• Parker Johnson

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 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.

Bearing all of these sketches in mind, it becomes clear that great thrill and gusto surrounded these fights, even if the men fighting just yards away on the sands were on their deathbeds.

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 that barley 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 Ridley Scott's 2000 movie, but also by our current perceptions of trim, yoked athletes. Their training was intense and they were certainly fit, but gladiators were probably 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?

At another point in Naturalis historia, Pliny writes 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: take a look at the Ephesian skeletons with 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. What coriander I added gave the porridge enough flavor, and it was totally edible. But that ash water was just vile. I don't recommend it! I couldn't get myself to drink it all, but if I ever did, I might feel the need to pick up a trident and net and throw myself before a charging secutor.

  • Parker Johnson

This type of mint isn't in fashion now, but it was once used as a answer to an array of ailments from constipation to snake bites. Here, a bit about pennyroyal, a culinary herb, fragrance, and flea repellent.

A photo of a stand of pennyroyal. Look at those flowers!

Mint is one of my favorite flavors of ice cream. I'm also a fan of mint tea. This herb I'm especially fond of is used in a wide range of dishes, from curries to pasta and jellies to juleps. For Roman diners, the variety was similar: mint was added to salads, vegetable dishes like Alexandrian gourd, and sauces for boar, venison, wild sheep, hare, and pork.

All two dozen or so types of mint spearmint, peppermint, apple mint, corn mint, and more are grouped in one genus. Mint is part of a star-studded family, Lamiaceae, that includes loads of other aromatic herbs. Some are cooked with nowadays basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, sage, savory, oregano while others are mostly medicinal lavender, catnip, and bee balm.

But one species of mint has been mostly lost to time: pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium). Native to southern Europe, western Asia, and northeastern Africa, it looks like its minty kin, growing 1-2 feet tall, with dimpled leaves and roundish pink flowers on straight stalks.

Largely obsolete today, pennyroyal only shows up in (to my knowledge) nine recipes in the whole of Apicius, a huge ancient cookbook. This might seem surprising, but even though it didn't often make its way into Roman dishes, pennyroyal still found a place among the food.

Ovid, who lived around the end of the first century BC, wrote a notable fable about the importance of hospitality. Philemon, a Phrygian peasant, and his wife Baucis are the only in their town to welcome a pair of guests into their home. These strangers turn out to be Zeus and Hermes, disguised as farmers, who came to earth to test people's faith. The whole region subsequently flooded, and the gods saved the two good hosts for their generosity and piety.

As they set the table for their unexpected guests, Philemon and Baucis decorated it with mint. Not only was this choice made because mint was held as a symbol of hospitality, but also because it smelled good. In addition to sitting on tables, mint was strewn on the dirt floors of homes and hung on the walls in antiquity to act as a natural air freshener.

Pennyroyal, being a type of mint, was thought to be wonderfully fragrant. Its aroma was one Pliny the Elder found invigorating:

It is for this reason that Varro has declared that a wreath of pennyroyal is more worthy to grace our chambers than a chaplet of roses…

The scent of pennyroyal was used as a deodorizer, as we can see, but Pliny also writes it could fend off the "injurious effects of cold or heat." Like most herbs, pennyroyal was used as medicine. Pliny notes that it could cure twenty-five ailments, with wild varieties having seventeen more applications. Quite a lot!

The pennyroyal balms in Pliny's Naturalis historia (Natural History) are mostly decoctions of the herb with other things. With wine, pennyroyal can act as a diuretic or can be applied to scorpion stings. Mixed with vinegar and polenta, it cures constipation, vomiting, and different pains when applied topically, and with water it stops nausea, chest pain, and stomach aches.

I've read that the internal use of pennyroyal can actually be risky when ingested, it's toxic and can cause liver trouble. Maybe some of those remedies aren't such a good idea! But one application of pennyroyal, not a corporal one, is probably the most important and gives the herb its name - flea repellent.

The Latin word for the herb, pulegium, is believed to have come from pulex, meaning “flea.” Transferred into Anglo-Norman, pulegium became puliol, but real "royal" was tacked onto the end. Because of natural evolution and folk etymology (one foreign word being switched with a more familiar one), puliol real became "pennyroyal." We're able to see that our current word, broken down, basically means "royal pennyroyal." Who knew?

As I've only encountered pennyroyal in one recipe so far, an herb spread called moretum, I haven't made a regular formula for substitution. In that recipe, though, I just used regular spearmint.

Something to note is that Columella, the recipe's author, had both mint and pennyroyal on his list. I'm not totally sure how their flavor profiles compare, but it seems like there was enough of a difference that distinguishing between them was necessary.

I'm hoping to get some pennyroyal going this spring so I can find out for myself. And should I ever find I have an especially bad flea infestation or need a posy to put on a table, I'll know just what to try!

  • Parker Johnson

Just as many people may claim their favorite cheese Gouda, Cheddar, Brie stands above the rest, Pliny the Elder thought a variety from Gaul was superior. Here, a look into curdled milk and a recipe for this prince among cheeses.

The ball of cheese I made on a plate, garnished with a wreath of thyme.

Today, there are, really, uncountable varieties of cheese. Cheese can be made from cow milk, or sheep milk or buffalo milk or camel milk. Cheese can be fresh and soft or aged and hard. Cheese can be smoked, or purposefully inoculated with mold (blue cheese is great, by the way). Or cheese can be flavored with chives, or with jalapeños, or cranberries, or dill.

The options are infinite. But how did we end up with this food that can so artfully be worked into pasta, potatoes, eggs, and sandwiches?

Some 7,000 years ago, members of the Linear Pottery culture inhabited a swath of land from the Netherlands to Romania. Named for the defining designs on their earthenware, archaeologists have uncovered a handful of important sites mostly clustered in along the Elbe, Rhine, and Danube rivers. One of these prehistoric finds, located in Kujawy in north-central Poland, bore fragments of clay sieves among other potsherds.

Chemical analysis of these chips of pottery revealed traces of lipids on their surfaces. Based on this discovery and their resemblance to modern strainers, it's believed the Linear Pottery culture was busy producing cheese well before anybody assumed. This cheese was simple, probably similar to cottage cheese today, and there wouldn't likely have been multiple types like there are now.

As cheesemaking evolved, varieties arose. Later Egyptian murals and Sumerian writings mention cheese. We can't say what even those cheeses would have been like, but it's evident that by the time of the Roman empire there were established cheese preferences, formed from a wide range of products made around the Mediterranean. Pliny the Elder says the following about the best cheeses by Roman standards:

The kinds of cheese that are most esteemed at Rome, where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison, are those which come from the provinces of Nemausus, and more especially the villages there of Lesura and Gabalis; but its excellence is only very short-lived, and it must be eaten while it is fresh.

So ancient gourmets decided some of the best cheeses came from France — not much has changed! The "provinces of Nemausus" would have been Gallia Narbonensis or southern Gallia Celtica, in south-central France, and Nemausus the city of Nîmes. Initially settled by a tribe of Gauls, Nemausus became important to the Romans as a city along the Via Domitia, the road connecting Italy with the province of Hispania.

Even many centuries later, modern Nîmes is like Rome away from Rome. The city boasts an excellent amphitheater that hosts mock gladiator fights each spring, has one of the best-preserved Roman temples anywhere, and was the destination of the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct used to supply much-needed water to its citizens.

The cheese produced around Nemausus in the grassland of southern Gaul was tasty, as we can tell from Pliny's description. We also know it was fresh. In the original Latin text, this is caseus musteus though it looks like "musty," Pliny adds this to note the Gallic cheese was new, not aged.

These things we can tell, but what was it made from? What comes after the passage above may clue us in:

Goats also produce a cheese which has been of late held in the highest esteem, its flavor being heightened by smoking it. The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine.

We can assume the "cheese of this kind" is goat cheese, maybe specifically smoked. If the cheese from Nemausus was deemed to be the best but Pliny said the Gaulish goat cheese had a strong medicinal taste, it doesn't seem like chèvre would've been the cheese in question.

While we work to narrow our search, archaeological evidence can be an especially useful tool. As French archaeologists sifted through the remains of Entremont, an oppidum (walled town) near Aix-en-Provence and not too far from Nîmes, they excavated a number of animal skeletons.

Just under half belonged to pigs, but I would reckon these were mostly for meat Varro writes that the Gauls exported ham to Rome (De re rustica II). Pig milk is gamy and watery, and sows don't take kindly to people pinching them.

The next most common find was sheep, then cattle. Among the livestock remains at Entremont were cheese baskets that would've been used to shape each wheel. Cheese production, as we can see, wasn't a foreign practice to the Gauls in southern France.

Both sheep and cattle are milked today to produce southern French cheeses: ewe's milk makes Roquefort, cow's milk makes Cantal. So these two types of milk are possibilities, but archaeological evidence doesn't conclusively rule in favor of one or the other.

Entremont is located at the edge of a plateau, where sheep are often raised today. I figure there is geographic continuity: the conditions that make tending sheep in that area common today would have been similar for the Gauls living at the ancient site of Entremont.

The name of one of the cheesemaking villages Pliny mentions Gabalis comes from a tribe of Gauls, the Gabali, who lived in the area just north of Nemausus. Their capital, though actually named Anderitum, was given the name civitas Gabalum, "city of the Gabali," in Latin. This town eventually became Javols, and sits on the eastern end of the Plateau de l'Aubrac, a volcanic highland covered with meadows.

By this same token, then, as cattle farming continues to be one of the main activities on this plateau, it seems feasible that the native Gabali would have herded not sheep, but kine. As Pliny mentions "kinds of cheese" that came from Gaul, it's likely both sheep and cow milk were used. With geography in mind, though, the latter is what I've decided to pick.

Another reason for my choice: I'd love to make cheese with sheep milk, but it's hard to find, period (especially now, a little too early in the year), and the milk I could potentially get would be ultra-pasteurized and useless for these purposes (as we'll see later).

This dish, unlike some of the other ones I've recreated, is less faithfully concocted. I suppose that's the nature of looking beyond the cookbooks of Rome there are scant written records in Gaulish, let alone information on food or recipes. Take this recipe cum grano salis with a grain of salt if you wish, but I think it's exciting even trying to fathom what life with the neighboring Celts might have been like.

Photos of the Arena of Nîmes, the"Maison Carrée" temple, and pastureland on the Plateau d'Aubrac (where the Gabali would have herded).

In 2018, archaeologists chanced on jars of 3,200-year-old cheese in the tomb of Ptahmes at Saqqara in Egypt. This is a remarkable discovery it's some of oldest cheese found, and was preserved well but it would've had some nasty side effects. Traces of the bug Brucella melitensis were detected in the cheese, and its eaters probably would have contracted brucellosis, causing sweating, myalgia, and bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.

Fortunately for us, heating milk eliminates this fear. It also eliminates useful bacteria in milk, and denatures some proteins necessary for curdling. As I was perusing the dairy aisle at my grocery store, all of the milk I came across was pasteurized (alas, just not the same as a byre in southern Gaul!). I wasn't able to find raw milk anywhere, but in my fraught searching, I found there's a fix: vat pasteurization.

Yes, it's still pasteurized. But vat, or batch, pasteurization heats the milk at a lower temperature for longer, leaving more of the enzymes and beneficial bacteria in the final product. Raw cow juice would be best, but I didn't want to wind up sick.

To ensure better curd formation, I decided to add kefir, a probiotic-rich drink made from fermented milk. It contains many of the mesophilic bacteria destroyed by pasteurizing milk, necessary for developing the flavor and texture of the cheese. Kefir is also a more accessible alternative to a designated cheese culture packet, and does mostly the same job.

Some of the bacteria that would have landed in the bucket of milk in a Gallic cowshed, I reckon, could be restored after modern heat treatment. But without further ado, here's a recreated version of a Gallic curd cheese that could have been made in the pastures north of Nemausus:

½ gallon of milk, whole and NOT ultra-pasteurized

½ cup of kefir

5-6 drops of rennet (vegetable or animal, or mineral if you're a modern Major-General)

1 tbsp of salt

Pour the milk and kefir into a pot and mix together well. The milk I used wasn't homogenized, so I had to break apart globs of fat with my spoon. Heat on low (100ºF) for around 90 minutes, making sure the temperature stays constant. I found a film collected on the surface of the pot while mine was cooking.

Dilute the rennet in about ¼ cup of warm water. Take the pot off of the heat, and slowly stir in the rennet mixture. Let the milk sit for half an hour or so (I'm imprecise with timing, but I think it depends on what you're working with) to coagulate.

Bring the milk back up to temperature on low heat. I noticed the milk was wrinkly on the surface at this point. Score the milk in the pot with a knife (this it to break up the curds) so you end up with about one-inch cubes. Gently stir the curds around for about 15 minutes you may see that they start to clump together.

Line a colander with cheesecloth. Fish the curds out of the pot with a slotted spoon, draining off any excess whey. Salt the curds as you add them to the cheesecloth. A whole tablespoon may seem like a lot, but it helps to draw out moisture and will eventually trickle away.

Pulling the corners together, twist the cheesecloth and wring out what moisture is left. Then tie the cloth off and hang it over a bowl for 24 hours to condense and dry out completely. The following day, unwrap the cheesecloth, slice, and enjoy!

Photos of the ingredients, milk with rennet, milk after heating with rennet (visible separation), curds in cheesecloth, and the final product.

For my first time making ancient-like cheese, this wasn't bad at all! I did find it was a little rubbery and slightly bland. I skimped on salt and added a dash too much rennet, I think, but these are several things I've adjusted with the recipe above.

The options for serving this cheese are endless. Slice it and eat it with some panic bread as its makers might have done, or enjoy it in Roman fashion: a foreign delicacy topped with slathers of epityrum and served alongside figs and apples. Reading about ancient food is one thing, but recreating it is much more gratifying especially when the end product is grate.