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.