"Beware the Ides of March"

You probably recognize the quote in the headline, even if you forgot that it comes to us from William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. With this quote, Caesar was warned in advance of his untimely demise at the hands of his supposed friends – most notably, Brutus. Today is the “Ides of March,” the midway point in the month. And it’s a good time to reflect on the contributions of the ancient Romans to our modern water systems.
Many historians contend that the conquests of the Roman Empire were due as much to their engineering capabilities as to their military prowess. The aqueducts of the Romans are the largest and best known of the water system engineering marvels that they constructed. We have continued to follow these practices – with a few modern enhancements, of course – for the past two thousand years.
A less well known but also remarkable achievement was the development of community plumbing systems. Through the use of pipes, water from the aqueducts was conveyed into many of the individual homes and buildings of each Roman city. Thus, the water distribution system was invented.
The Romans were masters of metallurgy, and the metal of choice for their water systems was lead. The chemical symbol that we use today for the element lead is “Pb” – derived from the Latin word for lead, “Plumbum.” In fact, lead was so inextricably linked with water systems that our word today for such systems is “Plumbing.”
Lead was an excellent choice for the ancient plumber, as it is a soft metal that is easy to form into various shapes, including pipes. It has a low melting point, and so could be melted and then cast into molds to form plumbing features for a variety of purposes. It is also pretty resistant to corrosion – far more so than today’s metal of choice for major plumbing: iron. So, lead was in widespread use in Roman water systems for several centuries.
The Romans were not at all conscious of water quality, other than for debris that might clog their water systems. Our ancestors were still several centuries away from our modern sciences of chemistry and biology. They had no way of knowing that the very metal that made their engineering achievements possible was also slowly poisoning them. The lead in their pipes leached into their drinking water, so the entire Roman population was ingesting large quantities of lead. Today, we recognize that lead ingestion – at far lower levels – can lead to mental impairment and even dementia.
It is likely that much of the truly bizarre behavior of ancient Rome was due to lead poisoning of the entire population. “Beware the Ides of March”? Perhaps. But certainly, beware of plumbing made from “plumbum.”

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