Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

*This post was originally published on October 1, 2013. Don’t miss a new article about ancient warfare coming next Tuesday, November 19th. The new post will focus on terrorism throughout antiquity. 

Soldiers drill in their gas masks during WWI.

Soldiers drill in their gas masks during WWI.

Chemical warfare has been a hot topic recently due to the ongoing crisis in Syria. This is just the latest of numerous modern-day examples when nations have implemented chemical weapons to further their own agendas. The most memorable examples are World War I, World War II and the Iran-Iraq War. Unfortunately, the use of chemical weapons dates back a lot earlier than the beginning of the 20th century–namely 10,000 BCE.

Chemical weapons in the form of poisoned arrows and spears have been used for thousands of years. The earliest example of this type of chemical warfare being implemented is the late Stone Age, circa 10,000 BCE. It was used by the San, a hunter-gatherer society in Southern Africa. They would cover the tips of their bone, wood and stone arrowheads in poison acquired from their natural environment. This would include venom from snakes and scorpions, poisonous plants and also diamphotoxin, a slow-acting poison produced by beetle larvae of the genus Diamphidia. Unlike most societies who utilise chemical warfare, the San employed it mainly for hunting; the arrow was fired into the animal of choice, usually an antelope, and then the hunter tracked the animal until it succumbed to the poison.[1]

Poisoned arrows also appear in classical literature. The epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey[2] both insinuate the use of the poisoned arrows in the Trojan War. The myths of Hercules also allude to the use of poisoned arrows; after he slew the Hydra, as part of his Twelve Labours, he dipped his arrowheads in the venom of the slain Hydra.[3] Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an Indian manual on statecraft and military strategy, circa 400 BCE, encloses numerous recipes for making poison weapons and other chemical weapons. Interestingly, another manual of the same time period, the Laws of Manu, forbids the use of poison arrows. Having said that, the use of these chemical weapons in India is confirmed in the 4th century BCE when Alexander the Great encounters them at the Indus Basin.[4] In the classical world, the Scythians were famed for their poisoned arrows; the poison was a concoction of decomposed poisonous snakes and human blood incubated in a manure heap.[5] One of the terms that the Greeks used to describe this poison was toxikon, which stemmed from toxon meaning a bow, and so clearly describes the application of the poison. Our modern word toxicology clearly derives from this appalling poison.

Greek bowl with an illustration of a Scythian archer.

Greek bowl with an illustration of a Scythian archer.

The poisoning of the water supply was another method of chemical warfare that was used in the classical world. During the First Sacred War, 595-585 BCE, when the city of Cirrha was being besieged, the water supply was cut and when the defenders were suffering from thirst, the water was turned back on with the added bonus of hellebore roots, which poisoned the supply. This had the effect of rendering the defenders defenceless and allowed the city to be taken. In Frontinus’ account of this event, Cleisthenes of Sicyon was the man responsible for the chemical warfare,[6] while in Pausanias’ account it was down to Solon of Athens.[7] Thucydides also mentions that the Spartans resorted to poisoning the water supply of certain Athenian cities during the Peloponnesian War, an act that he reviled. Another example is from the Asiatic War of 131-129 BCE; to put an end to the war, the Roman general Manius Aquillius poisoned the water supplies of several cities of Asia Minor, including Pergamum. Florus condemned Aquillius for resorting to these tactics to defeat his opponents.[8]

The utilisation of chemical gases in warfare has also been rife throughout history. The earliest known uses date back to the Chinese, circa 1000 BCE.[9] The Chinese employed an early form of flamethrower, and also used suffocating smoke and a blistering agent in the form of a gas.  Another example occurred during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE; a Spartan army that was besieging the Athenian city of Plataea positioned a lighted concoction of sulphur, pitch and wood underneath the walls with the aim of incapacitating the Athenians so that they would not be able to stop the Spartan assault on the city.[10] According to Plutarch, in 80 BCE, the Roman general Sertorius ordered his troops to stack mounds of gypsum powder outside the hillside hideaways of Spanish rebels, which when the wind picked up blew the dust into their hideouts and made it impossible to breath.[11] During the siege of Dura-Europos, Syria, in 256 CE, the Sassanid Persians are believed to have used poison gas on the Roman defenders; excavations at Dura-Europos have discovered the remains of 19 Roman soldiers and 1 Persian soldier.[12] It is believed that the Romans were building a countermine, and once the countermine breached the Persian mine, the Persians released the gas. The gas was created from the burning of sulphur and bitumen crystals[13] and the remains of the Persian soldier are believed to belong to a man who released the gas but was too slow to get out of the mine.[14]

One of the soldiers discovered in the mine, along with how the gas was used.

One of the soldiers discovered in the mine, along with how the gas was used.

As has been shown in this article, chemical warfare was not a new invention of the 20th century created through our rapid advancements in technology. Sadly, for most of our history we have known how to create chemical weapons and use them against our enemies, whatever the cost. History clearly does repeat itself with Syria being the site of the most recent exploitation of chemical weapons under the Assad regime.  Circa 1,800 years ago, it was the site of exploitation of chemical warfare by the Sassanid regime, who used flaming pitch and sulphur to create a toxic cloud of sulphur dioxide.[15] 

Just like people today, ancient authors can be seen condemning the use of chemical weapons, even if it is their own people who are utilising the weapons. If we learn from our past mistakes, hopefully one day chemical warfare will indeed be ancient history.

Author: Russell Fleming has a Masters degree in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology and an MLitt degree in Ancient History from the University of St. Andrews. He wants to inspire young minds by teaching Classics and in his spare time he coaches hockey at Christ’s Hospital School.

Bibliography

Ancient Sources

Aristotle’s de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus.

Florus’ Epitome of Roman History.

Homer’s The Odyssey.

Pausanias’ Graeciae Descriptio.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

Strabo’s Geographica.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Modern References

Mayor, A. 2003: Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.

Pappas, S. 2011: ‘Buried Soldiers May Be Victims of Ancient Chemical Weapon’ in LiveScience. (http://www.livescience.com/13113-ancient-chemical-warfare-romans-persians.html)

Patel, S.S. 2010: ‘Earliest Chemical Warfare – Dura-Europos, Syria’ in Archaeology Archive. (http://archive.archaeology.org/1001/topten/syria.html)

Richardt, A. 2013: CBRN Protection: Managing the Threat of Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear Weapons, Germany.

Robertson, H.: ‘How San Hunters Use Beetles to Poison Their Arrows’ in Biodiversity Explorer website. (http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/beetles/chrysomelidae/alticinae/arrows.htm)

Syed, T. 2009: ‘Ancient Persians gassed Romans’ in BBC News. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7837826.stm)


1. Robertson.

2. Homer.1.260-266.

3. Mayor, 2003; Strabo.8.3.19; Pausanias.5.5.9.

4. Mayor, 2003.

5. Aristotle.141.

6. Frontinus.3.7.6.

7. Pausanias.10.37.7.

8. Florus.1.35.7.

9. Richardt, 2013.4.

10. Mayor, 2003; Thucydides.2.77.

11. Plutarch.Sertorius.17.

12. Pappas, 2011.

13. Syed, 2009.

5 responses to “Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

  1. Fascinating! Educational! Well written! Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World | Motley Musings

  3. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Rome | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Greece | AntiquityNOW

  5. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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