Between horror and hope: gladiator's blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine

J Hist Neurosci. 2003 Jun;12(2):137-43. doi: 10.1076/jhin.


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 origins of the sacred or apoplectic properties of blood of a slain gladiator, likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the influence of this religious background faded during the Roman Republic, 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.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Blood*
  • Byzantium
  • Epilepsy / history*
  • Epilepsy / therapy
  • History, Ancient*
  • Humans
  • Magic*
  • Roman World / history