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“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)