Lead often takes the blame for the fall of the Roman Empire. Lead water pipes, lead cooking vessels, and lead utensils poisoned unwitting Romans, causing neurological damage, fertility disorders, and other problems — or so the story goes.
But researchers who published a study in the journal Toxicology Letters now claim the theory could be wrong.
Studying a 40-milligram fragment of an ancient lead pipe from Pompeii — the Italian city destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius almost 2,000 year ago — the researchers discovered antimony, a chemical that’s even more toxic than lead.
Given how the inside of lead pipes calcify quickly, forming a barrier between the poisonous lead and the drinking water flowing through the pipe, antimony might have been the real culprit in bringing down one of the world’s great civilizations, said Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a study co-author and an expert in archaeological chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark.
“This is the first time that you see that it is possible they died of antimony poisoning instead of lead poisoning or both,” he said.
A grey metal-like chemical used in making lead batteries, electronics, and other products, antimony is especially common in groundwater near volcanoes, so Rasmussen said it’s crucial to look at pipes in other Roman cities. He expected Italian researchers who have the best access to Roman archeological sites would likely lead that inquiry.
“It’s only one sample,” said Rasmussen. “We know we should measure more.”