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World & Current Events > Lead poisoning and demise of Roman Empire

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message 1: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 14968 comments There are theories attributing the fall of Rome to lead poisoning: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/t...
A debatable hypothesis, but since we have chemist here with expertise in Roman empire, we might as well hear a little more than a concise digest of Wikipedia.
Can lead poisoning explaining some eccentric/extreme behavior among Roman aristocrats and emperors? What do you think?
P.S. No need to extrapolate lead on modern politicians -:)


message 2: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin Actually, a lot of things point to that being the case. Rich Romans liked to boil their wine to give it a 'better taste' (I suspect that modern Frenchmen would recoil with horror at that notion) and they happened to do that in pots/cauldrons lined with lead. Since such boiled wine was much more expensive than regular wine, the common people didn't drink it, only the rich and powerful. As for the eccentric behavior of Roman aristocrats and emperors, it has all the hallmarks of long-term lead poisoning. I would be curious to know if studies of the remains of some of those emperors would show traces of lead poisoning or not.


message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 10762 comments My view is that it had nothing to do with the fall of Rome, in part because lead was probably most intensively used words the end of the proper Res Publica. There were several hundred years following where Rome seemed to prosper. The Romans knew of the adverse effects of lead, e.g. as outlined by Gaius Plinius Secundus in his Historia Naturalis, and they found this out by looking at the adverse health effects on people working at lead refining. Most of the lead in the Roman world was actually a byproduct of mining and refining silver, as the two were together in most of the Roman silver mines.

Lead was used to pipe water, but this probably had little adverse health effects because Roman water tended to be hard, and the pipes got a layer of calcium carbonate deposited on them - a sort of preservative! As Michel notes, they did boil wine because it improved the taste. As it happens, lead acetate is allegedly quite sweet [ I have never checked this out :-) ] and if the wine started out sour it would dissolve lead IF the lead had an oxide coating. Since it was supposed to sweeten the wine, I guess their lead did. What happens next depends on what they eat with it. If they manage some sulphur-rich food (brassicas, onions?) then they might be OK because lead forms a very insoluble precipitate with sulphur that remains unaffected by hydrochloric acid.

Why excuse modern politicians, Nik? That is totally unreasonable. In answer to Michel's question, if you omit the remains of Romans around lead processing or mining sites, (and I can't see Nero going out and doing a bit of lead mining on the side when he could send some slaves there) the lead concentrations in bones (where lead accumulates over one's life) of Romans is less than 50% of that found in modern bones. (We will have history of breathing in the output of burning tetraethyl lead in cars.) So, as far as lead is concerned, the Romans were probably half as demented as us from that cause!


message 4: by Nik (last edited Mar 24, 2018 11:51PM) (new)

Nik Krasno | 14968 comments Ian wrote: "Why excuse modern politicians, Nik?..."

As lead is not from 'leader', they seem to toy with modern stuff: from marijuana and coke for personal consumption to polonium for a friendly share with others


message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 10762 comments The modern equivalent is "plumber". They have given up lead to concentrate on plastic pipes which have a distinct problem - rats can hear or otherwise sense the water and they chew through the pipes, which can male a hell of a mess and require the walls to be pulled apart. Makes one feel the Romans were not all that stupid.


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