Toxicology: Lead Among the Romans
Ever since the Roman Empire declined and fell, assorted theorists have used the event as proof of their own notions about society's most important ills. Now a new study contends that Rome's collapse was not due to self-satisfied apathy, gluttony,HOMOSEXUALITY , or any other social evil. In a speech at the Third International Congress of Human Genetics in Chicago last week, Sociologist Seabury Colum Gilfillan suggested that the Roman aristocracy died off in large part because of nothing more glamorous than simple lead poisoning.
If regularly introduced through mouth or lung in amounts greater than 1 mg. per day, lead can cause painful constipation, anemia, emaciation, loss of appetite, paralysis of the extremities, and ultimately death. And there is one more effect that interests Dr. Gilfillan most of all: enough lead can cause sterility in men, miscarriages and stillbirths among women. The Romans, says Gilfillan, especially the upper classes, knew little of lead's dangers, and they ingested more than enough of the metal to make trouble a certainty. Not only did Pliny the Elder counsel that "leaden and not bronze pots should be used," but lead was also important in the manufacture of water pipes, cups, sieves, cosmetics, external medicines, paint, and, ironically, coffins.
Class Selective. The most significant source of lead poisoning was wine. To help preserve and sweeten it, the Romans added a syrup made of unfermented grape juice that had been boiled down in lead-lined pots, thereby greatly increasing the absorption of lead. Unfortunately the Romans did not understand, says the California Ph.D., that "this slow poison, this delicious syrup" delayed the wine's souring by killing impure microorganisms. In sterilizing the wine, "they knew not that they were also sterilizing themselves."
The lead poisoning was class selective, Gilfillan argues, because the poor rarely could afford wine, used cheap earthenware cooking utensils, and did not have such luxuries as cosmetics. But, says he, the aristocracy's "high death rate, as well as its low birth rate, strongly suggests lead poisoning," and his still incomplete work on exhumed bones tends to confirm his theory. Using tombstone inscriptions as a guide, he reports that life expectancy among the upper classes was 22-25 years; literary and census data indicate that the number of aristocratic births was remarkably low, "perhaps one-fourth of what would have been necessary to maintain their number." Over a period of generations, "this aristothanasia" wiped out the leaders of thought and culture.