Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti

Savoring the Danger: ‘Sugar of Lead’ Was Used to Flavor Roman Food and Wine with Toxic Consequences

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How far did ancient people go to enhance the flavor of their food and drinks? Would they consume toxic substances if it made things a little more appetizing? The Romans did, by adding a sweet version of lead to a beloved beverage. Some scholars even say that it was lead poisoning that caused the famous empire to fall.

Sipping the Salt of Saturn

Lead(II) acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2) is a toxic chemical compound, as it contains lead, that has a sweetish taste. Apart from its name, this dangerous compound was known also in the past by other names, including sugar of lead and salt of Saturn by the ancients, and Goulard’s powder from the 18th century. Although lead(II) acetate is detrimental to human health, it was widely used by the ancient Romans as a form of artificial sweetener, especially in wines. The writings of some ancient Roman authors indicate that the Romans were aware of the dangers of lead consumption; but by then, the damage had already been done.

Lead(II) acetate, known also as sugar of lead.

Lead(II) acetate, known also as sugar of lead. (Dormroomchemist/ CC BY 3.0 )

The use of sugar of lead as an artificial sweetener by the Romans may be found in the writings of several ancient authors. Pliny the Elder, Cato the Elder, and Columella (who wrote on Roman agriculture) wrote that a syrup was produced by boiling unfermented grape juice in order to concentrate its natural sugars. If the juice was reduced to one half of its original volume, it was called defrutum, whilst a syrup containing a third of its original volume was known as sapa. As the juice was boiled in kettles made of lead alloys, this harmful element could seep into the syrup. By reacting with the acetate ions in the grape juice, lead(II) acetate was produced.

Bronze wine mixing bucket with goose-shaped handles from a thermopolium (fast food eatery) in Pompeii Roman 1st century AD.

Bronze wine mixing bucket with goose-shaped handles from a thermopolium (fast food eatery) in Pompeii Roman 1st century AD. (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

It may not have been the lead(II) acetate, but rather the concentration of glucose and fructose from the grape juice, that gave the syrup its sweetness. It was perhaps the extra sweetness that the compound gave to the syrup that drew the attention of the Romans. According to one source, the discovery of lead(II) acetate as a sweetener was an accident. As they were trying to make their products sweeter, Roman winemakers were experimenting with various ingredients and preparation techniques. At some point of time, they tried boiling the leftover unfermented grape juice in lead kettles. When the entrepreneurial winemakers noticed that this procedure produced the sweetest syrup, they decided to begin making this substance in large amounts.

Bacchus (Dionysus), Vatican Museums.

Bacchus (Dionysus), Vatican Museums. Source: Wouter Engler/ CC BY SA 4.0


Lethal Sugar    

The Romans then found a way to turn lead(II) acetate into a crystal form. This meant that the toxic substance could be produced in the way table salt or sugar is produced today. As a consequence of this innovation, the consumption of lead(II) acetate became even more widespread, as it began to be used in cooking as well. For example, in the recipe book of Apicius, it has been calculated that almost a fifth of his recipes for sauces made you of sugar of lead, though in its syrup form.

Mosaic depicting a man labeled as the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius.

Mosaic depicting a man labeled as the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius. ( The Monastery )

This huge intake of lead meant the Romans started to suffer from lead poisoning. Some symptoms of lead poisoning are vomiting, cognitive difficulties, fatigue, irritability, and loss of appetite. Incidentally, this poisoning was known also as ‘plumbism’ or ‘saturnism’, as these symptoms resemble Saturn’s (the Roman equivalent of Cronos) melancholic and sullen nature. Some historians go so far to say that it was lead poisoning that brought about the end of the Roman Empire. However, those scholars usually highlight the role of lead pipes, which were used to transport water, in the lead poisoning of the Romans.

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture.

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. ( Public Domain ) Eventually the party had to end.


I would tend to discount lead plumbing as a source of lead poisoning. Lead plumbing was also used here in the US - I replaced a lot of it while renovating two older houses. My experience was that the pipes were all lined with lime, with no lead exposed to the water at all. Apparently this happens rather quickly, so the potential for lead exposure is of relatively short duration as long as the pipes were undisturbed.
But the ongoing ingestion of lead through wine and food - what a hazard that would be. Children that ingest lead - through lead paint chips for example - can suffer permanent damage.

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