We’re quite used to the idea of people making money from sport. But one ancient commercial activity which is very hard to parallel is the selling of sweat from the gymnasium.
It was standard practice to cover yourself in olive oil before exercising in the gymnasium. It was seen as beneficial for health. After exercising you would then scrape off the oil and sweat on your body with a metal scraper called a ‘strigil’.
The resulting mixture of sweat and dust and used oil was known as gloios.
Gymnasium employees had the task of collecting it so that it could be sold for medical purposes. It’s mentioned in quite a few medical texts. It had a range of uses, but it seems to have been used in particular to reduce inflammations. It was spread on to the affected area rather than ingested. Sometimes it was used in combination with the dirt scraped off the walls or statues of the gymnasium.
Gloios mattered for ancient gymnasia because it provided a significant revenue stream. One famous inscription, the gymnasium law from Beroia, gives us a glimpse of that process in a passing reference to the sale of the rights to the revenue from the gymnasium’s gloios–which suggests that this was happening on a fairly large scale
(There’s a really good piece on all of this, and on other aspects of olive oil use, by Nigel Kennell in M. Joyal ( ed.) (2001) In Altum: Seventy-Five Years of Classical Studies in Newfoundland, but it’s relatively hard to get hold of, and certainly not available online as far as I know…)
I think the most fascinating aspect all in all of that is the role of the gloios-collectors.
These people are barely mentioned in surviving ancient texts. But they must have been a common sight in gymnasia and bath-houses across the Mediterranean world. Presumably we have to imagine them as a constant background presence, going around collecting the scrapings and scratching at the walls while the exercisers went on with their training, or perhaps at the end of the day (although it’s hard to believe that could ever have been a full-time job–it must have been combined with many other duties in the gymnasium too).
The main reason for their invisibility in the sources is surely their low status, by contrast with the members of the elite who were the primary clientele of the gymnasium buildings they worked in. This can’t have been a prestigious profession, despite the value of the product they collected (there’s an obvious parallel in the role of fishermen in ancient culture–the fish they caught were highly valued, but they themselves had very low status and low incomes). Presumably many of the gloios collectors were slaves.
Here’s one rare ancient witness: Valerius Maximus, in his work Memorable Deeds and Sayings, a huge collection of anecdotes and exemplary stories, written in Latin in the first half of the first century AD. The extracts here are from 9.14, a collection of stories ‘On physical likeness’:
The father of Pompey [first-century BC Roman general, rival of Julius Caesar] appeared to resemble his cook, Menogenes, to such an extent that he was powerless, despite his military pre-eminence and his warlike spirit, to dislodge that man’s name from himself…
A young man of outstanding nobility, Cornelius Scipio, despite his plentiful supply of distinguished family names, was associated against his will with the slave-like name Serapio by popular gossip. This is because he was exceptionally similar in appearance to a sacrificial assistant of that name. Neither the respectability of Scipio’s behaviour nor respect for the many death masks of his ancestors, brought him any relief from being stained by this insult…
Hybreas of Mylasa was a prolific and energetic orator. But the whole of Asia Minor more or less assumed that he was brother to a slave of the city of Kyme who collected the scrapings from the gymnasium, so similar were they in the outlines of their faces and in all their limbs.
Status is the thing Valerius is fascinated by here above all, both in the Hybreas story and in the others in the chapter. The idea of high- and low-status individuals with identical appearance threatens the common ancient idea that elite identity was automatically linked with bodily beauty and dignity. Hybreas was an orator from the city of Mylasa in Caria (now south-west Turkey) from the first century BC. He was renowned for his enormous wealth and his political control over the city. But presumably this connection with the unnamed gloios-collector (from Kyme–another nearby city in Asia Minor) is a detail that could have been exploited by his political enemies, all the more so given that Hybreas seems to have risen from humble origins himself (Strabo 14.2.24).
It is not a flattering association. For Valerius Maximus collecting other people’s sweat is very far removed from the cultured behaviour appropriate to the political elite.
Thank you! I had forgotten about this small bit of intriguing yet bizarre part of history.
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