New evidence suggests Gladiators consumed plant ash for bone strength
A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE has revealed evidence that gladiators drank a beverage made from plant ash, vinegar, and water that was rich in calcium, essential for enhancing bone strength. The discovery provides biological evidence to support information in ancient texts that gladiators drank an ash-based drink for recovery.
Researchers analysed the battle-scarred remains of 22 gladiators found in a mass burial pit near an ancient gladiator cemetery between the Temple of Artemis and the city of Ephesus, Turkey dating to the 2 nd and 3 rd century AD, and compared them to the remains of 31 citizens from the same era and region.
In situ gladiator tombstone excavated in the cemetery in Ephesus. (PLOS ONE)
Using carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur isotope analysis (plants and animals contain different ratios of these isotopes), the scientists were able to determine that there were no significant differences between the diets of gladiators and the general population. Both groups appear to have had a mostly vegetarian diet that was high in nitrogen-fixing plants, such as lentils, barley, and beans. This supports descriptions of gladiator diets in ancient texts. Roman historians sometimes called gladiators hordearii ("barley eaters"), while ancient texts by Roman scholars Pliny, Galen and Tacitus describe a gladiator diet of barley and bell beans.
It was when the research team decided to test the ratio of the elements strontium and calcium in the bones that the huge difference between the two groups jumped out. The gladiators had almost twice the ratio of strontium to calcium in their bones, as did other populations.
Study lead Fabian Kanz, a forensic anthropologist at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, explained that strontium is readily taken up from the soil by plants, but is removed from the body by humans or animals that eat those plants. A strontium atom will occasionally replace a calcium atom in the bones, so plant eaters will have higher levels of strontium, Kanz added.
However, the fact that there were no significant differences in diet between the gladiators and the general population, suggests that the gladiators were getting this nutrient boost from elsewhere.
Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant by Jean-Leon Gerome (1859). (Wikipedia)
Gladiator recovery drink
"This is strong evidence that the gladiators were consuming something high in calcium to replenish their calcium stores that other people weren't and that didn't show up in the isotopes," says Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida who studies imperial Rome through ancient bones.
"Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion, and to promote better bone healing," said Kanz. "Things were similar then to what we do today."
In his Naturalis Historia, published in the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote: "Your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured." One can see how gladiators after a combat are helped by drinking this.
According to Kanz, consuming plant ash could have provided the extra heaping of strontium identified in the gladiator bones, however, they cannot yet rule out other possibilities. For example, dairy doesn’t show up in isotopes, so gladiators could have been consuming more cheese and yoghurt than the rest of the population.
Featured image: Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome (1872). (Wikipedia)