Barley Men: Did Gladiators Eat a Plant-Based Diet?

When one hears the word “gladiator” – the highly-trained, fight-to-the-death, Roman athletes -- the first word that comes to mind is not necessarily barley. If you’re anything like me, when you think about what a typical meal for a gladiator would have been, meat is probably the first thing to come to mind. In actuality, a typical meal for a gladiator was mostly plant-based, and one of their main sources of nutrients was barley.

According to Pliny the Elder’s “The Natural History,” gladiators were also referred to as “hordearii” (“barley men” or “barley eaters”). This claim was supported following a scientific study of bones and skulls of gladiators found in a mass grave in Ephesus (located in modern-day Turkey). During the study, scientists analyzed isotopes and concluded that the gladiators’ diet consisted mostly of plants and especially barley and wheat; gladiators ate more vegetables and less meat than other inhabitants of Ephesus.

So why did the gladiators incorporate barley into their diets? On a practical level, barley is adaptable and resistant, so growing barley is relatively easy and cheap. On a nutritional level, the barley grain is rich in carbohydrate which would help gladiators to maintain their physical mass. Additionally, gladiators were specifically served sprouted barley as a gruel, a thin porridge, which improved the nutritional value and made it easier to digest.

Barley may not currently be the staple it was to the Romans, but it is coming back as a known superfood both as a grain and a grass powder. The health benefits of barley are undeniable. Graasi barley water was created with the gladiators in mind: an organic, ready-to-drink functional water containing nutrient-dense barley grass juice powder that promotes overall wellness and hydration. Who knows, maybe barley is exactly what you need to build the strength and stamina of your inner gladiator!



What Did Gladiators Eat? - Biblical Archaeology Society

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Top 10 Ancient Roman Foods and Drinks (

The Gladiator Diet - Archaeology Magazine Archive

Nutritional secrets of gladiators « IMPERIUM ROMANUM

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