Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lead-pipe Cinch

Thinking about Latin lead me to Rome, and that, in turn, lead me to remembering this oddiment of historical trivia; did you know that most Roman public water systems ran through lead pipes?
Seriously. In fact, the Romans used a LOT of lead in their daily lives; pipes, roof tiles, glazes, stoppers on wine name it, the Romans could and would make it out of lead. In particular it was used in the white cosmetic paint used by well-to-do women (and not just Roman women - the whiteface Elizabeth Tudor is often shown wearing later in life had a hell of a lot of lead in it...)

You can sort of see why they used it; it's a fairly common metal. It's really easy to work. You can use it in paints, glazes, or cast objects from it. It doesn't rust or otherwise deteriorate. there's really only one significant problem with it;

If you ingest it, it's a poison.

In fact, some historians have suggested that as such it may have played a role in the problems in the later Roman period:
"S. Columba Gilfillan proposed a theory for Roman decay in 1965 that involved "poisons esteemed as delicious by the ancient well-to-do." Spoilage was a problem in ancient Rome, and vintners discovered that wine tasted better and lasted longer if it was mixed with a concentrated grape syrup called sapa. The best sapa was boiled in lead pots, allowing lead to leach into the syrup. When sapa was mixed with wine, it sweetened it and also poisoned the microorganisms that cause fermentation and souring. Sapa was also used in fruit and honey drinks, and as a food preservative.

Josef Eisinger estimated a Roman consuming a liter of wine a day would ingest about 20 mg of lead per day, which he said was more than enough to produce chronic lead poisoning.

A cultural shift at the height of the Roman Empire made it socially acceptable for wives to drink wine, to which Gilfillan attributed a declining birth rate and a low rate of surviving children among the wealthy. Today, the reproductive effects of lead are well established, as are the effects on childhood development and learning disabilities.

Gilfillan hypothesized that the diet of the poor was not so badly poisoned as that of the rich. Although they drank the same water, they lacked the luxuries of cosmetics, lead paint, wine, fruit and honey drinks, or preserved foods."
It's difficult to say whether all this lead was a genuine problem; there were enough other problems to make things interesting long before the lead got in there - untreatable epidemic disease, widespread poverty and slavery, poor hygiene, bad diet.

But, still...interesting tidbit of history.


Big Daddy said...

Lead plumbing was common all the way into the 19th century. BTW the Romans also had issues with antimony poisoning from eye makeup and carbon monoxide poisoning from leaky hypocausts (underfloor heating).

Leon said...

I think the theory of lead pipes as the cause for the fall of the Roman empire is no longer in vogue (of the myriad of reasons for the decline). The best explanation I've heard is from Adrian Goldsworthy (excellent Roman historian) who opines the endless civil wars did them in.

The near constant parade of civil wars destroyed the army (since all your casualties are Romans) and ruined the provinces (since your army would be looting your own cities). His question is not 'why Rome fell?' but 'how did it survive so long?' I'd really recommend his book "Fall of the West".

Now do a decisive battle on ancient Rome since you're on a theme. Look at Alesia, it was the death knell of Gallic independence with the result of a Gallic province that would become pretty stable and loyal.

FDChief said...

I did Teutoburger Wald some time ago, and the only other really "decisive" battle I can think of is Milvian Bridge, where Constantine conquers in the Sign and Christianity is conquered by the Roman Empire.

I might toss Adrianople in there, but recent scholarship tends to denigrate it as not the disaster it was portrayed.

And no doubt that the lead wasn't a HUGE factor. But you look at some of the more extravagant madness that turns up in late Imperial Rome and it does make you wonder...

Lisa said...

The lead angle is interesting, also that the poor ingested less. Certainly it would also leach into the body via topical application (?)

Would that lower ingestion of lead have allowed more offspring of the lower classes to survive, and have adversely impacted the minds of the upper classes who freely partook of the tainted items?

rangeragainstwar said...

i wonder if our malady is plastic , which may be just as lethal as lead.
In the long run.

Leon said...

I think Adrianople was still a big disaster to the empire. It was the first major defeat since the 3rd C. More significantly, it wiped out enough soldiers that there weren't enough veterans to indoctrinate new recruits to become "Roman". It seems to be the start of the 'barbarisation' of the army.

basilbeast said...

Leon, a case can be made that the "barabarization" of the Roman military happened once the Romans stepped out of their mud and wattle one-rooms and won their first battles.

Former allies become auxiliaries become citizens become republic become empire.

In my unprofessional opinion, the Fall of the RE was due to the usual suspects money, power, greed etc.

History is a good teacher but no one learns from it.

It's a lot like the movie Ground Hog Day, without the feel-good fuzzy ending.


basilbeast said...

ooops, "former enemies become allies become auxiliaries . . . ."


Leon said...

Weeeelllll Basil, what's "Roman" and what's "barbarian" isn't about nationality. In essence, being "Roman" was social and cultural.

Rome had been steadily conquering and subjugating the various peoples of Italy over the 4th through to the 2nd C. Those conquered were forced to become allies of Rome and usually supplied half of each Roman army. By the 1st C, they were probably as Roman in outlook and culture as any denizen of Rome. After the social war in (91-88BC) they won full citizenship and were "Romans" officially.

The Gauls were "barbarians" until Caesar did a tap-dance on their collective faces and made them into provinces of Rome. At which point they became Roman. The elites bought into the new system and dragged the rest of their society with them. And they were fairly enthusiastic as I don't believe there were any major rebellions until the fall of the west.

The "barbarians" that served later, served under their own tribal officers (instead of Roman ones) and owed their loyalty to their leader or their tribe.

The best way to describe it would be thus: Currently (as I understand it) legal immigrants can serve in the US Army. There, they serve under American officers and NCO's and through interaction with other American soldiers learn what it is to be American (swearing, watching Jersey Shore, eating hamburgers, watching pr0n - hey, what do I know, I'm Canadian). But what if the army allowed whole battalions of foreigners (not immigrants) to serve, under their own foreign officers, using their own language, and their only loyalty is their paycheck? Fast forward a few decades of this and you can imagine the mess this will cause.

Again, not a historian on this time, I've just done some lernin and reedin so I may be (just maybe) completely wrong.

FDChief said...

I think - and this is pure-D amateur historian talking here - the biggest change, the one that helps put the Republic/Empire on its downward track - comes when the Senate and the senatorial class begins getting greedy and conquering the foederati as senatorial provinces.

The early Republic got powerful by setting up a "defense in depth"; you had the Roman lands in the center, then an inner ring of more-or-less Romanized colonies/provinces, and then an outer ring of terrorized/bought/co-opted "allies", then the barbs on the outside. So you had those expendable "allies" who soaked up a hell of a lot of the pressure from the wild men outside the frontiers before a single Roman GI had to start stabbing.

In the late Republic and the Empire those "allies" looked too juicy to be places to spend money buying when they could be provinces to be directly taxed. So instead the legions end up at the brittle edge of the frontiers fighting the barbarians directly.

And because that's so damn expensive the tax burden gets ridiculous. And because you then destroy the smallholders who had supported the Republican system you end up with paid professionals, and when you run out of Romans you have to enlist first individual outsiders - which works damn well for a long time - and, eventually, whole tribes of barbs, which, not so much...

Add in the usual corruption, mismanagement...etc...and it's actually pretty damn impressive that the Western Empire lasts as long as it does.

The thing about Adrianople is that as a battle, it's just one of many; both the Empires continued to field large armies after the defeat, and there's no real indication that the losses there led directly to a crippling of the geopolitical strength of the Western Empire. Yes, it's a bad defeat. And it does lead to the worst political decision that the Western Empire has to accept; the presence of undigested foreign powers (in this case, Gothic) within the borders of the Empire itself.

But the thing is, I see it as just part of the bigger invasion of the West brought on by the rise of the Huns. The central west European nations were coming; the only possibility the Western Empire had to stop them was to maintain the sort of tactical and technical edge it had had over the earlier Germanic tribes.

But repeated border wars with the Gothic peoples meant that the Goths were pretty much at a military parity with the Empire at that point.

So if not Adrianopolis, some place, some where. That defeat was coming, and not because of any purely military imbalance but because of a huge complex of factors; economic, political, and military. The Western Empire was doomed - Adrianopolis was just the sign that it was time to lie down...

Leon said...

I wouldn't say Adrianople is the end, but the beginning of the end for the west. I'd note the eastern empire (as the Byzantines) survived until the 15th C. Part of their survival (aside from geography) included massacring all of their barbarian foederati. This kept their armies "Roman".

As for the senators, I'd say their inability to back down and lose face is the cause of the fall of the Republic. Caesar and Pompey brought about a civil war (that would destroy the Republic) because neither would back down and suffer damage to their prestige. Caesar's claim that he had to fight or he'd be 'unjustly' prosecuted is disingenuous. There's no doubt he'd be prosecuted, but there's also no doubt he'd have beaten the wrap. He was incredibly influential, rich and powerful. Also, the moment he was out of the running for Consul, all the forces arrayed against him would fracture and start squabbling amongst themselves. Remember that Pompey only joined with Caesar and Crassus due to his rejection by the optimates. Only when Caesar became too powerful did the optimates rope Pompey into their camp.

Actually you could make a case that the fall of the Republic began with Sulla who showed that if you have an army, you can make the rules. It also showed his attempt to stabilize the Republic failed as after he stepped down, the senators either ignored or struck down all the laws he passed bringing them back to the same mess as before.

FDChief said...

Leon: Or the "Marian Reforms", which took the Army away from the People and vested its power in the senatorial leaders who had the donatives and land grants to buy its loyalty...

So, yeah, lots of "blame" to go around there. IMO the truly amazing thing is what a hell of a long run Rome had as THE Great Power in Europe. Didn't hurt that there really was no peer rival, but still - when you think about it, how many other Powers have lasted, what, something like 500-some years?

My thoughts re: Adrianople is that it's one of those engagements that punctuate a geopolitical trend rather than begin or mark it. So it falls at a further end of the "decisive battle" scale than, say, Chipyong-ni, or Leipzig, or the 1812 Campaign, or Lützen, or Lepanto...

The critical act was Valens' decision to let the Gothic "refugees" cross the frontier in 376. Once within the imperial borders as a political unit it was pretty much already over; the military potential of the formerly "barbarian" tribes was rising and the Roman troops declining, and a straight-up fight between the two was always going to be chancy.

Adrianople put a bird on that, but IMO the truly critical part was that AFTER Adrianople the Romans don't go all Roman on them; even though the Ostrogoths get spanked by Gratian in Pannonia in 380 - and having been herded all the way into Thrace by 382 - they get a negotiated settlement rather than a gazillion crosses along the Appian Way.

That, in turn, tells the other tribes getting pushed around by the Huns (and the Huns, too...) that there's gold in them thar villas, and on they come.

Plus, frankly, the battle itself is kinda lame: Valens doesn't wait for his pal Gratian, force-marches his troops to the Gothic camp where he loses control of them and lets them make a half-assed assault on a fortified wagon lager, then loses a straight-up infantry/cavalry fight when Fritigern's horsemen show up.

Not saying it wasn't important - the loss of the Eastern armies opened pretty much all of the European side of the Eastern Empire to Gothic rapine - but just that 1) it's part of a bigger picture, and the picture is more important than the battle itself, and 2) it's not much fun to write about, other than the goofy Oman controversy about the horsemen, and that's been pretty well slapped around by Burns (1973).

Might get around to it, though, if August is slow...

Leon said...

Chief, the Marian reforms were necessary and inescapable. A militia worked when Rome was an Italian power. By late Republic it controlled the western med basin which meant legio were serving in distant theatres and for months (or even years dealing with Sertorius). That meant disaster for small landowners who formed the bulk of the legions. So many were being ruined by the long absences (since only the husband/father had authority to do many things such as obtain loans, etc...) and without land you couldn't afford the gear to be enrolled in the legions.

So by late Republic you had a much smaller number of citizens who could be enrolled and a large number of urban poor (since the landless tended to flock into the cities) that couldn't serve (aside from a small number of skirmishers). Marius (and it may not have all been him) opening up state coffers to pay for gear (and thus opening the army up to the poor) was the only option. The obvious downside was the army was soon primarily poorer citizens who wanted land after serving and the general who promised/provided it had a client base worth more than gold. Thus (begins) the fall of the Republic.

As for Adrianopolis, taking in a tribe of Gothic refugees (as they were losers in a intra-Gothic fight as I recall) could have been handled. Bring them over, get the elites to buy into Roman 'culture' and within a few generations you've got another source for solid reliable soldiers. However the officials sent to deal with the refugees were the worst type of asshats to send (Santorum, or in the latin singular Santora) who extorted the Goths so bad that they eventually revolted. The entire Adrianople campaign is one giant cluster-fuck of what *not* to do.

Besides, my original vote was for Alesia. First because my homie, Julius, kicks the butt of a bunch of dirty, unwashed, non-Latin speaking Gauls. Also it demonstrates (along with Masada) why you never let the Romans play siege engineer.