Home / “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World”

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

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Adrienne Mayor’s new book. John Noble Wilford explores the rather little-known history of weapons of mass destruction in a sobering piece in the October 7 New York Times. We learn that Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great were victims and perpetrators of biological and chemical warfare. More:

“On Tahiti, where the people were considered avatars of Rousseau’s Noble Savage, war was frequently brutal and merciless. Nearly all premodern societies often decimated their numbers in violent warfare. War is universal and goes back deep into human history.”

Adrienne Mayor tells of deliberate attempts to use smallpox and bubonic plague against enemy troops and cities, in what Roman historians described as “man-made pestilence.”

Wilford writes, “In the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans created poison gas and a flame-blowing machine to defeat fortified positions. In their conquests, the Assyrians tossed firebombs of oil. Ancient China and India had recipes for toxic smoke.”

“In the fourth century B.C., Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to chemically enhanced fires. Aeneas recommended pouring down pitch on enemy soldiers or their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulfur and, finally, burning bundles of kindling to ignite a destructive conflageration.”

“Although napalm was not invented until the 1940’s or used extensively until the Vietnam War, Greek fire had similar properties as early as the seventh century A.D. Centuries of experiments with combustible sulfur, quicklime and naphtha led to the fabled incendiary weapon. Then siphon-pump technologies enabled the flammable mixture, mainly naphtha, to be propelled under pressure from ships against other ships or coastal fortifications. It was used in 673 to break the Muslim siege of Constantinople.”

“Research on simple foraging societies, recent and past, indicated that their wars were especially vicious, with at least 25 percent of the populations dying in many conflicts. It exceeded anything in the two world wars of the 20th century.”

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  • Yes, you are precisely correct; the details are here, in a most interesting essay.

  • jadester

    wasn’t there something about bits of dead bodies (or even whole dead bodies) both of people and livestock, being used in catapults sometimes during siiges? not only did such a tactic have a chance of spreading disease within the fortified position (especially during a long siege) but it would’ve had an adverse psychological effect