Thursday, July 14, 2005

Pb and the Fall of Rome

We all know the incredible stories surrounding so many of the late Roman Emperors.
We also know that the Roman Empire FELL.
Why?

Here is one very plausible theory I heard about this week: Lead Poisoning. Rome mined huge quantities of lead and it was a part of daily life. In fact, so much lead mining and smelting took place in the Mediterranean that lead traces have been found in ice core samples taken in Greenland. (Stay with me, people.)
A number of Roman scholars, and even the Greek physicians before them, were aware of the possible links between lead and ill health, but perhaps the link was too tenuous for them to take more seriously.


Water was brought into town via lead pipes, and lead was used to line the aqueducts. So ingrained in modern culture is it that our word plumbing comes from plumbum, the Latin word for lead which is immortalised as Pb on the periodic table. (Just look at how many Victorian lead pipes we have had to replace in recent decades.)

Roman women, in order to preserve their light complexions, powdered their faces with white lead. Prolonged use most likely caused skin damage, thereby necessitating further use.

Roman food was cooked in lead pots or lead-lined copper pots. I'm pretty sure that earthenware glaze contained lead back then too. (A bit ironic (sorry) that lead wasn't added to glass until the 17th century. This is the reason that so much Roman glass is cloudy and iridescent.)

The Roman upper classes drank large quantities of neat and diluted wine; much of it was flavoured with various forms of unfermented grape syrups, also used as flavour enhancers in cooking. First there was Mustum. Mustum could be reduced by half into Defrutum, and further into a third as a syrup called Sapa. All, of course, boiled down in lead pots and because of the grapes' acidity, even more toxin would leach into the mix.

The presence of lead in the wine not only served to sweeten it, improve the colour and add bouquet, but acted as a preservative for export to all corners of the Empire. (On a side note, the Greeks, who had once been the world's producer, added pine resin.)

And so to the mad Emperors and the decline of the Empire: Lead is a neurotoxin. It also causes infertility.

Looking at the afflictions of Claudius, many doctors see this as a classic case of lead poisoning: excruciating stomach pains, speech impairment, weak limbs, slobbering or drooling, fits of laughter. To complete the vicious cycle, he was an alcoholic.

Then there are the wild orgies, drunken Bacchanals, erratic and scandalous behaviour, and illogical decisions of Commodus, Nero, Caligula, Tiberius, and the weirdest one, Elagabalus.
He was so crazy, even the lead-poisoned citizens wanted to get rid of him.

The birth rate eventually dipped so low, that couples were penalised if they had too few children.

So if the rulers and decision-making upper classes were poisoned, how long before the moral decay and population decline leach into the civil and economic health of an Empire?

37 comments:

Caesura said...

Hey!! I am an INFJ too! I took this test some years ago from a book called "Please Understand Me." by David Keirsey, Marilyn Bates. How interesting. I wonder if the universe would implode if we were to be in the same place at the same time? Sorry off topic here...lol.

Umm it would not take long for the decay to leach into the empire. The question I have is, would the empire collapse or would there be enough social resovle left between strangers to build a better society from it.

Steliano Ponticos said...

Shows you the importance of good food:) I had heard about this theory. I also read that rome lost all the wild life around it because of lead pollution. No more birds no more nothing. I guess polution was dangerous even then.

Steliano Ponticos said...

we keep saying that polution is not an eminent danger, but look what it did even back then. Thanks Olive'

Olivia said...

Welcome Caesura, you're another Motimer bridging the gap to Blogger.

Haha, the universe would only implode with time travel! BTW, I love being an INFJ. Funny enough, INFJ's like taking personality tests. Do you?

I think the process is a combination of collapse and rebuilding. I wish I had read something about the actual end of the empire and its subsequent incarnations.

Thank you for your comments.

Olivia said...

Steli - you're welcome.
I'm not surprised about the decline in wildlife. Imagine the effects it had on the ecosystem.

I once heard that if the flies died, humans would be heavily affected.

Caesura said...

Thanks Olivia, Yes I do take the odd personality test here and there and well pretty much everywhere..lol! Not sure I believe too many however, but that one was quite like me.

Are you a history buff? I can't decide if I am, or if maybe I'm more of a geography buff. But I love learning about people, places and cultures, both modern and historic. Anthropology...hmmm maybe something like that. But then again...oh I just like to feed my brain.

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't implode :) At my previous job (researcher at a uni computer lab) we were almost entirely INTJs - that could have been very hazardous if people of the same type annihilate :)

Olivia said...

Caesura - I don't know if I'm a buff, but I do love history, not only intellectually, but in a more sensory way. As you can see from my site, I like a little bit of everything.

Anthropology was something I briefly considered studying until I realised it was a bit [fill in blank here].

Feeding the brain is a wonderful thing!

Steliano Ponticos said...

I like the expression "feeding my brain". It has food in it, so I must like it :) ok that was a bit lame +) but OMG I didn't know about the flys..I need to look that up.

Olivia said...

Welcome Anonymous - INTJs at a research lab. Perfect. :)

It could be because I'm F and not T that, although I can do good research, I don't really like it.

For this reason, blogging is the best: short research and fast expression.

Olivia said...

Snap, Steli. Hey you keep talking about food today. Are you hungry???

Jia Li said...

u know I have heard of this, Lead poisoning. Them going crazy. They never figured it out.

Steliano Ponticos said...

I'm not hungry, Je suis gourmand that's all :) But I must say Jia Li they went mad in a really nice way, according to the movies.

Olivia said...

It's fun being gourmands

Anonymous said...

Moi aussi je suis gourmande. mmmmmmm

if the flies died, humans would be heavily affected.....how?

this theory makes sense.

Vanessa

Caesura said...

Je ne suis pas gourmande. J'ai faim cependant....lol

Olivia said...

Hi Vee

Oh help. If the flies died, the birds would starve, and it would go all the way up the food chain.

Olivia said...

Ah bon, Caesura, tu parle francais. Bienvenu.

Golly my site is busy tonight...

Jia Li said...

indeedy it is

Steliano Ponticos said...

yep Jia Li.

Olive its the 14 jouillet spirit, everyone is speaking french :D This is a holiday in France that celebrates when a lot of criminals escaped from jail, lol.

Olivia said...

Well woop de doo!
Oui, la fuite de La Bastille.
Any fireworks tonight?

Jia Li said...

hey no fair, I speak little french

Olivia said...

Then my dear, tu parle un peu de francais ;)

Steliano Ponticos said...

I am not liking the fireworks today. Yesterday was better.

Olivia said...

In 1996 I was with a group of girls in Paris during 14 juillet, and one girl who did Jiu Jitsu was crying because of the fireworks!

Steliano Ponticos said...

That's so funny Olivia :D

Olivia said...

I know I couldn't believe it! She always acted so tough! :P

JP said...

If lead caused the collapse of one empire, what's our excuse?

Olivia said...

Dear JP, ever the cynic.

Probably asbestos. No. I know, growth hormones.

Caesura said...

Salut Olivia! Merci, je suis heureux d'ĂȘtre ici.

The Talking Mute said...

Olivia, nice blog. You will be the female counterpart of another history buff that I link to. His blog is entitled "A Shroud of Thoughts" and his URL is http://mercurie.blogspot.com/.

By the way, thanks for visiting my site.

Rebecca said...

I'm not convinced yet. I knew this theory growing up, but it was always seen as a joke. At least that's how I knew it. It;s the type of thing my family and friends would say with sarcasm "yeah, sure, and the Roman Empire fell for lead poisoning" or use it as a joke.
Then I heard it a few years ago expounded as an actual theory recently come across and I was surprised.

Also, most of the Empire did not actually receive it's water through lead pipes. Anyway, there are several contra arguments.

And I love being devil's advocate! he he, give me more!

Olivia said...

Thank you, Talking Mute, and welcome to my site.

Rebecca - devil's advocate, always fun. You've got to admit, though, that if it destroyed the health of its citizens, elevated levels of lead in the blood had to have some sort of long-term effect on the society.
Even today, we are taken aback when confronted by the strange symptoms exhibited by victims of lead poisoning. And extrapolate that to an entire city...surreal thought, eh?

Rebecca said...

Mainly we are taken aback when confronted by the strange behaviour exhibited by the Romans!

In the words of Mike Meyers in his oh-so-fabulous Coffee Talk on SNL: The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman. Discuss!

louisamae said...

Tis a plausible scenario indeed.

Lugano said...

As far as I know, however, all of Europe, if not the whole world, at that point, used the same amount of lead in all their plumbing, pipes, cookware and whatnot (pretty much clear until Victorian times, when plumbing was near ubiquitous). So was everyone in the world crazy and sterile during all that time? And if so, did only Robot humans survive? And if so, are we all Robots with special powers that we can use for good or evil?

Olivia said...

Whoah, Lugano, what are you doing all the way over here?

Hey you have a point about the lead. Not even 20 years ago, Lead paint was being removed from houses and banned from petrol in the UK. Yet I grew up with leaded windows that produced black dust and had a lead pencil for my slate, can still remember the smell of it. No escape.

Are you a robot? Is this the Matrix?