lead pipe at a Roman bath

People in ancient Rome lived an average 22 years. The average height of an ancient Roman man was only five feet two inches. The analysis a 45 year old man at Herculaneum showed him to be undernourished, overworked and in continual pain as a result of his rotting teeth and fused discs in his spine.

In ancient Rome children were not considered human until they could walk and talk. It is has been calculated that 28 percent of all children died before reaching the age of 12 months. Some sociologist have suggested that parents didn't start having deep affection for their children until the beginning of industrialization in 18th century when infant mortality rates became low enough that parents could afford to form deep bonds with their children and not worry about them dying.

There are some indications that this may have been true in ancient Rome. Only 1.3 percent of all burials for infants have tombstones. But that doesn't mean they didn't express joy when a child war born. One birth announcement carved on a residential neighborhood read: “Cornelius Sabinus has been born." Another read, “Iuvenilla is born on Saturday the 2nd of August in the second hour of the evening." Next to it was a charcoal sketch of a newborn.

Studies have shown that providing clean water and sanitation can bring about tremendous benefits. People live longer, stay healthier and become productive while health care costs go down. People have realized the importance of clean water for some time. A tomb from ancient Egypt dated to 1450 B.C. depicts an elaborate filtering system. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans devoted a lot of energy and resources to clean water.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Malaria and Tuberculosis in the Roman Empire

Malaria and tuberculosis are thought to have been common in ancient Rome. Malaria in particularly is believed to have been a serious problem. Rome and many other Roman cities were surrounded by mosquito-breeding marshes and people were dying of malaria by the thousands in Italy even in the 20th century. Between A.D. 164 and 180 the Great Plague was brought to Europe from Parthia (Iraq) by the Roman Army.


Malaria may have played a part in the decline of the Roman empire and the surrender of Attila the Hun. After Alaric I, the Visigoth king, sacked Rome in 410 he suddenly died of disease, which some scientists speculate was malaria. Evidence on the presence of malaria includes a high number of children buried in child cemeteries in a short time around A.D. 450 and the presence of things like raven's claws and decapitated puppies, indicating desperation and panic as people sought folk cures and magic. DNA analysis of bones reveals the presence of malaria. Archaeologists admit that most of their evidence for the "malaria theory" is circumstantial, and based on the way the infants were quickly buried and reports of plagues in Roman literature of that time.

Tuberculosis has long been called the silent killer and has been known since the birth of history. It ravaged ancient Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks described it with the word phthisis , which means for a living body to “shrivel with intense heat as if placed in a flame." Later the Romans ascribed the term consumere “to eat up or devour” to it.

Parasites and Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome

Lead poisoning has been blamed on Rome's high rates of sterility, miscarriages and stillbirths. In 400 B.C. the Greek physician Hippocrates described a severe case of “colic” in a lead miner, The Roman engineer Vitruvius noted that men who worked in lead smelters had alarmingly pale complexions.

A study by Dr. Arthur Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota published in the International Journal Anthropology in 1992 revealed that Romans had 10 more times lead in their bones than modern Americans. Aufderheide decided to look into lead ingestion after learning that some historians attribute the madness of Caligula to poisoning from lead water pipes and wine additives. See Lead, Environment

lead pipe at a Roman bath

Gordon Gora wrote in Listverse: “Rome had impressive sanitation systems compared to other civilizations, but this did little more than help people smell better. Based on 2,000-year-old fecal matter found at several historical sights, it was determined that parasites were even worse in those alive in the Roman period compared to earlier, supposedly less sanitary, periods of history like the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. While most Romans had access to clean food and drink, it was their bath water which was at fault for parasitic infestations: The water was kept lukewarm and rarely changed, which would have been a perfect breeding ground for parasites of all kinds. This, along with human feces used as fertilizer, would have led to massive breakouts.” [Source: Gordon Gora, Listverse, September 16, 2016]

How the Ancient World Dealt with Cancer

In 2010, Rosalie David, professor at the University of Manchester in the UK, and Michael Zimmerman, professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, published a study in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer that examined evidence of cancer and suggested that cancer has become a more common disease only recently, because of modern lifestyle. David and Zimmerman examined evidence of cancer in the fossil record of early humans, in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece. [Source: CNN, October 14th, 2010]

CNN reported: “Ancient Greece first identified cancer as a specific illness, the analysis said. It appears that the Greeks had a better knowledge and awareness of cancer than their predecessors, which is a more likely explanation than an increase in cancer, David and Zimmerman said.

In Ancient Greece, cancer gets referenced in the Hippocratic Corpus-texts said to have been written by the "father of medicine" Hippocrates between 410 and 360 B.C. These texts say that an excess of black bile causes cancer. "Hippocrates used the carcinos (crab) and carcinoma to desribe a range of tumours and swellings," David and Zimmerman wrote. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamum said around 200 A.D. that this was because some cancers appeared crab-like.

votive offerings

Ancient Greeks knew that a mastectomy would help a patient with a lump in her breast, but they also recognized that cancer can recur and spread to other parts of the body. “They recommended an unbelievable variety of potions, and plant extracts, and combinations to see if they couldn’t kill the cancer in other places," Olson said. "None of those worked."

From about 500 to 1500 A.D. there was little advancement in understanding cancer, the analysis said. Then, in the 17th century, Wilhelm Fabricus described operations for breast and other cancers. Cancer rates appear to have increased since the Industrial Revolution, David said. In the past 200 years, reports of specific cancers such as scrotal cancer and Hodgkin's disease have emerged.

David and Zimmerman’s suggestion that cancer occurred less frequently in antiquity and it relative frequency today is due to lifestyle habits is controversial. “No one can conduct a survey of ancient populations. It can be argued that since life expectancy was lower in the ancient world, most people didn't live long enough to develop cancer...The risk of cancer rises with age, and people only started living longer more recently. Cancer is also highly genetic. But the lack of evidence of childhood bone cancer suggests that perhaps overall rates were lower, David said, To say that pollution has helped make cancer prevalent is highly controversial, said James Olson, historian at Sam Houston State University in Texas. But certainly smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise all contribute to cancer in the modern world, Olson said.

Brucellosis in the Roman Empire

Nikhil Swaminathan wrote in Archaeology: “The skeletal remains of two adolescent males found at Butrint, a Roman colony in Albania, indicate that both suffered from fatal cases of brucellosis. The chronic respiratory disease, which is typically contracted from contaminated meat or dairy products, today affects roughly 500,000 people per year worldwide. [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 3, May/June 2012]

“Initially researchers believed that the teens died of tuberculosis (TB). Pea-sized holes found on their 800-year-old spinal columns are indicative of an infection secondary to the respiratory illness and seemed to confirm that view. However, DNA samples held no genetic markers of TB. Brucellosis can cause similar bone degradation, and a search for genes associated with brucellosis came up positive.

“"If you look at the World Health Organization data, Albania has one of the higher brucellosis rates in the world today," says David Foran, a forensic scientist at Michigan State. "It's there now and it was obviously there many hundreds of years ago—and most likely throughout the centuries."

Ancient Roman Death from Wheat Allergy


In 2010, an Italian doctor, Giovanni Gasbarrini, of at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, claimed he had found the first Italian case of death from gluten intolerance in a female skeleton uncovered at an Ancient Roman site of Cosa near present-day Ansedonia, in southern Tuscany. Gasbarrini, who published his findings in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, examined bone DNA from the woman, who died in the first century A.D. at the age of 18-20 and said her jewelry indicated she came from a wealthy family but her DNA suggested she died of malnutrition. [Source:, Ancientfoods, April 2010]

ANSA reported: intolerance, or coeliac disease, prevents proper absorption of nutrients, leading to severe intestinal problems, physical wasting, and even lymphomas. The skeleton was unusually small and showed signs of osteoporosis or bone weakness, Gasbarrini pointed out. He said that because of her privileged circumstances the woman probably had a rich diet including wheat, a food packed with gluten.

“Gluten intolerance affects an estimated one in 150 people but is rarely fatal today because its symptoms are easily spotted and sufferers avoid all foods containing gluten. The first cases in history are believed to have been diagnosed by a celebrated ancient Greek physician, Aretaeus of Cappadocia (first century AD), who identified children in agricultural communities who presented stomach problems typical of the disease.

Sexually-Transmitted Diseases in the Roman Empire

On a case described by Palladius (died A.D. 450), Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: “In fact, he had most likely not caught leprosy (which is not transmitted by sexual contact) but venereal syphilis, just like Heron, a young monk of Scetis who, 'being on fire', left his cell in the desert and went to Alexandria where he visited a prostitute. Palladius' narrative in the Lausiac History 26 continues thus: 'An anthrax grew on one of his testicles, and he was so ill for six months that gangrene set into his private parts which finally fell off'. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33a), Rabbi Hoshaia of Caesarea also threatened with syphilis 'he who fornicates'. He will get 'mucous and syphilous wounds' and moreover will catch the hydrocon - an acute swelling of the penis. These are precisely the symptoms of the primary phase of venereal syphilis. [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3 ~]

“There are, of course, two conflicting theories concerning syphilis. According to the Colombian or American theory, syphilis (Treponema pallidum) appeared for the first time in Barcelona in 1493, brought back from the West Indies by the sailors who had accompanied Christopher Columbus. On the other hand, the unicist theory claims that the pale treponema has existed since prehistoric times and has spread under four different guises: pinta on the American continent, pian in Africa, bejel in the Sahel, and lastly venereal syphilis which is the final form of a treponema with an impressive gift for mutation and adaptation. ~

“The latter hypothesis is supported by a recent discovery of great importance made by the Laboratoire d'anthropologie et de préhistoire des pays de la Méditerranée occidentale of the CNRS at Aix-en-Provence. Lesions characteristic of syphilis have been detected on a foetus gestating in a pregnant woman who had been buried between the third and the fifth centuries A.D. in the necropolis of Costobelle in the Var district. Bejel is still endemic amongst some peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. A few cases have been recorded archaeologically on skeletons of Bedouins and settled Arabs of Ottoman Palestine. Contracted in childhood, bejel spreads by physical but not necessarily sexual contact, whereas syphilis which is an illness of adults, is transmitted only sexually. In both cases, the deterioration of the bones as well as the symptoms and the progress of the illness are identical. However, only venereal syphilis is able to go through the placenta and to infect the embryo. The mother of the Costobelle foetus must therefore have suffered from venereal syphilis. This would confirm the view held by modern pathologists that venereal syphilis already existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. ~

Procopius on The Plague of A.D. 542

Procopius (A.D. 500-554) wrote in “History of the Wars” II.xxii-xxxiii: “During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy knowing well that they are saying nothing sound but considering it sufficient for them, if they completely deceive by their argument some of those whom they meet and persuade them to their view. [Source: Procopius (A.D. 500-554), The Plague, 542. “History of the Wars,” II.xxii-xxxiii: “History of the Wars,” 7 Vols., translated by H. B. Dewing, Loeb Library of the Greek and Roman Classics, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), Vol. I, pp. 451-473]

But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God. For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age. For much as men differ with regard to places in which they live, or in the law of their daily life, or in natural bent, or in active pursuits, or in whatever else man differs from man, in the case of this disease alone the difference availed naught. And it attacked some in the summer season, others in the winter, and still others at the other times of the year. Now let each one express his own judgment concerning the matter, both sophist and astrologer, but as for me, I shall proceed to tell where this disease originated and the manner in which it destroyed men.”

“It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favorable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants; and if it had passed by any land, either not affecting the men there or touching them in indifferent fashion, still at a later time it came back; then those who dwelt round about this land, whom formerly it had afflicted most sorely, it did not touch at all, but it did not remove from the place in question until it had given up its just and proper tale of dead, so as to correspond exactly to the number destroyed at the earlier time among those who dwelt round about. And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior.

“And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of spring, where it happened that I was staying at that time. And it came as follows. Apparitions of supernatural beings in human guise of every description were seen by many persons, and those who encountered them thought that they were struck by the man they had met in this or that part of the body, as it havened, and immediately upon seeing this apparition they were seized also by the disease. Now at first those who met these creatures tried to turn them aside by uttering the holiest of names and exorcising them in other ways as well as each one could, but they accomplished absolutely nothing, for even in the sanctuaries where the most of them fled for refuge they were dying constantly. But later on they were unwilling even to give heed to their friends when they called to them,and they shut themselves up in their rooms and pretended that they did not hear, although their doors were being beaten down, fearing, obviously, that he who was calling was one of those demons. But in the case of some the pestilence did not come on in this way, but they saw a vision in a dream and seemed to suffer the very same thing at the hands of the creature who stood over them, or else to hear a voice foretelling to them that they were written down in the number of those who were to die.”

Symptoms of The Plague of A.D. 542

Procopius (A.D. 500-554) wrote in “History of the Wars” II.xxii-xxxiii: “But with the majority it came about that they were seized by the disease without becoming aware of what was coming either through a waking vision or a dream. And they were taken in the following manner. They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, "below the abdomen," but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs.” [Source: Procopius (A.D. 500-554), The Plague, 542. “History of the Wars,” II.xxii-xxxiii: “History of the Wars,” 7 Vols., translated by H. B. Dewing, Loeb Library of the Greek and Roman Classics, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), Vol. I, pp. 451-473]

“Up to this point, then, everything went in about the same way with all who had taken the disease. But from then on very marked differences developed; and I am unable to say whether the cause of this diversity of symptoms was to be found in the difference in bodies, or in the fact that it followed the wish of Him who brought the disease into the world. For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease. For those who were under the spell of the coma forgot all those who were familiar to them and seemed to lie sleeping constantly.

hand necrosis, one symptom of the plague

“And if anyone cared for them, they would eat without waking, but some also were neglected, and these would die directly through lack of sustenance. But those who were seized with delirium suffered from insomnia and were victims of a distorted imagination; for they suspected that men were coming upon them to destroy them, and they would become excited and rush off in flight, crying out at the top of their voices. And those who were attending them were in a state of constant exhaustion and had a most difficult time of it throughout. For this reason everybody pitied them no less than the sufferers, not because they were threatened by the pestilence in going near it (for neither physicians nor other persons were found to contract this malady through contact with the sick or with the dead, for many who were constantly engaged either in burying or in attending those in no way connected with them held out in the performance of this service beyond all expectation, while with many others the disease came on without warning and they died straightway); but they pitied them because of the great hardships which they were undergoing.

“For when the patients fell from their beds and lay rolling upon the floor, they kept putting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chanced to be near, they wished to fall into it, not so much because of a desire for drink (for the most of them rushed into the sea), but the cause was to be found chiefly in the diseased state of their minds. They had also great difficulty in the matter of eating, for they could not easily take food. And many perished through lack of any man to care for them, for they were either overcome by hunger, or threw themselves down from a height. And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became mortified and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died. And one would suppose that in all cases the same thing would have been true, but since they were not at all in their senses, some were quite unable to feel the pain; for owing to the troubled condition of their minds they lost all sense of feeling.”

Efforts to Treat The Plague of A.D. 542

Procopius (A.D. 500-554) wrote in “History of the Wars” II.xxii-xxxiii: “Now some of the physicians who were at a loss because the symptoms were not understood, supposing that the disease centred in the bubonic swellings, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. And upon opening some of the swellings, they found a strange sort of carbuncle that had grown inside them. Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death. Moreover I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards, and that they declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. So it was that in this disease there was no cause which came within the province of human reasoning; for in all cases the issue tended to be something unaccountable. For example, while some were helped by batlling, others were harmed in no less degree. And of those who received no care many died, but others, contrary to reason, were saved. [Source: Procopius (A.D. 500-554), The Plague, 542. “History of the Wars,” II.xxii-xxxiii: “History of the Wars,” 7 Vols., translated by H. B. Dewing, Loeb Library of the Greek and Roman Classics, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), Vol. I, pp. 451-473]

“And again, methods of treatment showed different results with different patients. Indeed the whole matter may be stated thus, that no device was discovered by man to save himself, so that either by taking precautions he should not suffer, or that when the malady had assailed him he should get the better of it; but suffering came without warning and recovery was due to no external cause. And in the case of women who were pregnant death could be certainly foreseen if they were taken with the disease. For some died through miscarriage, but others perished immediately at the time of birth with the infants they bore. However, they say that three women in confinement survived though their children perished, and that one woman died at the very time of childbirth but that the child was born and survived.

“Now in those cases where the swelling rose to an unusual size and a discharge of pus had set in, it came about that they escaped from the disease and survived, for clearly the acute condition of the carbuncle had found relief in this direction, and this proved to be in general an indication of returning health; but in cases where the swelling preserved its former appearance there ensued those troubles which I have just mentioned. And with some of them it came about that the thigh was withered, in which case, though the swelling was there, it did not develop the least suppuration. With others who survived the tongue did not remain unaffected, and they lived on either lisping or speaking incoherently and with difficulty.

“Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards the tale of dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that. Now in the beginning each man attended to the burial of the dead of his own house, and these they threw even into the tombs of others, either escaping detection or using violence; but afterwards confusion and disorder everywhere became complete. For slaves remained destitute of masters, and men who in former times were very prosperous were deprived of the service of their domestics who were either sick or dead, and many houses became completely destitute of human inhabitants. For this reason it came about that some of the notable men of the city because of the universal destitution remained unburied for many days.”

Government Response to The Plague of A.D. 542

Procopius (A.D. 500-554) wrote in “History of the Wars” II.xxii-xxxiii: “And it fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work; this man held the position of announcer of imperial messages, always announcing to the emperor the petitions of his clients, and declaring to them in turn whatever his wish was. In the Latin tongue the Romans designate this office by the term Referendarius. So those who had not as yet fallen into complete destitution in their domestic affairs attended individually to the burial of those connected with them. But Theodorus, by giving out the emperor=s money and by making further expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies which were not cared for. And when it came about that all the tombs which had existed previously were filled with the dead, then they dug up all the places about the city one after the other, laid the dead there, each one as he could, and departed; but later on those who were making these trenches, no longer able to keep up with the number of the dying, mounted the towers of the fortifications in Sycae [Galata], and tearing off the roofs threw the bodies there in complete disorder; and they piled them up just as each one happened to fall, and filled practically all the towers with corpses, and then covered them again with their roofs. As a result of this an evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more, and especially whenever the wind blew fresh from that quarter. [Source: Procopius (A.D. 500-554), The Plague, 542. “History of the Wars,” II.xxii-xxxiii: “History of the Wars,” 7 Vols., translated by H. B. Dewing, Loeb Library of the Greek and Roman Classics, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), Vol. I, pp. 451-473]

“At that time all the customary rites of burial were overlooked. For the dead were not carried out escorted by a procession in the customary manner, nor were the usual chants sung overthem, but it was sufficient if one carried on his shoulders the body of one of the dead to the parts of the city which bordered on the sea and flung him down; and there the corpses would be thrown upon skiffs in a heap, to be conveyed wherever it might chance. At that time, too, those of the population who had formerly been members of the factions laid aside their mutual enmity and in common they attended to the burial rites of the dead, and they carried with their own hands the bodies of those who were no connections of theirs and buried them.

“Nay, more, those who in times past used to take delight in devoting themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practiced the duties of religion with diligence, not so much because they had learned wisdom at last nor because they had become all of a sudden lovers of virtue, as it were — for when qualities have become fixed in men by nature or by the training of a long period of time, it is impossible for them to lay them aside thus lightly, except, indeed, some divine influence for good has breathed upon them — but then all, so to speak, being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity. Therefore as soon as they were rid of the disease and were saved, and already supposed that they were in security, since the curse had moved on to other peoples, then they turned sharply about and reverted once more to their baseness of hearts and now, more than before, they make a display of the inconsistency of their conduct, altogether surpassing themselves in villainy and in lawlessness of every sort. For one could insist emphatically without falsehood that this disease, whether by chance or by some providence, chose out with exactitude the worst men and let them go free. But these things were displayed to the world in later times.

“During that time it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium, but all who had the good fortune to he in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot. Certainly it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else; so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have come by reason of the lack of the necessities of life.

“And, to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys, and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which held dominion over the whole Roman empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home. Such was the course of the pestilence in the Roman empire at large as well as in Byzantium. And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.”

Gum Disease and Tooth Decay in Roman-Era Britain

In Roman times. men lost an average of 6.6 teeth before they died, compared to 2.2 teeth 30,000 years ago and 3.5 teeth in 6,500 B.C. However, contrary to what you might think, Roman-era Britons had less gum disease than their 21st-century conterparts Tom Whipple wrote in the Sunday Times: “An analysis of the skulls of more than 300 Roman Britons has found a significantly lower rate of periodontitis, a common form of gum disease, than exists in today’s population. Among those examined – who were originally buried in a site in Poundbury, Dorset – between 5 per cent and 10 per cent had the disease, compared with 15 per cent to 30 per cent today. [Source: Tom Whipple, Sunday Times, October 2014 -]

copy of a Roman denture

“However, they also had considerably more evidence of abrasion on their teeth, probably a result of the diet of coarse grains that was common. The work involved looking at the sockets holding the teeth into the jaw. “Because gum disease causes disruption of the bone around the teeth, we are able to measure it,” said Francis Hughes, professor of periodontology at King’s college London. “He and his colleagues learnt that the Natural History Museum had a large collection of skeletons from the Poundbury burial site, and asked to analyse them. “To a lot of people’s surprise they had quite a lot less periodontitis than the modern human population. It was about a third as common as today,” Professor Hughes said. Some of the explanation for this does not exactly provide cause for envy: the Ancient Britons managed to contract even more serious diseases first, and died of those instead of suffering through old age with bad teeth. -

“The most common age at death appeared to be in the 40’s. The reason for the modern mouth to be unhealthier than it was centuries ago is probably a result of two things – diabetes and smoking. “Those two change the risk enormously,” Professor Hughes said. Periodontitis starts as gingivitis, a consequence of poor brushing that often manifests as bleeding and inflamed gums. This response is actually a protective mechanism. “It’s the body trying to fight the bacteria off. In smoking and diabetes that protective mechanism is decreased – the body is less able to fight,” Professor Hughes said. Starting with bleeding, the disease progresses through receding gums, looseness of teeth and eventually total tooth loss. With a life free not just from smoking and diabetes but also from refined sugar, the Poundbury teeth were similarly less affected by cavities. -

“Nevertheless, the research, published in the British Dental Journal, did not find that the oral hygiene of Ancient Britons was entirely something to be aspired to. “Decay was not widespread like it might be today,” Professor Hughes said. “But it was still there, probably a consequence of the starchy cereals they ate. Over the years that increased bacterial growth” Where decay did exist, it went unchecked. Some teeth had decayed to the point where they had infected the nerve, while others caused holes down to the jaw itself. “The amount of chronic infection must have caused a lot of misery,” Professor Hughes said. His profession would have been in demand even in that day and age, he added. “It’s still a rather good advert for dentists.” -

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except the bones from Archaeology of Bulgaria

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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