Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

By Dembek, Zygmunt | Naval War College Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World


Dembek, Zygmunt, Naval War College Review


Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: Overlook, 2003. 319pp. $27.95

Adrienne Mayor's recent effort is a comprehensive review of the use of biological and chemical weapons by ancient cultures. Mayor is an independent scholar of the classics and folklore who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. She has been published in MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History and various archeology journals, and she is the author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton Univ. Press, 2000); a similarly titled program is scheduled for the History Channel in July 2004.

This work describes in detail the use of weapons of mass destruction by the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, China, India, Islamic regions, and Mongolia. Mayor presents a much needed update of the historical use of these weapons. If modern scientists appear to understand the nature and effects of chemical and biological weapons through their expertise in biochemical and molecular sciences and epidemiology, ancient civilizations created and used similar weapons by empirical evidence alone.

The (mythical) first use of a biological weapon in the ancient world was by Hercules, who dipped his arrows in the venom of the slain Hydra. Ancient myths may also reflect the realities of their time. Descriptions of poisoned wounds in the Trojan War accurately depict the effects of snake venom and other toxins, lending confirmation of the use of this type of weapon. In AD 198-99, the citizens of Hatra (the remains of this city are located south of Masul, Iraq) successfully defended their city from a Roman attack by the use of clay-pot bombs likely filled with scorpions and other venomous insects gathered from the surrounding desert. Hannibal catapulted earthenware jars filled with venomous snakes during a decisive naval battle against King Eumenes of Pergamum between 190 and 184 BC.

One of the greatest current concerns in homeland defense today is the protection of food and water supplies from intentional contamination. Mayor presents evidence that purposeful poisoning of food and water sources as a military tactic was once commonplace. The earliest documentation of poisoned drinking water referenced is from Greece in 590 BC, when hellebore was used to poison the water source of the city Kirrha by the Amphictyonic League, causing the inhabitants to become "violently sick to their stomachs and all lay unable to move. The Amphictyons took the city without opposition." Aeneas the Tactician in 350 BC wrote a siegecraft manual recommending that military commanders "make water undrinkable" by polluting rivers, lakes, springs, wells, and cisterns. A more recent analogy is presented with the Iroquois' use of animal skins to cause illness in the water supply of over a thousand French soldiers during the eighteenth century. …

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