Lead poisoning

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Did lead poison the Roman Empire? Symptoms of lead poisoning, ranging from gloomy mood to joint pains, infertility and loss of libido have been identified in a series of mad, bad and totally bonkers Roman Emperors:

"plumbism" (from the Latin plumbum for lead) is said to account for Caligula's anointing his horse co-ruler and Julius Caesar's inability to beget an heir.

Plumbism was more acute among the countless slaves whose industry in the lead mines produced the raw material for the water-pipes (our word "plumbing" comes from the Latin plumbum), coins, cosmetics, cook and table ware, spermicides, paints and food additives which Roman ingenuity manufactured out of lead. The miners suffered an early death, particularly if their work involved smelting silver out of lead ore (the two are found together).

For the higher-born, lead must have posed its greatest danger in the process of sweetening acid wine. Though they were aware that lead could be dangerous, the Romans could not resist using lead acetate to neutralise the sour taste. They were great drinkers of young acid wine, and "sugar of lead" was a popular additive. It was also common practice to boil up the must (unfermented grape juice) in containers of lead or bronze (lead was recommended as copper gave it a sharp taste). The must was then added to fortify the wine.

Academics argue about the incidence of ill-effects from this process. But the Romans were the first to identify "Saturnine gout" - Jdifferent from ordinary gout - a disease characterised by bad temper, pessimism and shooting pains in the joints, leading to a weak, bent gait.

Saturn, of course, was the lord of adversity, a ghoulish titan who devoured his own young. The Roman god of metalwork, Vulcan, showed signs of lead poisoning: lameness, pallor, and wizened expression.

Ironically, nowadays many believe that it was the exhausting of the lead and silver mines from which emperors paid their troops that did for the Romans in the end.

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