Why the Ancient Romans Had Better Teeth Than Modern Europeans

The cases for traveling back in time and living in a past era are many and varied, but the case against doing so is always the same: dentistry. In every chapter of human history before this one, so we’re often told, everyone lived in at least a low-level state of agony inflicted by tooth problems, to say nothing of the unimaginable unsightliness of their smiles. But as justified as we probably are in laughing at the pearly whites on display in Hollywood period pieces, the historical record conflicts with our belief that the further you go into the past, the worst everyone’s teeth: ancient Romans, as explained in the Told In Stone video above, actually had better teeth than modern Europeans.

That’s hardly a high bar to clear, a modern American may joke. But then, the United States today takes dental care to an almost obsessive level, whereas the citizens of the Roman Empire had practically nothing to work with by comparison. “The standard, and often sole implement employed to clean teeth was a toothpick,” says Told in Stone creator Garrett Ryan. These “were paired with tooth powders, which were rubbed over the teeth and gums with an enthusiastic finger.” Ingredients included “pumice, pulverized bone, powdered glass, and crushed shell,” or sometimes “sheep’s sweat and the ash of a wolf’s head.” — all a far cry from anything offered on the toothpaste aisle today.

“Bad breath was a chronic condition in the classical world,” and “toothache seems to have been almost equally prevalent.” The treatment most commonly practiced by Roman dentists was extraction, performed without anesthetic. Yet only about a third of the preserved skeletons recovered from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were missing teeth, “and relatively few had cavities.”  Though many societies today take dental condition as a marker of class, in ancient Rome the relationship was, to a certain extent, reversed: “A young girl wearing expensive jewelry, for example, already had five cavities, probably because her family could afford to give her plenty of snacks smothered in expensive and sugary honey.”

Indeed, “in the absence of processed sugar, oral bacteria were less aggressive than they are today.” Romans got cavities, but “the pervasive blackened teeth and hollow cheeks of early modern Europe,”  an era at the unfortunate intersection of relatively plentiful sugar and relatively primitive dentistry, “were nearly as distant from the Roman experience as they are from ours.” Some of us here in the sugar-saturated twenty-first century, with its constant pursuit of dental perfection, may now be considering the potential benefits of shifting to an ancient Roman diet — without, of course, all those tiny, enamel-abrading stones that had a way of ending up in ancient Roman bread.

Related content:

Try the Oldest Known Recipe For Toothpaste: From Ancient Egypt, Circa the 4th Century BC

Explore the Roman Cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, the Oldest Known Cookbook in Existence

Archaeologists Discover an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pompeii

Bars, Beer & Wine in Ancient Rome: An Introduction to Roman Nightlife and Spirits

The Mystery Finally Solved: Why Has Roman Concrete Been So Durable?

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

by | Permalink | Comments (11) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (11)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Richard Roberts says:

    This was quite interesting but I don’t appreciate jokes about European teeth being worse than American teeth. There are numerous international comparisons and Americans generally have worse teeth than Europeans (the fact that Americans mistakenly think they have great teeth when many don’t may be one of the reasons that so many Americans have bad teeth so it is best not to perpetuate this myth)

  • Danny Bellisario says:

    Every British person i know here in Canada have awful stained teeth

  • Monika says:

    Absolute nothing wrong with stained teeth, as long as they strong and healthy!
    Bleached teeth I think are more of a health risk.

  • DAmon says:

    Next, please do an article on European eyesight.

  • Wendy says:

    Does anyone ever think, maybe it hasn’t been the,”People’s”, lack of personal hygiene or diet, but a,”QUALITY”, of WATER??? I live in Mojave California and there is more ARSENIC deposits on our parks water fountain and our air conditioners after just ONE YEAR than scientists can grow in a lab after the same amount of time. And I do believe more than HALF of our towns population have NO TEETH no matter how old or young they are because of drinking our tap water! Just a thought on some FACTS.

  • Nick says:

    I think you might be partly right, although I just want o mention that rome used led pipes to pump their water in to the cities. They have different problems as well.

  • Paulo says:

    Because in their diet there was no sugar and no drinks with phosphoric acid.

  • Eduardo hollauer says:

    Lack of sugar on the roman empire ! This is the same answer for the question related to animals: why animals dont
    need dentists ?

  • Leslie Robinson says:

    Having lived in both places I can confidently say that you’re either just lying or blind.

  • Tracy Louise says:

    You can’t grow arsenic???

  • Harry says:

    I’m 71 I grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago. Our water was from Lake Michigan. Fluoride was added to the water. When I was seven my dentist applied fluoride to my teeth I’ve been brushing and flossing forever. I have all my teeth including wisdom teeth. I thank science and good hygiene.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.