The Earliest Weapons of Mass Destruction ; the Ancients Developed Terrifying Devices - and Debated Whether to Use Them

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After the mythic Greek hero Hercules slew the multiheaded Hydra, he developed a technology at the heart of today's most pressing international crisis. In her illuminating history of warfare, Adrienne Mayor argues that "by steeping his arrows in the monster's venom, Hercules created the first biological weapon."

Mayor, a folklorist specializing in the early history of science, is intrigued with the often fantastic devices the ancients used in war, but "Greek Fire" also excavates ancient attitudes toward biological and chemical arms that are startlingly relevant today.

Toxic arrows were the Bronze Age's terror weapons. "Almost as soon as they were created," Mayor writes, "poison weapons set in motion a relentless train of tragedies for Hercules and the Greeks - not to mention the Greeks' enemies, the Trojans."

Most of the ancient world liked to believe it fought with a code of honor. According to Homer, "Archers were disdained because they shot safely from afar: long range missiles implied unwillingness to face the enemy at close range. And long range missiles daubed with poisons seemed even more cowardly." Yet Odysseus, hardly a coward, returns home to kill his wife's suitors with poison arrows.

Here's the rub that still bedevils us. The rulers of ancient India were no less conflicted than the Greeks about arrows "barbed, poisoned or blazing with flame." These instruments violated the "traditional Hindu laws of conduct for Brahmans and high castes, the Laws of Manu." But in the Arthashastra, the Brahman military strategist Kautilya advised his king to use whatever means necessary to attain his military goals - including poisons.

Mayor is comprehensive about the history, ethics, and science of early biological and chemical weapons. Skillfully combing ancient texts, she describes cultures as varied as the Scythians and the Chinese with their chemical fire lances and poison "vapors. …