The ancient Romans were known for enjoying violent forms of entertainment – public executions, animal hunts, chariot racing, and gladiatorial games. However, the blood and gore didn’t stop with the spilling of gladiator blood – they drank it too! Records show that between the 1st and the 6th century, theological and medical authors believed that the consumption of gladiators’ blood or livers could cure epilepsy.
Typically defined, a gladiator was an armed combatant who was placed in an arena to fight with other gladiators, or wild animals, or captured criminals or prisoners of war. The end game was simple – armed with basic weaponry, it was a last man standing concept. Gladiators often displayed Roman military ethics and fighting strategies, with frequent survivors and winners being venerated in some form or another, sometimes being represented in popular art and culture.
Gladiators. ( Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock)
Warm Blood as a Cure for Maladies
Epilepsy is a nerve cell disorder in the brain that causes the body to experience seizures due to activity in the brain becoming ‘abnormal’. Some scholars note that the origins of the unusual method of drinking gladiator’s blood to cure epileptics originates in Etruscan funeral rites. The Etruscans were an ancient people whose influence lay between the Tiber and Arno rivers, south of the Apennines, who reached their zenith in the 6th century BC. Many features of the Etruscan culture would be adopted by the Romans, their successors to power in the peninsula.
While the Etruscans were obsessed with their burial practices, as they were a highly religious people, the Romans secularized the practice, and continued drinking gladiator’s blood for centuries. In fact, certain sources from the 19th and 20th centuries document this practice until modern times! This is even included in Englishman Edward Browne’s 1668 observation that people attended executions to collect the blood of the victims.
Etruscan statue called the Mars of Todi. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
When gladiator sports were outlawed around 400 AD, the focus shifted to blood of freshly executed individuals holding properties that could cure epilepsy. While gladiator sports were legal in ancient Rome, the practice would be to take the still ‘warm’ blood of the slain gladiator and sell it those in the crowd, with the throat cut first. This blood allegedly would ‘cleanse the soul’, but over time, it began to specifically be used as a cure for maladies, particularly epilepsy.
Origins of the Epilepsy Cure: Texts and Sources from the Roman Period
Though human beings throughout history have considered human blood as a cure for maladies, the first mention of this as a form of treatment is by a Roman encyclopedist. Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote the voluminous De medicina (On Medicine) in 40 AD. Here, he writes, “Some have freed themselves from such a disease (i.e. epilepsy) by drinking the hot blood from the cut throat of a gladiator: a miserable aid made tolerable by a malady still more miserable.”
“But as to what is really the concern of the practitioner, the last resources are: to let a little blood from both legs near the ankle, to incise the back of the scalp and apply cups, to burn in two places with a cautery, at the back of the scalp and just below where the highest vertebra joins the head, in order that pernicious humour may exude through the burns. If the disease has not been brought to an end by the foregoing measures, it is probable that it will be lifelong,” he further elaborates.
Only 10 years later, in 50 AD, Roman physician-pharmacologist Scribonius Largus reported on a similar kind of therapy in his collection of prescriptions called Compositiones. Scribonius’ chapter includes two new elements that would give this treatment some form of medical administration. Firstly, he said that three spoons of gladiator’s blood for thirty days, administered 9 times, turned the magical origins into something seemingly scientific. He also added that the gladiator’s liver is beneficial too.
Romans believed that gladiator blood was a cure for epilepsy. ( Fxquadro /Adobe Stock)
Pliny the Elder would follow this up with swordsman’s blood being a magical cure for epilepsy, part of a larger series of shocking remedies. While it is historically difficult to ascertain a link between one text and the other, it seems that Celsus’ text served as inspiration for Scribonius, Pliny, and others who would follow.
This includes well-known physician of the first century AD Aretaeus of Cappadocia’s Treatment of Chronic Diseases , which talks of warm blood of a recently slain individual as a remedy. One of the last ancient authors to comment on swordsman’s blood as a remedy is Byzantine physician Alexander of Tralles, in 535 AD.
In the first of his 12 ‘ Medical Books ’, he writes, “Take a bloody rag of a slain swordsman or executed man, burn it, mix the ashes into wine, and with seven doses you will free the patient of epilepsy. Often applied with excellent results.” In total, 8 sources between the 1st and 6th century were identified by Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg from the Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany. They have, so far, authored the most comprehensive treatise and research on gladiator’s blood as a remedy for epilepsy.
From the Etruscans: Blood and Liver
From the Etruscans, where this practice originated, it was believed that fallen gladiators were offerings to the gods, and escorts for the dead to the next world. For this purpose, fights between swordsmen were arranged for the dead. Similar practices were found in ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, and Thrakia. Several ancient civilizations made use of victim’s blood as a holy, healing, and apotropaic substance.
The liver also played a central role in Etruscan sacrifice rituals and medical prognosis, which is obviously what Roman writers alluded to and borrowed in their own writings.
The fear with a disease like epilepsy was its seeming incurability, and an illusion of effectiveness of gladiator blood kept it relevant for centuries! Though several writers and physicians wrote and documented the practice, very few expressed the horror that they should have had about such a brutal treatment for such a brutal disease. “The blood of gladiators is drunk by epileptics as though it were the draught of life,” wrote Pliny the Elder, which summarizes their views for us.
Top image: Romans believed that gladiator blood cured epilepsy. Source: Mariyana M / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey