The Romans drank gladiator blood as a cure for epilepsy!


The ancient Romans were known to enjoy violent forms of entertainment – ​​public executions, animal hunts, chariot races and gladiatorial games. However, the blood and gore didn’t stop with the gladiator blood spill – they drank it too! Records show that between the 1st and 6th centuries, theological and medical writers believed that eating the blood or liver of gladiators could cure epilepsy.

Generally 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 weapons, it was a last man standing concept. Gladiators often displayed Roman military ethics and battle strategies, with survivors and frequent victors revered in one form or another, sometimes depicted in popular art and culture.

Gladiators. ( Photokvadrat /Adobe Stock)

Warm Blood as a Remedy for Diseases

Epilepsy is a disorder of the nerve cells in the brain that causes epileptic seizures in the body due to brain activity becoming “abnormal”. Some scholars note that the origins of the unusual method of drinking gladiator blood to cure epileptics can be traced back to Etruscan burial rites. The Etruscans were an ancient people whose influence was between the Tiber and Arno rivers, south of the Apennines, which reached its peak in the 6th century BC. Many traits of Etruscan culture would be adopted by the Romans, their successors in power in the peninsula.

While the Etruscans were obsessed with their burial practices, as they were a very religious people, the Romans secularized the practice and continued to drink gladiator blood for centuries. In fact, some sources from the 19th and 20th centuries document this practice right up to 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)

Etruscan statue called the March of Todi. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When gladiatorial sports were banned around AD 400, attention turned to the blood of freshly executed individuals holding properties that could cure epilepsy. While gladiator sports were legal in ancient Rome, the practice was to take the still ‘hot’ blood of the slain gladiator and sell it to those in the mob, throat cut first. This blood is said to have “purified the soul”, but over time it began to be used specifically as a remedy for diseases, especially epilepsy.

Origins of the cure for epilepsy: texts and sources from Roman times

Although human beings throughout history have viewed human blood as a cure for disease, the first mention of it as a form of treatment is by a Roman encyclopedist. Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote the voluminous Of Medicine (On medicine) in 40 AD. Here, he writes, “Some have freed themselves from such a disease (i.e. epilepsy) by drinking the hot blood of a gladiator’s slit throat: a wretched help made tolerable by disease even more miserable.”

“But as to what is really the concern of the practitioner, the last resources are: draw a little blood from both legs near the ankle, incise the back of the scalp and apply cupping, burn in two places with a cautery, at the back of the scalp and just below where the highest vertebra joins the head, so that the pernicious humor can be released through the burns.If the disease has not been stopped by the previous measures, it is likely to last a lifetime,” he says.

Only 10 years later, in 50 AD, the Roman physician-pharmacologist Scribonius Largus reported on a similar type of therapy in his collection of prescriptions called Compositions. Scribonius’ chapter includes two new elements that would give this treatment a form of medical administration. First, he said that three spoonfuls of Gladiator’s blood for thirty days, administered 9 times, transformed magical origins into something seemingly scientific. He also added that gladiator’s liver is also beneficial.

The Romans believed gladiator blood was a cure for epilepsy. ( Fxquadro /Adobe Stock)

Pliny the Elder would follow this with the swordsman’s blood as a magical cure for epilepsy, part of a larger series of shocking cures. While it is historically difficult to establish a connection between one text and the other, it seems that Celsus’ text served as inspiration for Scribonius, Pliny and others who would follow.

This includes the well-known first-century CE physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia Treatment of chronic diseases , which talks about the warm blood of a recently killed individual as a cure. One of the last ancient authors to comment on swordsman’s blood as a remedy was the Byzantine physician Alexander of Tralles, in 535 AD.

In the first of his 12′ Medical books “, he wrote, “Take a bloody rag from a slain swordsman or an executed man, burn it, mix the ashes in wine, and with seven doses you will free the patient from epilepsy. Often applied with excellent results. A total of 8 sources between the 1st and 6th centuries have been identified by Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg of the Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany. They have, so far, written the most comprehensive treatise and research on gladiator blood as a remedy for epilepsy.

From the Etruscans: Blood and Liver

Among the Etruscans, who originated this practice, it was believed that fallen gladiators were offerings to the gods and escorts for the dead to the afterlife. For this purpose, fights between swordsmen were organized for the dead. Similar practices have been found in ancient China, India, Mesopotamia and Thrakia. Several ancient civilizations used the blood of the victim as a sacred, healing and apotropaic substance.

The liver also played a central role in Etruscan sacrificial rituals and medical prognosis, which Roman writers alluded to and borrowed from in their own writings.

The fear of a disease like epilepsy was its apparent incurability, and an illusion of gladiator blood efficacy kept it relevant for centuries! Although several writers and physicians have written and documented the practice, very few have expressed the horror they should have felt at such brutal treatment for such a brutal illness. “The blood of gladiators is drunk by epileptics as if it were the sip of life,” wrote Pliny the Elder, who summarizes their views for us.

Top image: The Romans believed that the blood of gladiators cured epilepsy. Source: Mariyana M /Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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