Caligula and Nero -- victims of lead poisoning?


BOSTON -- A series of often deranged Roman emperors may have gone mad from drinking lead-tainted wine that caused brain damage, medical researchers said today.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine said favorite Roman wines were processed in lead jugs and the high lead intake of the aristocracy provides strong support 'that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.'


Intake of lead was also high because of the use of lead pots for the best dishes and lead pipes used to carry water.

The emperors adversly affected by the wine may have included Caligula, who oversaw sexual atrocities; Nero, who allowed Rome to burn; and Claudius, notoriously dull-witted and absent-minded.

Jerome Nriagu of the Canadian National Water Research Institute wrote that roughly two thirds -- 19 of 30 -- Roman leaders who ruled between 30 B.C. and 220 A.D. had a 'prediliction to the lead-tainted' wines.

Nriagu said the high lead intake may have caused gout, an arthritis of joints that often is related to lead poisoning, sleeplessness, stomach problems and mental impairment in Rome's leaders.

The average member of the aristocracy in Rome had a lead intake per day of up to eight times that of the average American city dweller -- far above danger levels, Nriagu said.


'The dangerous and excessive living continued downward through the upper ranks of the social hierarchy,' Nriagu said. 'This provides strong support for the hypothesis that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.'

The Emperor Claudius who ruled from 41 to 54 A.D. was reported to be dull-witted and absent-minded, and suffered from disturbed speech, weak limbs, an ungainly gait, tremor, fits of sudden laughter - indicators of lead poisoning and gout.

Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 A.D., was an inveterate wine drinker and a schizophrenic. Nriagu said his love of wine even won him the nickname 'Biberius.'

Caligula, ruler from 37-41 A.D., whose name has become synonymous with excessive cruelty, was a chronic alcoholic. His mental breakdown had been attributed 'to overindulgence and presumably lead poisoning as well,' Nriagu said.

Nero and many other of the leaders also followed a lifestyle that 'would have entailed substantial dietary exposure to lead,' Nriagu said.

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