In 1983, Canadian Research scientist Jerome Nriagu theorized that lead poisoning led to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Nriagu argued that the incidental ingestion of the toxic metal, via water pipes and from food cooked in lead-lined pots caused the mental and physical decline of the Roman people over multiple generations. The consequent erosion of the mental faculties of the ruling class led to the empires’ mismanagement and its subsequent fall.
It is now generally accepted that Nriagu overplayed the leads’ role in the decline and fall of the Roman empire. While the use of the metal may have increased in the imperial period, how much this affected the population as a whole is difficult to quantify. The Romans knew of the dangers of lead and took limited measures to protect themselves. There is also no direct evidence in the ancient or archaeological record to suggest widespread lead poisoning.
However, in 2017 a team from the University of Southern Denmark reported in the journal, Toxicology Letters, that they had identified another potential suspect for widespread Roman health problems: antimony. The letter has sparked speculation that poisoning- albeit from a source other than lead- did indeed erode the brilliance of Rome and bring about its doom. The question is, is the case against antimony any stronger than lead?
Lead and the Fall of the Roman Empire
Jerome Nriagu first published his argument for lead poisoning in the New England Journal of Medicine. In his article, “Saturnine Gout among the Roman Aristocrats- Did lead poisoning contribute to the Fall of the Empire?” Nriagu argued that the decadent lifestyle of the Roman elite between the years 30BC- 220AD particularly exposed them to lead, leading to severe poisoning that destroyed their physical health, cognitive ability, fertility and manifested itself as a form of gout.
Nriagu based his argument on the diets of 30 Roman rulers. His paper identified 19 who he believed “had a predilection to the lead-tainted food and wine.” One of those victims of lead poisoning was Emperor Claudius. Nriagu described Claudius as “dull-witted and absent-minded, ” because of the over-ingestion of lead. This poisoning, Nriagu argued also accounted for the Emperors’ well-documented bodily tremors and weakness, as well as his unpredictable temper.
What was it about the lifestyle of the Roman aristocracy that made them so susceptible to lead? Nriagu believed it was because so much of their food and drink was prepared and served in lead-lined vessels. A particular offender was the grape syrup, must, which was used to sweeten wines and food- and was produced by slow simmering in lead-lined containers. Using Cato and Columella’ recipes for must, Nriagu simulated its production and concluded that each liter had concentrations of between 240-1000milligrams of lead. One 5ml teaspoon of must would have been enough to cause chronic lead poisoning. Nriagu claimed Roman aristocrats drank at least two liters of sweetened wine a day, which meant their lead levels would be catastrophic.
However, Nriagu ignored various other factors. Firstly, the Romans often drank wine watered- and did not routinely sweeten it. The Classist and pharmacist John Scarborough also attacked Nriagus’ lack of classical knowledge. In “The Myth of Lead Poisoning Among the Romans: An essay review,” Scarborough stated that the Romans were aware of the dangers of lead poisoning and tried to protect themselves from it. Ancient sources agree with this. “Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. ” Vitruvius noted in his ‘On Architecture.”
The architect went on to note that the symptoms of poisoning in lead workers: their pallor and growing physical weakness. The Romans recognized that these symptoms were because of the lead, “destroy[ing] the vigor of the blood.” Lead was often extracted from silver, and the perils of this association was also noted, which explains why Vitruvius claims silver dinnerware was for display only: “those whose tables are furnished with silver vessels, nevertheless use those made of earth, from the purity of the flavor being preserved in them” (VIII.6.10-11). Often, Roman cooking pots were not lead-lined but copper- probably for the same reason.