Sugar-Free Smiles: Did Romans Have Near-Perfect Teeth?

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Old roman bathsThe ruins of Pompeii hold much promise in a historian’s the quest to decode how life was like during the Ancient Roman Empire. Destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the site has been a goldmine for historians and researchers because of the excellent level of preservation of about 2,000 Romans buried in volcanic ash.

Romans lived before a lot of modern medical breakthroughs, but it didn’t mean that they lived like savages. In fact, in some respects, they were better off than modern man: research shows that people who lived in Pompeii at the time of its destruction had almost perfect teeth.

Perfect Roman Teeth

Archeologists scanned the casts of 18 bodies from Pompeii excavation sites and discovered that dental cavities among Pompeians were very rare. In fact, another study of 300 ancient Roman skulls reveals only a 5% rate of periodontitis, a severe gum disease, in the test group.

In contrast, 91% of modern American adults have tooth decay, which according to, is treated by dental fillings and bonding.

No One “Roman Diet”

There have been claims that the ancient Romans were vegetarians — with a diet consisting mostly of fresh fruits and vegetables — which could be the reason for the remarkably low cavity rates. But experts say that Romans were neither vegetarians nor pescatarians: they ate a little of everything including pork, venison, fowl, and wheat.

It would be difficult, therefore, to prevent cavities by following a more “Roman” diet simply because there is no distinct Roman diet. Different types of people ate different things and goods, which were distributed around the vast Empire. Moreover, Romans had to adjust their diets in times of famine, too. If food was scarce, they ate barley or millet bread, chickpeas, and lentils.

The Secret: A Low Sugar Diet?

Experts claim that secret behind the ancient people’s state of dental health is a low sugar, fiber-rich diet. Like the modern Mediterranean diet, the food they ate was, for the most part, balanced and healthy. The lack of refined sugar in their food saved them from cavities and tooth decay.

The technology we have today trumps the ancient Roman way of life in terms of efficiency, but that doesn’t mean that we’re better off than them. With more convenient ways to manufacture foodstuffs, our high-sugar diets might be keeping us from surpassing the level of dental health of the ancient people.

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