All  

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ Mobile

Made from boiled grape syrup and used to sweeten both food and wine, sapa had a downside – its production utilized lead pots which may have caused the Roman Empire’s demise. Source: Ruslan Gilmanshin/Adobe Stock

Did an Artificial Sweetener Destroy the Roman Empire? (Video)

Print

The fall of the mighty Roman Empire remains shrouded in historical mystery, with various theories attempting to unravel its demise. One intriguing proposition suggests that the empire's collapse may be linked to a seemingly innocuous element—lead. While recent studies highlight elevated lead levels in Imperial Rome's water sources, a less explored avenue implicates an unexpected culprit: an artificial sweetener known as sapa. Derived from boiled grape syrup and sweetening both food and wine, sapa had a dark side—its production involved lead pots. The toxic union of lead and sapa created a deadly concoction, leading to chronic lead poisoning among aristocrats who indulged in lavish feasts.

Researcher Jerome Nriagu's recreation of ancient sapa revealed alarming lead concentrations, surpassing modern safety thresholds by nearly 200 times. The Romans, unaware of the peril, continued using lead vessels due to their ignorance of the chemical reactions at play. Emperors, including Claudius, notorious for erratic behavior, may have suffered from lead-induced impairments, raising questions about the impact of lead exposure on decision-making at the highest echelons of power. Whether it was the unwitting ingestion of lead through sapa or the lead-laden water supply, the Roman Empire's fate might have been sealed by a sweet but toxic ingredient.

Top image: Made from boiled grape syrup and used to sweeten both food and wine, sapa had a downside – its production utilized lead pots which may have caused the Roman Empire’s demise. Source: Ruslan Gilmanshin/Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

 
Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

Next article