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The Sweat and Body Grime of Athletes Was Prized by Ancient Greeks and Romans

 ancient Greek athletes
The sweat of ancient Greek and Roman athletes was sold as a prized commodity. Credit: After Myron / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The ancient Greeks and Romans revered their athletes as heroes to such an extent that the sweat and grime that accumulated on their bodies during exercise and competition was a prized commodity.

Hygiene and health in ancient Greece and Rome were certainly advanced for their time. The work of physicians and scholars from both civilizations contributed significantly to our understanding of these fields. Nevertheless, you would be hard-pressed to find a doctor today who would recommend the consumption of a famous athlete’s sweat for health benefits.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, however, the sweat of a champion athlete was a converted product, equivalent to a miracle health elixir or premium sports supplement and it was believed that its consumption would confer several benefits.

The ancient Greeks and Romans purchased the sweat of athletes

The strigil was a popular tool used by the Romans, Greeks, and Etruscans in ancient times. Typically made of unadorned bronze, it served as a means to cleanse the body before exercise or using public baths. The process involved applying olive oil to the skin, and then slaves would use the curved metal blades of the strigil to remove excess oil, sweat, and dirt.

Both cultures had their own names for this practice: “strigimentum” in Latin for the Romans and “gloios” in Greek. Surprisingly, the removed body grime was highly prized and considered a valuable commodity with purported healing properties, especially when it came from the bodies of athletes. Admirers would purchase these scraped-off skin remnants, anointing themselves in the hope of absorbing the vitality and health associated with the athletes.

Bill Hayes, in his book Sweat: A History of Exercise delved into this curious practice, writing how this mixture was deemed to be so precious that some individuals went to extraordinary lengths, even collecting scrapings from bathhouse walls where athletes had leaned and left behind traces of their sweat.

Additionally, according to History Collection, wealthy Roman women would acquire vials of gladiator filth, utilizing it like a luxury facial cream.

Sports and celebrity culture in ancient Greece and Rome

Some elite sportsmen in ancient Greece and Rome were paid to play, travel internationally and enjoy celebrity status. They lived a lifestyle similar to a modern elite professional sportsperson.

In Ancient Greece, sports were deeply intertwined with religious festivals, and athletic competitions held in places like Olympia and Delphi were considered sacred events. The most famous of these games were the Olympic Games, held every four years in Olympia, dedicated to Zeus.

Victorious athletes achieved immense fame and honor, with their names recorded in historical records and poems, and they often received privileges and benefits in their hometowns. Athletes were admired for their physical prowess, and their achievements were celebrated as a testament to human potential.

In Ancient Rome, sports and entertainment were vital aspects of daily life. The Romans inherited many sports from the Greeks, and they expanded the scale of gladiatorial contests and chariot races, which became immensely popular among the masses. Gladiators, who were often slaves or prisoners of war, attained a unique form of celebrity status, especially if they demonstrated exceptional skill and valor in the arena. Charioteers were also admired, and rivalries between different factions of charioteers could lead to intense fan support.

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