Common Errors (39): Lead Poisoning

Water conducts, made of lead, from ancient Himera (Archaeological museum of Palerm)

One of the best known theories about the fall of the Roman Empire is the one proposed by several German and French scholars in the nineteenth century and made famous in an article “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome” (Journal of Occupational Medicine 7 [1965] 53-60) by sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan. Because the Romans were unaware of the risks of chronic lead poisoning, they suffered not only from loss of short-term concentration, coordination, and memory, but also of depression.

The main sources of lead poisoning were the pipes of the aqueducts and wine, which was often sweetened by a syrup that had been boiled down in lead-lined pots. Because only the rich could – according to Gilfillan – afford sweetened wine, lead poisoning was class selective. The Roman elite suffered heavily and in the end, the Roman Empire went down because of what Gilfillan called “aristothanasia”.

This theory has been challenged a long time ago. In the first place: the archaeological evidence shows that the syrup was not boiled down in lead-lined pots, but in pots covered with pitch. In the second place: although water conducts did have parts made of lead, the water ran quickly through them; in the parts where water could be stagnant, the Romans preferred terracotta (cf. Vitruvius, On Architecture, 8.6.10-11). And finally, there’s the evidence from mummies and ancient skeletons, from which we know that the ancients were exposed to less lead than we – about one tenth, to be precise. This is conclusive.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Literature

  • A. and E. Cockburn, Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures (1980)
  • Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (1984) 365-366
  • Hans van Maanen, Encyclopedie van misvattingen (2010), pp.55-56
  • John Scarborough, “The Myth of Lead Poisoning Among the Romans: An Essay Review” in the Journal of the History of Medicine, 39 (1984), 469-475

One Response to Common Errors (39): Lead Poisoning

  1. humidfruit says:

    the chemical analysis of the corporeal remains is probably the only conclusive proof… that Galen wrote something does not mean it was common knowledge!

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