Love Potion Number IX

by Caroline Lawrence

In the steamy hot room of the Roman baths, a muscular gladiator sighs as a slave scrapes the sweat, oil and dirt from his skin. The slave uses a strigil, a curved metal tool that performs the same task as the modern loofah. The strigil – or stlengis (στλεγγίς) as it’s called in Greek – has a cross-section like a thin piece of celery and is curved like a sickle, but the edges are dull. You couldn’t cut yourself with it. But the strigil (right) is designed to collect the gluey mixture of sweat and oil called gloios (γλοίος) in Greek and strigmentum in Latin. Why? Because ‘gladiator sweat’ was worth a lot of money.

Pliny the Elder mentions small amounts of strigmentum changing hands for the equivalent of half a million dollars. Natural History 15.4.19

An inscription from Greece talks about revenue from the sale of gloios at a gymnasium. SEG 27.261

Roman doctors like Galen and Celsus note that it was good for inflammation of the nether parts of both sexes, and also for other aches and sprains.

If you go to Pompeii, (or almost any other Roman site), chances are the guides will delight in telling you that gladiator sweat was used as an aphrodisiac or love potion. In Pompeii a dozen years ago, a charming guide named Stefano told me that lovesick Roman women put gloios in the food of a man they wanted to seduce. I ate this up, as it were, and put this deliciously squirmy fact in my sixth Roman Mystery, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina. Since then, I have been trying to find hard evidence that I was accurate in so doing. So far I have failed.

A few years ago my hopes were raised when visiting some Roman glassmakers in Salisbury, I saw a little blue bottle labelled For Gladiator Scraping Love Potion.

‘What’s your source?’ I asked excitedly.

‘You,’ they replied.

Recently I read an article about sweat by Naomi Wolf. The smell of the sweat of a sexually-aroused man, according to Wolf, can make a woman calmer, happier and even more fertile! So adding some sweat-smelling gloios to a mushroom casserole might indeed make the eater more receptive to one’s advances.

I still haven’t come across any concrete evidence of ‘gladiator sweat love potion’, but I am now more inclined to think that the charming Italian guides like Stefanos might just be right in saying gladiator sweat plus oil could have been the ancient equivalent of Love Potion Number IX.

After all, Italian males must surely the world experts on love.

left: love-lorn (?) Flavian lady at the Roman baths in Bath

γλοιός (Greek) = gloios = a gluey mixture of sweat, oil and dirt
strigmenta (Latin) = something scraped off, like gloios
στλεγγίς (Greek) = stlengis = a scraper to remove oil, sweat and dirt in the baths
strigil (Latin) = a scraper to remove oil, sweat and dirt in the baths
φίλτρον (Greek) = philtron = a love-potion, philter from the verb phileo – to love
venenum (Latin) = from Venus, originally love-potion, later drug, charm, poison, venom

Caroline Lawrence writes Roman Mysteries for kids aged 8 to 80. You can read more about her books at


  1. Vicky Alvear Shecter says

    Huh. So nobody came right out and said that’s what it was used for? Makes sense, though, given how much Pliny says the smelly stuff cost, that it would be used as a love/sex potion. Also, I love that you brought Naomi Wolf into this discussion. Ha! And what’s HER source, I wonder? 😉

  2. Paul Vitols says

    I think that’s a clever surmise, Caroline. It would follow too that men could use the potion to take on the gladiator’s qualities–a mixture of courage, combat prowess, and being catnip to the ladies. I could see why some men would want it, but of course many of us don’t need it….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *