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Lead poisoning

PostPosted: Fri Dec 30, 2005 1:18 pm
by Quintus Pomponius Atticus
Salvete omnes,

Many of us may've heard the rather absurd thesis that one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire lay in a downfall in its demography caused by lead poisoning, as the water in their aquaducts passed through leaden pipes. This thesis has been easily invalidated by showing that the water passing through the pipes quickly deposed a chalk layer on the lead, so that the water, after a short time, had no more contact with the lead.

However, it is interesting to note that there was another important source of lead poisoning, that may not've caused the fall of the Empire, but could've had a more or less serious effect on Roman mortality rates. I quote an article by M.I. Finley that I just finished reading :

"The Greeks and Romans were great consumers of wine. As a preservative, the Greeks used a resin additive (hence contemporary retsina), the Romans a syrup they called 'sapa' or 'defrutum' (which also gave a pleasant colouring and a sweet flavour to the wine, as in modern Marsala). Sapa was prepared by simmering must over a slow flire - in a leaden vessel. A recent calculation that the result was about 20 mg of lead per litre of wine means that the Romans were systematically giving themselves lead poisoning for centuries, with a consequent increase in mortality and decrease in fertility. We therefore have the right to assume, though we can neither quanitify nor demonstrate, that in the retsina regions of the ancient world, there were a somewhat higher life expectancy...than in the sapa regions." (M.I. Finley, 'The Elderly in Classical Antiquity, G&R 28.2 (1981), p. 158)



PostPosted: Fri Dec 30, 2005 5:04 pm
by Primus Aurelius Timavus
I wonder what Finley's source was. Is there any archeological evidence to support his claim, or is it purely literary? It's hard for me to understand why a product for consumption would always be made in a lead vessel. Lead imparts no special taste, and it is heavy. Presumably, a more practical material would be substituted.

Also, how was the sapa used? If drunk by itself (and if indeed always prepared in a lead container), then Finley's figure of 20mg per liter is relevant. If only used as a preservative, it would have been diluted by many multiples.

Perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize Finley without knowing his full story, but this claim seems to be characteristic of many classical scholars who draw far ranging conclusions from very limited evidence. Yes, sometimes little survives from antiquity, but it is wiser to admit that we don't know things than to extrapolate from one or two data points.


PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 12:00 am
by Quintus Pomponius Atticus
Primus Aurelius Tergestus wrote:I wonder what Finley's source was. Is there any archeological evidence to support his claim, or is it purely literary?

His footnotes point to "an unpublished essay by J. Eisinger, 'Lead and wine'

So far for tracking down sources, I'm afraid...

PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 12:32 pm
by Publius Dionysius Mus

This is what I found on the internet:

Eisinger, J., "Lead and wine: Eberhard Gockel and the 'colica Pictonum' ", Medical History, 26 (1982): 278-302.

It's from a bibliography on "Lead and the fall of Rome": ... B/LEAD.HTM

Valete bene!

About Sapa

PostPosted: Sat Jan 07, 2006 11:04 am
by Anonymous ... oning.html

This is a reasonable recent article about Sapa and lead poisening.

The conclusion that Sapa used as sweetener in sauces, cookies and other sweets was far more dangerous for its potentiel eaters ( the Aristocracy ) than leaded wine is very interesting.
Greetings from Holland.
Don Turan :):):)