One of the most impressive achievements of the Roman Empire – with its powerful armies, ambitious architectural feats and impressive reach – was its plumbing system.
The ability to bring fresh water to people in cities from hundreds of miles away helped thousands of ancient Romans, and it still remains controversial whether or not lead in the pipes was the cause of their downfall.
But thanks to a new study, we now know the Romans started using lead in their pipes much earlier than we first thought.
An archaeologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, Dr Hugo Delile led a study into the lead content in soil cores taken from two harbours in Rome.
These harbours, called Ostia and Portus, would have been the end of journey for some of the water running through the lead pipes, after it was disposed of into the Tiber River.
In the new paper, the team describe how water inside these pipes would pick up lead particles.
When the water reached the harbour, the lead would sink, and this would create layers of the toxic compound in the soil.
Examining the lead in the soil, the team found that in Ostia there was a sudden influx of lead in 200 BC, around the same time Rome’s expansion began.
Previous evidence of lead pipes only dated back to 11 BC, meaning the new evidence shows ancient Rome used lead almost 200 years earlier than we thought.
Then study also showed the lead levels dropped by about 50 per cent during a civil war in the first century BC, before increasing again.
‘ [Augustus’]… progressive defeat of his rivals during the 30s BCE allowed his future son-in-law, Agrippa, to take control of Rome’s water supply by 33 BCE,’ the authors say.
‘Over the next 30 years, they repaired and extended the existing aqueduct and fistulae system, as well as built an unprecedented three new aqueducts, leading to renewed increase in [lead] pollution of the Tiber river.’
The lead levels dropped again after 250 AD, when Rome stopped maintaining its pipe system as its economy declined.
The ‘receding [lead] contamination corresponds to the apparent decline of [lead] and [silver] mining and of overall economic activity in the Roman Empire,’ the authors say.
Whether or not lead from these pipes poisoned the ancient Romans is still up for discussion.
Past research has suggested that the lead used to create the Roman water pipes had harmful effects on public health, and may even have contributed to the society’s downfall – but, many since refuted the idea.
Last month, a study on a metal fragment from Pompeii revealed the presence of the ‘acutely toxic’ element antimony, which made the water ‘decidedly hazardous,’ with risk of vomiting and diarrhea, liver and kidney damage, and even cardiac arrest.