As some very smart folks have noted, the most interesting question about the Roman Empire is not why it fell, but why it lasted as long as it did. This insight, however, hasn’t stopped people from obsessing over what particular straw broke the camel’s back, dooming the Roman empire to barbarian invasion and massive depopulation in the fifth century CE. It’s likely that we’re so drawn to this question because we see ourselves in the Romans—if we can figure out what brought down the world’s greatest empire, maybe we can avoid the same fate.
Here at HistoryBuff, we’re fascinated by why we think what we do about the past. In that spirit, let’s dive into one of the most popular and enduring myths about the fall of Rome: that it was caused by lead poisoning.
Rome’s greatest feat of engineering—its extensive water system, which brought high-quality water into cities for drinking, bathing, and cooking—was also its downfall. The lead Romans used for pipes leeched into the water supply, slowly poisoning the population and turning them into feeble, sterile maniacs.
The Romans did use lead for their water pipes, as well as cooking and drinking vessels and even makeup. Lead poisoning, which can be the result of frequent ingestion of even small amounts of lead, has symptoms that could certainly hamper the progress of a civilization, including increased risk of miscarriage, reduced sperm count, developmental delay in the children that manage to be born at all, violence, insanity, and general poor functioning. Not very helpful when you’re trying to conquer and rule the known world.
In 1983, a book by geochemist Jerome Nriagu called Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity laid out the basics of the theory. There was an immediate backlash from classicists, who pointed out that not all Roman pipes were made of lead—many were ceramic or stone. Scientists also jumped in to pick apart Nriagu’s theory, using skeletal evidence to show that Romans actually had less accumulated lead in their bones than modern Europeans. It’s also been argued that Roman drinking water was unlikely to have absorbed much lead even from lead pipes, due both to the speed at which the water traveled and the buildup of minerals inside the pipes, which would have created an insulating layer.
On the other hand, it’s undeniable that some Romans ingested way too much lead. Some didn’t have a choice, like the slaves who worked at lead mines. Others, like the wealthy men who drank a lot of wine sweetened with lead acetate (yum) or the women who used lead paste to whiten their faces, had more exposure to the metal because of their advanced social status.
Lead poisoning doesn’t seem to have been a widespread enough problem in the Roman world to have brought down the empire, and the theory holds even less water when you consider that the Romans were using lead pipes and consuming lead products in high volume even before Julius Caesar. Still, the abnormally high lead exposure of certain groups of Roman society may have created some interesting issues, such as the low fertility rates that seem to have plagued the Roman elite.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons