Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome

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Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome

Rome & Lead Connection Did lead poison the Roman Empire? Lead's discovery dates back to 3500 BC. Lead artifacts have been found throughout the ancient world, and some researchers have suggested that lead poisoning was a major factor in the downfall of the Roman Empire. Well-to-do Romans painted their walls a rich Pompeian red, which owed its color to a salt of lead or mercury. Lead was used for water pipes, cups, toys, statues, cosmetics, coffins, and roofs, but the most significant source may have been the wine of the wealthy class. S. Columba Gilfillan proposed a theory for Roman decay in 1965 that involved "poisons esteemed as delicious by the ancient well-to-do." Spoilage was a problem in ancient Rome, and vintners discovered that wine tasted better and lasted longer if it was mixed with a concentrated grape syrup called sapa. The best sapa was boiled in lead pots, allowing lead to leach into the syrup. When sapa was mixed with wine, it sweetened it and also poisoned the microorganisms that cause fermentation and souring. Sapa was also used in fruit and honey drinks, and as a food preservative. Josef Eisinger estimated a Roman consuming a liter of wine a day would ingest about 20 mg of lead per day, which he said was more than enough to produce chronic lead poisoning. A cultural shift at the height of the Roman Empire made it socially acceptable for wives to drink wine, to which Gilfillan attributed a declining birth rate and a low rate of surviving children among the wealthy. Today, the reproductive effects of lead are well established, as are the effects on childhood development and learning disabilities. Gilfillan hypothesized that the diet of the poor was not so badly poisoned as that of the rich. Although they drank the same water, they lacked the luxuries of cosmetics, lead paint, wine, fruit and honey drinks, or preserved foods. What role did lead play in decline of the Roman Empire? We may never know for certain, but the evidence is intriguing. ______________ The information on this page was excerpted from "Environmental Health News" School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington Spring - Summer, 2001 2000 ISSN Number 0029-7925 Department of Environmental Health, University of Washington

Symptoms of Lead Poinsoning By Mayo Clinic staff Symptoms in adults Although children are primarily at risk, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults. Signs and symptoms in adults may include: High blood pressure Declines in mental functioning Pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities Muscular weakness Headache Abdominal pain Memory loss Mood disorders Reduced sperm count, abnormal sperm Miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women

Commodus (dressed as Hercules)

Commodus from 'Gladiaor'

Persecution of Christians began in earnest after Emperor Nero blamed them for the burning of Rome in A.D. (or C.E.) 64

Evil People: Nero

Lead Poisoning & Rome

Evil People: Caligula

Roman Lead Poisoning Virtual Text Set Works Cited AllHistories. Most Evil Men in History - Caligula (1of3) - YouTube . YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. . AllHistories. Most Evil Men in History - Nero (1of3) - YouTube . YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. . Deedeetwins. Am I Not Merciful? - YouTube .YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. . Lead Information . College of Agriculture. University of Kentucky, 7 Nov. 2006. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. . Lead poisoning: Symptoms - MayoClinic.com. Mayo Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. . Lewis, Jack. Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective | About EPA | US EPA." US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. .

Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective by Jack Lewis [EPA Journal - May 1985] The decades-old controversy over the use of lead as a fuel additive is a mere footnote to centuries of controversy over this remarkably useful but also insidiously deadly metal. The ancients regarded lead as the father of all metals, but the deity they associated with the substance was Saturn, the ghoulish titan who devoured his own young. The very word saturnine, in its most specific meaning, applies to an individual whose temperament has become uniformly gloomy, cynical, and taciturn as the results of lead intoxication. In the rigidly hierarchical world of the ancients, lead was the plebeian metal deemed suitable for a vast variety of everyday uses. Lead products were, to a certain degree, accessible even to the poorest proletarian. But only the chosen few were at the top of the social totem pole were able to regularly indulge their insatiable craving for lead-containing products. Lead was a key component in face powders, rouges, and mascaras; the pigment in many paints (crazy as a painter was an ancient catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters); a nifty spermicide for informal birth control; the ideal cold metal for use in the manufacture of chastity belts; a sweet and sour condiment popular for seasoning and adulterating food; a wine preservative perfect for stopping fermentation or disguising inferior vintages; the malleable and inexpensive ingredient in pewter cups, plates, pitchers, pots and pans, and other household artifacts; the basic component of lead coins; and a partial ingredient in debased bronze or brass coins as well as counterfeit silver and gold coins. Most important of all was lead's suitability as inexpensive and reliable piping for the vast network plumbing that kept Rome and the provincial cities of the Roman Empire supplied with water. Indeed, the very word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. The lead pipes that were the vital arteries of ancient Rome were forged by smithies whose patron saint, Vulcan, exhibited several of the symptoms of advanced lead poisoning: lameness, pallor, and wizened expression. Addicted to Lead The Romans were aware that lead could cause serious health problems, even madness and death. However, they were so fond of its diverse uses that they minimized the hazards it posed. Romans of yesteryear, like Americans of today, equated limited exposure to lead with limited risk. What they did not realize was that their everyday low-level exposure to the metal rendered them vulnerable to chronic lead poisoning, even while it spared them the full horrors of acute lead poisoning. The symptoms of acute lead intoxication appeared most vividly among miners who were thrown into unhealthy intimacy with the metal on a daily basis. Romans reserved such debilitating and backbreaking labor for slaves. Some of these unfortunates were forced to spend all of their brief and blighted lives underground, out of sight and out of mind. The unpleasantness of lead mining was further neutralized late in the Empire when the practice was prohibited in Italy and consigned completely to the provinces. Lead smelting, which had once been commonplace in every Roman city and town, eventually followed mining operations to the provinces. Italy, the heart of imperial Rome, grew tired of the noxious fumes emanating from lead smelting forges. The obvious damage to the health of smithies and their families was a matter of little or no concern. Roman aristocrats, who regarded labor of any sort as beneath their dignity, lived oblivious to the human wreckage on which their ruinous diet of lead depended. They would never dream of drinking wine except from a golden cup, but they thought nothing of washing down platters of lead-seasoned food with gallons of lead-adulterated wine. The result, according to many modern scholars, was the death by slow poisoning of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Symptoms of plumbism or lead poisoning were already apparent as early as the first century B.C. Julius Caesar for all his sexual ramblings was unable to beget more than one known offspring. Caesar Augustus, his successor, displayed not only total sterility but also a cold indifference to sex. The first century A.D. was a time of unbridled gluttony and drunkenness among the ruling oligarchs of Rome. The lead concealed in the food and wine they devoured undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the outbreak of unprecedented epidemics of saturnine gout and sterility among aristocratic males and the alarming rate of infertility and stillbirths among aristocratic women. Still more alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite. This creeping cretinism manifested itself most frighteningly in such clearly degenerate emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. It is said that Nero wore a breastplate of lead, ostensibly to strengthen his voice, as he fiddled and sang while Rome burned. Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink a never-ending stream of leaded wine.


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