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Bill Thayer

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 p75  Aliptae

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp75‑76 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ALIPTAE, (ἀλείπται) among the Greeks, were persons who anointed the bodies of the athletae, preparatory to their entering the palaestra. The chief object of this anointing was to close the pores of the body, in order to prevent excessive perspiration, and the weakness consequent thereon. To effect this object, the oil was not simply spread over the surface of the body, but also well rubbed into the skin. The oil was mixed with fine  p76 African sand, several jars full of which were found in the baths of Titus, and one of these is now in the British Museum. This preparatory anointing was called ἡ παρασκεθαστικὴ τρίψις. The athleta was again anointed after the contest, in order to restore the tone of the skin and muscles, this anointing was called ἡ ἀποθεραπιά. He then bathed, and had the dust, sweat, and oil scraped off his body, by means of an instrument similar to the strigil of the Romans, and called στλεγγίς, and afterwards ξύστρα.​a The aliptae took advantage of the knowledge they necessarily acquired of the state of the muscles of the athletae, and their general strength or weakness of body, to advise them as to their exercises and mode of life. They were thus a kind of medical trainers, ἰατραλείπται (Plut. de Tuend. San. 16 p430; Celsus, I.1; Plin. H. N. XXIX.1, 2). Sometimes they even superintended their exercises, as in the case of Milesias (Pindar, Olym. VIII.54‑71; and Böckh's note). [Athletae.] The part of the palaestra in which the athletae were anointed was called ἀλειπτήριον.

Among the Romans, the aliptae were slaves who scrubbed and anointed their masters in the baths. They, too, like the Greek ἀλείπται, appear to have attended to their masters' constitution and mode of life (Cic. ad Fam. I.9.35; Senec. Ep. 56; Juv. Sat. III.76, VI.422; Pignor. de Serv. p81). They were also called unctores. They used in their operations a kind of scraper called a strigil, towels (lintea), a cruise of oil (guttus), which was usually of horn, a bottle [Ampulla], and a small vessel called lenticula. [Baths.]

The apartment in the Greek palaestra where the anointing was performed was called ἀλειπτήριον, that in the Roman baths was called unctuarium.

Thayer's Note:

a Sometimes this mix of dirt and oil — Lat. strigmentum; Gk. γλοιός, στλέγγισμα, ἀποστλέγγισμα (Strabo V.2.6), possibly also κονίσαλος which properly means a cloud of dust — did not go to waste. Galen (Vol. XII p283 in Kühn's edition) refers to it among the simple medications; elsewhere (De Tuenda Sanitate) he states that observing its appearance and consistency can serve as a diagnostic tool.

On a column at Beroea an inscription (SEG 27.261) is recorded part of which regulates the sale of gloios harvested from the athletes working out in the local gymnasium; and Pliny (XV.v.19) tells us that some gymnasium directors made very substantial earnings from the practice:

usum eius ad luxuriam vertere Graeci, vitiorum omnium genitores, in gymnasiis publicando: notum est magistratus honoris eius octogenis sestertiis strigmenta olei vendidisse.

Those parents of all the vices, the Greeks, have diverted the use of olive-oil to serve the purpose of luxury by making it a regular practice in their gymnasiums; the governors of those institutions have been known to sell the scrapings of the oil for 80,000 sesterces.

(trans. Harris Rackham, L. C. L.)

In view of what I saw somewhere online once, I feel a duty to point out, however, that a normal reading of this passage does not support the notion that small amounts of strigmentum were sold for half a million dollars; rather, that the (annual?) income of a gymnasium from such sales could reach large figures.

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Page updated: 24 Aug 17