Monday, October 3, 2011


Russell Crowe from the Movie Gladiator
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

When I say Ephesus what does it call to mind? Perhaps you envision Paul being greeted by Priscilla and Aquila when he arrives. You might imagine John the Apostle sitting in a garden instructing his disciples Polycarp and Ignatius. Ephesus may bring the Blessed Virgin to mind as she lives out her life in the care of the Beloved Disciple. Experts believe that most of Paul’s letter to his nascent congregations scattered about Asia Minor were written from Ephesus. And last, but certainly not least, in Revelation there is the warning to the wayward Church at Ephesus from him who holds the seven stars in his right hand.

For Christians, especially those with an interest in the early Church, the mention of Ephesus evokes myriad thoughts and images. One thing that doesn’t immediately come to mind is gladiators doing battle.
A Relief of Gladiatorial Combat, Note Trident
And yet they lived, fought, and died more than 1,800 years ago in the arenas of this famous city. We know this because of the discovery of the world’s only known gladiatorial cemetery. Situated along the road that led from the city center to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this small graveyard contains the remains of over 60 fighters. Study of these skeletons is filling in the gaps in the literary sources and archaeological record, and providing insight into how gladiators lived…and died.

Gladiator in Jean-Léon Gérồme's Pollice Verso

I’d like you take a test. I’ve inserted two pictures. The first, at the top of this post, is an outtake of Russell Crowe as he appeared in the movie Gladiator. The one above is taken from the painting, Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), by 19th Century painter Jean-Léon Gérồme. Which of these two seems closer to reality? The man in the painting appears more than a little beefy. He couldn’t have been much of a fighter with that beer gut he’s sporting. After all, hasn’t Hollywood always taught us that gladiators were lean, mean, fighting machines, swift of foot and quick of hand…able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. As you will soon see, what’s been portrayed on the screen is more fantasy than reality.

The most surprising fact to come out of the Ephesus cemetery is the gladiators’ diet. Surprisingly enough, they were vegetarians who consumed a diet rich in carbohydrates, with the occasional calcium supplement. Ancient accounts of the gladiator life sometimes refer to them as hordearii — literally, barley men. Researchers Grossschmidt and Kanz subjected bits of bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc. They came up with some surprising conclusions. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein.

So it seems that Gérồme must have done his homework since his is the more accurate portrayal. The gladiatorial diet had nothing to do with poverty, religious beliefs, or sensitivity to animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were deliberately fat. Consuming lots of simple carbohydrates, such as barley and legumes, like beans, became a way of surviving in the arena. Packing in the carbs, packed on the pounds. Gladiators wanted, and needed, that subcutaneous fat. A fat cushion protected them from cut wounds and shielded nerves and blood vessels during a fight. A lean gladiator would not only have been dead meat in the ring, but he would have made for a bad show.

“Surface wounds appeared more spectacular,” explains Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn't hurt much, and the blood looks great for the spectators.”

Wouldn’t a diet of barley and vegetables have left the fighters with a serious calcium deficit? To keep their bones strong, historical accounts say they downed a vile brew of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium. Whatever the exact formula, the stuff apparently worked. Grossschmidt termed the calcium levels in the gladiator bones as “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 they studied died only after surviving multiple blows to the head. The proportion of wounds to the skull seems surprising, since all but one of the gladiatorial types wore helmets. Gladiators typically fought one-on-one, with their armor and weaponry designed to give them 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.

A Reconstructed Skull Showing Impact of a Trident

Three of the skulls of the Ephesian gladiators had been punctured by tridents, a weapon only used by gladiators. (See the reconstruction of a gladiator’s skull above.) 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.”

 It’s hard to imagine people enjoying such an event, much less even wanting to witness it. The early Christians boycotted the Roman festivals and games…one of several reasons they came under suspicion from their neighbors. As Christianity expanded across the Empire its civilizing influence led to a new ethic and mortal combat gradually passed into history.

Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings.


Nona King said...

How very interesting! Thank you for this. =) As a child, one of the career fields I thought of going into was archaeology, so this was a great read for me. Thank you for posting the link onto Facebook.

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow. Some amazing facts there, and stunning to think of gladiators taking "calcium supplements." I love the explanation of why they needed to be fat rather than lean.