Did lead poisoning cause downfall of Roman Empire? The jury is still out.

  

Category:  History & Sociology

Via:  hallux  •  2 weeks ago  •  21 comments

By:   JENNIFER OUELLETTE - ars Technica

Did lead poisoning cause downfall of Roman Empire? The jury is still out.
Ancient Rome’s emperors did some pretty bizarre stuff—bursting into uncontrollable fits of laughter, appointing a horse as a priest, dressing in animal skins and attacking people… the list goes on. Why did they act this way? Possibly… lead poisoning.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



There are any number of factors that contribute to the demise of an entire civilization, like the   collapse of the Roman Empire   circa 476 AD. The empire's slow decline is   typically attributed   to barbarian invasions, failed military campaigns, economic challenges, government corruption, and an over-reliance on slave labor, among other factors. But it's also been suggested that the toxic effects of lead poisoning on increasingly erratic rulers may also have contribute to its demise—a debate that has been revisited in a new   Reactions   video from the American Chemical Society.

Lead has a number of properties that make it attractive for practical use. It's cheap, widely available, corrosion resistant when exposed to air and water, has a low melting point, and is highly malleable, which means it's easy to fashion into a wide range of products. But lead is also highly toxic if it finds its way into the human body, which is why we use it far less these days compared to even 100 years ago. Common symptoms of lead poisoning include anemia, nerve disorders, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and even infertility. Lead exposure may also be a factor in malaria, rickets, gout, and periodontal disease.

Since 1943,   scientists have known   that lead can have adverse effects on neurological development in children, leading to behavioral problems and lowered intelligence. That's because it can easily replace calcium. Calcium is how neurons in the brain communicate, and if lead replaces it, there is either too little communication among neurons, or too much. This can cause erratic mood swings, or difficulty processing information, for instance.

As the   Reactions   video points out, the ancient Romans loved their lead. They used it in pipes, to line coffins, in their pots, and their utensils. They also used lead acetate as a sweetener, in an era where cane sugar and honey were quite scarce. They did have an abundance of grapes, and used to boil down the juice in their lead pots. Lead ions would leach into the juice and combine with the acetate from the grapes. The resulting syrup was very sweet and used in wines and a wide variety of foods. In fact, of the 450 recipes in a cookbook from that era (the   Apicius cookbook ), 100 called for those syrups. The Romans also loved their wine, with aristocrats consuming between 1 and 5 liters every day. Researchers who recreated some of the syrups found lead concentrations around 60 times higher than the EPA allows in public drinking water.

The current debate about lead poisoning's potential role in the downfall of the Roman Empire dates back to  a 1983 paper  in the New England Journal of Medicine by Jerome Nriagu, who was studying the diets of Roman emperors between 30 BC and 220 AD. Nriagu noted that 19 of the 30 emperors showed a preference for "lead-tainted" food and wine, concluding many likely suffered from gout and lead-poisoning as a result.

Claudius, for instanced, is described as exhibiting "disturbed speech, weak limbs, an ungainly gait, tremor, fits of excessive and inappropriate laughter and unseemly angry, and he often slobbered." Legend has it that Caligula once wished to appoint his horse,  Incitatus , as a consul—although historians generally believe this was politically motivated gossip, or that Caligula intended it as a prank. Nero was said to mutilate people in the arena while dressed in animal skins.

But was lead poisoning the cause of all those symptoms, and hence the eventual collapse of the empire? Nriagu's hypothesis earned the support of geochemist  Clair Patterson , whose work convinced governments to ban lead in gasolines in 1975. But it was hotly disputed by others, most notably the  classicist John Scarborough , who accused Nriagu of sloppy research. Nriagu in turn  told the Washington Post in 2016  that Scarborough "knows nothing" about lead poisoning.

There have been many scientific papers in the ensuing decades looking at various aspects of the lead poisoning question. For instance, in 2014,   French researchers studied   how the lead pipes used in the Roman aqueducts might have contaminated the water consumed by ancient Romans. Specifically, they measured concentrations of lead isotopes in sediment from the Tiber River and Trajanic Harbor, and compared those levels to the amount of lead isotopes found in ancient Roman pipes.

While their estimates revealed that the water from those pipes could have had as much as 100 times lead than spring water from the region, the team nonetheless concluded that these concentrations weren't likely to have caused serious health issues. The authors added that, in their opinion, Nriagu's theory that lead poisoning led to the fall of the Roman empire had been largely debunked.

Of course, there could be other, just as likely factors for the legends surrounding the strange behavior and ailments of ancient Roman rulers, such as traumatic brain injuries, strokes, or tumors. But there is some evidence that lead poisoning was an issue for the ancient Romans, even if it didn't directly contribute to the collapse of the empire. For instance,   a 2010 study   of dental enamel taken from more than 200 burials at 33 sites in Britain, Ireland, and Rome (circa the first to fourth centuries AD) found a marked increase in lead levels in the British samples, and a wide range of lead levels in the Roman enamel samples.

In   a 2019 study , archaeologists examined several skeletons from London during the Roman era for signs of exposure to toxic levels of lead. The team sampled 30 thigh bones, as well as 70  bones from the Iron Age as a control. They found that the Iron Age skeletons contained just 0.3 to 2.9 micrograms of lead per gram, whereas the ones from the Roman empire had between 8 to 123 micrograms per gram. Those are sufficiently high levels to cause widespread health effects, including hypertension, fertility issues (and subsequent population decline), kidney disease, neural damage, gout, and so forth.

That said, according to archaeologist   Janet Montgomery   of the University of Durham, bone also absorbs lead and other metals from the soil, so it can be challenging to rule out post-burial contamination as a source for these higher levels of lead. "You do not know if the lead you are measuring [in bone] has accumulated from fairly low level exposure over a long time, or derives from one period of high exposure many years in the past, or something in between," she   told Chemistry World .

Archaeologist Kristina Killgrove,   writing at Forbes , pointed out there were no lead coffins, or many lead grave goods, at these sites that could have contributed to this kind of contamination. But she did note that it's unclear if skeletons of people who lived in Rome during the same period (as opposed to London) would also show high levels of lead, which requires additional study. "While the question of the effects of lead poisoning on the Roman Empire is far from settled, [this] research adds to the growing body of scientific data drawn from multiple sources that show human-created lead pollution was a serious problem two thousand years ago," Killgrove concluded.


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Hallux
Sophomore Principal
1  seeder  Hallux    2 weeks ago

The early Christians finished off what lead had started.

 
 
 
Split Personality
PhD Principal
1.1  Split Personality  replied to  Hallux @1    2 weeks ago

Remember when everyone thought plastics were the answer to everything?

 
 
 
Hallux
Sophomore Principal
1.1.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Split Personality @1.1    2 weeks ago

They are to plumbing.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1.1.2  Trout Giggles  replied to  Hallux @1.1.1    2 weeks ago

They really are. They don't leach metals into the drinking water

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
1.2  Gordy327  replied to  Hallux @1    2 weeks ago

Maybe we have a lead issue in this country? After all, look at how much crazy we have here nowadays. 

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3  Colour Me Free  replied to  Hallux @1    2 weeks ago

In 312 Constantine was already favoring Christianity .. Constantinople was the center of Christianity in the Roman empire .. it was Mehmed ll in 1453 that conquered Constantinople .. thus was it really Christianity and lead that destroyed the Roman Empire?   : ) 

 
 
 
Hallux
Sophomore Principal
1.3.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Colour Me Free @1.3    2 weeks ago
In 312 Constantine was already favoring Christianity

Politics ... by then Christians were already running around destroying what they could lay their hands upon. They were much like ISIS in that regard.

THE DARKENING AGE: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World
By Catherine Nixey

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1.3.2  Trout Giggles  replied to  Hallux @1.3.1    2 weeks ago

I always blamed the destruction of Rome on the Christians. I don't think it's a coincidence that Christianity became the state religion of Rome and not less than 150 years later it was reduced to rubble

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3.3  Colour Me Free  replied to  Trout Giggles @1.3.2    2 weeks ago

Yet the 'fall of Rome' is only in regards to the western half of the Roman Empire .. the eastern half also know as the Byzantine Empire thrived for 100s of years with Christianity the religion of the nation ...

The Roman empire of western Europe fell for many reason, the least of which was Christianity.

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3.4  Colour Me Free  replied to  Hallux @1.3.1    2 weeks ago

cannot access the NYtimes to read the article...

 
 
 
Split Personality
PhD Principal
1.3.5  Split Personality  replied to  Colour Me Free @1.3.4    2 weeks ago

Similar article, different link.  They are all about the same book.

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3.6  Colour Me Free  replied to  Split Personality @1.3.5    2 weeks ago

Thank you Split Personality ..

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3.7  Colour Me Free  replied to  Hallux @1.3.1    2 weeks ago

Hey.. morning Hallux .. have you read the book?  Think I will get myself a copy..!

 
 
 
Hallux
Sophomore Principal
1.3.8  seeder  Hallux  replied to  Colour Me Free @1.3.7    2 weeks ago

I have ... if I can locate it, I'll ship it to you.

 
 
 
Colour Me Free
Junior Participates
1.3.9  Colour Me Free  replied to  Hallux @1.3.8    2 weeks ago

Thank you

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
1.3.10  Gordy327  replied to  Colour Me Free @1.3    2 weeks ago
thus was it really Christianity and lead that destroyed the Roman Empire? 

I'd say it was more christianity that destroyed the Roman Empire and led to the Dark Ages. Islam did something very similar for the ancient Arabic world too. Religion may help individuals, but it brings down societies.

 
 
 
Sean Treacy
Professor Expert
1.3.11  Sean Treacy  replied to  Gordy327 @1.3.10    2 weeks ago
say it was more christianity that destroyed the Roman Empire and l

Of course you would. 

 
 
 
Sean Treacy
Professor Expert
1.3.12  Sean Treacy  replied to  Colour Me Free @1.3.3    2 weeks ago
The Roman empire of western Europe fell for many reason, the least of which was Christianity

Yes, that's pretty obvious when the least bit of rational thought is applied. As you point out, the more Christianized, eastern half of the Empire survived for about a thousand years after the fall of the west, and the western empire was succeeded in many areas by smaller Christian kingdoms after the break up, for instance the Merovingian dynasty in western Europe.   In fact, Christianity served as a unifying factor in the late Empire as the Empire became a collection of different races and cultures, with Christianity being one of the last  unifying bonds among the populace.

The west was doomed to fail after the fall of the Republic. The amazing thing is it lasted as long as it did.  With the loss of a cohesive governing structure and the concept Roman identity and  civic virtue, the empire was thrown into in the best case, at the death of almost every emperor.  Emperors  ruled based on their ability to command the army and little else, there was no innovation, no economic growth just whatever stability the personal qualities of the Emperor could provide, or not as the case may be. And the unending civil wars bled the population dry necessitating ever more immigrants with no connection to Rome other than the need for a payday to serve in the Army. By the end of the west, there was no Roman identity, just lots of tribes each demanding the loyalty of their citizens and fighting among themselves for territory and the spoils of what was left of Roman wealth. 

 
 
 
Gordy327
Professor Principal
1.3.13  Gordy327  replied to  Sean Treacy @1.3.11    2 weeks ago
Of course you would. 

Why yes, I would. Then it proceeded to stifle scientific and intellectual progress for the next 1000 years. In some ways, it continues to do that today.

 
 
 
zuksam
Sophomore Silent
2  zuksam    2 weeks ago

The Romans Conquered the Empire because they had better weapons and tactics. They then conscribed the soldiers they had conquered and taught them their tactics and provided them with roman weaponry. They also installed Governments in these lands but after generations these ruling class Romans became less Roman, both the Roman ruling class, business community and soldiers intermarried with locals and they no longer felt like Conquering Romans they felt oppressed by a country many had never even visited. At this point the Roman Empire was a house of cards with no more tactical or technological advantage over the lands it had conquered and so the result was inevitable. 

 
 
 
Moose Knuckle
Freshman Participates
3  Moose Knuckle    2 weeks ago

Lead in the water lowered testosterone in the Roman society leading to a variety of social issues. In essence the water turned them gay.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941364/#:~:text=Most%20animal%20and%20human%20studies,FSH%20(11%2D14) .

Their clothing however was fabulous.

 
 
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