Continuing in the spirit of odd news stories from around the world, the Biddies explore reporting that the Ancient Romans liked to sweeten their wine with a sweet liquid contaminated with lead. Tune in to learn about their quirky wine drinking habits, the symptoms of lead poisoning, and where you might be finding lead in your own alcoholic beverages 😳


Please note, neither of the biddies chose to drink a lead-laden beverage for this episode.



Ancient Origins, Romans Added Lead Sweetener to their Wine and it Killed Them

Washington Post, Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome

The Collector, Ancient Rome: An Unknown History of Alcohol

Study Notes for Romans Drinking Lead:

*Please note some of these lines might be directly taken from sources noted above.

  • The Romans were big drinkers, borrowing many of their drinking habits from the Ancient Greeks
    • Symposiums or “conviviums” – elite Romans gathered and enjoyed beverages reclined on couches
  • Wine was the drink of choice, also drank cider and other fermented drinks
    • Did not drink beer
    • Wine typically mixed from water and served from large ornamental bowls or jugs
  • Ancient Romans used to add a sweet version of lead to their wine, and to their food
  • Pliny the Elder, Cato the Elder and Columella wrote about the production of sapa: boiling fermented grape juice to concentrate its natural sugars in kettles made of lead alloys
    • Lead would seep into the sapa from the kettle
    • Sapa contained lead levels 200X higher than today’s acceptable levels
      • CDC currently states that no lead level is safe for children
    • When these ancient syrup or sapa recipes were tested in modern days, they were produced with lead concentrations of 240-1000 milligrams per liter
      • One teaspoon of syrup could have been more than enough to cause chronic lead poisoning
  • Sapa was used like an artificial sweetener and added to wines
  • Eventually found a way to crystallize sapa and then it was used more widely on food as well
  • Lead poisoning leads to dementia, infertility, cognitive difficulties, fatigue, gout and organ failure
    • Nriagu says there is no surprise that the Roman aristocrats and their gluttonous habits showed the impact of lead in their diets.
    • He said this about “the dull-witted and absent-minded Claudius” whom he considered most likely to have suffered “He had disturbed speech, weak limbs, and ungainly gait, tremor, fits of excessive and inappropriate laughter and unseemly anger, and he often slobbered”
    • Highly debated – John Scarborough, a classicist, said (I paraphrase) that the Romans were too smart to lead poison themselves and it wasn’t a problem
    • Nriagu went back and was like “Scarboorough is stupid” …. “He knows nothing, absolutely nothing about lead poisoning, absolutely zero” (Let’s remember Nriagu is a professor of environmental life sciences
  • Estimated that about half the population of London-era Rome was dealing with lead-related health issues
  • Sapa also known as “sugar of lead” or “salt of Saturn”
  • Romans also used lead pipes (didn’t help)
  • Other types of syrups were also created in lead kettles
    • When modern versions were made they were found to have 240 to 1000 mg of lead per liter, one teaspoon of which would have been enough to cause chronic lead poisoning
      • Studies led by Canadian research scientist Jerome Nriagu in the 1980s suggested that lead poisoning could have contributed to the fall of Rome
      • Other historians dispute this since the Romans did know about lead poisoning