Ca. 2nd century B.C.E.-5th century C.E.
Transferred from the Latin Department, Amherst College
Strigils were cleaning instruments used to scrape oil, sweat and dirt from the skin after bathing or exercise. Romans adapted their strigils from Etruscan and Greek models. In Hellenistic Greece, athletes applied olive oil to their skin before exercise and competition and then used strigils to clean their bodies afterwards. However, Romans viewed Greek athletics as impractical and decadent, and they adapted the strigil for use in their bathhouses. Greek strigils tended to be made of iron while Roman strigils were more often bronze; however, Romans used a variety of metals for strigils and so the provenance of strigils cannot always be determined from the material with which they were made.
This bronze strigil’s simple rectangular handle and curved blade is typically Roman. The popularity of baths increased from the end of the Republic to the Imperial Period when Romans built baths throughout their empire as a way to assimilate the provincials. Patrons of the baths rubbed olive oil onto their skin and then moved through a sequence of heated and cooled rooms before a slave used a strigil to remove the accumulation of oil and sweat. The strigils were likely used either outside in the exercise area or in a special “oiling room” called a destrictarium.
Strigils were used by people from all levels of Roman society, from the poor plebeians to the powerful Senators. The ancient historian Suetonius points out that Emperor Augustus himself developed marks on his body due to his “vigorous use of the strigil”. Wealthy Romans brought their own slaves and bathing instruments, including strigils, to the baths. These strigils could be decorated or made of more expensive materials such as silver or tin.
This strigil is unadorned bronze, which suggests that either a lower class patron or a bathhouse owned it. Often bathhouses provided slaves, oil and bathing instruments to patrons who could not afford to bring their own. Due to the widespread distribution of baths in the Imperial period and the lack of decoration of this particular strigil, it is impossible to determine where and when it was manufactured.
Written by Marissa Drehobl, Matthew Herman, and Victoria Rduch, Class of 2009