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Burly Gladiators Were Vegetarian?

Oct 20, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

When you think of Roman gladiators, you might picture burly, muscular men chowing down on slabs of meat and guzzling down flagons of wine, but these prized fighters were actually vegetarians, according to a new study.

A team of anthropologists realized their bean and grain diet after analyzing bones of warriors found during excavations in the ancient city of Ephesos. The gladiator cemetery, first found in 1993, dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesos, which is now in modern-day Turkey. At the time, Ephesos was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had over 200,000 inhabitants.

Using spectroscopy, stable isotope ratios (carbon, nitrogen and sulphur) were investigated in the collagen of the bones, along with the ratio of strontium to calcium in the bone mineral. The results showed that gladiators were in fact "barley eaters," with diets consisting primarily of grain and meat-free meals. This vegetarian diet was in no way different in terms of nutrition compared to food eaten by the "normal population," but the name barley eaters suggests that gladiators were probably given grain of an inferior quality.

What's more, instead of robust wine, these fighters drank ashes after training as a tonic.

"Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing," study leader Fabian Kanz, from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna, explained in a statement.

"Things were similar then to what we do today - we take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion."

Analysis of their bones, compared to the general public of Ephesos, shows a high amount of strontium measured in their bones, suggesting that the gladiators had a higher intake of minerals from a strontium-rich source of calcium.

The findings were detailed in the journal PLOS ONE.

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