By Julia M. Chambers
With ready access to the quality dental care enjoyed in our world today, it might be easy to think that ancient cultures must have had terrible teeth and health.
However, such an assumption about the ancient Romans would be quite mistaken.
In an interdisciplinary project among Italian archaeologists, computer engineers, anthropologists, radiologists, and orthodontists, research has revealed that the ancient Romans had healthier smiles than we do in modern life today.1
A historical event lends future insight to the lifestyle and habits of ancient Rome.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the people of Herculaneum and Pompeii were suddenly overwhelmed by eruptions of gas, and pumice and ash-avalanches, killing them instantly. Settlements as far away as 20 kilometers from Vesuvius suffered the same fate.2
This extraordinary volcanic event preserved these victims’ bodies at the moment of death, along with the cities they lived in, allowing us to learn much about their health and cultures nearly 2000 years later. Today, these sites, buried by the eruption, are being studied from a bio-archaeological perspective.
With the help of advanced imaging technology, scientists are studying the remains of 30 casted men, women, and children who died in Pompeii. Months of research achieved some startling results.1
Thanks to the amazingly preserved remains of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, researchers have discovered that the ancient Romans enjoyed a good diet and healthy, strong teeth, regardless of status.2
How was it, without the help of modern dentistry, that even the commoners of ancient Roman society possessed such remarkable teeth?
Evidence suggests that their diet was a vital component.
It turns out that the ancient population consumed a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in sugar. According to Massimo Osanna, director of the site near Naples, these ancients’ alkaline diet was similar to the “Mediterranean Diet.”3 Granulated sugar, the acidic sweetener we know today, wasn’t developed until the 5th century in India.4
Researchers also studied the remains of food scraps in the city drains of Herculaneum. These city drains lie under areas that once housed small apartments and restaurants. It was here, amid decades of discarded food scraps, where they discovered much about the diets of both upper and lower classes of the city.2
A nutritional analysis of the food scrap results revealed that even the diets of peasants were nutrient-dense and balanced, allowing the people of Herculaneum to have healthy immune systems to fight disease and achieve modern-day stature (average height).2
While the wealthy dined on some more exotic dishes, such as giraffe and other imported meats and spices, commoners of the ancient cities regularly ate dried figs, grains, olives, lentils, nuts, pomegranates, and fish, along with occasional bits of salted meat. Olive oil was also a valued component of their diet.5
Fluorine in the water also played a role.
With the help of advanced technologies, scholars learned much from the victims’ bones and teeth. According to Elisa Vanacore, an orthodontist with the project, their initial scans also revealed that high fluorine levels existed in the water near the volcano.4 This finding helps account for the locals’ healthy teeth, but also exposed evidence of fluorosis in their bones. (Dental fluorosis can cause changes to the appearance of tooth enamel; skeletal fluorosis is a bone disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride that can lead to weakened bones.)6
The ancient Romans also practiced dental hygiene.
While the people of ancient Rome were not familiar with the kind of dental hygiene we use today, they were no strangers to hygiene routines and cleaning their teeth. They used frayed sticks and abrasive powders to brush their teeth. These powders were made from ground-up hooves, pumice, eggshells, seashells, and ashes. Considering the time, these were undoubtedly appropriate cleaning measures to use and probably gave rise to the beginnings of what today is known as a toothbrush and toothpaste.7
However, not everything the ancient Romans did to achieve their excellent oral health can be admired— for good reason.
Historical documentation shows they also used both human and animal urine as a mouthwash to help whiten their teeth. In fact, urine collectors stood at street corners to collect the urine of willing passersby.
Oddly, while disgusting to us, swishing with urine achieved their desired results. Thanks to the urine’s ammonia content, the compound of nitrogen and hydrogen can act as a cleansing agent.7 Rome so valued urine for its ammonia, that Emperor Vespasian levied a tax upon the urine trade.8
While we can respect and find inspiration in the diets of the Roman people of Herculaneum and Pompeii, let us be thankful for modern dental care and that mouthwash is quite different today.
Author: Julia M. Chambers has more than 25 years of experience as a freelance writer, content creator, and editor. Her interests include design, health, education, and social media. Her competitive writing experience and educational background in psychology, English composition, and special education have provided her a solid framework for exploring diverse and relevant topics.
- Faucett, K. (2015, October 5). Stunningly Detailed 3D Scans Of Pompeii Victims. Mental Floss. https://web.archive.org/web/20201015002823/https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/69446/researchers-release-stunningly-detailed-3d-scans-pompeii-victims
- Rowan, E. (2014). ROMAN DIET AND NUTRITION IN THE VESUVIAN REGION: A STUDY OF THE BIOARCHAEOLOGICAL REMAINS FROM THE CARDO V SEWER AT HERCULANEUM. University of Oxford.
- Fessenden, M. (2015, October 7). Ancient Romans In Pompeii Had ‘Perfect Teeth.’ Smithsonian Magazine. https://web.archive.org/web/20201014233832/https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ancient-romans-in-pompeii-had-nearly-perfect-teeth-180956859/
- Kane, S. (2016, April 21). The Same Volcano That Obliterated Pompeii Also Gave Its Victims Fantastic Teeth. Business Insider. https://web.archive.org/web/20201015005252/https://www.businessinsider.com/pompeii-good-teeth-mt-vesuvius-flourine-2016-4
- Ghose, T. (2014, January 3). Elite Of Ancient Pompeii Dined On Sea Urchin, Giraffe. Livescience.Com. https://web.archive.org/web/20201015003456/https://www.livescience.com/42309-food-eaten-by-pompeii-residents.html
- Petrone, P., Giordano, M., Giustino, S., & Guarino, F. M. (2011). Enduring Fluoride Health Hazard for the Vesuvius Area Population: The Case of AD 79 Herculaneum. PLoS ONE, 6(6), e21085. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0021085
- Sokic, N. (2020, January 29). WTF: Romans Used Pee To Whiten Teeth. Healthing.Ca. https://web.archive.org/web/20201015004607/https://www.healthing.ca/wellness/wtf-how-urine-improved-hygiene-and-oral-health-in-ancient-rome
- Handwerk, B. (2016, April 14). Feeling Overtaxed? The Romans Would Tax Your Urine. National Geographic. https://web.archive.org/web/20201015005108/https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/04/160414-history-bad-taxes-tax-day/