Food & Beverage

What did a Roman gladiator eat?

What did a Roman gladiator eat?
Isabel del Rio
Roman food

Roman food

Movies and TV series (Spartacus, Gladiator, or the series Rome) have popularized a false idea of gladiators. Lean and muscular, we imagine them eating meat and wine, very many eggs (as a Chinese sumo) and every kind of animal fats. Also, we suppose they were drunkards before important combats… fierce people with the appearance of a bodybuilder.

The word ‘gladiator’ comes from the Latin word ‘gladius’. A gladius was the short Spanish sword used in the fight. Later, this sword was also used by legionaries, since the skill of gladiators with weapons and training techniques was amply imitated by Roman legions.

When training, their weapons were made of wood and they were terribly heavy to increase their muscle strength. A hard and daily training which legionaries imitated too. This ‘professionals’ of the Fighting Games had to be physically and mentally prepared, and happy celebrations with meat and wine were forbidden. Perhaps only during the mysteries of Dionysus, but these prepared them to understand the rituals of life and death.

Austerity and more austerity was their routine.

Dr Karl Grossschmidt, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute and a member of the Institute of Histology and Embryology (University of Vienna), analyzed the skeletons of 70 gladiators from Ephesus, the ancient Greco-Roman city, current located in Turkey, using a technique called Micro-elemental. Investigation that allows to determine what a person ate during its lifetime, with the help of a sonar. Then, they could know what elements were lodged in the bone fragments removed from the skeletons.

Yes, austerity and more austerity, because the diet of a gladiator from Ephesus was vegetarian: barley, beans and dried fruit. Furthermore, they weren’t lean and muscular but fat. A considerable overweight produced by the typical soup that also legionaries ate: bread and water with a kind of noodles, frequently it had snails. Oil and garlic seasoned.

Roman mosaic

Roman mosaic

Wine? Beer? Almost never. The amounts were measured. Drunkenness was severely punished and they were closely monitored in those ‘private academies’ where rich people had many interests. Bets were high and nor the emperor nor the senators were willing to be deceived.

In general, the Romans had no habit of drinking at meals. Juvenal said that if you were very tired (as a gladiator), you had to wait before drinking because you could lose the appetite, better at the end. However, a glass of wine was good before sleeping, maybe two. Anyway, the wine was watered down.

Poor gladiators! Only those who got to arrive at Rome had the possibility of retiring someday (if they survived and got admiration) and having some money.

In Ephesus, things were different. Dr Karl Grossschmidt analyzed two kinds of gladiators:

Mirmos or Gauls: most came from France. They wore a helmet similar to a fish (in Latin: Myrmo). No protection on legs or arms. They fought with the short sword and a long rectangular shield. The captured enemy soldiers were also Mirmos.

Reciarius: they wore a simple tunic with a wide leather belt. a trident, a dagger and a network were their weapons.

At least in Ephesus, there weren’t Andabatae, gladiators forced to fight blindfolded.

I think they deserved a good meal, not that soup with snails!

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