Sorry, Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier, but you were not the first elite athletes to go vegan. According to research at the only known gladiator burial ground in ancient Ephesus (present day Turkey), gladiators ate an overwhelmingly plant-based diet with very little animal protein. Archaeologists found that compared to an average citizen of Ephesus, a gladiator’s diet was heavy in legumes and grains, like barley. Apparently, this archaeological evidence matches up with contemporary accounts, which sometimes referred to gladiators as hordearii–or “barley men.” This carb-heavy diet gave gladiators sufficient fuel for the arena and protected their internal organs from fatal wounds (read: subcutaneous fat). And to make up for the lack of calcium, gladiators took what might be called original calcium supplements–brewed charred wood or bone ash.
While I’m not saying gladiators are exactly vegan role models, I’m fascinated that ancient athletes/warriors relied on a plant-based diet over 1,800 years ago. And some present day researchers cite this as the first instance of known vegan elite athletes, and proof that plant-based diets can support–even boost–athletic performance. Intriguing, no?