Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 24.

Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press / Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 319, incl. 47 black-and- white illustrations and 3 maps. ISBN 0-71563-257-4. US$27.95, UKú20.00.

B. van Niekerk,
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

This topical book delves into the mythological and historical evidence for chemical and biological warfare in antiquity. The main focus is on poisons, war animals, and chemical incendiaries. Whilst such a subject has the potential to become technically complicated, the author presents the material in such a way that it is easily understood, but still very informative. The notes (pp. 259-93) and bibliography at the end of the book (pp. 295-305) provide details about the sources used. A historical timeline is provided (pp. 11-17), highlighting the rulers, major battles, and main events influencing the development of chemical and biological weapons from 1770 BCE to 1300 CE.

Mayor writes not only about the weapons and their use, but also about the moral implications of their deployment, friendly-fire incidents, and their psychological effects. The author also draws parallels with modern events involving chemical and biological weapons, such as the recent anthrax attacks in the United States of America. She suggests that many surprising outcomes of battles in the past were due to the use of these instruments of war, and argues that the ancient world may have had a more advanced understanding of medicine than previously thought. The introduction (pp. 23- 39), subtitled 'War Outside the Rules', defines biological warfare and goes on to explain its place in history, whilst providing an overview of the main areas that are to be discussed in the body of the text (pp. 41-250).

Chapter 1, 'Hercules and the Hydra' (pp. 41-62), and Chapter 2, 'Alexander the Great and the Arrows of Doom' (pp. 63-97), deal with the poisoning of weapons, whereas Chapter 3, 'Poison Waters, Deadly Vapours' (pp. 99-118), and Chapter 5, 'Sweet Sabotage' (pp. 145-69), deal with the poisoning of water and food. A very familiar example is the myth of Hercules dipping arrows in the Hydra's blood, and their use thereafter, particularly in the Trojan War.[[1]] Mayor's approach is often speculative: for example, she analyses Herodotus' description (4.10) of golden vials worn on the belts of Scythian warriors as receptacles for poison, and deduces the identities of obscure animals and plants from their colouring, habit, and the symptoms of their poisons. A more substantive issue is the defensive as well as offensive use of venoms in the ancient world; various leaders, such as emperor Marcus Aurelius, attempted to immunize themselves against assassination by poisoning (p. 150). Ironically, most of these paranoid despots killed off their rivals, and in the case of King Mithridates VI of Pontus, their families as well, by poisoning them. Many generals sought ways of effectively countering the poisons used against them, so that their troops were either immune to poison, or could be treated for their toxic effects. Interestingly, the ancient method of immunization was very similar to modern vaccination, in that small amounts of poisons were ingested, but enough to ensure the body produced anti-bodies so that those poisons would have been ineffective when consumed again (p. 149). Mayor notes that the use of poisoned arrows was considered an act of cowardice; the Romans in particular were reluctant to use such weapons, even if they were used by their 'barbarian' foes. Naturally stagnant waters were also deployed by the enemies of Rome and Roman generals were quick to learn to stay away from marshes because 'bad water is a kind of poison and the cause of epidemic distemper' (ibid).[[2]]

Chapter 4, 'A Casket of Plague in the Temple of Babylon' (pp. 119-43), and Chapter 6, 'Animal Allies and Scorpion Bombs' (pp. 171-205), focus on biological weapons in the form of diseases and war animals respectively. Mayor discusses the extent to which the ancients understood the process whereby contagious diseases were spread. They certainly understood that diseases could be dispersed, but they considered them to be vapors rather than bacteria. Thus Julius Capitolinus (Ver. 8.2) describes the source of the plague of 166 CE as follows: 'The plague arose in Babylonia, when a pestilential vapor escaped from a golden casket in the temple of Apollo' (quoted by Mayor on p. 119). Mayor raises the possibility that this defective knowledge nevertheless resulted in the stockpiling of diseases (pp. 124-43). Bubonic plague, smallpox, and anthrax proved to be the main weapons in the biological arsenal. Bubonic plague is easily identifiable in descriptions by swelling in the groin and other skin lesions, which appear black.[[3]] Mayor also describes how the plague was brought to Europe in AD 1346 by a deliberate biological attack, when the Mongols catapulted bubonic plague- ridden corpses of the city walls of Kaffa (p. 119). Moving on to war animals, the primary one was the horse, used by most as a cavalry steed. When the elephant was introduced it became the new shock weapon, capable of trampling the opposition in the open whilst acting as a firing platform for archers. However, the nature of both the horse and elephant produced 'counter-animals', for the elephant 'could not abide the high-pitched squeals of swine' (p. 200), and the horse 'shuns the sight and the scent of the camel' (p. 198). Mayor also considers the use of noxious insects and serpents as ammunition for catapults (pp. 181-89). The insects had a dual effect: psychological shock and physical irritation from the bites and stings. These insects could also act as vectors for toxins and diseases.[[4]] Here too, the author determines the insects used by descriptions of their locality, colouring, and habits, as well as their poisons.

Chapter 7, 'Infernal Fire' (pp. 207-50), looks at chemical incendiaries and other novel forms of harnessing fire in warfare. Burning substances that adhere to the target and cannot be quenched by water appears in myth and in the writings of the ancient historians. For example, in Euripides' Medea, princess Glauke was burnt to death by a dress given to her by Medea. Mayor describes the development of recipes for mixtures of oils and chemicals that produced such incendiary weapons (pp. 207-17). These weapons were invented because conventional flaming arrows could not ignite the untanned animal skins that protected the wooden city walls. The Spartans, for example, began adding sulphur and other ingredients to their fire, which made it more easily ignited (pp. 210f.). Another interesting invention was Archimedes' use of mirrors to focus the sun's rays and decimate the approaching forces (this anecdote is not found in the standard accounts of Marcellus' siege of Syracuse by Livy 24.33-35, Polyb. 8.5-9, Plut. Marc. 14-18, but is most fully recorded only by Tzetzes Chil. 2.103-44 and Zonaras 9.4). The afterword ('The Many-headed Hydra', pp. 251-58) deals with the various attempts throughout history to discard the chemical and biological weapons that were invented, with parallels being drawn with modern situations of disarmament.

Mayor presents the evidence for the use of chemical and biological warfare in the ancient world in a well-structured and readable manner. A good effort has been made to explain and clarify passages in ancient texts that could be ignored as being myth or fantasy. The book also gives an insight into the moral implications of such warfare, not only in the ancient world, but in the modern one as well.


[[1]] Quint. Smyrn. 9.427-430, 10.297, 320.

[[2]] Vegetius Mil. 3.

[[3]] Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg, Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare (London 1999) 382.

[[4]] Jeffrey A. Lockwood, 'Entomological Warfare: History of the Use of Insects as Weapons of War', Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America (1987) 76-82, presents a list of toxins and diseases carried by various arthropods (pp. 80f.).