Very easy to use and cheap, lead was widely used during the Roman Empire. However, this use concerned many areas, including cooking. Thus, this metal may have played a role in the decline of the empire, because today we know that it is toxic to humans.
Lead is the chemical element with atomic number 82 (Pb). It is a malleable metal that is cheap and very resistant to corrosion. Nevertheless, it is toxic for humans , even at low doses. Today, its practical use is very limited, but this has not always been the case. Indeed, the health risks were discovered very late in history human. Thus, lead has long been integrated into construction work (plumbing, painting) as well as the manufacture of ammunition, among others.
On June 23, 2021, the YouTube Reactions channel published a video (see end of article) explaining that the use of lead goes back a long way, in particular until the era of the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD). And it turns out that the Romans liked this metal so much that they even used it in the kitchen.
The video quotes De re coquinaria (The Culinary Art), a Roman cookbook containing hundreds of recipes citing lead – out of a total of 450. At the time, sweetening a preparation often involved concentrating grape juice to make syrup. However, the cooks had noticed that the taste was even better by using a lead pot for the preparation.
According to historians, the fall of the Roman Empire had several causes:barbarian invasions, corruption as well as budget problems. It is therefore difficult to assess the potential impact of lead poisoning – acute or chronic lead poisoning – on this decline. Nevertheless, the consequences of lead poisoning on humans are now well known:infertility, hypertension, gout, digestive or heart problems. Above all, lead is a factor of mental handicap – even at low doses – in the event of contamination of the embryo (or fetus). It also affects the child's learning abilities and therefore causes intellectual delays (and physical).
In 2019, researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison (USA) published a study on the subject. Scientists have compared English skeletons before and after the Roman conquest . According to the results, Iron Age bones contained only 0.3 to 2.9 μg of lead per gram compared to 8 to 123 μg per gram for Roman Age bones. The leaders of the study considered that these values are sufficient to cause very serious health problems and, eventually, an extinction of civilization.
Some questions remain, so it is almost impossible to obtain certainties on the role that lead would have played in the fall of the Roman Empire. Did the Romans consume enough lead for lead poisoning to plague the Empire? One thing is certain, however:they greatly exceeded the limits current values set by our health authorities.