Gladiators’ Barley Polenta

Gladiator games may be one of the most legendary features of Roman culture, but what was it like to be a gladiator? Here, a look into the grueling, risky lives of the famed fighters and a recipe for their staple food.

The barley polenta in a giant bowl. Fit for a gladiator!

Juvenal, a satirical poet active at the end of the 1st century AD, describes a tactic that political bigwigs used to keep the Roman public happy: panem et circenses.

By appealing to people’s most immediate fancies — food (bread, or panem) and entertainment (circuses, or circenses) — they would stay fairly tame. The circenses part often involved elaborate displays of wealth by emperors and private patrons to distract and appease rowdy citizens. Even though there were under-handed political dealings hiding beneath their surface, gladiator games would’ve been exhilarating.

The scenes presented were sensational. Some of the types of fighters were dressed as Rome’s national enemies: the Samnite, styled on the once-hostile tribes to the southeast; the gallus, based on the Gauls to the west; and the thraex, made to look like a Thracian warrior from far to the east.

Others were based on more fanciful figures. The retiarius, equipped with a net and a trident, was usually pitted against the secutor, a gladiator heavily armored with a finned helmet: a fisherman and a fish. The laquearius was armed with a lasso, the scissor with a bladed gauntlet, and the andabata fought blindfolded!

The games were sources of other entertainment, beyond just fighting. There were certainly plenty of eats: thermopolia sold early fast food to spectators. Some of these establishments were found at the site of Carnuntum, a legionary fortress between Vienna and Bratislava that was also home to a gladiator school and a big amphitheater.

Gladiator games also included music, made by a type of straight trumpet deceivingly called a tuba, plus horns and water organs. And between acts of blood and gore, there was also comic relief. An image from Pompeii (I couldn’t find the original, sadly) shows burlesque characters — the pullus cornicen (horn-playing chicken) and the ursus tibicen (flute-playing bear) — hinting at an ancient take on rodeo clowns.

Taking all of these sketches into account, it becomes clear there was great thrill and gusto surrounding these fights, even if the men just yards away fighting on the sands were on their deathbed.

Life wasn’t so great for the guys inside the arena. Though they could become glorious celebrities, gladiators were people who had been dealt bad hands. Prisoners of war, slaves, condemned criminals. They lived in prison-like barracks called ludi (“schools”) with other gladiators and a team of magistri (trainers, often survived gladiators themselves), guards, physicians, cooks, and the lanista (owner).

The emperor Domitian, who supported athletics and entertainment, established four ludi during his reign: the Ludus Gallicus (Gallic School), the Ludus Dacicus (Dacian School), the Ludus Matutinus (Morning School, for the bestiarii or animal fighters), and the grandest of them all, the aptly named Ludus Magnus (Great School).

Much of a gladiator’s time in their ludus was spent training: wrestling, sparring with wooden swords, and practicing techniques on posts or dummies. In the Ludus Magnus, there was seating for almost 3,000 spectators; people were able to come and watch the gladiators grapple before the actual games, like ancient Rome’s spring training.

The Roman citizenry was allowed to scope out the gladiators on another occasion. Called the cena libera, gladiators were fed rich meals of sausage, fish, boar, and wine, among other things, before big fights, and spectators had the chance to vet the next day’s competitors to ensure good betting.

Epictetus describes in his work Discourses how, apart from these last suppers, gladiators were expected to eat abstemiously on top of harsh training:

You must act according to rules, follow strict diet, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself by compulsion at fixed times, in heat, in cold; drink no cold water, nor wine, when there is opportunity of drinking it.

On the whole, the diet of a gladiator consisted mostly of porridge made from one ingredient in particular: barley. Pliny the Elder records that the gladiators were even called hordearii, or “barley-men,” for this reason. The physician Galen notes that gladiators also supped on mashed beans, though he adds that they were indeed eaten with barley.

Barley’s not terribly exciting — it just doesn’t compare to the dromedary pretzels or jaguars’ earlobes Brian Cohen was familiar with — but it would’ve been a sensible choice. For one, it was cheap. Pliny remarked it had fallen out of favor by his day and was replaced by wheat, so it seems like second-rate grain. Food’s purpose for gladiators was presumably more utilitarian than it was for extravagant epicures of the same era.

It was stodgy, but barley made for a simple, dense, and fiber-rich food. It provided energy, too — energy that, when not used entirely in training, caused the accumulation of a paunch on many gladiators.

Our vision of gladiators is one influenced in part by the 2000 movie, but also by our current perceptions of yoked, trim athletes. Their training was intense and they were certainly fit, but gladiators probably were heavyset.

Having a bit of a gut was practical, though. A layer of subcutaneous fat dampened sword blows, protecting blood vessels, nerves, and vital organs so gladiators could keep fighting. Who knew carb-loading was so handy?

Why don’t we test out a gladiator’s provisions for ourselves? I found a recipe for barley polenta, Italian-style, taken from the pages of Pliny the Elder’s magnum opus Naturalis historia (Natural History). It’s made from barley, flaxseed, coriander seed, millet, and salt. Finally salt, not garum!

Quocumque autem genere praeparato vicenis hordei libris ternas seminis lini et coriandri selibram salisque acetabulum, torrentes omnia ante, miscent in mola… italia sine perfusione tostum in subtilem farinam molit, isdem additis atque etiam milio.

But whatever the mode of preparation adopted, the proportions are always twenty pounds of barley to three pounds of linseed, half a pound of coriander, and fifteen drachmæ of salt: the ingredients are first parched, and then ground in the mill… In Italy, the barley is parched without being steeped in water, and then ground to a fine meal, with the addition of the ingredients already mentioned, and some millet as well.

A gladiator graveyard in discovered in Turkey in 1993 (the only of its kind so far), near the ruins of Ephesus, yielded over sixty skeletons of former fighters. Isotopic analysis of some of their bones — testing their chemical composition — revealed abnormally high strontium signatures as compared to normal Ephesians.

As plants contain more strontium than animal tissues, this suggests a largely vegetarian diet, bearing out accounts by ancient writers. Another striking detail from the chemical testing was the high average calcium level in the bones. With a diet of barley, beans, and dried fruits, we’d expect calcium intake to be very poor, so what’s the reason?

Pliny also writes in Naturalis historia about an observation made by his predecessor Varro:

‘For abdominal cramp or bruises,’ states Marcus Varro, and I quote his very words, ‘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.’

Lye is very basic, with a pH of about 14, so it could have understandably acted to neutralize stomach acid and abdominal cramps like Varro said. It’s dangerous to drink, but diluted in water lye would’ve been a strong antacid.

The cinders themselves, though, had another benefit: rebuilding bones. Wood ash is rich in calcium, so drinking brews of them in water probably helped the gladiators heal. It certainly seems like this strategy worked, as it explains the reason the Ephesian skeletons had significantly stronger bones.

Without further ado, here’s my recreation of the recipe for Pliny’s barley polenta that, if you’d like, you can try with a glass of ash water:

2 cups of barley
1/4 cup of flaxseed
1/4 cup of millet
1 tbsp of coriander (ground, or same total if using whole seeds)
1 tsp of salt

Pour the barley into a skillet and roast over low heat. I did this in two batches, for not quite five minutes apiece. After it has cooled down, mill the barley into a coarse meal. Grind the flaxseed and millet, then mix into the barley along with the coriander and salt.

Bring three quarts of water to a boil in a pot, then reduce to medium heat. Slowly sprinkle the flour into the pot, stirring constantly to break apart dry clumps. Continue stirring for 15-20 minutes, until the polenta is smooth throughout.

For the optional glass of après-training tonic, start a small fire with a handful of sticks. Let the wood blacken (or whiten) completely. After leaving them to sit for about 10 minutes, gather the ashes into a strainer, set above a glass, and pour water over. Serve with the polenta and try to enjoy!

Photos of a gladiator helmet from Herculaneum, decorated with Trojan War scenes; the ingredients on the counter; a bowl of the meal; and the finished polenta (with a glass of ash water).

Fair warning: this recipe makes much less than Pliny’s initial proportions (about 18 times), but I still ended up with a ton of polenta! I’d say it serves three, just as a heads-up, or maybe one hungry gladiator.

The polenta was a bit bland, but I don’t know really what I was expecting. The coriander added some flavor, though, and it was totally edible. On the other hand, that ash water was just vile. I don’t recommend it! I wasn’t able to get myself to drink it all, but if I ever would, I might feel the need to pick up a trident and net and throw myself before a charging secutor.

One thought on “Gladiators’ Barley Polenta

  1. Made this cutting all ingredients in half. It ended up making two quarts of polenta. Actually found the taste to be pretty good and a refreshing change from corn-based polenta. Used a whisk when adding the ingredients to the boiling water which made it easy to ensure no clumps and good consistency.

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