Lead, or plumbum in Latin (chemical symbol Pb), was one of the first metals to be easily extracted from natural occurring ores. It was common in all the ancient civilizations as far as 8,000 years ago. It was abundantly available, soft and easy to manipulate, resistant to corrosion and durable over extended periods of time.
The Romans used the metal extensively in building the first sewage and aqueduct systems. Its name in Latin is evidence enough of its use in importance for plumbing, but lead pipes have been found still perfectly intact. Some systems are even inscribed with the insignia of Roman emperors or magistrates who endorsed their construction.
Lead was routinely traded in commerce, and was actually found in many ancient coins. The Chinese made coins exclusively from lead, and bronze coins of the Roman era could contain up to 30% lead. The Romans used lead as a paint base, which continued until recently, as well as other household products such as cosmetics and serving dishes. Fastening masonry or stone bolts and shafts from molten lead was a common practice in several civilizations. Lead sheets in the construction of buildings, and the fashioning of statues and other arts has roots as far back as 6,500 BC.
Cheap and abundant, early armies used the pliable metal to fashion lead bullets that were thrown from slingshots. Like the medieval hot oil, molten lead was poured on enemies from the walls of fortifications. In the arena, gladiators even used lead knuckles (the cestus) in combat.
In the all-important wine industry of Rome, winemakers included lead in a variety of ways. When boiling crushed grapes, lead pots or lead lined copper kettles were the tastiest choice. Lead leaves a sweet overtone that was thought to add a complementary flavor to the wines. Lead extracts could also be added later to sitting wines to add extra flavor. Wine was not the only source of lead on the Roman table, however. The metal enhanced up to one-fifth of the 450 recipes in the Roman Apician Cookbook of Apicius.
It's not surprising that lead has been associated as a potential major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. Lead is known to cause a variety of disastrous illnesses along with sterility, which was prevalent in late Roman society, and it had a major presence in many facets of Roman life. It's likely that lead played a minor role in comparison to other factors, but when combined with all other pressures, it may have added a compounding effect, even if a minor one.
Even in ancient times, lead was criticized for its dangers. In 14 B.C., the Roman architect Vitruvius noted pale complexions and other maladies in lead workers. His book De Architectura referred to the dangers of the metal in the water system, "the lead receives the current of air, the fumes from it occupy the members of the body, and burning them thereupon, rob the limbs of the virtues of the blood. Therefore, it seems that water should not be brought in lead pipes if we desire it to be wholesome."
Vitruvius was not the only lead detractor, however. In 370 B.C, the Greek physician Hippocrates described colic (upset stomach) in a lead metal worker. The first case of lead palsy, associated with reduced motor skills or paralysis, was recorded as early as 200 BC. In the first century AD, another Greek doctor, Dioscorides, wrote that exposure to lead could cause paralysis, delirium, intestinal problems and swelling. Associated with the disgruntled behavior of the god Saturn, these ailments came to be known as "Saturnism", or more directly named "plumbism". Despite the warnings at the time, lead was viewed as an affliction that affected only those who worked directly with the material. Like many ancient maladies, its effects were attributed to the gods and largely ignored as a health risk to all.