Turns out gladiators weren't that different to modern-day athletes and gym junkies. New research has found that after training they drank their own version of a Gatorade-like recovery drink made from plant ashes.
Researchers in Italy have been investigating the bones of warriors excavated from a gladiator graveyard in the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesos, and the results suggest that they drank a post-workout ash tonic to heal their bones.
Situated in modern-day Turkey, the ancient city of Ephesos became the the capital of the Roman province of Asia in 129 BC, and flourished for centuries, right up until the 15th century AD. Some time around 150 AD, the residents of Ephesos buried a bunch of gladiators in a dedicated cemetery, and then in 1993 a team of Italian archaeologists dug them up.
The remains of 22 gladiators from the site have since been investigated by a team of researchers led by forensic anthropologist Fabian Kanz from the Medical University of Vienna. In order to reconstruct the ancient diets of these professional warriers, they examined the stable isotope ratios of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur that were left behind in their bones. According to Maria Godoy at NPR, carbon can be used to determine what plants a person ate, and nitrogen hints at a diet of animal proteins. Judging from the results of their tests, the researchers determined that most of the warriors chose to forego any meat, and lived off a wholly vegetarian diet based on grains and beans.
Interestingly, when the team examined the bones of 31 'regular' people from the same time period, they found that the diets were about the same. This puts an end to the long-held theory that gladiators ate a different diet to everyone else, based on contemporary texts referring to them as hordearii, which means "barley eaters".
But there was one key difference that separated the gladiator and regular diets. When the team analysed the trace elements calcium and strontium in both kinds of bones, they found that, "Compared with the regular Joes, the gladiators had a much larger ratio of strontium to calcium," says Godoy.
Publishing in the journal PLOS One, the team suggests that the gladiators were deliberately ingesting a strontium-rich calcium source in order to build their bones, and there just so happens to be several mentions of an 'ash drink' in the literature of the time. As Pliny the Elder wrote in his text Naturalis Historia, "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."
"Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing," Kanz said 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."
Of course, as with much archaeological work on ancient civilisations, researchers can only do the best with the evidence that's been left behind, as US-based biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove from the University of West Florida told Godoy at NPR. "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. It's entirely possible gladiators were drinking ash drink, but they haven't proven it."
Now all we need to do is find is an ancient Roman ash-drink barrel with a replenished-looking gladiator on the side and we can put this one to bed.