When you think of Pompeii, you think of the massive eruption in 79 CE and subsequent mass killing of the Romans who inhabited Pompeii and Herculaneum. You may picture the eerie casts that lay around the streets of Pompeii and the faces of those who perished in the fires of Vesuvius.
But what if Vesuvius had never erupted?
What if Pompeii and Herculaneum still stood and weren’t smothered by the volcano’s historic eruption?
Would the people of Pompeii thrive?
A new study published in the Journal: Toxicology Letters explains, probably not.
We put Romans and their way of life on a pedestal. They invented the aqueduct, gave us the Colosseum and are typically remembered as trailblazers of civilisation.
However, the same aqueduct and pipes that distinguished Rome from the surrounding empires were slowly poisoning them.
Archaeologists who studied the chemicals in the pipes running through the city of Pompeii found that the material used in the walls of the piping contained particularly dangerous levels of lead, a chemical that would have induced severe daily vomiting and diarrhoea and eventual liver and kidney damage.
Pipes were a luxury for Pompeii so the poisoning from the piping would have only affected the very elite, wealthy residents of Pompeii. These same pipes, however, were also used throughout Rome.
The aqueducts were an engineering marvel for their time and kept the city relatively sanitised, but the poison within the pipes would’ve eventually taken its toll on the people of Rome and Pompeii. So much so, that some historians have even suggested that the reason the Roman Empire fell was due to the lead poisoning that infiltrated Roman society.
According to Historian and author Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark, this claim, however, is unfounded:
"A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water."
In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead
"– for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired. Assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was."
Lead poisoning is a slow burn, leading to eventual damage to the brain, central nervous system and bones. But the antimony found in the pipes of Pompeii, according to the new study, would’ve caused sudden diarrhoea, vomiting and even cardiac arrest.
The chemical antimony occurs naturally near volcanoes, so even if there was no eruption, Vesuvius still would have been killing the city of Pompeii, just not all in one go.