Gloios: Grime, Sweat and Olive Oil

strigil2

Copy of a Roman Strigil set (199BC-500AD). The small bottle would have been used for the oil and the strigil was used to scrape away excess oil, sweat and dead skin. Wellcome Images, Science Museum

In the second century BC in the Macedonian city of Beroea there was a Gymnasium. Like many from its period, it had a Gymnasiarch who was responsible for administration and etiquette within the complex, and it existed as an important civic institution, governed by laws and funded by both the city-state and private funds. The gymnasium was the regular haunt of the neoi, the young men, and the ephebes whose training and socialisation was strictly regulated. By this point, in the Hellenistic period, the gymnasium was not just a place for athletics and training, but for all the education required to turn youthful boys into promising future leaders. Despite its importance within the community, the gymnasium at Beroea was barred to a great deal of people: slaves, freedmen, the sons of freedmen, tradesmen, male prosistutes, drunk people, people with physical disabilities and, unsurprisingly, women. It no doubt had places to train, talk, study, wash and oil up in preparation for the days activities. But as an inscription found in Beroea attests, the gymnasium also had another stream of income, often overlooked.

The inscription describes a law concerning the gymnasium and, among other regulations, contains one clause which outlines provisions for the sale of gloios from the bodies of those who were allowed to exercise. The revenues from this income are to fund the position of a palaistrophylax, a guard, for the gymnasium. Try to imagine what product a gymnasium could possibly produce and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come close to figuring out what gloios is. A clue lies with the aleipterion, a room dedicated to oiling or anointing the body.

attic crater attributed to Euphronios (late 6th century BC) Berlin museum

Image from an attic crater attributed to Euphronios (late 6th century BC), Wellcome Images

Gloios (γλοίος), known as strigimentum in Latin, is the combination of sweat and oil scraped from the body after exercising with a strigil. A strigil, like that pictured above, was a curved blunt blade used to scrape oil and dirt of the body after bathing or exercising. This process is not uncommon on vases from antiquity, which depict toned, athletic bodies in the baths or gymnasium. The Roman author Pliny the Elder, in his text Natural History, writes about the use of this substance for treating various ailments. Speaking of olive oil, he writes:

The Greeks, those parents of all vices, have abused it by making it minister to luxury, and employing it commonly in the gymnasium: indeed, it is a well-known fact that the governors of those establishments have sold the scrapings of the oil used there for a sum of eighty thousand sesterces. (NH 15.5)

For anyone unfamiliar with the exchange rate for Roman sesterces (myself included), this is a vast amount. Exact conversation rates are impossible to calculate, but historian Nigel Kennel helpfully compares this with the property qualification for the decurionate at Comum recorded in the works of the Younger Pliny (his nephew) as 100,000, only a little higher. This does little more than tell us that gloios-selling was a lucrative business, for we have no indication of how much strigimentum was sold, but its inclusion in Pliny’s writing suggests it was somewhat remarkable.

But why would anyone pay so much for a gummy paste of sweat, oil, and dirt? Pliny provides us with a pretty comprehensive answer in his section delightfully entitled Remedies Derived from Human Excrement. The scrapings from the bodies of athletics, he records, are looked upon as possessed of “certain properties of an emollient, calorific, resolvent, and expletive nature” (NH 28). Used in the form of a pessary for inflammations and contractions of the uterus, it is supposed to stimulate menstrual flow, reduce genital infections and inflammations of the rectum. It mollifies the joints and reduces swelling from sprains. Scrapings from the bath, he adds, are better for maturation, whilst those from the gymnasium are more suited to fight inflammation.

Galen, a 2nd century AD medical writer, places gloios among two other by-products from the Greek gymnasium which made their way into medical practice. These are rupos, the grime scraped from the walls or statues of a gymnasium, and patos, a combination of sweat, oil and dust from the wrestling ground. Dioscorides, writing a century or so earlier gives a precise account of the healing qualities of these different mixtures (pictured below). By this point public baths had become an institution and would have provided yet another source of nutritious and nourishing gloios.

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Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.34-36

Considering the effectiveness of gloios, David Potter suggests that these mollifying qualities owe themselves to the olive oil and suggests that trace elements of bronze scraped of bronze statues could have been an active ingredient, due to copper’s antibacterial properties which can alleviate infections. As for the sweat, we can only guess.

strigil2 vase 460bc

Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase (about 460 BC)

The evidence for this practice is fairly limited, but nevertheless there is reason to understand it as a pretty ubiquitous practice across the Greek world: Classical, Hellenistic and Roman. Aristophanes’ Strepsiades in Clouds, writted in 423 BC, hopes that a term in Socrate’s School of Knowledge will transform him into a fabricator of falsehoods, as supple as a leather strap and as slippery like gloios (Clouds 449). A fragment from the 3rd century BC of Teles of Megara tells of a man so poor that, unable to afford the olive oil with which to anoint his body, enters the bath and anoints himself with gloios instead. The collectors of this substance would have been slaves with very low status, unlikely to find their way into literature or epigraphical writings.

Visit an Ancient Roman bath or amphitheatre and chances have it that a tour-guide will tell you how the sweat of gladiators was collected by shrewd business women and sold off outside the arena as a prime aphrodisiac, a souvenir, or a moisturising face-cream. Perhaps this was the case (the blood of gladiators was believed to have curative powers), but given the complete absence of any evidence of this from the ancient world, we can suspect that the gloios story has been gradually warped into a more sexy and exciting version of its historical self.

 

 

David Potter, The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium

Nigel M. Kennel, Most necessary for the bodies of men: olive oil and its by-products in the later Greek Gymnasium (2001), p119-134