It’s not hard to find references to the drinking of gladiator blood in ancient sources. However, it was most often used to treat what ancient medical writers called “The Sacred Disease,” which we now believe is epilepsy. Some thought it was brought on by the gods, while others argued for a more natural cause.
Of course, there’s no truth to the claim, but epilepsy held an important place in ancient medicine because it stumped doctors for centuries. It could come on suddenly, making it even more mysterious.
And when diseases are misunderstood, their potential cures are likely to get pretty interesting.
In their 2003 article, “Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine,” scholars Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg state that not only was gladiator blood a potential cure for this disease but a gladiator’s liver would be consumed as well. AND that the tradition may have continued in some places up into recent times!
“Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics…
…the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator.
Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.”
As the authors state, the condition we now know as epilepsy got better on its own in some people. But if they had the “gladiator treatment” and did get better, it simply strengthened doctors’ resolve to keep using it.
But why gladiator blood? According to Dr. Lydia Kang, MD, author of the book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything:
“They stemmed from this magical idea that young, healthy males had energy. If you could harness that energy right at the point of death, you could ingest some of this healthfulness. In other words: you are what you eat.” – WTF fun fact