Savoring the Danger: Romans Loved Toxic 'Sugar of Lead' Wine
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.
New Evidence for High Levels of Lead in Roman Bones
A new study shows that extremely high levels of lead have been found in the bones of 30 people who lived in Londinium (today’s London) during the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. The U.S. Institute for Occupational Health and Safety states that 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of adult blood indicates that the blood has become toxic – the researchers found an average of 14.4 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in the thigh bones they studied.
Forbes says that the findings suggest “more than half of the population” in Roman-era London were dealing with issues caused by lead poisoning. Could it have come from the metal in their weapons, pipes, or jewelry? Or maybe the lead was directly ingested…
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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 also known 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. (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, while 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. (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. (Wouter Engler/CC BY SA 4.0)
Sugar of Lead Poisoning
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 were made with sugar of lead in its syrup form.
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 were believed to 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.
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‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. (Public Domain) Eventually the party had to end.
It seems that the dangers of lead poisoning were eventually understood by the Romans. Columella, for example, advocated the use of terracotta pipes for the transport of rain water, as it was said this combination had the best effect on a person’s physical health. Nonetheless, Columella also suggested that wine be mixed with sugar of lead in syrup form in order to sweeten it.
Vitruvius pointed out that white lead was obtained from lead, and since this substance is harmful to human health, lead pipes are dangerous as well. Hence, he also recommended that clay pipes be used instead. Still, it seems that the Romans continued consuming lead, which would have had a negative impact on their empire, on the whole.
Lead water pipe, Roman, 20-47AD, with owner’s name cast into the pipe - ‘The most notable lady Valeria Messalina’ (third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius). (CC BY 4.0)
Top Image: Bacchus was the Roman god of wine. Romans added toxic ‘sugar of lead’ to sweeten the god’s preferred drink and suffered toxic results. Source: drpilulkin /Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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