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My work on seaweeds is somewhat of a mystery to my non-biologist friends. What possible change can an increased knowledge of seaweeds bring? Why not work with something more useful, like human health, or something better paid, like business? When I pondered that and read something totally unrelated to seaweeds I found an excellent reason why we should study seaweeds and why it matters- the lack of knowledge of macroalgae caused the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Not much is known about seaweed use and knowledge in classical Europe. However, Bellum Africanum, written in 46 B.C., officially by Julius Caesar, but in reality probably by someone else, states that the Greeks collected seaweed from the shore and gave it to their cattle (Indergaard & Minsaas 1991). This means that useful properties of seaweeds were known even by the mighty Caesar. However, there are indications that seaweeds were hold in low esteem by the Romans and this, unknown to them at that time, was a contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire; one of the mightiest empires that has ever existed.

This lack of appreciation of seaweeds is exemplified by two quotes, one from Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, an outstanding poet and satirist who lived 65-8 B.C. Maybe he is more known for the quote "carpe diem" than the following from Satires (II, 5, 8):


"Et genus et virtus, nisi cum re, vilior alga est."

(Noble descent and worth, unless united with wealth, are esteemed no more than seaweed.)

If you find this quote strange; note the name of the book. The other quote is from Virgil, Publius Vergilius Maro, (70-19 BC) often called the greatest Roman poet, who wrote in



"Immo ego Sardoniis videar tibi amarior herbis, horridior rusco, proiecta vilior alga."

(Nay, but may I seem to thee bitterer than herbage of Sardinia, rougher than the spiky broom, more worthless than stranded seaweed.)


Although taken out of contexts, these quotes clearly show that seaweeds were not very fashionable in the Roman society; in fact they were used as metaphors for the utterly worthless by two of the giants of early Western civilization. But how did this cause the fall of the mighty Roman Empire?

"...but what I have understood... is that they are crazy those Romans." This statement from a contemporary of Julius Caesar shows that the mental status of the Romans were well known at the time.


It has been suggested that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of Rome (Nriagu 1983), through the use of lead pipes, to transport water, and lead cauldrons, especially when used for the production of a concentrated grape juice called sapa or defrutum. Lead leaked from the pipes and cauldrons slowly poisoning the ones so pride Romans. It is well known that seaweed polysaccharides, especially alginates, have the possibility of binding heavy metals, such as lead. In fact, seaweeds products have been used to diminish problems caused by toxic heavy metals. Alginate containing species that can be found around the Italian peninsula includes for example: Laminaria ochroleuca, L. rodriguezii, and Fucus virsoides. In addition, the Roman Empire included large parts of the Atlantic coastline in Europe and an effective (by the standards of the time) transport system which could easily have been used to import seaweeds such as Laminaria to Rome.

Had the Romans held seaweeds in higher esteem and eaten more seaweed products, cleaning their bodily systems of lead, then maybe this text would have been entirely in Latin, the year would not be 2006, but 2756 (number of years since the founding of the city of Rome), or possibly MMDCCLVI and the author be named Ionas Collenius.

I therefore urge the present imperial, national and local funding agencies to support seaweed research in order to avoid a collapse of civilization as we know it. Remember, the Roman Empire fought “terrorism” successfully for centuries, but succumbed to limited resources for seaweed research.



Indergaard M & Minsaas J 1991. Animal and Human Nutrition. In: Seaweed Resources in Europe: Uses and Potential, (Ed. M.D. Guiry & G. Blunden).

Nriagu JO 1983. Saturnine gout among Roman aristocrats: Did lead poisoning contribute to the fall of the Empire? New England Journal of Medicine 308, 660-663


Senast uppdaterad 2010-01-03 13:09