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.
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.