Roman gladiators knew the value of calcium

Ancient Roman society was highly socially stratified with some records suggesting that different population groups had significant variation in the type of diet they ate. In particular Roman gladiators were a unique cultural phenomenon and historic sources, including the writings of Pliny the Elder, suggest that gladiators had their own diet called “gladiatoriam saginam” which included barley and bell beans (vicia faba). Contemporary reports have referred to gladiators as “hordearii” (“barley eaters”).

Few human remains of Roman gladiators have been recovered to help verify these suggestions about their diet but in a recent study by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna in collaboration with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, bones were examined from a gladiator cemetery uncovered in 1993 which dates back to the second or third century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesus (now in modern-day Turkey). At the time, Ephesus 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 result shows that gladiators mostly ate a meat-free, grain-based diet of wheat, barley and in some cases millet. However, this research found no difference in terms of nutrition between the gladiators and the rest of the local population.

However, one big difference emerged between the gladiators and the normal population in terms of the amount of strontium measured in their bones. This leads to the conclusion that the gladiators had a higher intake of minerals from a strontium-rich source of calcium and this is likely to have been plant ash. Plant ash is known as a culinary spice and also as a medical remedy in many cultures. It is frequently mentioned as pyxis in Roman texts. In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder describes a beverage made of stove ashes that played a role in the life of gladiators. This ash beverage was served after fights and maybe also after training to remedy body pain and is a possible explanation for the high strontium/calcium values in the gladiator bones. Today, modern athletes take magnesium and calcium following physical exertion and competitions and in general to maintain their overall health and athletic performance.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 15 November 2014, Vol 293, No 7836;293(7836):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20066964

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