Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ancient Roman Chewing Gum

One of the things I love about researching the Ancient Romans is how much like us they were. Did you know Romans even had a version of chewing gum? It was called mastic or “mastiha” (in Greek: μαστίχα). Here is a story about MASTIC.

A few years ago my husband and I were spending Christmas in Athens while I researched my tenth Roman Mystery, The Fugitive from Corinth. One evening, after a delicious meal of meze and chicken, the waiter brought us a complimentary digestif. The clear liqueur was served in a tiny shot glass. At first I thought it was an Italian drink called grappa. But as soon as I tasted it I knew it was flavoured with mastic! Mastic is a resin which only grows on the Greek island of Chios. The waiter said I was the first tourist to guess what it was.

I knew what it was because I had found some mastic nuggets in a shop on the island of Kalymnos the previous summer while researching my 9th Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes

Mastic is hardened drops of sap from a type of evergreen bush called the lentisk tree found only in certain parts of Chios. The resinous nuggets are the original chewing gum. In fact, mastic is the root word of masticate meaning to chew.

When I first found a little round plastic box of them on Kalymnos, I hesitated to try one. But I bravely popped it in my mouth and began to chew. It tasted like... mastic. I can best describe it as a sweet cross between cumin and carrot. The nugget was translucent when I put it in my mouth, but after chewing it for a minute or so, I took it out and examined it in surprise: the translucent, pale yellow nugget had turned white and opaque, and looked exactly like modern chewing gum.

In Roman times, doctors recommended that patients chew mastic gum to freshen their breath and calm stomach upsets. People today chew it for the same reasons.

In ancient Rome and Greece, people did not wear deodorant and many must have had rotting teeth. We know from the 1st century AD poet poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (AKA Martial) that some Romans had such bad breath that they added perfume to their wine! Others chomped mastic gum to freshen their breath. Some Romans even used toothpicks made from slivers of mastic. Here is an epigram (a two-lined poem) which  Martial wrote about a toothpick made of a bird's feather and not of mastic, which proved some were made of mastic:

This toothpick is only made of the feather 
that helps a bird in flight, 
It’s not as good as mastic, 
but will keep your teeth clean and bright. 

Martial also wrote this short poem, about a bald man who pretends to pick his teeth with a mastic toothpick so people won't realise he is toothless:

That man who lies lowest on 
the middle couch [the place of honour] 
he of the bald head with its three strands 
of hair and dribbles of perfume, 
who picks his loose mouth 
with shaved sticks of mastic,
he is a liar, Aefulanus... 
because he has no teeth!
(Martial VI.74)

You can still buy mastic gum today in some specialty Greek or Turkish shops. I have found sugar-free packs at Greenfields on Crawford Street in London. And of course you can buy them on Amazon. But the ones in my picture up at the top of this post are the raw drops, just like the Romans would have chewed.
ELMA mastic gum from Chios via Greenfields, 35 Crawford St, W1H 1PL
See if you can find some mastic gum and chew it. Some specialist ice-cream shops occasionally sell this flavour, too. Mastic is the taste of ancient Rome!

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome. Season One of the BBC TV series is still available on iTunes.]


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