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ROME: What was a Gladiator?

The term Gladiator is synonymous with Roman culture, and while to us gladiatorial contests are little more than displays of extreme barbarism, contemporary Romans would have look upon these ‘contests to the death’ as a defining feature of their civilisation. But who were the gladiators, and what brought them into existence?

The Romans believed that gladiators first appeared in 264 BC. They were common slaves who were made to fight to the death at the funeral of a distinguished aristocrat, Junius Brutus Pera.. This spectacle was arranged by his heirs in order to honour his memory.

Gradually, this gladiatorial spectacle became separated from its funerary context, and became staged by the wealthy as a means of displaying their power and influence within the local community. 

In fact, advertisements for gladiatorial displays still survive at Pompeii, painted by professional sign-writers. They have been found on house-fronts, and on the walls of tombs clustered outside the city-gates. The number of gladiators to be displayed was a key attraction - the larger the figure, the more generous the sponsor was perceived to be, and the more glamorous the spectacle.

Most gladiators were still slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Therefore they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly!

For a gladiator who died in combat, the trainer – known as a lanist – may have charged the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who had survived. Clearly it would become significantly more expensively for the sponsor if they supplied the bloodshed that the audiences often bayed for. Although if a gladiator was allowed to be slain it was seen as an indication of their generosity.

Remarkably, some gladiators were not slaves but free-born volunteers! The chief incentive was probably the down-payment that would have been received upon taking the gladiatorial oath. 

This oath meant that the owner of the gladiator troupe now had ultimate sanction over each gladiator's life, assimilating them to the status of slaves.

Some maverick emperors with a perverted sense of humour made upper-class Romans (of both sexes) fight in the arena. But as long as they did not receive a fee for their participation, such persons would be exempt from the stain of infamia, the legal disability that was attached to the practitioners of disreputable professions such as actors, prostitutes and, of course, gladiators.

The ancient Roman gladiators have been a source of fascination for thousands of years. And as modern day archeologists and historians uncover more about their lives, our hunger to find out more about the Roman gladiator seems to increase.

What did gladiators eat?

Research by Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna has managed to give an insite into this unglamopurside to the gladiators life!

Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refered to the ancient wariors as hordearii - literally meaning 'barley men'. 

To find out more, Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of bone uncovered at the gladiator graveyard in Ephesus - in what is now western Turkey- to isotopic analysis. 

This is a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc. 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.

They also managed to turn up some other surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. 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."

But a diet of barley and vegetables would have left the fighters with a serious calcium deficit. To keep their bones strong, historical accounts say, they downed vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium. 

Whatever the exact formula, the stuff worked. Grossschmidt says that the calcium levels in the gladiator bones were "exorbitant" compared to the general population. "Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements," he says. "They knew that then, too."

For related articles click onto:
How to get to Sorrento from Naples International Airport?
ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Christopher Columbus?
ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Julius Caesar?
ITALY: Rome Pictures
ITALY: What is Pompeii?
ROME: The Pyramid of Cestius
ROME: Villa d'Este
ROME: What was a Gladiator?
ROMAN HISTORY: What did the Romans Eat?
Based on an article by Professor Kathleen Coleman
Photo of mosaic care of
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Based on an article by Andrew Curry

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