Lead's Role in Roman Culture

Cultural practices have played a crucial role in the way differing peoples perceive themselves, those around them and even their environment. Although this may seem somewhat of an obvious observation, the role cultural beliefs play in a society’s impact on the environment is extensive. A great example of this idea is the Roman Empire’s global contamination resulting from lead use prevalent in the culture. The use of lead as a technology in Roman life was so extensive that it led to refined smelting techniques, which then further solidified lead’s universal use and caused eventual worldwide contamination. Lead’s prevalent use in Roman society resulted from its availability, physical properties and the abstract applications to which it was applied. The cultural practices correlating to a prevalent use of lead thus propagated lead technology, eventually caused a worldwide polluting effect.

A need for a universal building material became evident as the empire grew in size. The Romans needed a readily available and cheap material. It was at this point that they turned to lead as their material of choice. Lead was readily available throughout the empire, meaning the Romans had an ample, constant supply of it ("ANNEX" 177-184). More importantly, because lead was high in supply and within the imperial boundaries, this meant it was a relatively cheap material. These two factors enabled Roman culture to adopt its wide use as a prevalent form of technology. As a result, lead became the primary material of use for many sectors of life ranging from the world of construction to the cook’s kitchen.

Lead’s place in Roman culture was further solidified by its physical and chemical properties. The Romans’ staple metal had to be long lasting, easily manageable and strong. Lead met, and surpassed, these benchmarks. The metal’s malleability meant it could easily be manipulated for use in several industries. For example, lead sheets could be molded to create roofing or to make reservoir tanks in bathhouses ("ANNEX" 177-184). Lead’s malleability meant its use would not be limited to a single sphere. Rather, the uses of lead would evolve with society as it evolved. This theory can be seen in the Romans’ eventual use of the malleable metal when they adopted a system of coinage. It can also be seen in their incorporation of lead into their maritime endeavors—ships were eventually equipped with ample lead plates, lead anchors and lead was used to patch holes in the decks ("ANNEX" 177-184). All these uses were possible because of lead’s malleability. The metal’s resistance to corrosion also played a large role in its multiple applications. Corrosion resistance meant the metal could be used in damp, wet environments. As a result, lead pipes became the standard in the Roman Empire. Thus, the empire’s renowned water system, which depended on its pipe system, was held up by lead. Likewise, the anti-corrosion properties of the metal allowed it to play a role in a maritime sphere (like it did in ships). Lead’s dynamic properties enabled it to fill a role in Roman culture and, most importantly, evolve with the culture.

Lead’s incorporation into Roman culture was completed by the abstract uses the Roman people incorporated the metal into. One of such abstract uses in the Roman wine industry. Wines were kept in either lead tanks or tanks with lead strips in them ("ANNEX" 177-184). As a result of the lead, the wine acquired a very particular sweet taste. This sweetening effect meant that poor quality wines could be disguised and good wines would be accented. The same effect meant Romans began using lead as sweetener in all cuisine. Thus, as “Roman cuisine” became defined, the role of lead in Roman culture was cemented. In a similar way, some of the compounds of lead began to be used in paints, particularly in white paint. This white paint became a staple in Roman architecture and since lead was one of its primary components, it too became ingrained with a Roman identity.

The development of lead use in conjunction with Roman culture greatly exemplifies the role culture can play in technological advancement. Roman society needed a material that was widely available, cheap, dynamic and lasting. Lead met these criteria and, thus was adopted by Roman culture, becoming an integral part of it. Not only did it meet the needs of the Roman people, but it also met them so well that it became a part of their everyday life, becoming engrained with Roman culture.

Works Cited:


Adrian Gonzalez

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last updated 3/15/10