Have you ever really wanted a shower? Really, really wanted? Felt so gross that you try not to move around too much for fear that, say, raising your arm a little bit is going to make the stranger next to you on the subway faint because of the toxins you will release?
The last time that happened to me was when I was on vacation in Rome. If you learn one thing from this column, that thing should be: don’t go to Rome in August. It is hot. HOT. And there is no air-conditioning. I was my own little constant, mobile sauna of sweaty disgust. Every shower felt so wonderful, like the water was produced by angels crying tears of joy.
But as I was sudsing up with all my soaps and shampoos and conditioners and generally enjoying the heck out of the miracle of running water, I had to think about the ancient Romans. They, too, had to deal with August in Rome. And definitely no air-conditioning for them (besides maybe a slave with a fan). Did they get to at least enjoy sweet, sudsy, shower relief?
Turns out… not so much. The ancient Romans did pipe in water to the city of Rome, thanks to the aqueducts. However, only the super-wealthy had pipes running from the aqueducts to their own homes. Everybody else had to go to a fountain for water and to the public baths to get their body-cleansing on.
And even if you think a public bath is not so bad, you have to consider one very important additional item of information – the ancient Romans didn’t have soap. To get the dirt off, they would soak in the pools of the public bath, then rub olive oil all over their bodies to loosen the grime. Olive oil, soap, what’s the difference, you say. Well, soap rinses off. Olive oil… not so much. To get off the mixture of oil, dirt, and dead skin that the Romans ended up with smeared all over their bodies, they had to scrape it off with a stigil.
A strigil is just a dull blade, curved to get at all those curvy bits of the body. Here’s a visual from an English archeologist who got very into ancient beauty treatments:
I wonder if the Romans got as excited about their August bathhouse trips as I did about my showers. Somehow I can’t picture getting all aflutter at the prospect of scraping myself with a pointy piece of metal. But then again, I do voluntarily participate in much more painful beauty treatments (waxing!), so who am I to judge? And the ancients did look pretty good while wielding a strigil (here are some Greek hotties doing a little post-gym primping):
So, next time the hot water starts to run out in the shower, be happy that you have running water in your own home instead of having to go hang out at the public baths, soaking away to loosen up your filth before you could scrape it off like dirt frosting. And be even happier that we have plenty of products to give us all the benefits of olive oil without the necessity of having to scrape off the excess with something that looks like it
was manufactured for a successful prison break.