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 p394  Dentifricium

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p394 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DENTIFRI′CIUM (ὀδοντότριμμα), dentifrice or tooth-powder, appears to have been skilfully prepared and generally used among the Romans. A variety of substances, such as the bones, hoofs, and horns of certain animals, crabs, egg-shells, and the shells of the oyster and the murex, constituted the basis of the preparation.a Having been previously burnt, and sometimes mixed with honey, they were reduced to a fine powder. Though fancy and superstition often directed the choice of these ingredients, the addition of astringents, such as myrrh, or of nitre and of hartshorn ground in a raw state, indicates science which was the result of experience, the intention being not only to clean the teeth and to render them white, but also to fix them when loose, to strengthen the gums, and to assuage tooth-ache (Plin. H. N. XXVIII.49, XXXI.46, XXXII.21, 26). Pounded pumice was a more dubious article, though Pliny (XXXVI.42) says, "Utilissima fiunt ex his dentifricia."b

Thayer's Notes:

a Before we go off into cackles of laughter as enlightened moderns, a reminder is in order: 21st‑century toothpaste starts with an abrasive, usually silica (finely ground sand) but also ground limestone; although were I a mouse in the corner, privy to the secret formulas of the pharmaceutical companies, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to find calcined animal bone. To this a whole panoply of ingredients are added, some of them psychological such as foaming agents to make us believe the stuff is working, some of them sweeteners and other taste compounds, and others astringents, whiteners, styptics, and de-sensitizing agents, of varying efficaciousness, just as in Roman days: this page at Imerys Performance Minerals is instructive; p5 has a nice recipe for toothpaste.

b The locus classicus for tooth care among the Romans is not mentioned by our dictionary. Apuleius, a mid‑2c author, attacked for witchcraft, is defending himself for having sent some home-made tooth powder to an acquaintance. The essence of the argument is that toothpaste isn't witchcraft:

Well they started off by reading one of my humorous poems, a letter I'd written in verse about tooth powder to a certain Calpurnianus, who, when he brought this letter out against me, failed to see, in his eagerness to harm me, that if there was something in it that would incriminate me, he'd be in it right along with me. In fact those verses state that it was he himself who had asked me for something to clean his teeth with:

Calpurnius, I greet you with some quick verse. I sent you, just as you asked me to, clean teeth and a bright smile, the product of Araby, a little powder, noble, fine and whitening, something to reduce the swelling of your little gums, to brush away yesterday's leftovers, so that nothing dingy and nasty might be seen should you part your lips in laughter.

Tell me, what is there in these lines, either content or expression, to be ashamed of? What indeed that a philosopher could not allow to be attributed to him? Unless maybe I ought to be reproved for having sent Calpurnius a little powder compounded of the fruits of Araby; it's far better than the utterly repulsive things they do in Spain, according to Catullus: he'd be using his own urine "to brush his teeth and his red gums."

Apuleius, Apologia, 6 (my translation)

It's interesting what is and is not mentioned by Apuleius and the line he sort of quotes from Catullus, Poem 39 (for readers wishing more details on this practice, he could have quoted Diodorus V.33.5 or Strabo III.4.16 or Strabo's source). General cleanliness and plaque, yes; periodontal disease, rather prominently; yellow teeth, not really stressed — no tobacco or coffee back then, and the kola nut not in use in the Mediterranean world; actual tooth decay, no: possibly the connection had not been made, or more likely, it seems to me, far less sugar in the diet; and forget about minty fresh breath.

Smith's omission of this passage is more likely attributable to the 19c bias against the post-classical period rather than to any kind of prudishness, by the way: the whitening effects of urine are covered in the article on Roman laundry practices, Fullo. (And as we've just seen — in case you've come here from the article "Dentifrice" on a widely-followed cult site, — Apuleius's poem is not the "earliest mention of tooth care among the Romans", as stated there: it's precisely because it's late that the Dictionary doesn't mention it; in fact, he's the latest of our four authors to treat the subject.)

And then I was shaken out of my assumptions by this interesting video on YouTube: so just who were these mouthwash pioneers. . . ? Well, they're from someplace else; nobody we know, naturally — so say all four of our literary men — somewhere off in Spain, maybe Cantabria or Celtiberia, or Celts or Iberians. Now granted that only savages do this type of thing, why these savages and not, say, Libyans or Germans? In his short life, Catullus is known to have traveled to Bithynia, but not to Spain, and his information looks very second-hand, like one of those things that makes the rounds. Was he drawing on real travelers' reports, or is he just repeating something that might have started out as a joke, like the ghosts of the Lamian Gardens (Suet. Cal. 59 and my note)? Hey, if urine whitens clothes, why not teeth; yeah, those people in Spain do that. Does it in fact work on teeth? Was Egnatius a real person? Was he actually a Celtiberian? Did Catullus just make up a Celtiberian habit to pin it on Egnatius? Did Spaniards, for one reason or another, including maybe their taste in mouthwash, have whiter teeth than the common run of folk? Was Strabo, writing at the time of the Cantabrian war, reporting a soldier's tale, or contributing to war propaganda, or maybe both? And then if this was a famous Spanish habit, why does Apuleius, writing in the mid‑2nd century A.D., find no better authority for it than a poet who had been dead two hundred years? Que de questions ! Not an answer to one of them, and all the marks of an urban legend.

As for other types of dental hygiene, I haven't found floss yet, but toothpicks, an obvious device, were almost certainly used; Diodorus, writing in the 1c B.C. about Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse some 150 years earlier, has him habitually using a "quill" — πτερόν — to clean his teeth after dinner (XXI.16.4).

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Page updated: 8 Sep 17