Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome

Roman lead lined drinking vessel - Met MuseumLead Poisoning in Ancient Rome

Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers

Acta Theologica:  Supplementum 7 (2005)


Lead was known to the ancients from at least the 4th millennium BC, but its use increased markedly during Roman times, to the extent that it became a health hazard. Mines and foundry furnaces caused air pollution; lead was extensively used in plumbing; domestic utensils were made of lead and pewter, and lead salts were used in cosmetics, medicines and paints. As a microbicide, lead was also used to preserve food. A grape juice concentrate (sapa) commonly used as a sweetener was prepared by preference in lead containers. Although Roman writers commented on the toxicity of lead, classic chronic lead poisoning was first described only in the 7th century AD. Skeletal lead content increased significantly in the Roman era, but peaked at a level only 41-47% of that of modern Europeans. The authors thus suggest that chronic lead poisoning did not contribute significantly to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Lead, one of the seven metals known in ancient times, has been mined and used by man since at least the 4th millennium BC (Waldron 1973:391; Steinbeck 1979:9; Drasch 1982:200). In the Graeco-Roman era the use of lead increased markedly (Woolley 1984:353-8). Environmental studies by French scientists have shown that lead contamination in ice precipitated in the polar regions dates back to approximately 500 BC-AD 300, when lead pollution probably first became a significant health problem (Emsley 1991:14; Eliot 1995:132). Bou- tron, a French geologist, estimates that over the 800 years of Graeco-Roman civilisation approximately 400 tons of lead were deposited in Greenland via rain and ice (Emsley 1991:14). Romans such as Vitruvius (De architectura viii.6.10 & 11) and Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis1 xxxiv.50.167) recognised the toxicity of lead and its fumes, but chronic lead poisoning is surprisingly poorly documented in this period. Yet it has long been claimed that lead poisoning was common, even endemic.

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