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Roman Gladiator Diet

By Carol Poster

Roman gladiators have been glamorized by Hollywood, video games and children's stories as almost preternaturally skilled fighters who could serve as bathing-suit models between arena bouts. When you hear of a gladiator diet, you might fantasize that eating as ancient gladiators did will turn you into a cross between a bodybuilder and the sort of action-movie hero who can bare-handedly defend innocent victims from armed drug gangs. Reality, of course, is nowhere near as glamorous as fantasy.

Historical Context

Information about Roman gladiators descends from Latin writers Suetonius, Pliny and Galen; portrayals of gladiators in ancient art; and archaeological evidence. Gladiators were normally slaves, prisoners of war, condemned criminals or the desperately poor who were willing to risk death for food. They were given food, medical treatment and training so they could put on a better show. The small minority of gladiators who survived a full year of gladiatorial contests gained better treatment and extra privileges.

What Gladiators Ate: Archeological Evidence

Excavations of a mass gladiatorial grave near Ephesus have allowed scientific reconstruction of the diets of one group of gladiators by examination of bones, according to Andrew Curry in a 2008 issue of "Archeology." Bone analysis confirms that gladiators ate primarily vegetarian diets and that, despite their attempts to supplement calcium with ground burnt bones, they often showed signs of calcium deprivation.

Gladiatorial Diet: Textual Evidence

Archaeological evidence corroborates the ancient literary accounts that refer to gladiators by the term "hordearii" (Latin for "barley-eaters"). Since barley was used primarily as animal feed in this period, this suggests the cheapest food available was served to ordinary gladiators. Beans and barley formed diet staples, probably supplemented by other grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil and garum -- a commonly used fish sauce. References by Pliny and Galen to high-calorie diets that enabled gladiators to gain weight, contrary to one popular theory, do not suggest gladiators performed better if obese. Rather, due to enslavement, captivity or extreme poverty, new gladiators were likely to be significantly malnourished and needed to gain weight for basic health reasons. Ancient art depicts gladiators as average weight and distinctly muscular.

Larrian Gillespie's Modern "Gladiator" Diet

Urologist Dr. Larrian Gillespie's book, "The Gladiator Diet," is a diet book for men along similar lines as "The Menopause Diet," a book for women, also written by Gillespie. It claims male impotence can be remedied by losing abdominal fat and includes detailed diet and fitness instructions. Originally published in 2001, it is now out of print. As erectile dysfunction can signify underlying health problems, consult a healthcare provider rather than embarking on a course of self-treatment.

Gladiator Fitness Diet

The 12 dietary rules and the nutritional plans recommended by the Gladiator Fitness website appear to be well-balanced diets, emphasizing regular meals of complex carbohydrates and lean protein combined with intensive exercise. Before starting a rigorous program of this sort, check with your healthcare provider.

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