Ancient Rome was the greatest empire in the world - until it collapsed. Did lead exposure doom the empire? Recent research uncovered high levels of lead in Imperial Rome's drinking water, but that wasn't the most dangerous source of lead in the ancient civilization. The Romans used an artificial sweetener called sapa, a grape syrup, to preserve wine and sweeten foods. And sapa, boiled in lead vessels, carried a highly toxic level of the heavy metal. The artificial sweetener contained lead levels 200 times higher than the EPA allows. One single teaspoon of sapa could cause chronic lead poisoning.
Just like Queen Elizabeth doomed herself with lead makeup, Roman aristocrats and emperors sealed their fate with sapa. Roman aristocrats served contaminated wine to show off their high status at dinner parties. The average aristocrat drank the equivalent of three bottles of wine each day - which carried with it high levels of lead. In fact, multiple Roman emperors exhibited signs of lead exposure, including impaired decision making and gout. Even as it wreaked havoc on their bodies, the sweetener was in high demand, and Romans intentionally cooked sapa in lead vessels to make it even sweeter.
Ancient Romans Added Sapa To Food And Drinks
Romans made sapa by boiling mashed grapes down into a thick syrup. The syrup itself wasn't the problem - the Romans cooked sapa in lead pots, and the toxic substance bled into the sweet syrup. While elite Romans used sapa to make their food taste better, they slowly harmed themselves.
Romans Preserved Wine With The Toxic Sweetener
Sapa was used for more than sweetening foods. It was also used extensively in the wine industry. Romans preserved wine with sapa, incidentally infusing the drink with lead. The Romans had a reputation for drinking - the average Roman drank a liter of wine each day. That's around 100 gallons of wine each year.
And elite Romans drank even more heavily. The Roman emperor Elgabalus was rumored to drink wine from a swimming pool.
- Photo: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of the British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Today, Sapa Is Called 'Sugar Of Lead'
It's not surprising that Romans used sapa as a sweetener. The flavor made wine taste better and improved foods. But today, we know the syrup - as made by the Romans in lead pots - contained a toxic compound called lead acetate, or sugar of lead.
When Romans downed wine, it contained large amounts of lead. And aristocrats often enjoy two liters, or around three bottles, of wine each day. The side effects included dementia, infertility, and eventually organs shutting down.
A Single Teaspoon Of Sapa Was Dangerous
In the 1980s, research scientist Jerome Nriagu used ancient recipes for sapa to recreate the artificial sweetener using the same methods as the Romans. He found that sapa contained a perilous concentration of lead, ranging from 240 to 1,000 milligrams of lead per liter.
As Nriagu explained, "One teaspoon (5 ml) of such syrup would have been more than enough to cause chronic lead poisoning."