Those About to Die

Those About to Die

They showed the film Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, for the first time in October 1960, in New York. The protagonist, Kirk Douglas, was the rebel gladiator. He was also the executive producer of the film. Even if fictional, the story of Spartacus reached the wider public and the Servile war, when the legions of Crassus faced and won over those bondmen who dared defy the Roman Republic (73-71 BC).

Forty years later, in May 2000, Gladiator came out, a widely successful movie directed by Ridley Scott. It narrates the story, taken from the novel Those about to die by Maximus Decimus Meridius, the commander of the Flavia Felix legion, who, disliked by the emperor Commodus, is reduced to slavery and forced to fight inside arenas as a gladiator, achieving great success and fame. At the end of the film, the two antagonists, Maximus and the Princeps fight against each other like gladiators inside the Roman Colosseum, and they kill one another. We need to clarify that the emperor Commodus, son and heir of Marcus Aurelius, was a great lover of circus games and adored fighting in arenas as a gladiator. The Historia Augusta and the Cassius Dius and Herodian offer anecdotes of this passion. He died after the conspiracy of the senators, the praetorians and his mistress, Marcia. He was strangled or slaughtered (iugulatus) by his combat teacher, the ex-gladiator Narcissus (192 AD).

The colossal had enormous success, won many prizes, was a box office hit and originated a long series of films, TV shows, TV series, comics, books and so on, all around the figure of the gladiators.

It is not the place to discuss the origin, the history, the different arms and combats among these fighting athletes of the past. We will not discuss the gladiator schools that flourished everywhere in the Roman world, nor the many amphitheatres still visible today (in the ancient Roman Empire territory, there are 200 of them), where the gladiator games, called munera, took place.

We will instead focus on the food gladiators ate. Many mosaics described the fights between gladiators (one of which was well-known and recently discovered in Pompeii, in the V Regio (cf. M. OSANNA, Pompei. Il tempo ritrovato. Le nuove scoperte, Milano 2019). A large and varicoloured one (5,68 X 3,15m) of the IV century, found in the private property of the Borghese family in Terranova, along the Casilina road, in the outskirts of Rome, consists of big mosaic panels showing hunting scenes (venationes) and arena battles.

The mosaics constituted the floor of the lavish Domus Patrizia. Today that masterpiece is preserved in the hall of honour of the Borghese Gallery in Rome, and it is part of its floor. The ancient images show fighters with dynamic bodies, mighty muscles and six-packs. These athletic characteristics could lead us to think that the diet of the gladiators was rich in animal protein and other nutritious foods that could justify their physical power.

But we are wrong. We know from different sources, primarily the Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (who died in Herculaneum in 79AD during the eruption of the Vesuvius), that the gladiators were defined as hordearii, meaning oat eaters. That cereal was so essential to their diet that it was always associated with this social group.

Other authors describe the gladiatoria sagina, the fattening food of the gladiators occasionally distributed to soldiers, too. Tacitus narrates that Vitellius, one of the emperors who reigned after the death of Nero in 69 AD, distributed some rations to his army. That prompted an invasion of civilians inside the camp, attempting to mix with his army and finally eat their fill (Historiae II,88).

A study from the Medical University of Vienna (2014), in collaboration with the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Berne, was held in Ephesus (Turkey). During the Imperial Rome period, it was a large metropolis with more than 200.000 inhabitants and an important commercial centre. Here they established a noteworthy gladiator school.

Scholars have analysed the bones of twenty-two gladiators buried in the ancient cemetery between the second and third centuries. The research revealed that they ate legumes and plenty of carbohydrates contained in cereals. They ate very few animal proteins, quite expensive at the time and consumed by the more affluent classes. Modern athletes feed on meat, fish, eggs, etc. On the other hand, ancient gladiators ate mainly bean and barley soups.

The analyses of the Viennese scientists showed that everyone ate legumes and cereals such as wheat, barley, spelt, millet. The Greeks and Romans have always widely consumed barley, which grew at all latitudes and was easy to preserve. Later on, they favoured wheat, healthier food and suitable for bread making. Great wheat producers were Egypt and the province of Africa. The millet was then widespread and used by all the populations of the Mediterranean coast.

Furthermore, they even gave gladiators barley cakes enriched with oil, honey and figs. That way, they would have an additional energy source before the fighting. However, bread, onions, cheese, milk, honey, olives, dried fruit and, sometimes, wine were not lacking in the gladiatorial diet.

The well-known doctor and writer Galen of Pergamon (II century AD), who, for some years, was the doctor at a gladiator school in Pergamon, dealing with the traumas and wounds caused by fights in the arenas. He narrates that at the end of the training and after the matches, they consumed a drink called poyus gladiatorus made from bone ashes and vinegar. Even Pliny the Elder mentioned (Nat. Hist. XXXVI, 203-5) and described it, underlining that they provided the beverage to heal diffused bone pains. Pliny wrote: Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators after combat are helped by drinking this.

It seems that they prepared this potion from the ashes of officinal plants. Researchers think that these ashes diluted in water supplied other minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc, essential to the diet of the gladiators. Their bones, conveniently examined, resulted being very robust.

The conclusion of the research is in AA.VV., Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies in Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD – Implications for Difference in Diet. Link: PLoS ONE (2014), Medical University of Vienna.

There is more. According to Galenus, this food, which implied the consumption of many simple carbohydrates in barley and beans, helped the gladiators fill up and put on external fat. That fat pad protected them not from wounds caused by deep cuts but from superficial strikes. During fights, they could hit some blood vessels superficially. A thin gladiator would not have offered a good show. Superficial wounds were the most sensational side of the event. If the athlete was hit only on the fat pad, he could continue to fight, but the abundance of blood spilt represented an extraordinary emotional event for the public.

Powerful and massive, our gladiators were, as Galenus stated, also a little plump.

On the occasion of the grand inauguration of the Amphitheatre Flavius, the Colosseum, in 80 AD, the poet Martial wrote the following epigram: That the warrior Mars serves thee in arms, suffices not, Caesar (i.e. Domitian); Venus, too, herself serves thee! (De Spectaculis, 6).

The poet hints at women who fought in the arenas, wrongly defined gladiatrix. That is less renowned, but they fought in coliseums, too. That may surprise us, but in those times, woman gladiators entertained and moved the public, also thanks to their nudity (they fought topless).

The Roman National Museum houses a mosaic depicting two women battling against a tiger. They are bare-breasted, armed and do not wear helmets. Alas! We know little of these Roman Amazons except for some references in literary Latin books. Their origins and their past are unknown. Did they train at the gladiator schools, or to which category did they belong? Less we can tell of their nourishment. Thanks to the testimony of Cassius Dione (75, 26, 1-2), we know for sure that emperor Septimus Severus prohibited performances with women gladiators in his edit in 200 AD.

We are about to end this piece on gladiators and their nourishment. Considering that Dichecibo6? was born in 2019 in Florence, thanks to Nicoletta Arbusti, we want to bring the attention of all readers to a document of the III century AD. Found in Milan, it concerns a Florentine gladiator.

It is the funerary stele of an athlete from Florentia, killed at twenty-two. The inscription recites:

‘To the Manes. To Urbicus, the pursuer of the first placement, Florentine by origin, he fought thirteen times and lived twenty-two years. His five-month-old daughter Olimpia, his daughter Fortunense and his wife Lauricia (dedicated) to their beloved husband, with whom they lived for seven years. I warn you, you who kill the winner: his followers will keep his memory alive’ (CIL V, 5933).

We do not have further information about this Florentine man, a secutor, namely a gladiator armed with a helmet, shield, short sword, who certainly was a champion if he won thirteen encounters. Maybe they sent him to Milan to a vast and noteworthy arena to fight powerful opponents. The circus of Mediolanum was the third biggest in Italy (155x125m) after the Colosseum and the one in Aversa. It is just a hypothesis that Urbicus had already fought in the arena in Florence, which we can catch nowadays only through the ellipsis of its image (126m in diameter). Its remains are under Piazza dei Peruzzi, via de’ Bentaccordi and via Torta. In Medieval times they built houses on the ruins of the outer structures and inside its area. Our secutor could have trained in the gladiator school annexed to the arena near the Arno river and not far from the Roman theatre, which lies under Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Gondi, with the cavea facing Piazza della Signoria and the scene along Piazza San Firenze.

Not all gladiators died young. We have news in ancient sources that many lived long, quit fighting, and became trainers inside schools. Some of them were famous and admired just as present-day sports champions! Highly ranked families were proud to host famous gladiators at their dinners. Roman matrons highly admired them.

In a celebrated satire (VI, 103-113), Juvenal describes the adventure of the matron Eppia, wife to a senator called The Gladiatrix. She fell in love with a gladiator Sergiolus (today we would call him little Sergio), a man far from handsome, and abandoned her family and all possessions eloping with him to Egypt. He was over forty, had a wounded arm and ‘many face deformities, such as a scar of the helmet, in the middle of the nose a large hump, and eyes emitting bothersome humour. But he was a gladiator!’ Juvenal concludes with a manifest double meaning: Ferrum est quod amant! It is the weapon that they love!’


The historian Fernand Braudel affirms that the Mediterranean is a thousand things together. In contrast, the writer Gesualdo Bufalino declares, there are many Sicilies, I will never finish counting them. That seems the best cultural frame to set our trip among history, culture and food. During such travel, Sicily and the Mediterranean region seem to communicate in a suggestive game of mirrors that reverberates its reflexes within a space-time span, embracing our Marem Nostrum (Latin for Our Sea). Hence, Sicily is not a visionary island or an imaginary landing place. It is a territory of influential encounters, able to enchant and attract peoples and personalities who conquered, inhabited, exploited and enriched her, and left a trace that superimposed and integrated the previous ones. Mild weather, soil fertility, plant and animal biodiversity, and abundance of fish in the Mediterranean Sea have inspired an outstanding blend of local and imported ingredients. Cultural gastronomy was born. It collects the taces of peoples and cultures that came one after another throughout history. We can identify several Mediterranean presences: Sicanians, Sicels, Elymians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevin, Aragoneses, and Spanish.


Anna Carfissi



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