Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lead in History and the decline of Roman empire??

You might be wondering what is the link between lead and the decline of the Roman empire. Well this was the very same question I had when, I came across an unusual explanation of lead poisoning being one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman empire. History imputes the final fall of Rome in 450 AD due to the Barbarians over taking the Empire but one of the eventual weakened condition has been attributed to mental and physical deterioration due to excessive quantities of lead found in their wine, food and cosmetics.

A theory put forward by Jerome Nriagu in 1983 in the New England Journal of Medicine sparked and reopened a public debate over the lead poisoning. But for me, inspite of all the controversy surrounding the importance and validity of lead poisoning to imagine the slow process of Geology having a part in the decline of the Roman Empire is startling.
Lead Pipe in Roman baths (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
Roman Lead water pipes with taps (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
The ancient Romans used lead for making water pipes and lining baths, and the plumber who joins and mends pipes takes his name from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead. Plumbum is also the origin of the terms 'plumb bob' and 'plumb line,' used in surveying and also the chemical symbol for lead, Pb. In medieval times, lead came to be used for roofing, coffins, cisterns, tanks, and gutters, and for statues and ornaments. But water that supplied the Roman towns originated in the limestone terrain, these water carried dissolved lime and coated the inner linings of the pipes, not allowing the water to react with the lead pipe. Neither swimming in tanks lined by lead nor drinking water from the lead pipes were the reason for lead poisoning.

Romans were blithely ingesting huge amount of lead in the wine on a daily basis all their lives, including those famous multi-course, hours-long meals the upper class was fond of. So it seems like lead poisoning would have significantly impacted Rome's population, its decision makers, army, etc., especially over a long period of time and that's how Geology works.

Not only did the Romans had huge appetites and drink legendary amounts of wine, does Jerome sites but they flavored their wines with a syrup known as 'Sapa' made from simmered grape juice that was brewed in lead pots. The syrup was also used as a sweetener in many recipes favored by Roman gourmands. In all they probably had 20 milligrams led  input on a daily bases thus leading to physical and mental deterioration which may explain some of the bizarre and unusual behavior of Tiberius, Caligula, Cladius, Galba, Nero, Nerva and almost all of the late-Empire emperors were known to be both heavy drinkers and suffer gout-like symptoms. Elagabalus in particular was a huge pleasure seeking emperor, with enormous banquets, exotic dishes and blended wines. He was also, no doubt due to lead poisoning, mentally impaired.

I guess the lifestyle speaks for itself for the decline of the huge empire, but I hope we don't overlook this important page of history while going about with similar lifestyle that exist today.

Courtesy: (Cover page) The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

[i] Jerome O. Nriagu.(1985) : Saturnine Gout among Roman Aristocrats, New England Journal of Medicine, pp 660-3
[ii] Lead Poisoning and Rome; retrieved November 15, 2012 from <>
[iii] Decline of the Roman Empire:Wikipedia; retrieved November 15, 2012 from <
[iv] Roman Empire's fall is linked with Gout and Lead Poisoning (1983), New York Times,  retrieved November 15, 2012 from <>
[v] Edward Gibbon: General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West. Fall In The West — The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College Computer Science, retrieved November 14, 2012 from <>


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