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The Grub of Gladiators and Roman Legions

Heavy on the beans on toast!

When we think of Roman legionnaires and gladiators we think of Russell Crowe’s muscular frame in the Gladiator. The image is not quite right. This isn’t to say that they were not strong, for they were. Roman legions marched for 20 miles carrying 40 pounds of supplies, armour and weaponry. They were in appearance, somewhat pudgier than we would think. Heaviness was not a detriment; in fact, it had a use for these men. Blades plunged into the body during combat were less likely to pierce a major organ or cut a nerve with a protective layer of fat in the way. Washboard stomachs need not apply.

Cover of Gladiator (Widescreen Edition)

This bountiful blubber layer was the result of their diet. Gladiators were, contrary to popular belief, highly prized and costly creatures and were fed well. Gladiator bones from a cemetery in Ephesus, Turkey, show high levels of bone repair; this may not have been due completely to calcium and vitamin D but to strontium. Though to keep their calcium levels up, they drank a brew of charred wood and bone ash. Gladiators were vegetarians. Their diet consisted of mainly lentils, legumes and grains. Gladiators were known as hordearii, the “barley men”. Onions, garlic, wild lettuce, dried fruit and bread made from fermented farro were also part of their rations. Gladiators ate large portions and ate at least three times a day. The gruel seen in Gladiator is half-right, yes, they would have eaten porridge like meals, but before going into the arena, the men had a large meal – “the last supper” so to speak.

Image via Wikipedia

The Roman legions marched on their stomachs and their stomachs were filled with savoury grains. Farro is an ancient wild wheat grown in the Mediterranean since prehistoric times. It is also known as emmer wheat and was one of the first grains to be domesticated. Farro, with its nutty flavour, was the mainstay of a Roman soldier’s rations. Soaked and then ground into a paste it was made into something like modern polenta. The men may have even been paid in farro. Analysis of army latrines in the castra, camps, shows high grain consumption. The soldiers had small grain mills to grind fresh flour for their bread, panis castrensis. Depending on which Roman writer one reads, the Roman legions are described as being vegetarian or omnivorous. There is a report of legions mutinying when forced to eat meat after their grain rations ran out. Their diet changed as the empire expanded, after all, one eats what is available. Bones excavated from British and German sites show that meat was on the menu: ox, sheep, goat, pig, deer, boar, hare, elk, wolf, fox, badger, beaver, bear, vole, ibex and otter. Variety was the spice of life for them. Most large animals, like cows and ox, would have been used for moving goods and for milk, rather than meat, and meat would have spoiled in the warmer seasons.

So it is a case of heavy on the beans on toast and light on the bacon. The effects of a mostly vegetarian diet made these men fat, fit and fabulously strong.

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