This fourth installment of the Old School Strength series temporarily parts company with legionnaires to spend some quality time with everyone’s favorite jacked-and-tanned badass, the Roman gladiator. (Around 3.200 words, estimated reading time 15-17 min)
Gladiators have been a staple of Western popular culture for the last two-thousand-and-a-half years.
Their popularity might have waned between the end of the Roman Empire and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, but since then it’s been at an all-time high. And not only in pepla, mind you. When Oliver Stone and John Milius re-imagined Conan for the public of the 1980s, they achieved instant badassness with a gladiatorial background that was nowhere to be found in Robert E. Howard.
As far as contemporary popular culture goes, gladiators were badass male slaves who knew how to fight. This is rather accurate, considering that female gladiators (or gladiatrix) were far fewer if no less badass until eventually, Septimius Severus banned women from fighting in the arena in 200 CE.
And as far as popular culture both ancient and contemporary go, gladiators were muscular slaves who knew how to fight. In that respect, Hollywood muscle just continues on-screen the standards of Roman muscle upheld in mosaics, bas-reliefs, and other iconographic sources.
Only, some scholars would have us think that gladiators were really fat-ass slaves who knew how to fight and that Roman artists depicted them as muscular just because nobody would have paid for mosaics and bas-reliefs showing them as they really were. Trusting Roman iconographic standards would amount to trust Photoshopped pictures.
Where does that revolutionary hypothesis come from? Well, that’s an interesting question. As it turns out, it is a cocktail of science and bullshit.
The Barley Men
Back in the days when Roman Emperors knew how to entertain a crowd, gladiators were known as ‘men of the barley’ of ‘barley men’ (hordearii).
That was not meant to be nice. The main use of barley was fodder for livestock. According to Vegetius, substituting wheat with barley was a common punishment in the legions for those who did not perform well at a variety of martial exercises. Still, vegetarian diets were not only common in antiquity but also closely associated with athletic pursuits.
Case in point, Pythagoreans advocated veganism for ethical reasons at first and later for sports performance. Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) defended ethical veganism and his arguments are still well-known to this day, but he may have condoned flexitarianism with athletes .
About half a century later, the Pythagorean athlete Iccus of Tarentum (mentioned by Plato as a contemporary in Protagoras, c. 430) became known for the “Iccus meal”, credited for his exceptional performances (in equal part with his sexual abstinence, mentioned by Plato in Laws). The Iccus Meal was hailed as a performance-enhancer and it was most definitely plant-based, although its exact composition remains a matter of conjecture.
So the idea that professional athletes would be vegetarian is nothing new, really. But literary sources are one thing, archaeological sources another, and it’s better to have the latter support the former. So let’s dig deeper (pun intended) into archaeology.
Post-mortems, coffee, and danishes
The conclusion that gladiators were as much fat-asses as they were badasses is a two-step argument based on the findings of a team of Austrian scientists, including most notably a forensic pathologist, Fabian Kanz, and a cellular biologist, Karl Grossschmidt, who analyzed about 70 skeletons, including 20-or-so gladiators, dated from 200 CE, and found in Ephesus (in today’s Turkey) in 1993.
- In the mid-2000s, Kanz and Grosschmidt reached the tentative conclusion that the gladiators were essentially vegan from an analysis of their bones. They were initially looking for traces of injuries and published their injury research in the prestigious journal Forensics Science in 2006 (here). Later, in 2009, their tentative conclusions about diet appeared as a chapter of conference proceedings (available here).
- Sometime between the two publications, in 2008, Grossschmidt met with Andrew Curry, a content editor of Archaeology, a popular science publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. Together Grossschmidt and Curry speculated about the reasons why gladiators in Ephesus would be wolfing down the carbs (according to Curry, sharing a cup of coffee and a dry croissant). A report of that conversation was published by Curry in Archaeology later the same year, under the title “The Gladiator Diet” (here).
Now, and to be fair, Grossschmidt & Kanz’s published research never mentions body fat. It does mention muscle mass, though, as the 2009 conference paper notes that “Arm and leg bones recovered from [gladiators] revealed significantly enlarged muscle markers most likely pointing to an intense training and physical exercise program” (2009:218). So there’s no carb-makes-you-fat nonsense there.
Arm and leg bones […] revealed significantly enlarged muscle markers most likely pointing to an intense training and physical exercise program.
Kanz & Grossschmidt, “Dying in the Arena: the Osseous Evidence from Ephesian Gladiators”, 2009
So the legit scientific conclusions are regular incremental science. Gladiators most likely ate a plant-rich diet, just as literary sources tell us. Gladiators were heavily muscled, just as epigraphic and iconographic sources tell us. Also, they fought in the arena, were injured, and received mercy blows to the head. Nothing there would change our view of gladiators.
But in 2008, Grosschmidt speculated that gladiators would intentionally put on body fat because the show would last longer if they’d cut through subcutaneous fat deposits than through hard-earned muscle. According to Grossschmidt, the need for subcutaneous fat would explain why Ephesian gladiators were wolfing down the carbs while regular Ephesian
Joes and Janes Primi and Primae didn’t.
And if the speculation had panned out, it would have been pretty much revolutionary science. It would have forced us to re-evaluate the iconography and to come up with reasons why artists would have constantly depicted muscled gladiators instead of the fatasses they were.
Conceptual weak spots
There’s just one problem: the revolutionary speculation did not pan out. To cut a long story short, it’s baseless crap combining crass ignorance about diet, nutrition, and carb metabolism, with crass ignorance about western historical martial arts and ancient weaponry. That’s ok for spitballing at a coffee table if you are not a specialist of either but if you do your homework afterward, you’d quickly dismiss it.
First, the carbs-makes-you-fat thing is a myth. I’d rather not grace this myth with more publicity than it already has, but it warrants funny historical comparisons, so I’ll say a few words about it later.
Second, and more importantly, the conjecture that subcutaneous fat could protect against cuts is bogus. David Black Mastro debunked the conjecture in 2010, in an excellent post titled “Fat” Gladiators: Modern Misconceptions Regarding the Dietary Practices of Swordsmen of the Ancient Roman Arena published by the Out of this Century blog. Simply put, subcutaneous fat would have amounted to next to nothing against the type of weapons gladiators were using, which were more or less all variations of a type of blade known to be able to cut arms and legs clean off.
But then, we are left with a mystery: why did gladiators eat more plants than other citizens of Ephesus? David Black Mastro had an excellent alternative answer in 2010: meat was expensive, gladiators were slaves, and feeding them with livestock fodder made all kind of sense.
And that was just in 2010.
Since then, it turned out that the citizens of Ephesus were eating copious amounts of wheat and barley, too, and that gladiators may or may not have eaten more plants than regular Primi and Primae. And the irony is that the conclusion comes straight out of a 2014 study published in PLOS One: Lösh, Mogghaddam, Grossschmidt, Riser & Kanz, 2014, “Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet”.
Yup, you read well. Kanz and Grossschmidt are co-authors in that one. And it is much more thorough than the 2009 conference paper.
A Strontium-Calcium Thing
Strontium (Sr) is a soft metal with chemical properties close to calcium (Ca). Due to its similarities with calcium, strontium tends to be metabolized by the human body in the same way as calcium and ends up in our calcium stores: bones. Calcium is better tho, so our body tends to get rid of strontium when calcium is available to replace it.
Importantly, this is not specific to humans, and the metabolism of strontium is about the same in all animals with skeletons. The Sr/Ca ratio has long been taken as an indication of the meat-to-plant ratio in the diet. Plants have a higher content in strontium than meat because strontium is trapped in the bones of the animals who eat strontium-rich plants and is eliminated when calcium takes its place.
But in the mid-1990s, it was found that the Sr/Ca ratio is not a reliable indicator of meat-to-plant ratio after all. Diet-wise, it is an indicator of what is the strongest Ca contributor to the diet, but meat-eaters could still have a high Sr/Ca ratio if they eat a lot of plant side-dishes. Add to that that strontium can seep in the buried bones from the environment and that if humans remains are buried together with the remains of plant-eating animals, strontium from animal bones can leach in the soil and end up in human bones. Then, even with a steak-and-eggs diet with side dishes of baby spinach, you buried bones would still land you a high Sr/Ca ratio territory.
Now, the conclusions of Kanz & Grossschmidt (2009) are almost exclusively based on the fact that the gladiators’ bones found in Ephesus had a higher Sr/Ca ratio than other skeletons from the same area. They do not take into account all those caveats, but the 2014 PLOS One paper does.
Also, and importantly, the 2014 paper presents a more thorough analysis of the bones of the citizens of Ephesus. And this analysis reveals that non-gladiators in Ephesus ate barley, too: the Ephesian skeletons, gladiators or not, do not present significant differences when it comes to chemical markers of plant-eating other than the Sr/Ca ratio.
If we accept real physiological differences […] then the high Sr/Ca-ratio for gladiators seems to be associated to a specific alimentation during their years spent at the fighter’s school.
Lösh et al. (2014)
So what are we left with? Well, with this:
- gladiators in Ephesus had a higher Sr/Ca ratio than other Ephesians, but the ratios for both were within normal range, as far as we can tell, by extrapolation from data on modern humans; and:
- environmental factors could not be ruled out, and strontium could have leached from the environment in one case (gladiators) and not the other (regular Primi and Primae) due to differences in burial sites and practices.
Therefore, the difference is not statistically significant. It may still be explained by a difference in diet, as the authors noted that there is no positive indication that the higher Sr/Ca ratio was diagenetic (the fancy way to say that it was caused by environmental factors) rather than physiological.
But the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence: there is thus no definitive proof that Ephesian gladiators ate, in fact, more plants than regular Primi and Primae in Ephesus. Maybe they were just buried too close to herbivorous animals.
But had they, in fact, been eating more plants, would have they been fat rather than muscular? Well, it depends on the standard for muscularity and fatness.
Roman muscle vs. Hollywood muscle
What counts as “muscular” and “fat” is highly sensitive to the historical context.
Roman physician Aelius Galenus, known today as Galen (whom we have already met in this series) disliked the diet of gladiator because it made their skin soft. On the face of it, it seems to substantiate the idea that gladiators were fat, and I’d bet that Galen’s opinion is one of the sources of Jean-Léon Gérôme Pollice Verso (1872). [UPDATE: Galen also expresses the view that gladiators eat too much, which may be one of the source of Gerôme.]
Then again, David Black Mastro argues convincingly that Galen’s opinion about the gladiatorial diet might as well disprove the notion that gladiators were intentionally “packing the pounds”. Indeed, there would be nothing to criticize if being fat was part and parcel of being a gladiator.
I have no proof that Gérôme found his inspiration in Galen, but I’m sure enough that he must have found some reasons not to stick with iconographic sources available at his time (such as the Nenning mosaic discovered in 1852, see below). As for the “soft skin” of gladiators, Galen’s comment is perhaps best understood through a comparison with Hollywood muscle, as contrasted with bodybuilding muscle.
Hollywood muscle vs. Gironda muscle
Since Spartacus hit the big screen, the standards of Hollywood muscle have changed. Kirk Douglas was muscular enough for the late 1960s when the quintessential muscular leading man was William Holden in The Bridge over the River Kwai, but would pale in comparison to the buffed-up cast of Starz’ over-the-top Spartacus series (2010-2013). Not Woody Strode tho. Woody Strode would still hold his own next to Peter Mensah.
Looking at the bas-relief and mosaics of antiquity, the buffed-up dudes of today have nothing on the buff dudes of the day: Roman arts show us guys with the same muscle mass and definition that we expect from Hollywood muscle.
Moreover, Hollywood physiques are attainable without steroids. Therefore, the significantly enlarged muscles of Ephesian gladiators were most likely in the same league as Hollywood ‘superhero’ physiques the likes of Ryan Reynolds (whose physique in Blade II triggered the T-Nation article just linked), Hugh Jackman and Josh Brolin.
A comparison with Hollywood physiques can also help understand why Galenus criticized the soft skin of gladiators. Hollywood dudes tend to manipulate body fat as a means to appear more muscular (as noted by Alwyn Cosgrove at the beginning of the post linked above) but hardly ever go to the same extremes as bodybuilders. And that’s where carbs come in.
Well, you sure look like a fat fuck to me!
Vince Gironda (to Arnold Schwarzenegger)
When young Arnold Schwarzenegger visited legendary bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda in the late 1960s, the cocky 20-something introduced himself with: “My name is Arnold Schwarzenegger and I am going to be the greatest bodybuilder who ever lived!”. Gironda was nonplused, as testified by his own reply: “Well, you sure look like a fat fuck to me!”
At that time, Schwarzenegger was not yet in the stage shape that would earn him Olympia titles. But he was also leaner than most of the bodybuilders of Gironda’s own competitive days in the late 1940s-early 1950. At that time, Gironda’s extreme leanness and vascularity had not been to the judges’ taste and he had routinely lost to competitors with rounder and softer physiques.
To get into contest shape, Gironda used a diet of steak, eggs, and low-carb vegetables (salad, celery, etc.) which, combined with his training protocols, left him depleted of muscle and liver glycogen and a very low blood glucose. If you recall the Energy Systems entry of the Analytic Fitness™ Dictionary, this creates the metabolic conditions for mobilizing fatty acids for energy, and therefore, for fat loss.
However, there is a drawback: unlike glycogen, fatty acids do not bind with water. Hence, muscles depleted of glycogen tend to appear “dry and flat” which is why enhanced bodybuilders eat carbs before the competitions and use drugs rather than diet to get rid of the fat and why natural bodybuilders (including Gironda) look so small in comparison. Then again, “small” is relative here: Gironda looks like a dry (and white) version of Woody Strode and Peter Mensah.
Since human metabolism has not changed since Antiquity, it would not have been possible to obtain a super-dry physique with the cereal-and-beans diet of gladiators. The gladiator’s diet that Galen criticized delivers the same quality protein as a steak-and-egg diet, but also boatloads of carbs, and thus, favors water weight. And thus, Hollywood muscle, not Gironda muscle
Soft skins, pigs, and fat fucks
Glycogen depletion is not ideal to sustain the type of effort gladiators would have sustained in the arena, which is clearly within the glycolytic range (again, see the Energy Systems entry). So the intensity at which they trained was yet another reason to wolf down the carbs and maintain topped-off glycogen stores. There is actually evidence of this intensity, as Kanz & Grossschmidt (2009) noted that injuries in the foot and ankle area indicated harsh training conditions.
[Athletes] spend their lives in over-exercising, over-eating, and over-sleeping like pigs.
But there might be more to Galen’s criticism than meets the eye when just looking at a gladiator. Galen’s medical theory was entirely predicated on the basis that moderation should be observed in all things (except moderation) and was highly critical of athletes who, according to him, neglect the rule of moderation and “spend their lives in over-exercising, over-eating, and over-sleeping like pigs.”
Gladiators, who were slaves, probably did not enjoy the same over-sleeping as free athletes, but they over-exercised and most likely over-ate by Galen’s standards. Submitted to harsher training conditions, they were probably more visibly muscular than free athletes, and Galen’s comment might have as well been nitpicking (not unlike Gironda’s). They were athletes, they exercised too much and ate too much. Sure, they did not sleep like pigs. But hey, they had soft skins! What about that?
Wrapping Up: Certe crassi fututores mihi viderint
So, how would have those fat fucks gladiators looked like after all?
Well, probably very much like the cast of Starz’ Spartacus who, compared to Vince Gironda in 1950 or Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1970,
look like fat fucks have soft skins. Well, maybe not Manu Bennett (on the right) but then again, his abs are photoshopped. And definitely not Peter Mensah (not on the picture) who looks like Woody Strode reincarnate. But the others? Fat fucks Soft skins, the whole lot of them!
As for the science side, the Ephesian evidence has more-or-less fizzled out. For all their cautious choice of words, Lösh et al. (2014) do not provide us with more solid evidence about the gladiator’s diet than the already available literary sources: not enough to differentiate it from the diet of their contemporary fellow Romans, and certainly not enough to draw conclusions about body composition.
And so, Ockham’s Razor will once again prevail, to the conclusion that ancient iconography is probably the Roman equivalent of Photoshopped pictures of Manu Bennett. Then again, there are non-photoshopped pictures of Woody Strode and Peter Mensah.
And likewise, sure enough, some gladiators must have looked in real life just as they look in the mosaics, just like Woody Strode and Peter Mensah: badasses who knew how to fight and did not need photoshopping.
^A passage of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers (8:12) however maintains some uncertainty about Pythagoras’ own recommendations for athletes: “[Pythagoras] is also said to have been the first to diet athletes on meat, trying first with Eurymenes — so we learn from Favorinus in the third book of his Memorabilia — whereas in former times they had trained on dried figs, on soft-cheese and even on wheat, as we are told by the same Favorinus in the eighth book of his Miscellaneous History. Some say it was a certain trainer named Pythagoras who instituted this diet, and not our Pythagoras, who forbade even the killing, let alone the eating, of animals which share with us the privilege of having a soul.”
^The quote is from An Exhortation to Study the Arts, but I pulled if from an article from The Lancet that does not specify the exact reference. At that point of writing, I really wanted to finish that post, so I did not check further. Sorry for being such a lazy fat fuck.