Lead and the decline of Empire


Lead is useful, surprising, unpredictable, dangerous – and deadly. Previous generations found it to be an essential part of civilized living: pipes, pewter, pottery, paints, and even potions were made with it.

The Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius, who lived in the first century AD, observed that labourers in lead smelters always had pale complexions. The Greek physician Hippocrates described a severe attack of colic in a patient who was a lead miner. Neither attributed the cause to lead, and nor did most of the physicians who down the centuries treated patients affected by it, although there were times when a few doctors realized how toxic it could be.

The Ancient Greek poet and physician Nicander described the symptoms of lead poisoning, including hallucinations and paralysis, and recommended strong laxative treatments to cure it. Yet lead continued to poison unchecked, largely because the link between the metal and its adverse effects on health was not obvious. On the other hand its benefits were obvious, indeed the more lead was used in a society, the higher the standard of living of its citizens. Lead can be an extremely useful metal because it is easy to win it from its ores, it melts at a relatively low temperature, and it makes an ideal solder. Lead is easily worked and can be hammered into sheets, and used to make pipes, pans, roofing, and cisterns, and it is impervious to attack by the oxygen of the air and by water.

Lead has been mined for more than 6000 years, and it was certainly known to the Ancient Egyptians who used lead pigments as well as casting the metal itself into small figurines. Cosmetics made from lead ores have been found in tombs of the second millennium BC, and these consisted of black galena (lead sulphide), white cerussite (lead carbonate), white laurionite (lead chloride), and brown phosgenite (mixed lead chloride carbonate).

The Egyptians may have got some of their lead from Phoenician traders who were mining lead in Spain about 2000 BC, but it was the ancient Greeks who really began producing lead on a large scale, inadvertently as it happened, because they were really mining for silver. From 650 to 350 BC the Athenians exploited a large deposit at Laurion from which they eventually extracted 7000 tonnes of silver – and more than 2 million tonnes of lead.

The silver from Laurion underpinned Athens’ economic power, until the mines became played out in the fourth century BC, after which Athens declined. By then more than 2000 pits had been dug and 150 km of galleries excavated. The waste lead from these mines was still being exploited hundreds of years later by the Romans, who found more and more uses for the metal and its compounds. Builders, plumbers, painters, cooks, potters, metal-workers, coin-makers, dentists, vintners, and undertakers all made use of it.

The Ancients saw lead as a god-given benefit and in Egypt it was associated with the god Osiris, while the Greeks linked it to Chronos, and the Romans to Saturn, which is why lead poisoning is still sometimes called saturnism. In reality lead was really a metal sent from hell. A puzzling feature of the Roman Empire was the surprisingly low birth rate of its ruling classes, and this too has been linked to the high level of lead in the diet. If the fate of a ruling class is what determines the fate of an empire, then the theory that one of the greatest of all empires was destroyed by lead may not be so fanciful as it first sounds. In fact more than just the aristocracy appears to have been less than reproductive.

The Empire’s population remained stable at around 50 million, despite such social benefits as adequate food supply, high standards of hygiene, and the growth of science, technology, and medicine, all of which should have led to an increase. Some researchers have put forward the theory that lead was to blame, and we know from the analysis of the bones of its citizens, that their use of this metal was undermining their health. The theory that lead led to the decline of the Roman Empire was first advanced in 1965 in the Journal of Occupational Medicine by S. C. Gilfillan of Santa Monica, California, and his arguments were subsequently reinforced by Jerome Nriagu of the National Water Research Institute of Canada. Nriagu, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 308, p. 660, 1983), estimated that a typical aristocrat would be absorbing 250 μg/day, while ordinary Roman citizens would get around 35 and slaves only 15, most of which would come from wine in the case of the first two groups. Nriagu has even linked the medical complaints and bizarre behaviour of the Roman emperors to their high lead intake. Many of them suffered from gout as a result. Claudius who reigned from 41 to 54 displayed many of the symptoms of lead poisoning, including recurrent attacks of colic. Nriagu expanded on the theory in a scholarly but controversial book, Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity, published in 1983.

Lead contaminated the homes of Romans in many different ways. Drinking water was transported along lead-lined aqueducts, through lead pipes, stored in lead cisterns, and maybe drunk from lead pewter vessels. The walls and woodwork of rooms were painted with lead-based paints. But one item in particular must have contributed to the lead in their diet, and that was a sweetening agent known as sapa. The famous Roman writer Pliny (23-79) gives the recipe for making sapa and specifically mentions that it must be made in lead pans. Roman cooks had only two sweetening agents that they could use for desserts: honey and sapa. (Sugar was unknown to the Romans. Sugar cane was originally to be found only in Polynesia, and gradually spread westwards reaching Europe about 800). Sapa was made by boiling down unwanted or sour wine in lead pans and we now know that the syrup so produced tasted sweet because it contained a lot of lead acetate.

The lead came from the pan in which it was prepared, the acetate came from the wine that was being made sour by the action of enzymes and air which can convert alcohol to acetic acid. The crystals that form from such syrup looked and tasted like the sugar we know today, and were eventually to be known as sugar of lead.

Old recipes for making sapa have been repeated in recent times, and analyzed, showing that the syrup contained around 1000 ppm of lead (0.1%). A spoonful of sapa would deliver a dose of lead that would undoubtedly lead to some of the symptoms of poisoning. Yet the popular Roman book, The Apician Cookbook, had sapa as an ingredient in 85 of its 450 recipes, and sapa was used by vintners as well.

Sapa was used to preserve wine, and especially Greek wines. These were popular in Rome but had a reputation for causing sterility, miscarriages, constipation, headaches, and insomnia – all of which would be true if they had been doctored with sapa. Roman prostitutes were reputed to eat sapa by the spoonful because it acted as a contraceptive, gave them attractive pale complexions (due to anaemia), and would cause abortions.

The Romans mined lead in Greece, Spain, Britain, and Sardinia. At the height of the Empire the British deposits were the main source of supply and the annual rate of lead production was in excess of 100 000 tonnes/year. (In total, the Romans are estimated to have mined and used more than 20 million tonnes of lead.) Originally the Romans left the mining and refining in private hands, but ultimately it was deemed so important that it was all state-controlled. The Romans were not unaware of the risks of lead mining so it was done mainly by slaves, and at the height of the Empire 40 000 slaves worked the mines of Spain.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire brought an end to economic development in Europe for almost 1000 years. The causes of the Fall of Rome were a combination of climate change, plague, economic decline, religious dissent, power politics, and outside pressures. Indeed from 250 onwards, all these factors came into play. As the Earth’s climate became colder, northern peoples began to move southwards and invade. Plague appeared and epidemics ravaged the Empire. Meanwhile internal military and religious disputes raged on. Lead was at most a minor factor in Rome’s downfall.

[Read more here]


Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.II.)

In many ways, the most important evidence we have about the religious history of Rome comes from a set of records, mostly though not exclusively preserved on stone, and mostly dating from the age of the first emperor, Augustus (31 BC-14 AD). They provide us with quite elaborate calendars of Roman religion, mainly as it was in the republican era, though with some more recent anniversaries noted. These calendars in their fullest versions encode a great deal of information not just about religious festivals, but about the legal status of different days and the organization of time in relation to public life. Days are given individual markings, showing whether the popular assemblies could meet, the courts sit and so on. All these matters fell within the responsibility of the college of pontifices. Some sets of calendars also have attached notes explaining the entries and probably derived from the work of Roman scholars of the late republican period.

The calendars seem to reveal a distinction between festivals marked in capital letters and those, seemingly added to the calendar at a later date, in smaller letters. The capital-letter festivals seem to represent some older stage of the calendar’s history: they do not, for instance, include the different sets of games (ludi) which became important later on and which are mostly recorded as introductions of the republican period; again, the great gods of the later period do not have festivals of their own, whereas many gods and goddesses, later completely obscure, do. So, the calendars provide us with another example of the pattern of slow change and adjustment of Roman religious life, even in a document intended to reflect an unchanging annual rhythm. The copies of this calendar, widely distributed under the rule of Augustus, must show what importance was attached to the religious tradition as a marker of what it was to share a Roman identity, as all Italians were by the late Republic supposed to do, since they had all received the citizenship of Rome during the preceding century.

When it comes to the interpretation of these festivals, we have a quite rich tradition to turn to – especially a poetic account of the calendar written by the Augustan poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) and covering the first six months of the year, but also including scattered writings derived from the antiquarian tradition of the late republican period. At one time this body of material was methodically scoured to see whether it could tell us about the earliest periods of Roman history; scholars today often regard that as a misguided search, but use the same material to assess the religious attitudes of the writers’ own period. The results are surprising: what characterizes the tradition is the variety of different interpretations of the same festivals that emerges. Ovid in particular is proud to display a number of different views: sometimes he calls them Greek, sometimes Italian, sometimes they contradict one another, sometimes they are compatible. Ovid does not declare his choice among the possibilities he expounds. The view now being argued is that Romans did not expect their festivals to have a fixed canonical meaning. The rituals were thought of as never-changing, but evidently the meaning for those experiencing them was not fixed, at least over any period of time. We can prove this clearly in a handful of cases: for example, the Parilia is celebrated as a festival of shepherds, but later as the Birthday of Rome. If this is right, then the later commentators, like Ovid, are simply echoing the range of possible meanings that participants would have attributed to them at the time.

Divination was an area to which the Romans gave a good deal of attention and on which they prided themselves for their care and concern – at least as remembered from the time of their ancestors. Late republicans tell us that originally nothing was done, no action attempted, without a prior consultation of the gods. Various priests (haruspices, quindecimviri, augures) were involved and could give advice, though in this case as in others, it was the magistrates not the priests who carried out many of the rituals on the state’s behalf. At least so far as our records go, the most prominent feature of this activity was not so much foretelling the future as communicating warnings and advice as to which deities needed to be offered sacrifices or piacular offerings. Even if, as is quite possible, our sources deliberately play down the prophetic elements and play up the pious fulfilling of ritual obligations, it was undoubtedly a major part of the diviner’s job to identify the deities and the ceremonies needed.

The Romans distinguished between signs for which the diviner asked (impetrativa) and those that the gods sent on their own initiative (oblativa), warning of dangers to the state. The most distinctive form of warning was the prodigy (prodigium), whole lists of which are recorded, particularly by Livy for the middle to late Republic. To judge by these lists, a prodigy could be any event that the Romans judged to be outside the normal course of nature. Some of them we should classify as miraculous (for example the raining from the sky of blood, milk or stones), but many were natural or at least believable events: the birth of deformed animals, the intrusion of wild animals into urban space, lightning striking buildings and even natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. They do all tend to involve the transgressing of some boundary, seen by the Romans as natural and they all imply the need for placatory action.

The senate was the authority that dealt initially with all prodigies; they sought the advice of the specialists in the particular field and followed their advice. Measures taken to deal with prodigies generally consisted of rituals, but all the priests sometimes produced at least generalized warnings. There was nothing unacceptable about prediction as such, and on formal occasions such as the declaration of a war the diviners (haruspices) did predict victory and expansion of the frontiers. The augurs were responsible for consultations either before action in the city or before campaigns and battles. They sought the answer to straightforward questions of consent or denial; without consent the action could not or should not proceed. There was, however, no question of the gods guaranteeing victory or success in advance. It seems a more useful approach to say that the gods and goddesses were seen as a part of the community, sharing in the activities and at least normally supporting the Romans in whatever they did. But their support could not be taken for granted: it was earned by the care and skill of the priests and magistrates. The Romans succeeded because they were so scrupulous in the execution of the religio the gods required.

In the republican period, there was no question that contemporary human beings could ever cross the dividing line between the human and the divine. Only in the mythical past were they aware of Romans who had become gods. In the very late Republic, this line started to be blurred, as increasingly superhuman honours began to be conceded to the great generals who were conquering the known world – Pompey and, most of all, Caesar. All the same, in Rome itself, living men did not receive divine honours even in the imperial period; but this was not true of the provinces, where the living Emperor could be and was the object of a full cult.

In Rome itself, there was a quite elaborate ceremony that developed in the course of the first century AD, in which, after orations in praise of the dead Emperor and a parade involving the members of the elite of Rome, his body was ritually burned on an elaborate pyre and his soul, symbolized by the flight of an eagle, ascended to the heavens. This ceremony only took place after the senate had recognized that he had become a god; some emperors were never so recognized at all, apparently because the senate disapproved of their rule. In their life-times, a careful ritual distinction was maintained between the dead divine emperors (the divi), to whom sacrifice was offered directly, and the living ruler, who received no sacrifices for himself, only for his genius (inherited spirit?). The divi themselves were very prominent in the space of the city as much of the new temple building was in their honour, including some of the grandest temples ever built in Rome.

These careful distinctions applied apparently only inside Rome. Everywhere else, sacrifice took place, though sometimes it is recorded as for rather than to the Emperor. There was no direction from the centre, so the cult was organized and devised in the various regions and cities of the Empire. But temples to the Emperor, or to him together with the goddess Roma, games in his honour, priests of his cult and so on, all were to be found throughout the provinces. Cities competed in devising festivals in his honour more spectacular than those of their rivals. Statues and images of him abounded in the cities.

There is no doubt that all this is important, but it is also important not to get the new cult out of proportion. The new gods in no sense replaced the old ones: they did not become the recipients of prayers or vows, or play any role in the private lives of the citizens. They did not offer cures or help with childbirth. Their place was in the public arena. It is also a mistake to think that this was in any sense a new religion different from traditional paganism: it fitted neatly into the pattern of the multiplicity of gods and goddesses worshipped in the vast areas of the Empire, offering no challenge to the belief in the old gods. Modern interpreters have often found the whole phenomenon deeply problematic; ancient commentators sometimes found it a suitable subject for wit, but few ancients seem to have protested or refused to participate apart from the Christians, for whom it was used as a test of their commitment. [To be continued…]

Books of interest can be found at the bottom of the page here

Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.I.)

Much of the practice of Roman pagan religion seems at first sight deceptively familiar to us: the conceptions were much the same – there were deities, prayers, vows, sacrifices, festivals, sacred persons and sacred spaces. There was a constant need to consult the deities about what should happen or be done and much the same acceptance that prayers might be answered or not answered, but that the pious must maintain their devotion even when the situation was at a low ebb. There was also a distinction between proper devotion to the gods and excessive concern about them, for which the Roman term was superstition. A good deal of the vocabulary is the same too: superstitio, religio, sacrificium. But such parallels can be deeply deceptive. It is all too easy to think, without thinking too much, that the Romans had a religion just like modern ones, that we can coin a word ‘pagan-ism‘ and it will mean the same as religio does for the Romans. But modern religions are systems of belief and systems of morality, while religio seems only to concern the institutions and practices of religious life. Not of course that the Romans lacked beliefs or morality, but their religious system did not explicitly connect a set of rituals with particular ideas and beliefs.

The gods and goddesses of the Roman people were literally without number. There were some high gods and goddesses, with complex different functions and rituals – Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Mars, Diana – who were consistently important in all periods. They were, however, not formed into a pantheon, but they certainly did have areas in which they specialized. Mostly they were shared with other Italian communities, especially Mars who was important throughout Italy, not just where Latin was spoken as by the Romans, but also in the areas of southern Italy where the language was Oscan, as for example by the Samnites. It is clear that these deities were very early on identified with corresponding Greek ones, and these identifications remain constant over time. So far as we can tell, there were few local myths that belonged to the Roman gods and no tradition that they had family relationships like Greek gods. They borrowed Greek stories and it is often these that we meet in later poets.

There were then innumerable grades of lesser gods. Some were specific to one particular place or one natural process, for example the growing of crops. Some were identified with what might be seen as human products, such as Terminus who was the boundary marker of the farm. Specific deities were the patrons of the household and the farm, especially the Lares and Penates, and were worshipped in individual families. Other gods were associated with a specific moment in the calendar of festivals and never occur except in that single annual ritual moment. Some gods seem not to receive worship in the city, but belong to the countryside or the wilds. Some are revealed and defined by a single spot and a single moment in history.

New gods were discovered or introduced at most periods of Roman history. Romans had a strong sense of the Roman-ness of the gods of Rome, but no sense that they should constitute a closed list or that newcomers would not be welcome. Gods are sometimes introduced from abroad, as the healing god Aesculapius from Greece in 296 BC or Magna Mater (Cybele) from Asia Minor in 207 BC; or tempted out from enemy cities and offered cult by the Romans; or identified with the many personifications recognized by the Romans in the course of the third-second centuries BC. This preparedness to experiment and innovate continued in the imperial period, not least in the inscribed records, preserved in large quantities, of a priestly group called the Arval Brethren, where we still find a constant process of adaptation and development.

This all raises some problems for the understanding of the whole situation. In many ways the Roman religious tradition was and had to be deeply conservative: it placed huge emphasis on the accurate repetition of religious rituals – even the smallest aberration led to a repeat performance (instauratio) of the whole; the rituals were supposed to have been handed by the religious founder Numa Pompilius, the second Roman king (traditional dates 715-673 BC), to the first of the Roman priests; so the Roman religious order depended fundamentally on the retention of this revealed ritual practice. In many cases, we do not know how the apparent opposition between conservatism and innovation was reconciled in practice; but part of the answer must lie in the Romans’ tendency to see as the revival of some ancient practice or forgotten deity what we might prefer to call an innovation. Thus, for instance, the Magna Mater, apparently a strange and foreign goddess, turns out in Roman poets to be the goddess of Troy, and so an ancestral power re-accepted. In any case, the reality for the historian must be innovation, even when contemporaries could not or did not accept it as such.

The Romans from a very early date had a rich variety of priestly groups (collegia or sodalitates) with defined and specialized functions. These seem always to have been responsible for choosing their own members and for keeping their own records and lists of members, though their numbers seem to have been fixed and changes were made by state legislation not by the colleges themselves. The duties of the groups varied widely, from officiating or performing at a single occasion in the calendar (as the Luperci on 15 February – the Lupercalia) to taking general responsibility for a whole area of religious activity (as the fetiales take responsibility for the rituals of declaring war and making treaties). Four groups (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri, septemviri) were regarded as the major colleges and their affairs were controlled by law in the late Republic, while others remained under their own control.

All the priests had some ritual duties to perform and it might be assumed that originally they were primarily ritual officers. By the late Republic and later, when we have reliable information, they presided over the rituals and carried out symbolic actions, but had many assistants who carried out the killing of victims and the watching of birds on their behalf. The priests themselves, at least in the most important colleges, were almost all leading men of the political oligarchy; in many cases we know the priesthoods they held – Cicero and Mark Antony were augures, Caesar the pontifex maximus. Members of the top families of the ruling elite often took these priesthoods at an early age, before they had become senators and started on their political careers.

The role in which we know them best and can see them at work through the surviving sources is not as religious agents, but as religious advisors. The state’s main religious agents were in fact the high magistrates (consuls and praetors), who held the sacrifices, formally consulted the gods/goddesses and took vows to them binding the state to future actions. The priests appear as helpers and advisors, dictating the formulas to the magistrate; or else as experts on the religious law (the ius divinum). They kept books which contained (or were supposed to contain) the rituals and the precedents from earlier rulings on points of religious law. It was in this capacity that the senate when faced with religious decisions consulted the priests. Even here, however, the final decision lay not with the priests, who only gave a statement as to the rules of the sacred law, but with the senate itself; only they could produce action, even though they followed the priests’ advice.

The origins of this complex system of priesthood must go back to very early times, but in the form we actually meet it in the second/third centuries BC it is clear that it expresses in religious terms the dominant theory of the republican era. Power over religious matters in the state was distributed as widely as it could be: the priesthoods themselves had rules that prevented more than one member of any family from joining any particular college and any individual from joining more than one college; meanwhile the religious issues concerning the state were divided between the colleges so that none had a monopoly of advice. It is true that the pontifex maximus had great authority, but in no sense was he or anyone else the head of the system. The significance of this system became dramatically apparent as soon as the Republic broke down and the new emperor almost at once appropriated all the priesthoods of any significance and also became permanently the pontifex maximus.

The ritual of sacrifice is a key to the whole religious order of the Romans. Sacrifices were involved in all the main festivals and occurred before any military action or in any celebration of victory. Images of sacrifice are to be found not just when sacrificial events are recorded as on bas-reliefs, but also when sacrificial instruments are depicted regularly as artistic motifs. The imagery of a monument such as the Ara Pacis – whose primary references are to victory, peace and the glory of the ruling dynasty – is in fact full of sacrificial elements. Meanwhile, under the Empire, the image of the sacrificer, presented as a magistrate with his toga pulled over his head pouring incense from a saucer onto an altar, became virtually the monopoly of the reigning emperor, a familiar expression of his power.

The ritual was quite elaborate and governed by rules that had to be respected and an order of events to be followed. The victim had to be selected in relation to the god or goddess to whom the sacrifice was to be addressed, in terms of its sex, age and colour; it had to be brought willingly to the altar of the appropriate deity, and sanctified by placing wine and meal on its head (this element was called the immolation (immolatio)); a prayer had to be spoken, naming the deity for whom the victim was intended. The killing had to be instantaneous and the monuments show us how in the case of a large victim the animal was stunned by a blow from a mallet, while a knife was simultaneously slipped into its neck. Any struggle or escape by the victim was very unpropitious. The next stage was the extispicy, the inspection of the entrails by a diviner; at its simplest this confirmed that the sacrifice was acceptable, but more explicit interpretations could be sought and given. Then, when the sacrifice had been confirmed, the carcass was elaborately butchered and the entrails returned to the gods, together with their particular share of the meat. The rest was cooked on the spot and eaten at a feast by the participants; alternatively at least some of the meat found its way on to the meat market.

The Romans are remarkably silent on the significance of this ritual to them. We have no interpretation at all from a believing Roman, only one from a Greek observer and one from a third-century AD Christian convert (Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles Book VII). Some aspects can be clearly established: the victims were almost invariably farm animals, and were normally eaten – and it may be that a sacrifice gave much of the population their only opportunity to eat meat at all. The effect of the sacrifice must have been to identify the separation, but also the interaction, of men and gods – sharing in the ritual and even sharing in the food, but in food carefully divided between them. It is relevant here that the Romans regularly brought out their gods and goddesses from inside their temple-homes and offered them meals. The second clear point is that there were communications between humans and deities implicit in the ritual programme: the behaviour of the victim and the state of its entrails indicated the acceptance or otherwise of the gods; humans communicated verbally by prayer, but also symbolically by the choice of victim, by the conduct of the ritual, by the offering of the deity’s share. Finally, the whole procedure was informed by the skills and knowledge of the participants on which success of the transaction depended. [To be continued…]

Books of interest

Emperor worship and Roman religion

An introduction to Roman religion

Archaic Roman religion

A companion to Roman religion

“A poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.”

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Humans appear to have been exposed to arsenic for more than 5000 years and we know this because hair from the Iceman, who was preserved in a glacier in the mountains of the Italian Alps for this length of time, contained high levels of the element. His exposure to arsenic is thought to indicate that he was a coppersmith by trade since the smelting of this metal is often from ores that are rich in arsenic. The arsenic is volatilized as arsenic trioxide and it deposits in the flue of the furnace or on nearby surfaces.

Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil and successor and who lived around 300 BC, recognized two forms of what he referred to as ‘arsenic’ although these were not the pure element, but the arsenic sulphide minerals orpiment (As2S3) and realgar (As4S4). The ancient Chinese also knew of them and the encyclopaedic work of Pen Ts’ao Kan-Mu mentions them, noting their toxicity and use as pesticides in rice fields. The mineral realgar was recommended as a treatment for many diseases as well as for banishing grey hair.

Arsenic compounds are also referred to in Democritus’s Physica et Mystica, and the Roman writer Pliny wrote that the Emperor Caligula (12-41 AD) financed a project for making gold from orpiment and while some was produced it was so little that the project was abandoned.

The link between arsenic and gold was not forgotten and arsenic really came into its own in the Middle Ages. Realgar was found to yield so-called white arsenic by fusing it with natron (natural sodium carbonate). Petrus Oponus (1250-1303) showed that both orpiment and realgar could be converted to white arsenic, which we now know as the dangerously toxic arsenic trioxide, and which in the hands of the unscrupulous was to wreak such havoc down the ages. If white arsenic was mixed with vegetable oil and heated it yielded another sublimate, arsenic metal itself, and this may be how the discoverer of the element, Albertus Magnus (1206-80), first made it, although it was not identified as an element until several centuries later. What was also noted in the Middle Ages was that when arsenic was applied to copper metal it turned it silver, and this too appeared to be a kind of transmutation.

Arsenic has a long historical and disreputable pedigree; its very name seems to condemn it as something unspeakable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of the English word arsenic was in 1310, and certainly it must have been widely known by the end of that century because it was mentioned by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, written in 1386. The canon yeoman’s tale has the words:

No need to reckon up the lot,

Rubeficated water, bull’s gall,

Arsenic, sal ammoniac, and brimstone:

And if I wanted to waste your time I could recite any number of herbs.

Rubeficated means red, sal ammoniac is ammonium chloride, and brimstone is sulphur. Later in the tale he mentions orpiment (arsenic sulphide, As2S3) as one of the four spirits of alchemy.

The Romans knew of arsenic materials, as did the contemporary civilizations of China and India. The Chinese used them to kill flies and rodents, and the Indians used them to preserve paper from attack by insects. The Roman writer Dioscorides (40-90) wrote De Materia Medica [Medical Matters] in which he listed scores of remedies, mainly of the herbal kind, but also of the mineral variety and among these he mentioned orpiment and realgar, both of which are natural arsenic sulphides.

Although arsenic rarely threatens our health today, in the past it has affected the lives of many, but that was at a time when it was generally perceived as beneficial, to the extent of being taken regularly as a tonic. Yet while doctors often prescribed it for many ailments, they began to question its widespread use. In 1880 the Medical Society of London published a list of all the products then on sale which were coloured with arsenic pigments, and there were indeed many of them. For example if you were having an evening playing cards, then not only were the cards themselves likely to contain arsenic, but the green baize of the card table certainly did, and the wallpaper of the room would be printed with its pigments, as would the blinds and curtains at the window. The linoleum on the floor might well be coloured with it as would the toys with which the children played, and even the artificial flowers in the vase on the sideboard would have leaves of arsenic green. Arsenic indeed was everywhere.


The forces of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire, had at their disposal a wonder-weapon: Greek fire. According to one account it appeared in the reign of Constantine IV Pogonatus (641-68) and its invention was credited to a refugee from Syria who fled to Constantinople after his native land was conquered by the Arabs. Others say that it was really a development of an existing weapon that the Byzantines had used in the 500s but, however it was discovered, it certainly had a profound effect.

Greek fire was invaluable in fighting off the Arab fleets that attacked Constantinople in 673 and 717, and was even used against a Russian fleet in the 900s. In these attacks Greek fire was ejected under pressure from tubes mounted on the prows of the Byzantine ships, rather in the manner of a modern flame-thrower, and it was reputed to catch fire spontaneously and to be impossible to extinguish. Such was the power of this new weapon, and the fear it engendered, that it is thought to have been a significant factor in enabling the Byzantine Empire to flourish for almost a thousand years. The secret of Greek fire was carefully guarded and with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 all knowledge of how it was made was lost.

Arsenic as an agent in warfare languished for many centuries until it was revived in World War I. In that war various chemical agents were used in an effort to break through the lines of trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles along the Western Front. The Germans tried chlorine gas on 22 April 1915 and this had a devastating effect on the unprotected British soldiers as it rolled over no-man’s-land and into their trenches. Five thousand men died and more than 15 000 were permanently lung-damaged. In September of that year the British retaliated with mustard gas, a sulphur compound, but the attack was totally ineffective. The disadvantage of these types of chemical agents was that they made the target area unsafe to occupy and it hindered rather than helped the attacking forces. The search was on for ‘better’ weapons.

Several arsenic-based chemicals were found such as Lewisite, Sneeze Gas, and Adamsite, their chemical names being 2-chlorovinyldichlorarsine, phenyldichlorarsine, and diphenylaminechlorarsine. Of these the only one used on a large scale in World War I was Sneeze Gas which was capable of penetrating gas masks and producing unbearable irritation of the respiratory tract. Lewisite was much more potent and this was developed for use as a chemical weapon, but the War was over before it could be deployed. Lewisite is an oily liquid with the odour of geraniums and it boils at the relatively high temperature of 190°C; this means that it is not very volatile and so cannot be used as a gas as such, but it could be spread as a vapour – the ‘dew of death’ – and while it could kill it was more likely to incapacitate because breathing the vapour would cause the lungs to fill up with fluid. The reason for using Lewisite was to disable troops by penetrating their clothing, including protective rubber suiting, causing a violent reaction on the skin forming large painful blisters. On unprotected individuals the chemical would attack eyes, lungs, and skin and eventually lead to liver damage and perhaps death.


The ancient Assyrians of the eighth and ninth centuries BC were familiar with yellow orpiment, and the Greeks and Romans knew that it formed a white compound when roasted, which would be mainly arsenic trioxide. It was also known from an early date that heating orpiment with natron (natural sodium carbonate) produced a product that was deadly and that when it was dissolved in water it gave a clear solution. This reaction would form the soluble salt sodium arsenite, which would indeed have been very poisonous. Thus from the very earliest days there were those who knew the deadly nature of arsenic trioxide and its salts and how to make them. Such knowledge was both dangerous and politically useful, and there were some unexpected deaths that seem likely to have been caused by it. Laws of ancient Rome, dating from around 100 BC were specifically designed to cover cases of death by poisoning.

One of the more notorious poisoners of ancient Rome was Agrippina. She disposed of those who stood in her way, and almost certainly used arsenic trioxide because it was so effective and it enabled her to escape detection. Agrippina undoubtedly murdered her husband in order to be free to marry her uncle, the Emperor Claudius, and thereby gain political power and promote her son Nero into becoming Claudius’s successor. To bring that about Agrippina first eliminated her opponents among the palace advisors, and then poisoned Claudius’s wife Valeria. Once she and Claudius were married she persuaded the Emperor to allow his daughter Octavia to marry Nero. All that remained was to poison the Emperor’s son Britannicus, who would undoubtedly have succeeded him, and persuade the Emperor to name his stepson Nero as his successor. When he did that he sealed his own fate. She poisoned Claudius in 54 and Nero became Emperor at the tender age of 16. Sadly poor Agrippina soon fell out of favour with her son and he had her murdered in 59, although not with poison. Or so the story goes.

The use of poison in the furtherance of political ends is supposed to have reached a fine art in Italy in the 1500s and 1600s. The most notorious practitioners were Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) and his sister Lucrezia (1480-1519) whose names are still synonymous with such depravity. The pair employed a white powder they referred to as La Cantarella and which was almost certainly arsenic trioxide. It was said they got the recipe for making it from the Spanish Moors, and indeed their father was a Spanish cardinal called Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He died in 1503 after attending a banquet with his son Cesare and it was even rumoured that his death was caused by his eating poisoned food and wine that was destined for someone else. This seems unlikely because Cesare was also taken ill, although he recovered. Lucrezia died in 1519 at the age of 39, apparently in a state of grace, having given up her scandalous life for one of religious devotion. Her brother died in a skirmish in 1507 aged 31.

Book of interest