What You Don't Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire
What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire

What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire

Natasha sheldon - November 30, 2017

What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire
Pont du Gard Roman aquaduct, France. Google Images.

Dangers in the Water System

People may have been able to avoid lead in the home. But everyone had to drink water. The Romans used lead in their water system, its malleability making it perfect to shape pipes and line aqueducts (Vitruvius II.6.1). So was lead poisoning occurring through the water system- thereby affecting more people than the aristocracy? The only way to ascertain this was to investigate the Roman water system- most specifically the pipes that transported water around the city of Rome.

In 2014, a team from the University of Utah published their findings from one such investigation in a paper entitled “Lead in Ancient Rome’s city Waters.” The team measured lead isotopes in the sediment of the River Tiber and Trajanic Harbor, where the outflow from Romes’ water system drained. They found that the piped water probably contained 100 times as much lead as local spring water. However, despite the evidence of the deposit, it seems that people consuming the water were not that exposed to lead poisoning.

Frontinus in his treatise on the aqueducts of Rome complained how “the accumulation of deposit, which sometimes hardens into a crust, contracts the channel of the water” (CXXII.1). Modern examinations of Roman lead water pipes showed they were encrusted with a layer of calcium carbonate- which would have insulated the water against the lead. Over time, the concentrations of lead in the basin may have built up due to deposition- but, as Hugo Delile, a member of the Utah team admitted, the amount of lead people ingested with their water was “unlikely to have been truly harmful.”Lead is no longer seen as the prime culprit of Rome’s demiseDelile admitted.

What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire
The lead pipe sample revealing Antimony poisoning in Pompeii. Google Images.

However, something else in the pipes could have been. In 2017, a team from the University of Southern Denmark was given a piece of Roman pipe to investigate from a private collection. Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team analyzed a 40mg section taken from the House of Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii in 1875. The Danish team discovered that the concentration of antimony in the pipe was 3680ug/g corresponding to 0.368wt% of the pipe’s weight. A ground control sample showed levels of 5.63ug/g- meaning the levels of antimony in just that short section of pipe were staggering.

“Their drinking water must have been hazardous,” Rasmussen, a member of the team and specialist in archaeological chemistry, said of the people of Pompeii. “This is the first time that you see that it is possible they died of antimony poisoning instead of lead poisoning.”

What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire
Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. Google Images

Was Antimony Rome’s Nemesis?

Antimony is an element often used as an alloy with tin and lead. So it would have formed part of Roman water pipes. Because of its composition, the metal could have leached into the water supply with greater ease than lead-calcium carbonate furring notwithstanding. Furthermore, if taken in the right form and the correct quantity, antimony is much more hazardous to health, its effects being much more immediate and toxic.

Victims would probably initially noticed themselves afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms may have seemed like a mild stomach upset. But antimony poisoning also made its victims thirsty. So they would have drunk more water. As a result, the symptoms would have increased, until in worst cases scenario, the vomiting and diarrhea became so severe that the victim suffered dehydration. Ultimately, antimony poisoning can lead to liver and kidney failure and cardiac arrest.

The Danish team published their findings in a brief report in the journal, Toxicology Letters. However, the press blew these brief results out of proportion -through no fault of Rasmussen and his research team, who were utterly candid about the fact more research was needed. “It’s only one sample,” Rasmussen emphasized. “We know we should measure more.”

What You Don’t Know About Poisoning Really Bringing Down the Roman Empire
A Sample of Antimony. Google Images.

Rasmussen also stresses the localized nature of the findings. In the first few paragraphs of the report, he states: “We show that health concerns in Pompeii were most likely the result of antimony (Sb) intoxication.” Pompeii. Not the whole of the empire. Rasmussen also notes that Pompeiis’ waters were particularly susceptible to contamination by high levels of antimony because they were near a volcano. This fact makes antimony poisoning more likely in Pompeii as the element naturally occurs in the groundwater. However, it was not necessarily the case elsewhere in the empire.

Then there is still the question of how much antimony people would have ingested from the water supply. The team built a loop system of lead pipes soldered with antimony to test its effect on water. For four weeks, the team pumped water around the pipes. At the end of the test period, it revealed a high level of antimony toxicity. However, in Pompeii, the same water did not continually flow around a system of pipes. Instead, it ran downhill from water cisterns on the higher level of the town straight to the point of use. It would not have passed in the same direction twice-limiting its contact with any antimony in the system.

More sampling, over a more extensive area coupled with skeletal analysis, is needed before antimony can take the blame for the fall of an empire.


Sources For Further Reading:

Arstechnical – Did Lead Poisoning Cause Downfall of Roman Empire?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Track Down the Theories of Either Lead Poisoning or Malaria for The Decline of The Roman Empire

Science Daily – Poisonings Went Hand in Hand with The Drinking Water in Ancient Pompeii

Cultura Colectiva – From Caligula to Nero: There Might Be a Scientific Explanation for Their Eccentricities

Facts & Details – Drinks in Ancient Rome

Ranker – Roman Aristocrats Poisoned Themselves with Artificial Sweetener And It May Have Destroyed The Empire

Alcohol Problem & Solution – Alcohol among the Greeks and Romans: They Enjoyed Drinking

JSTOR – The Myth of Lead Poisoning Among the Romans: An Essay Review

Medical Daily – A Brief History of Lead Poisoning: From Ancient Rome to Michigan

VOX – Lead Water Pipes Didn’t Destroy the Roman Empire, After All

Tales of Times Forgotten – Why Lead Poisoning Probably Did Not Cause the Downfall of the Roman Empire

Science Nordic – Pompeii Residents Were Screwed Before the Volcanic Eruption

History Collection – Downfall: 5 Reasons Why the Roman Empire Collapsed