Everyone knows that Roman Gladiators were buff, man-slaying, meat-eating fighters, right?
You might be surprised to find out that ancient Roman Gladiators had an almost entirely plant-based diet. Don’t believe it? Well, consider a study published in 2014 by a group of scientists from the Medical University of Vienna1. The study was done on the exhumed bones of the skeletal remains of fighters found at a Roman Gladiator cemetery. The cemetery was discovered in 1993 in Roman Ephesus (now modern day Turkey). In the study it was scientifically reported that the gladiators ate a diet comprised mostly of wheat and barley, legumes, and a post-workout drink made of plant ash and vinegar!
Gladiators had a high Strontium to Calcium ratio in their femoral bones, twice that of modern Romans and non-gladiators, per the research sample. It is suggested that these differences came about as a result of specific dietary practices during gladiator school. High levels of strontium may correlate with a diet high in vegetables and low in meat. Training most likely also had an effect of enhancing bone mineral density.
There is credible evidence to suggest that the plant ash and vinegar tonic provided minerals or helped their uptake to strengthen bones post-workout. The drink may also have had an analgesic effect in alleviating post exercise soreness. Some of the available plant ash at the time might have come from Cedar, Pine, Oak or Poplar wood and would have been mixed with vinegar. And it’s reported that small amounts of this over time could have made a big difference in bone mineral density. Other research supports enhanced bone tissue formation as a result of a strontium/calcium compound2.
There are a number of benefits that the gladiators would have received due to their plant-based diets:
- Enhanced Bone Density: The protein and calcium in the wheat and barley would have augmented bony growth and allowed for the promotion of muscle growth.
- Fast Recovery: The plant ash and vinegar tonic would have helped in recovery by stimulating bone growth and tissue repair.
- Replenished energy stores: The barley and wheat, would have provided adequate protein and carbohydrates for muscle recovery. In conjunction with the tonic, the combination would have helped with muscle contraction recovery.
- Relief of muscle soreness: Low magnesium intake is related to muscle cramping, so the enriched properties of magnesium-laden barley made a lot of sense.
- Enhanced Cardiovascular function: Again, calcium and magnesium can be found in barley. These two are essential in heart health. No surprise that gladiators were called “hordearii”, or barley men.
If you don’t feel like downing a concoction of vinegar and plant ash after your next gym session, consider some plant-based sources of magnesium and calcium:
Pumpkin or Sunflower seeds
As we all know, Calcium and other vitamins and minerals are important pieces of a healthy diet. However, be cautious when considering calcium supplements and consult a nutritionist. There have been some recent revelations that excess calcium, especially in supplement form, may actually have adverse effects on bone health (you can read more about this in our next article, coming soon). Many clinicians suggest that vitamins and minerals be obtained through food sources if possible.
There is some discussion that the Gladiator diet may have included some meat. However, again, the high strontium levels on the bones contradict that. The evidence highlights the fact that the majority of their diet was plant-based. Additionally, the stable isotope analysis utilized was not capable of showing dairy in the diet.
What does this tell us?
Question the status quo.
Don’t make dietary decisions based on assumptions. Most people, when asked to guess the diet of large, physical athletes, assume a diet high in animal protein. In the west, we’ve grown up with animal protein as the foundation of most meals and none of us really think twice about it. Once we start to scientifically question what we eat, interesting discoveries unfold. These discoveries can offer greater health, fitness, performance and longevity.
1Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0110489
2Bone formation induced by strontium modified calcium phosphate cement in critical-size metaphyseal fracture defects in ovariectomized rats