The Lead poisoning of Ancient Rome - History Key

The Lead poisoning of Ancient Rome

One of the incredible aspects of ancient Rome forms around a genius proof of engineering. Believe or not, the city was connected to a water system, a complex aqueducts which provided fresh water into the city, covering all kind of needs (cooking, drinking and bathing). The problem turned out to be the material used for the pipes, which was lead.

Roman lead pipes in a villa
Roman lead pipes in a villa © Image Source: Pinterest/Reddit

Beside the pipe system, lead was used also for other objects and practices. Romans made dishes from lead (especially drinking vessels) or used it even to obtain some sort of makeup. Increased level of lead in the body, can cause poisoning of the tissues and failure of several organs, including heart and kidneys. It is believed that many Romans were killed by lead poisoning, because the tap water flowing through the lead pipes, gained lead values 100 times higher than the normal spring water.

Roman Lead Pipes
Roman Lead Pipes © Cees W. Passchier /Wilke D. Schram/ Image Source: Pinterest

Considering that the option to have tap water supplied to their home wasn’t for everyone, presumably the more affected by the poisoning were nobles and wealthy elite soldiers. Some are saying that the Romans lead issue was a major turning point for the Roman society and even for history. Considering that lead poisoning can cause miscarriage, reduced sperm count, increase of violence, poor physical condition or even mental disorders, the situation wasn’t appropriate for a conquering nation.


Ancient Roman Plumbing made with lead
Ancient Roman Plumbing made with lead © Giovanni Dell’Orto /Image Source: Wikimedia Common/ Science News

This entire lead poisoning story, led to a debate related to the reality of these facts. The poisoning theory was launched in 1983 by geochemist Jerome Nriagu in the book titled “Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity”, but his affirmations were discussed and refuted by several other researchers. Other voices came out with informations and opinions regarding the Roman’s lead poisoning, demonstrating that not all the pipes were made with lead, but also with ceramic or stone.

Roman Lead Pipes
Roman Lead Pipes © Image Source: Pinterest

Other arguments which infirm the poisoning theory is related to the water’s speed. Its speed through the pipes was too high for being infested by lead, as for in a stagnant situation. Recent studies, demonstrates that Romans bones had less lead in their structure, compared to the ones coming from a modern European. For sure, there were situation in which too much lead was involved, like in the case of the miners or the lead paste used by Roman women as makeup. In that case yes, there could have been a problem. Or in the case of the nobles, who drank wine mixed with a sort of sugar derived from lead, which is poisoning for sure. Just imagine that in a litre of wine, which can be drank easily in one day, there were 20 grams of residual lead. Even in the occupied countries, the Romans were always after lead. For example 2500 year ago in the invaded UK where a Roman program for mining lead was imposed.

The lead block or ''pig'' discovered in Somerset
The lead block or ”pig” discovered in Somerset © Image Source: BBC

The resulting lead was formed into “pigs”, meaning large lead blocks of around 40kg, usually engraved with the emperor’s name. One of these was found near a farm in Somerset by Jason Baker. The block was probably lost during its way to Rome and it was reporting the name of Marcus Aurelius Armeniacus, and dating from 164 AD.

Article written with references from:, The Guardian,

One thought on “The Lead poisoning of Ancient Rome

  • May 18, 2017 at 9:50 am

    The caption on the first picture is incorrect. Those lead pipes are are not in a “villa”. They’re in the Roman Baths in Bath, UK.


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