A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How to eat, exercise, and die a violent death
The Café Westend, just across the street from Vienna's main train station, is a city landmark. Its green felt-lined booths and weary waiters in wrinkled black suits have seen a lot over the years. But when he agreed to meet me here instead of in his lab on the edge of town, Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna, promised to show me something new even to this century-old coffeehouse. Pushing aside empty cappuccino cups and the remains of a dry croissant, Grossschmidt takes a quick look over his shoulder to see if our waiter is out of sight. Coast clear, he reaches into a plastic grocery bag and pulls out a white cardboard box. Inside, padded with crumpled paper towels, is a jawless skull. Grossschmidt lifts it gently and passes it to me. "Don't drop it--it's real," he says.
The three holes in this skull are evidence of death by trident for one Ephesus gladiator. A computer-generated image shows how the weapon would have entered the skull. (Courtesy Karl Grossschmidt)
Reaching out with both hands, I take the skull of a Roman gladiator who lived, fought, and died more than 1,800 years ago in Ephesus, in what is now western Turkey. Together with more than 60 of his young comrades, he was buried in a 200-square-foot plot along the road that led from the city center to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The recent study of the bones from the world's only known gladiator graveyard is filling gaps in the literary sources and archaeological record concerning how gladiators died. But the biggest revelation to come out of the Ephesus cemetery is what kept the gladiators alive--a vegetarian diet rich in carbohydrates, with the occasional calcium supplement.
Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii--literally, "barley men." Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. "Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat," Grossschmidt explains. "A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight." Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds "look more spectacular," says Grossschmidt. "If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on," he adds. "It doesn't hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators."
The existence of the four-pointed dagger (replica pictured here) was known from inscriptions, but its function was a mystery until this crippling quadruple knee wound was identified. (Courtesy Karl Grossschmidt)
But a diet of barley and vegetables would have left the fighters with a serious calcium deficit. To keep their bones strong, historical accounts say, they downed vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium. Whatever the exact formula, the stuff worked. Grossschmidt says that the calcium levels in the gladiator bones were "exorbitant" compared to the general population. "Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements," he says. "They knew that then, too."
That's not to say life--or death--as a gladiator was pleasant. Many of the men Grossschmidt's team studied died only after surviving multiple blows to the head. "The proportion of wounds to the skull was surprising, since all gladiatorial types but one wore helmets," says Harvard's Coleman. Gladiators usually fought one-on-one, with their armor and weaponry designed to give opposite advantages. For example, a nimble, lightly armored and helmetless retiarus with a net and trident would be pitted against a plodding murmillo wearing a massive helmet with tiny eye slits and carrying a thick, long shield. Three of the Ephesus skulls had been punctured by tridents, weapons used only by gladiators. Ten had been bashed in with blunt objects, perhaps mercy blows with a hammer. Other injuries illustrate the gladiator's ideal death, finally accepting the coup de grâce. Cut marks on four of the men were evidence of a dramatic end. "When they lost and were lying on their stomachs, their opponent stabbed them through the shoulder blade into the heart," Grossschmidt says. "We also found vertebrae with cut marks. They would have been from a downward stabbing sword wound through the throat into the heart."
Contributing editor Andrew Curry is based in Berlin.