Unknown artist, Roman
Strigil, 1st century CE-3rd century CE
22 x 2.8 x 8 cm (8 11/16 x 1 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches) (maximum of blade; of concavity of blade)
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke 15.142
To cleanse the skin, ancient Romans applied perfumed oil and then scraped it away using a small, curved metal tool known as a strigil. This bronze strigil was most likely cast by the solid lost-wax method and hammered. In order to form the rounded blade, the cast piece would have been carefully flattened using various techniques. As this strigil was hammered it would have been annealed, or heated evenly and then cooled in order to reshape and restore the metal and prevent it from becoming too brittle. Although the surface was once a warm brown color, prolonged exposure to oxygen and mineral-rich environments has caused extensive yellowish corrosion and a dark, mottled-green patina.
Mitten, David Gordon. “Classical Bronzes”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1975.
About the work
Bathing was a major part of daily and civic life in ancient Rome. Indoor plumbing existed but was a luxury, so most people visited public bath complexes, which were a combination of a modern gym and a spa. Baths usually offered pools of hot, tepid, and cold water, a sauna, and an exercise yard, with larger complexes also having libraries and places to buy food. Visitors to the baths could expect to spend a long time there, so bathing was a social occasion; business partners would meet for a soak and politicians often made campaign stops.
Though soap is synonymous with bathing today, it was rarely used and prohibitively expensive in the ancient Mediterranean. Instead, people cleaned themselves by rubbing oil on their bodies then scraping it off, along with dirt and dead skin, with a strigil. This method of cleaning dates to ancient Greece, where scenes of athletes scraping themselves with strigils were commonly depicted in statues and pottery (see the detail on this krater). Wealthy people were oiled and scraped by their slaves.
Although the strigil consists of only a scraper and a handle, considerable skill was needed to produce its deceptively simple design. Made of bronze, this example was likely cast as one piece through the lost-wax method. The metalsmith carved a wax model of the object and encased it in clay. This was then heated, melting the wax and hardening the clay into a mold, into which molten bronze was poured. To produce the curved blade, the craftsman hammered it into shape and annealed it, repeatedly heating the metal evenly and cooling it rapidly, allowing the blade to retain its shape without getting brittle. Most strigils were part of a set of multiples, each a different shape for a different part of the body, all kept on a ring (hence the looped handle) with the aryballos, or small oil flask. Given the generous curve of this strigil, it was probably used for the back, chest, upper legs, or buttocks.
What do strigils and public baths reveal about Roman habits and values about hygiene? How are these similar or different to contemporary habits?
Imagine you are an archaeologist from the future looking at the bathroom in your house. What objects would you find? What rituals or practices do these objects suggest? What kind of conclusions would you draw about the role of personal hygiene in contemporary American society?
Design a handle for a strigil that would allow the user to hold it comfortably and use it effectively. What would you make the handle out of? Consider available and appropriate materials.
Yegül, Fikret. Bathing in the Roman World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.