The Sweet Taste of Death

For most of us, history is subjective.  We remember where we were when John Kennedy died or the Twin Towers fell.  We remember the Polio Scare because we couldn’t go swimming in the summer.  And we probably won’t remember the Iraq War as more than a series of newscasts unless we know someone who was there.

August 24, in the year 79 CE, affected thousands and thousands of people around the Mediterranean not because Vesuvius erupted and wiped out two towns named Pompeii and Herculaneum.  That was just news.  Tragic news, to be sure, and worth a shudder or two, but still just news.

No.  What really brought that historic event home to the Empire was the fact that it had a catastrophic impact on the garum supply.  Garum, you see, was the sine qua non of Roman cooking.  And although it was made in lots of places, the most popular type by far came from Pompeii.

Garum was a fish sauce that sounds truly dreadful to modern ears.  To make it, what you would do is collect vast quantities of fish guts, dice them finely, and set them out in tubs to ferment.  After a few days of occasional stirring and adding spices, you filtered off the liquid as garum.  The whole process smelled so bad that there were regulations that said it could only be produced on the outskirts of towns, where no neighbors had to smell the stuff.

Apparently the result was a mild tasting and smelling sauce that was served by Romans with practically everything.  Pompeii shipped it all across the Mediterranean, becoming very rich in the process.

So, for most of the Empire it was, “Pompeii destroyed and all those people dead – very sad – but what am I going to eat?”

Naturally, all the other garum makers soon stepped up their production and the Empire was saved, although there were those who said that, yes, but it really wasn’t as good as genuine Pompeiian garum.  There always are such people.

The Empire was saved but, as we know, it eventually fell.  A while back I was fascinated to read that the Empire fell because of its pottery.  According to this theory, Roman pottery and its low-fired glazes had a high lead content.  Being low-fired, the lead was liable to leach out into the food or wine the dishes held, slowly poisoning the Romans, particularly the upper classes, who could afford pottery dishware.

There was a fair amount of evidence for all this.

Among the symptoms of lead poisoning are various forms of sterility and abortions.  In short, a lowered net birth rate.  We know that the upper classes of the Empire suffered a devastatingly low birth rate that resisted all efforts of patriotism, legislation, and medicine to raise it.  We also know that, in the later Empire, it became difficult to staff senior positions because there simply weren’t enough candidates.  And to sort of cap the whole thing off, excavated Roman graves showed bones with staggeringly high lead concentrations.

Yeah, but.

While the upper classes were hard hit by a declining population, the lower classes fell as well.  By the time the Empire finally collapsed, there simply weren’t enough people to fill the farms, pay the taxes, and staff the army.  One can make an equally good argument that the real problem was a whole series of plagues that swept from beyond the eastern edge of the imperium along the wonderful Roman roads, and permanently depressing the birth rate.

Then, too, as a general rule the higher fired (and therefore safer) pottery went to the aristocracy because it was more expensive.  Hence the aristocracy should have suffered less.  Finally, the concentrations of lead found in the bones would require a much higher level of exposure than you would be likely to get from slow leaching from incompletely fired dishes.

So then what?  What caused the Fall of the Roman Empire?

It was those Roman cooks.

Not only did they get the whole Empire addicted to garum, in their sophistication and creativity they added sapa to the menu.

What is sapa, you ask?

Sapa was the brilliant solution to a whole host of Roman problems.  First, while human beings have ever had a sweet tooth, the Roman Republic’s cuisine was pretty well limited to honey.  To add a little diversity to the sweetening, some clever fellow crushed a bunch of unfermented grapes in a caldron and reduced it by boiling over a low fire.  The result was sapa.  It provided a little welcome variety for the Roman palate.

Soon however, someone noticed that some folks’ sapa was not only sweeter, but it had a nicer flavor and seemed to last much longer without going bad.  In fact, if you added this particular sapa to other things like, say, garum, not only did it taste better, but you could ship it practically anywhere without it spoiling.  Given the size of the Empire, this was a real godsend to merchants and consumers alike.

And how, I can hear you asking, did this particular kind of sapa manage to become so wonderful in so many different ways?  The answer lay in the cooking.  Or, to be more specific, in the cauldrons.

It seems that these folks had been making their sapa in cauldrons lined with lead.  Through some magic alchemy, those cauldrons not only made it taste better, but added preservative qualities as well.  Pretty soon everyone was making this kind of sapa and it was being added to wines, fruits, sauces, and practically everything else.

Problem was, all those wonderful new qualities came from the same thing: lead acetate.

Boil some lead in the presence of certain natural acids and you produce lead acetate, a sweet tasting chemical whose lead likes to bond to proteins and keep them from breaking down.  Of course, it can also give you a doozy of a case of lead poisoning, but…

The real question, of course, is just how much lead the Romans were really ingesting.  For calibration, the figure we use for chronic lead poisoning is 0.5 milligrams of lead per day.

Fortunately, the Romans left records on how they prepared their sapa, how much they added to their wine, etc.  On the basis of that, some experimenters made their own sapa, added it to some wine, and tested the result.  They found out that Roman wine, prepared by their own formula, contained a whopping 20 milligrams of lead per liter.  Since the imperial Romans of all classes, male and female, were prodigious consumers of wine, it looks as if sapa, combined with those plagues I mentioned, may give us the best explanation so far for the dramatic fall of the Roman population and, eventually, its Empire as well

But wait, there’s more.

Lead poisoning can also produce all the symptoms of insanity.  So maybe it is sapa we have to thank for the lunatic conduct of some of those Roman emperors…and maybe even for why the Romans put up with them for so long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *