Ancient dentistry

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Last reviewed: 13/08/2012
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Last updated: 17/12/2010

Forceps in Ancient Greek and Roman styleThe torment of toothache is surely something we all have in common with our ancestors. Interestingly, those living in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome may not have had as many cavities as modern societies due to the lack of sugar and processed food. However, their teeth were worn down by their coarse diet, which required much chewing. In Egypt, archaeologists have discovered sand in preserved food and this must have exacerbated the problem. Natural teeth were valued if an article in the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables, c 450BC, is to be believed. It states: 'Whoever shall cause the tooth of a free man to be knocked out shall pay a fine of three hundred as'.

The Romans are well known for their cleanliness and this may have extended to their teeth with Celsus (c 25BC–c 50AD) recommending that city dwellers should wash their mouths out in the morning. Ancient recipes for toothpaste survive with ingredients such as bones, egg shells, pumice and myrrh although there is no mention of toothbrushes. The Greeks used mint, still a famililar ingredient in toothpaste for us today.

St. ApolloniaIt was during the Roman period that toothache sufferers gained their own patron saint. Apollonia was the daughter of a magistrate in Alexandria who stood up for her Christian faith. Dionysius says 'a mob... broke her teeth and threatened to burn her alive'. As she was being consumed by the fire she called out that those who suffered from toothache and invoked her name would be relieved of their suffering.

Early cures for toothache may seem strange to us. The Ancient Egyptians wore amulets whilst the Roman writer Pliny recommended finding a frog by moonlight and asking it to take away your toothache. A further cure, according to Scribonius Largus, doctor to the Emperor Claudius in the first century involved 'fumigations made with the seeds of the hyoscyamus scattered on burning charcoal…followed by rinsings of the mouth with hot water, in this way... small worms are expelled'. The belief that cavities are caused by toothworms is a long standing one, held by the Ancient Egyptians right up to the 17th century. If these cures seem bizarre, we should remember some similarities  a mouthrinse for the tongue in Ancient Egypt contained honey, just the same as our cure for a sore throat.

References to dentists appear in Ancient Egyptian papyri and in a couple of tombs but what they did, if anything, is not clear: they could just have been honorary titles. In the Roman empire, extractions were undertaken by physicians. They used crude forceps, and dentures were made from ivory, bone or boxwood! Getting a good fit must have been a problem as Horace (c 65 BC–c 8BC) describes two witches running so fast that one of their denture's fell out. The Romans' predecessors in northern Italy, the Etruscans, made beautiful bridges of ox bone with gold wire, the quality of which was not to be seen again for well over a millenium.