside from the fighters surviving on a diet even richer in vegetables, wheat, barley, beans and other grains. Reports on gladiators in the past have suggested that they would have been referred to as “hordearii” (barley-eaters), which backs up the latest findings.

The gladiators also had higher levels of minerals in their bones, based on measuring strontium levels in the bone. The body absorbs strontium the same way it does calcium. It is thought that strontium aids in bone growth and strengthening, like calcium. This would have replaced anything the gladiators would have lost through lack of dairy products.

Basing their assumptions on previous research, the team concluded that the extra minerals would have come in the form of a drink made from the ashes of plants. It is thought that this ash drink was similar to the sports drinks that we consume today, during and after exercise to boost the levels of minerals in our bodies.

“Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing,” explained study lead Dr Fabian Kanz from the department of forensic medicine at MediUni in a written statement. “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.”

So, who would have thought that gladiators would have been mostly vegetarian? And many of them – knowing the high risk of death once they were in the arena – would have been a lot bigger than most athletes we have around now.

The next stage of the research entails using the bone analyses to look for clues as to where the gladiators might have lived.


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