Plumbism (or saturnism in Latin) was the name given to lead poisoning and the reason why most Roman Emperors had erratic behaviors.
The history of ancient Rome is definitely one of conquest, lavishness, and of course, all the extravagance. But what people find the most interesting about Rome is the Empire period, in particular. Why? The reason is simple. It was a time when Rome boasted a series of very peculiar and eccentric characters, each one worse, or rather, more bizarre and erratic than the last one. There's Caligula, who allegedly made his horse a consul, or Nero, who is blamed for starting the Great Fire of Rome. The common thread is that, since these characters were literally the most powerful men in the world, they got drunk with their power to the point that they became mad. For this reason, they have been very popular subjects for historians, who have studied their biographies to reveal the nature of their eccentric tendencies.
Historians have come up with various theories to explain this matter of the emperors' peculiar personalities. For instance, some historians attribute the tragic episodes in Caligula’s life to his “madness,” others have claimed that he suffered from acute epileptic attacks, while others claim he had various mental afflictions, never giving any convincing evidence to support their theories, just anecdotes of his behavior. The same thing happens with Nero and many other of these “cursed” emperors. In Caligula's case, we could say that traumatic events can definitely lead to erratic behaviors. However, there’s one theory that actually fits even better with their stories, and that could explain why so many emperors during this period had these tendencies.
Throughout his career, Dr. Jerome O. Nriagu, devoted his life to studying the lives of Roman emperors from 30 BC to 220 AD. According to him, there was an everyday habit in at least two-thirds of the emperors of this period: they ate lead-tainted diets that most probably resulted in lead poisoning. The lead was basically in everything these emperors consumed, starting with the containers where their meals were cooked and the vases where their water and wine were served. But then, why wasn't the whole of Rome affected by this too? According to the theory, it’s probable that the vast majority of the population consumed important amounts of lead compared to what we do nowadays. However, the key here is wealth. Emperors were the only ones with access to these luxurious vases and containers, and for that reason, their intake of lead was dramatically superior to any other Roman citizen.
For starters, they and their families were the only ones with constant access to clean water, served in lead vessels. Normal people (and even some in more privileged positions), would use clay vases and vessels instead. Now, it’s well known that Romans were the ultimate wine lovers and that they drank enormous amounts of this sacred beverage. Besides that, it’s well known that the upper classes used to flavor their wines with a very special syrup that made it sweeter and with a better consistency than regular wine. This syrup, which we can say was actually the first “artificial” sweetener, was made with simmered grapes, and you guessed it, brewed in lead pots. Naturally, in the simmering process, lead particles would be mixed with the syrup, making it a highly toxic shot of lead that was used not only in wine, but also in several recipes that the emperors devoured.
So, yeah, they consumed tons of lead, but what are the symptoms of lead poisoning? Known as plumbism (or saturnism in Latin as a reference both to lead and plumb, but also to the god Saturn known to be mentally unbalanced and aggressive), this was a very well-known disease by ancient alchemists though it wasn’t really attributed to Roman emperors. What happens is that when lead reaches the body, it automatically turns into lead sulfide in our digestive tract. This sulfide impedes the proper flow of oxygen to the blood, and thus other parts of the body, including the brain, causing important damages that could alter mental function. Among the symptoms of plumbism, there’s gout (something many of these characters were reported to have), infertility (Caligula only managed to have one daughter despite the fact that he had four wives and was known for his debauchery), joint pain, tremors (both Claudius and Caligula were known to suffer from these), hypomania or severe mood swings (Nero and Caligula were famous for this), mental impairment, erratic behavior, and dementia.
Besides that, there’s strong evidence of these high amounts of lead found in objects that these emperors used in their daily activities, one of the things that have led historians and specialists like Nriagu to reach this conclusion is the fact that in most cases, the erratic tendencies started a bit after they were named emperors. In Caligula's case, he was known to be quite a popular emperor. He granted bonuses to the military, abolished ridiculous taxes, and even made sure that those imprisoned unjustly by his predecessor Tiberius (who is also included in the list of deranged emperors) were freed. However, something happened that ended up triggering these tendencies, and lead poisoning actually fits well in terms of timing and evidence.
There’s still a lot of work to do with this theory, but so far, I think it’s a great step toward understanding better these characters who have become historical legends mainly for their eccentricity and brutal attitudes. This doesn’t mean that they were all pious beings who became monsters after their intense consumption of lead. Of course, they were vicious men already, but it’s very interesting how all of them (Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Tiberius, and many others), who have always been considered bloodthirsty and barbaric by nature, might have done something that increased or triggered these traits. This definitely provides another lens to analyze these legendary characters.
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