The ancient Greeks and Romans had very different ideas on how to stay clean. For despite the Roman (deserved?) reputation for hygiene due to their elaborate plumbing systems, heated public baths and flushing toilets, this was before the invention of soap and their cleaning rituals can sound bizarre to modern ears.
One popular tool used by the Romans, as well as the Greeks and Etruscans before them, was the strigil. While common strigils were made of unadorned bronze, the more affluent had ornate personal strigils made out of silver or tin. The idea was to lather the body in olive oil before doing exercise or using public baths. Slaves would then use strigils, which were curved metal blades, to scrape off excess oil, sweat and dirt.
Known as strigimentum in Latin and gloios in Greek, this exfoliated body grime was actually a hot commodity thought to have healing properties, especially when it was scraped off athletic bodies. In Medium, Tim McGee explained that these sweaty skin scrapings were sold to “admirers who would anoint themselves hoping to confer the vitality and health of the athlete to themselves.”
“This presumably funky-smelling mixture, called gloios, was considered so precious that some went so far as to take scrapings from bathhouse walls against which athletes had leaned and left sweat tracings from their bodies,” wrote Bill Hayes in Sweat: A History of Exercise . History Collection described how rich Roman women would purchase vials of gladiator filth to use like a high-end facial cream.
A heavily corroded Roman bronze Strigil housed in the Science Museum in London, once used to scrape off sweaty body grime. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
Pliny the Elder had quite a bit to say about strigimentum in his Natural History , which he claimed Romans used to heal hemorrhoids, joint swellings, inflammation and even genital infections. The physician Galen explained that the smelly dirt was collected from the floor, walls and the statues of gymnasiums to be used for its medical properties. An inscription found at the gymnasium of Beroea in Macedonia from the second century BC made reference to the sale of gloios from the bodies of its customers. In this case it was collected to fund the position of a security guard.
McGee argued that this idea may not be as freaky as it sounds. Since modern science still doesn’t fully understand the way skin microbiota, the living microorganisms on skin, actually work, the idea of using skin scrapings from healthy individuals may actually have some benefits. Organizations like LikoLab have promoted the advantages of strigils, comparing modern soaps to “napalm for your skin.” Meanwhile Esker created a modern-day silver and teak strigil touting its “exfoliating and antibacterial skin benefits.”
David Potter, author of The Victor’s Crown , was more skeptical, claiming that the healing properties of exfoliated body filth had more to do with the olive oil and trace antibacterial copper sourced when scraping grease off bronze statues.
Top image: Ancient Greek athlete. Source: Fxquadro / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard