Thursday, June 4, 2020
Fun facts


Gladiators were not as we imagine them. Everything depends on the diet. That's who the Roman wrestlers were and how they used to eat

The Gladiators

Spartacus? Physically he looked like your chubby father, a notorious beer-lifter in front of a football match.

Don’t you believe it? And yet it was so: the sculpted body of Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe in the 2 colossal movies based on the gladiators were not the standards in ancient Roman times. One of the fathers of medicine, Galen, who was a contemporary and could witness the fighting in the arenas, called the fighters “flabby.” However, do not think that it is a coincidence: the ludi’s coaches imposed a particular diet, functional to the physical activities of the gladiators. So let’s discover the diet of the ancient wrestlers, but first, let’s take a tour of ancient Rome and what was the life of this warriors-for-fun.

Food in Roman times 

As for the Roman diet, the basic nutritional element was the polta or the pulus, an ancestor of the bread more similar to the polenta than to the current loaves (the white flour of our bread was the prerogative of the richest people). Legumes and vegetables used to be added to the polta. The bread was eaten with garlic, onions, carrots, cauliflower, etc. Few animal proteins were consumed, mainly from goats or cows milk and eggs.

Meals were divided into:

Jentaculum that is breakfast: in a typical Italian style, in the morning they didn’t eat much. A little bread, honey, dried fruit, milk.

Prandium that is lunch: fish, bread, and fruit

Coena that is dinner: polenta (spelled, millet, wheat or barley) with the addition of legumes, milk, onions, and cheese. Lucullian dinners, on the other hand, were consumed among the rich. It began at 5 pm and could go on until dawn, a bit like the banquet offered by the corrupt Trimalchio, a character of Petronius reinterpreted by Fellini and his idol was a gladiator. In a passage of the Satyricon, Trimalcioned wants to decorate his tomb with the exploits of Petraite, a fighter of Neronian age.

The origins of the gladiatorial games

The Romans imported the tradition of gladiatorial games from the Etruscans, who used to organize similar fights during funeral rites. In the Tomb of the Augurs in Tarquinia, Phersu (from which the Italian word “persona” comes from) holds a molossus dog that attacks a condemned man with a hood.

The fresco in the Tomb of the Augurs: Phersu is tying up a dog that attacks a condemned man

Another clue is the one given by Tertullian (lived in the 2nd century AD), who recalls that the dead were removed from the arena through men dressed as Charon, whose hallmark was the hammer, symbol of the psychopomp Etruscan Charun.

In Rome, the first gladiatorial games began around 264 BC. The origin is to be connected to the munus, i.e., the duty of rich citizens to give back to the community a part of what was received through public works and recreational events.

The types of games were 3: ordinary munera, organized for major holidays, extraordinary munera, created for special events and the ludi, which were not funded by the State and not by the privates.

 Who were the gladiators?

The gladiators could be either freemen or slaves, war prisoners, convicts, Christians or sentenced to death. Many free Romans gave themselves to the lanisti (owners of gladiator schools) because of the honor it may derive or financial problems. Naturally, the slaves and prisoners of war did it with more desire, as they saw a way to improve their living conditions and, who knows, earn the rudis, a wooden gladius generally used to train both gladiators and legionaries, the symbol of the new-found freedom gained in the field.

The figure of the lanista decayed after the gladiatorial family of Lentulus Batiatus, in Capua, rebelled against their master thanks to the initiative of Spartaco. From that moment on, the role of the lanista remained popular in the provinces while in Italy the control over the gyms was centralized. Thus the Ludus Magnus of Rome was born.

The reconstruction of the training ground. Emperor Commodus also performed here

The ludi were organized as barracks and the most famous, besides the central one in Rome, were those of Capua (the first school was born here precisely in 105 BC) and Pompei. The fighters had their peculiarities and were followed by a trainer and a doctor. Each gladiator had his characteristics and was trained according to his art: the retiarius used net and trident; the secutor faced him with a smooth helmet that did not give grips and so on. The categories of gladiators were 24, while the most common styles were those of murmillo, hoplomachus, retiarius, secutor and thraex (much in demand was the dimachaerus, fighting with 2 swords and without shield). Another type of gladiators were the bestiarii, who faced wild animals. They used to train in the Ludus Matutinis and were much appreciated. Octavian Augustus wanted even the children of the nobles to be trained in the fight with the beasts: that’s why Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius and the main antagonist of Maximus Decimus Meridius in the fanciful Hollywood version of the film “Gladiator,” was defined the “Roman Hercules.” He killed a ferocious beast in the arena (Commodus loved games and dreamed of participating in them: he did it within the Ludus Magnus).

Famous gladiators

Many gladiators will go down in history. Many Pompeian graffiti narrate their glories and, above all, remember their success with women. It seems, in fact, that their blood was aphrodisiac. Even their names suggest the success they had with women: let’s think about Licentiosus and Iaculator, while the walls of Pompeii are full of graffitis made by the fans or by the gladiators themselves of the town school, where their reputation as womanizers has remained impressed for future reference (“Florionus was here and the women could not resist him and, except for a few, they gave themselves to him” or “Cresces, who at night, with his trident, captures the girls in the net” and finally Celadus, ” the thraex that makes girls’ hearts beat faster “). In Pompeii, two corpses were found in one of the cells of the gladiatorial school, one of which belongs to a rich woman (at the time of death she wore a necklace of emeralds). Death caught her during her last love affair with her idol.

The Gladiators at Villa Borghese. On the left Licentiosus and on the right Iaculator, both names that glorify their love performances

The history of the most famous gladiators, then, can be read both on the Pompeian walls and in the pages of poets. Marziale, for example, narrates the fight of Priscus and Vero on the occasion of the inauguration of the Colosseum. They were friends, and the two faced each other first with shield and sword, then, on Tito’s orders, only with the sword. Finally, they fought with bare hands. As none of the two could prevail, both were eventually released and given the palm of victory. The gladiator who, to date, appears to have achieved more victories (107) is Asteropaeus, while Flamma, a former Syrian soldier, remained famous for his secutor qualities. He was a gladiator for 13 years, he fought 34 battles with 21 victories, 9 draws and for 4 times he refused the rudis. All his fights were held in the Colosseum, where he died at the age of 30.

The most famous bestiarius was, instead, Carpoforus, always in Martial narration. The Roman poet tells the killing of a huge lion and a leopard (“with a lance, he killed a leopard in the air”). That day of 80 AD, when the Colosseum was inaugurated Carpoforus killed 20 animals, the celebrations lasted for months, and 500 wild animals were sacrificed.

The Amazons were less known but much appreciated at the time (also because, in addition to protections such as greaves and gladiators’ sleeves, women wore only the subligaculum, the Roman panty, and they were bare-breasted). The most famous were Amazon and Achillea, who as Priscos and Vero gained the Mission, that is the end of the fight for having fought well.

Gladiator’s life and the dinners before the fight

The night before the fights, the gladiators participated in a large banquet called the coena libera, which was also attended by their supporters (real fans, so much so that in 59 AD Pompeians and nocerini fought with stone-throwers and daggers after an event in the amphitheater, which was closed for 10 years after that moment).

Pompeian fresco with the fight started inside the amphitheater and continued through the streets of the city

If the champions were used to these events, for the others, they could be the last night on Earth. So, many made a will, stuffed themselves up to burst and, if they had, freed the slaves. A gladiator could fight a lot but generally faced up to a maximum of 4 matches a year. For those who did not reach fame, the stress was very high, and many ended up committing suicide.

On average they lived around the age of 30 and died between the ages of 25 and 35. They were not tall, of course, just like people living 2000 years ago. The height was around 168 cm. Their knowledge increased a lot after the discovery of 22 gladiators at Ephesus in 1993. Thanks to this discovery it was possible to understand that they were very well cared for after the wounds in battle and the training caused an enormous development of tendons and muscles, as well as that of bones and joints. Above all bone growth depended on nutrition.

The diet of the gladiator

The gladiators’ diet was completely different from that of Roman citizens. In common with them, there was only a low consumption of animal proteins. The gladiators ate mainly carbohydrates contained in legumes and cereals (a food called gladiatoriam saginam), for which Pliny the Elder also called “Hordearii,” Barley Men. As a result, their meals were very different from those of modern athletes, made of lots of proteins.

The health of the bone structure, then, was due to high levels of strontium, of which Galen of Pergamon, one of the fathers of medicine, tells us to be due to a tonic based on bone ash and vinegar.

The battle between Astianax and Kalendio

Galen himself, therefore, defines the gladiators as “flabby.” In fact, this type of diet increased the presence of fat, which covered the muscles and partially protected the organs of the fighter.

Moreover, wounds and cuts were less disabling than those suffered by a man who had a sculpted body. Therefore, a heavy and solid mass helped in the fights and the blood, which came out copiously, thrilled the public.

Of course, the gladiators were not fat: their bones were as dense as those of modern athletes, and they were professionals fed and paid to fight.

The image of the gladiators

Lately, the gladiators have been represented with a perfect body, therefore, we could understand that they were not as we had imagined them. This image is due to the statues that have come down to us, whose perfect physicality was only ideal, not tied to reality.


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Pierluigi Capriotti
My name is Pierluigi Capriotti to be exact. Despite a degree in Architecture I'm a journalist. I write following temporary monomania and others that are chronic such reading, soccer, travels and food. When I write I use many asides – because I have the impression there is always something more to say. Because in those asides I talk about my passions. So that everybody will notice them but with nonchalance. I've never had a high regard for wisdom. And, thanks God, this helped me to leave for the foodiestrip journey with a spiritual-creative mathematician, an IT engineer who plays the Star Wars soundtrack with the coffee stirrers and a businessnerd. One way ticket. No return.