I doubt that I know any more about strigils than your average man in the street. I had read about them for years, of course, but I had never seen one with my own eyes until yesterday, when I took myself down to the Pompeii exhibit in Denver. There they were, kind of stuck away in the corner -- two bronze beauties.
Strigils were used for cleaning the body, ancient Roman style. Early loofahs. The one posted below looks a lot like the one I saw yesterday -- a garden-variety Denver/Pompeii specimen that was retrieved from under 20 feet of Vesuvian ash:
Here's another strigil, this one a little more elaborate.
They're kind of formidable, aren't they?
If, two thousand years ago, you had been patrician enough to go to the thermae for your ablutions, you would have left the calida piscina, the warm bath, and hastened to the destrictarium, which was a room dedicated to strigiling. There you would have applied a mixture of olive oil and pumice to your skin, and then one of your slaves, who might be an aliptes, a masseur, or a simple balneator, a bath attendant, would have strigiled you clean.
But why olive oil and pumice? Greasy and gritty. Why not soap? Did the ancients have soap? Who invented soap?
Fortunately, there's a website devoted to these important questions. Its forthright, unapologetic url is soaphistory.net.
The first traces of soap appeared among the Babylonians, some 5000 years ago. The recipe: mix animal fat with wood ash and boil. So soaps were around, but -- mirabile dictu -- they weren't used for personal hygiene. They were used for cleaning wool and cleaning pots; Pliny, who was there for the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius, and knew all there was to know, records only that soap was used as a hair pomade.
The world we have lost was a far dirtier place than we like to imagine. In point of fact, our familiar cake soaps and their widespread use are an industrial revolution-nineteenth century invention.
Considering the effectiveness and convenience of modern soaps, I'm not looking for a strigil revival -- no Mr. Strigil at every streetcorner. Nevertheless, there's not a brush or a washcloth in the modern world that can match the beauty of the best of the ancient strigils. Here, for example, is an old Etruscan strigil with a naked-girl handle (she herself brandishes a mini-strigil). It's less useful than a cake of Ivory, but -- let's face it-- a heck of a lot more glamorous.