Hollywood has given us a grossly inaccurate picture of gladiators. The arena fighters to the death are depicted as lean and muscular athletes or largely muscled but lean ogres. But the real truth found at archaeological digs and the written record of their contemporaries draws quite a different picture of the slave death match participants.
I first began my investigation into the truth about gladiators when reading about Veganism, specifically the Starch-based form, and I discovered that Roman gladiators were referred to as ‘Barley Men’. They ate a starchy plant-based diet. The proponents of this eating discipline loved that little known fact because it shows that starches must have given gladiators their fit, trim, and powerful builds and not a high fat/protein diet. At first, the fact gladiators were called ‘Barley Men’ shook my paradigm that animal protein was a must for muscularity and this new information reinforced my decision to give the starch diet the good old college try.
But it didn’t fully sit well with me and I wondered if there was possibly more to the history of the ‘Barley Men’.
There was more to it. It turns out that there was another reason gladiators were given a high starch diet (the Starchies are going to either hate me or bravely embrace the need to do further research on their own) and that reason was–wait for it–to make them fat. Why would the slavers or merchants of mayhem in the arena want gladiators to be fat? Good old fashioned capitalism of course; if you want to be rich or gain influence over the masses you gotta give the people what the people want. Supply and demand, baby.
You see, fat gladiators could survive more cuts and it drew out the battle longer for the blood-thirsty spectators who wanted (demanded) to see more Games of Thrones gore before the slaves gave up the ghost. Fat gladiators last longer. In today’s PPV boxing or MMA fights, we don’t want no lousy 30 second knockouts. The arenas back then were not much different. They may love their death matches but they don’t want to see someone gurgle their last breath 30 seconds in.
I’m sorry for you lovers of Russel Crowe’s cut and ripped model of a gladiator in the eponymously named movie, Gladiator. He would have been chubby. Roman soldiers, by the way, have often been depicted as vegetarians by the meat-shunning community but archaeology has proven inconvenient for many entrenched beliefs (from the dissing of the biblical record of now proven historical figures to even the push away from fat eating in the last few decades).
The Roman soldiers did indeed eat lots of barley, spelt and rye but bones excavated from Roman milBritish and German military sites dating from Augustus to the third century show 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.
So, the lesson learned here for me, is to always do your own research and never blindly follow someone else’s word. Of course I always counsel this I just had a potato-addiction relapse. And I’m sorry for leaving you with the image of a plump Russel Crowe.