History

Antimony Poisoning — Not Lead — May Have Contributed to the Roman Empire’s Fall

Analysis of a 2,000-year-old Roman pipe fragment from Pompeii revealed traces of antimony, a chemical that’s even more toxic than lead.

A section of the Anio Vetus aqueduct stands in the countryside near Tivoli, 30 kilometers out of Rome, on September 28, 2013. | Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
A section of the Anio Vetus aqueduct stands in the countryside near Tivoli, 30 kilometers out of Rome, on September 28, 2013. | Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

A lead pipe sample is analyzed at University of Southern Denmark. | Southern Denmark University

But there’s little doubt Pompeiians were imbibing antimony that quickly causes vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration, unlike lead poisoning that can take months or even years to develop, he said. Severe antimony poisoning can also damage the liver and kidneys and trigger cardiac arrest.

Rasmussen didn’t know how or why Pompeiians and other Romans might have kept drinking the water if it caused sickness. But he noted that today plenty of people continue to eat unhealthful foods despite health warnings even when those foods might even make them sick — think 39-cent hamburgers, fries, and strawberry shakes.

The levels of antimony in Roman water lines also might have been slight, so the casual water drinker might not have made a connection between quenching their thirst and an upset stomach, he added. “Maybe it’s not so acutely toxic,” he said. “Maybe it was just half or one-tenth of what’s lethal. Then after a while you die from it.”

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Rasmussen and his colleagues put the pipe in an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer that broke down the elements in the sample, treated them with chemicals and then heated them as hot as 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The spectrometer then tallied the amount of antimony in the sample.

The team has investigated the chemical traces of other historic epochs, like determining that Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was not murdered with mercury as rumors suggested more than 400 years ago.

This recent research points to a revelation with far bigger implications, however, said Rasmussen. “It’s bigger than the diarrhea,” he said. “It’s the decline of the Roman Empire in 476.”