Ben Miller

“Fat” Gladiators: Modern Misconceptions Regarding the Dietary Practices of Swordsmen of the Ancient Roman Arena

In Antiquity, Food and Diet on January 30, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Article by David Black Mastro

In the November/December ’08 issue of Archeology magazine, author Andrew Currey covered the recent findings by paleo-pathologist Karl Grossschmidt of Vienna, concerning the diet of ancient Roman gladiators. Grossschmidt and his colleague, Fabian Kanz, examined the bones of gladiators from a site in Western Turkey. Currey wrote:

But the biggest revelation to come out of the Ephesus cemetery is what kept the gladiators alive–a vegetarian diet rich in carbohydrates, with the occasional calcium supplement.  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.

This in itself is not surprising, but Grossschmidt’s conclusion as to why the gladiators’ diet was predominantly vegetarian is problematic at best:

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.”

Grossschmidt’s assertion that gladiators purposely “packed on the pounds” with a carb-heavy diet poses several problems. For one thing, it ignores the devastating nature of ancient edged weapons. While a layer of subcutaneous fat can indeed give some amount of protection from the cuts of smaller knives, it is of no use against the types of weapons that gladiators typically had to cope with. Of the various gladiator types, many–as the very name “gladiator” indicates–were swordsmen. Of the sword-armed gladiators, most fought with the combination of the short sword (gladius) and the long shield (scutum)–in this category were the myrmillo, secutor, and provocator. The other main type of sword-armed gladiator was the Thracian, who fought with the curved sica and a small round or square buckler (parma). The gladius was a devastating weapon, capable of horrible, mortal wounds with both its point and edge. The original gladius was the gladius Hispaniensis, so-called because of its use by Iberian warriors. This early type of gladius featured a broad, slightly waisted, double-edged blade, that swelled at the COP (center of percussion), and then tapered to a long, acute point. A perfect example of “form following function”, the design of the gladius Hispaniensis was intended to provide a short weapon capable of fearsome cuts, as well as thrusts. In his book The Republican Roman Army 200-104 BC, archeologist Nicholas Sekunda noted that the ancient author Livy commented on how the Macedonians feared the cutting capacity of the gladius Hispaniensis–it was easily capable of shearing off limbs, or decapitating a foe. The gladius Hispaniensis was ultimately supplanted with a simpler form, featuring a shorter point, and parallel edged, and its broad blade could still cut very well. The sica of the Thracian could deliver slashing strokes with its convex edge, chopping blows with its concave edge, and wicked, hooking-style thrusts. Against such weapons, subcutaneous bodyfat would have served no genuinely beneficial purpose.

Another problem with Grossschmidt’s theory is that it runs contrary to what ancient sources say about the gladiator’s diet. In his classic work, Gladiators, author Michael Grant pointed out that no less an authority than the ancient physician Galen was, in fact, critical of the gladiators’ carb-heavy food:

The schools were also provided with resident medical consultants to check the men’s diet, and both Galen and a leading doctor of the preceding century, Scribonius Largus, concern themselves with this aspect. Gladiators were called hordearii, barley men, because of the amount of barley that they ate, a muscle-building food but (combined with beans as it was at Pergamum) criticized by Galen for making the flesh soft. (emphasis added)

Galen’s reservations about the preponderance of barley “making the flesh soft” suggests that gladiators would not have sought to purposely “pack on the pounds”. Gladiators, like any other fighting men, would not have gained any real advantage from excess bodyfat (and arguably, such extra weight could have actually been a liability).

The condemnation of excess bodyfat can also be seen in the late Roman writer Vegetius’s Epitoma Rei Militaris (Epitome of Military Science). Vegetius wrote specifically about ideal army recruits, but his requirements apply to fighting men in general:

So let the adolescent who is to be selected for martial activity have alert eyes, straight neck, broad chest, muscular shoulders, strong arms, long fingers, let him be small in the stomach, slender in the buttocks, and have calves and feet which are not swollen by surplus fat but firm with hard muscle. When you see these points in a recruit, you need not greatly regret the absence of tall stature. It is more useful that soldiers be strong than big. (emphasis added)

The final evidence which refutes Grossschmidt’s suggestion is ancient artwork. Period representations of gladiators typically show them to be lean & sinewy, like other warriors. Take, for example, the following relief, which shows bestiarii (animal fighters):

http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/bestiarii.jpg

The fighters look lean, and the muscle development and definition is very much in evidence.

Given all of the above, it would appear that all those carbs were burned off in the daily toil of training, and in the arena. Grossschmidt’s theory frankly makes little sense.

So, why, then, did the gladiators subsist on a predominantly vegetarian diet? We know from archeological evidence that Roman soldiers (legionaries and auxiliaries), while also relying principally on grains like wheat and barley (they were, after all, from an agrarian society), also consumed a substantial amount of animal protein. In his excellent text, Warriors of Rome: An illustrated history of the Roman Legions, Michael Simkins noted modern archeological evidence “shows conclusively that meat was consumed in the forts, along with a great variety of other foodstuffs”.

And it was, indeed, a great variety. In her online article, “Did Roman Soldiers Eat Meat?”, N.S. Gill wrote:

Much of Davies’ work in “The Roman Military Diet” is interpretation, but some of it is scientific analysis of bones excavated from Roman British and German military sites dating from Augustus to the third century. From the analysis, we know the Romans ate ox, sheep, goat, pig, deer, boar, and hare, in most places and in some areas, elk, wolf, fox, badger, beaver, bear, vole, ibex, and otter. Broken beef bones suggest the extraction of marrow for soup. Alongside the animal bones, archaeologists found equipment for roasting and boiling the meat as well as for making cheese from the milk of domesticated animals. Fish and poultry were also popular, the latter especially for the sick.

For Gill’s full article, go here:

http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/romanfood/a/RomeSoldierDiet.htm

Why were things apparently different for the gladiators? I personally suspect it has to do with the gladiators’ place in ancient Roman society. Gladiators were slaves, and among their ranks were countless prisoners of war and condemned criminals. It was clearly more economical to feed them a predominantly vegetarian diet. Grains and beans and legumes could be combined, and they served not only for their carbohydrates, but also as a good source of protein (the combination makes for a better amino acid profile). Anyone who thinks that vegetarians and vegans cannot build muscle and be powerful has clearly never seen people like old-time strongman George Hackenschmidt (demi-vegetarian), bodybuilder Bill Pearl (vegetarian), MMA fighter Mac Danzig (vegan), strength coach Mike Mahler (vegan), or hardcore music legend & all-round hard guy John Joseph (vegan). Therefore, gladiators were fed a primarily vegetarian diet simply because it was comparatively cheap, and because it still worked to produce lean, fit fighters.

For Currey’s original article, go here:

http://www.archaeology.org/0811/abstracts/gladiator.html

Thanks go out to Marc Smith, for inspiring me to write this article, and to Carl Massaro and Alex Wilkie, who have both greatly helped me in exploring the sheer power of edged weapons, over the years.

References:

Primary Sources:

Epitome of Military Science by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus

The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius

Secondary Sources:

Gladiators by Michael Grant

Gladiators 100BC-AD200 by Stephen Wisdom

Warriors of Rome: An illustrated history of the Roman Legions by Michael Simkins

Republican Roman Army 200-104 BC by Nicholas Sekunda

Greece and Rome at War by Peter Connolly

Swords and Hilt Weapons (esp. the chapter “Greece and Rome” by Peter Connolly)

The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler and Diana Holtzberg

Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier

Evolution of a Cro-Magnon by John Joseph

“Did Roman Soldiers Eat Meat?” by N.S. Gill (http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/romanfood/a/RomeSoldierDiet.htm)

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  2. […] Gladiators were fat The Gladiator Diet – Archaeology Magazine Archive 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." The counter argument “Fat” Gladiators: Modern Misconceptions Regarding the Dietary Practices of Swordsmen of … […]

  3. Reblogged this on Blame it on Love and commented:
    The old vegan Gladiator debate, finally an article that clears it all up, excellently, in my opinion anyways.

  4. I totally love this article; thank you. Fat, as a shield against swords? Lol. Your writing and informational skills are simply great.

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  7. I liked to article a lot. Next time, If possible, try adding a picture of the weapon you’re describing. This makes it easier to understand the function of the weapon.

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  10. An anecdotal disagreement:
    As a competitive fencer for about a decade from my late teens through my 20s, I trained 16-20+ hours a week and additionally competed on most weekends. I found that a high carb, low protein diet seemed ideal for my competitive lifestyle, and I never went above about 150 pounds in weight. Especially before a competition, I’d consume several pounds of carbs, usually in the form of pasta, and it would be entirely burned off by the end of the next day.

    In hindsight, I should have had more animal protein in my diet, especially after a competition to help recovery and build muscle, but at the time, I became acutely aware that consuming animal protein slowed me down considerably. As it was, I had to make due with awful muscle aches from insufficient protein in my diet.

    For a very active athlete, carbs offer speed and endurance, which are far more valuable than muscle bulk for combative activities. Carbs only become fat in a less active individual.

  11. The essential amino acids has been disproven for over 20 years now and following any diet advice from Loren Cordain is a mistake, look at the guy.

    Dr. Mcdougall actually did a video on this if you’d like to look it up ;)

  12. You needed to consider your post before publishing it! There are some glaring flaws in your argument that in this comment I will consider:

    Galen’s criticism of the gladiator diet is not an indication that the Ephesus findings were inaccurate — in fact, it proves the opposite. It is likely that gladiators were fed as the Ephesus findings suggest because Galen attempts to offer an alternative that he feels is better for the health and strength of the gladiators. The gladiatorial diet evidenced at Ephesus is certainly cheaper than a protein-heavy one and provides a short cut to energy and bulk, whatever the long term consequences. The findings are also consistent with contemporary accounts of gladiatorial diet and the moniker of “barley-man.”

    The evidence concerning the ideal military diet you use to suggest that the findings are inaccurate does not work well either. Gladiators were not soldiers. It is very likely that a soldier’s diet was better and intended for long-term health and endurance, whereas gladiators were expected to have short-life spans and fight in short bursts. The shape and fitness of gladiator versus soldier bodies were likely very different because of this.

    While a gladius is as devastating a weapon as you write…how gladii were wielded may have been very different in the arena than in battle. It is likely with refereed fights that a number of superficial wounds helped the fight last longer for the enjoyment of the spectators. A layer of fat would have made these wounds more bearable to the gladiator and allowed him to fight longer.

    I am surprised that you wrote this argument against the Ephesus findings without considering the course of your logic.

    • Quezz,

      Please excuse the very late reply–I am currently not online frequently. I suggest that you re-read my article, because I never claimed that Grossschmidt’s findings were inaccurate–I merely disagree with his hypothesis, as to WHY the gladiators at Ephesus subsisted on a plant-based, carb-heavy diet. If gladiators “purposely packed on the pounds” as per Grossschmidt’s assertion, then why would Galen have even bothered to criticize it? I mean no disrespect towards either Grossschmidt or any of his colleages (or you, for that matter), but the whole notion of “fat” gladiators is downright ludicrous–indeed, it sounds like a suggestion made by someone who has no experience with martial arts in general, and edged weapons systems in particular. Also, I never said that gladiators were soldiers. I offered info on the diet of Roman legionaries merely for comparison–after all, legionaries were valued protectors of the State, whereas gladiators were disposable slaves, POWs, etc. Therefore, the most logical conclusion for the plant-based/carb-heavy diet of the gladiators is simply one of economics.

      Thoughts?

      Best Regards,

      David Black Mastro

  13. Bill Pearl became a vegetarian after he had build his musclemass on little but meat. So he doesnt count. He didnt loose all his mass on a vegetarian diet, is what that should have said to be correct. (Randy Roach, Muscle Smoke and Mirrors Vol1)

    Danzig is not muscular. He is slim bordering the skinny. He adopted a vegan diet when he got good results and his results started to drop and he gets injured all the time now

    Point NOT proven.

    • “Anonymous”,

      Regarding Bill Pearl, the fact remains that he retained a great deal of muscle, after becoming a vegetarian. As for your commentary on Mac Danzig, all I can say is that your idea and my idea of what the term “muscular” means are obviously different. Danzig is extremely lean, but he still has very good muscular development. He does not sport the excess (and predominantly useless) muscular bulk of a bodybuilder, because he’s not a bodybuilder–he’s a fighter.

      That being said, I should emphasize that my own dietary preferences are ropoted in the Weston A. Price approach–i.e., consuming nutriet-dense foods from both plant AND animal sources.

      Best,

      David Black Mastro

  14. Brian,

    The Greeks and Romans were agrarian societies, that relied much on grains like wheat and barley. They saw a distinction between themselves, and “barbarian” peoples like the Celts and Germans, who consumed larger quantities of meat. That being said, the evidence is clear that the Romans and Greeks–particularly their soldiers–consumed a good amount of animal protein themselves.

    Grains actually pose some problems, as a food source. They are not a complete source of protein–i.e., they are typically low in one of the 8 essential amino acids. Another problem is that they are a source of phytates, which actually inhibit the absorbtion of vitamins and minerals. Loren Cordain, author of the “Paleo Diet”, noted that iron-deficiency anemia, which affects well over a billion people today, can be attributed to the poor sources of iron in grain-based diets. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution of c. 10,000 years ago, the average height of men in Greece and Turkey was 5′ 9″; by 3,000 B.C./B.C.E., the average height had dropped to 5’3″.

    As for the Tarahumaran natives, I can offer no comment, as I know next to nothing about them. However, the factors which seem to be common to long-lived and hardy societies include plenty of veggies & fruits, as well as the inclusion of fish in the diet. Fish is an excellent complete protein source, as well as a source of beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs)–specifically EPA and DHA. Some long-lived societies also benefit from the consumption of probiotic dairy foods, like yogurt, kefir, and koumiss. Probiotic foodstuffs of this sort were among man’s first “superfoods”.

  15. Very interesting! In Philip Freeman’s recent book on Julius Caesar he mentiones several times how concerned Caesar was with securing grain fields during their campaigns. It seems that the like the gladiator, the Roman soldier may have also relied upon carbohydrates for their sustainence. Also, in the best seller “Born to Run” the author mentions that the diet of the Tarahumaran Natives, known for their incredible feats of long distance running have a largely vegetarian diet. It makes me wonder if there is something about a grain/plant based diet which lends itself to muscular endurance and longevity.

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