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Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs by Adrienne Mayor

Book Review by Ursus

May I lay aside all attempts at academic objectivity, and simply proclaim that this book is fun? Of course, one's definition of "fun" must include reading a detailed catalogue of macabre bio-chemical weapons from Antiquity. This is a work on ancient warfare unlike any other, with a certain haunting relevance in today's post 9/11 climate. Adrienne Mayor's Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs is informative, entertaining and all too often chilling.

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in Classics and History at the University of Stanford. She specializes in ancient military history, as you might imagine, but also in natural history and classical legends. She is a frequent contributor to Archaeology and Journal of American Folklore, and is often interviewed by NPR, BBC, The New York Times, and The History Channel.

Ms. Mayor has carefully sifted through the primary sources to unearth a side of classical warfare that does not center on armored phalanxes and legions trying to stab each other. The bulk of the work focuses on Greek and Roman forces, for which there is the best evidence, but warfare from other cultures also enters the picture frequently. Mayor also includes evidence of bio-chemical warfare from Medieval times to good effect. Where possible, she draws direct parallels between the motivations and effects of bio-chemical warfare in antiquity and modern times - which is, of course, the point of the book.

This work was first published in 2003, two years after a certain terrorist attack prompted fears of a WMD attack on Western societies. A new edition has been released for 2009, and the author's preface relays that the work has become a favorite among experts of modern bio-chemical warfare who seek a historical perspective on their discipline. If nothing else, the work dispels the notion that one needs a modern industrial infrastructure to create lethal bio-chemical weapons. Using the limited technology open to them, the ancients found ways to harness the plants, animals and chemicals of nature to produce crude but effective bio-chemical weapons, which they employed with surprising frequency.

Chapter one begins with the origins of Western bio-chemical war as revealed in Greek mythology. Hercules was the first figure to use poison arrows, drenched in the toxic blood of the many-headed Hydra, a toxin to which he himself later succumbed. The Iliad also opens with the god Apollo shooting plague arrows at the Greek encampment outside Troy. The epic Trojan War reveals many other instances of primitive bio-chemical warfare, as warriors from both sides fall to poison arrows. Linguistically, of course, it's interesting to note that the Greek for arrow, toxon, is related to their word for poison, toxicon.

Chapter two details the plants and animals known to the ancients to exude toxic substances, which they used to coat their arrows (and occasionally javelins and spears). These toxic substances were also known to barbarian tribes such as the Celts and Scythians. Antidotes were eventually discovered and used where possible.

The effect of poisoning wells and other drinking water supplies is covered in chapter three. In 590 BCE, the Greek town of Kirrha was destroyed by a coalition of Greeks who poisoned the town's water supply with the vile hellebore plant. Later, the Roman Consul Manius Aquillius defeated a rebellion of Asiatic cities by poisoning their cisterns, and act for which he was later criticized. The chapter also explored the effects of toxic places, such as swamps and marshes, on armies. Apparently the Germanic tribes were adept at maneuvering their enemies, including Romans, into these hostile places, where they could cherry pick enemies who succumbed to the environmental hazards.

The fourth chapter reveals that the ancients, while not possessing modern science, understood that proximity to people and items infected with plague carried the potential for contagion. This was often used to good effect. The literature reveals, for instance, that infected prostitutes were used as assassins against enemy leaders. The chapter also looks at the great plague of the second century (possibly smallpox), that was thought to occur after Roman soldiers sacked a temple of Apollo in Babylon. Mayor wonders aloud if the city deliberately stocked infected materials in the temple, hoping the greedy Roman looters would take back a nasty surprise to Rome. This is interesting speculation, but one must remember it is nothing more than that.

Chapter five looks at military tactics involving food and drink. More than once, armies have let their opponents capture their provisions; when the hostile army becomes too stuffed and/or drunk to fight effectively, they can be disposed quite easily. This trick becomes all the more effective when the food or drink is laced with toxins. Roman soldiers discovered this to their detriment when Mithridates laced their path with poison honey, which the hungry Roman soldiers all too greedily devoured.

Chapter six is an interesting evaluation of the use of animals. Bees were used very early in warfare against opponents, and Romans discovered that beehives made nice catapult ammunition. Scorpions, assassin bugs, and snakes could also be loaded into jars or buckets and dropped at the enemy; a Roman army in the eastern deserts seems to have been repulsed in the face of a barrage of so-called scorpion bombs. Finally, for those of you Rome: Total War fans, Mayor reveals the origins of the use of "incendiary pigs" to scare away charging war elephants.

Chapter seven concludes with the use of fire and incendiaries in ancient warfare. The Spartans discovered that sulfur and pitch made a nice infernos to burn enemy fortifications, provided of course that the wind blew in favorable directions. The Persians took the acrid smoke of sulphur and other elements one step further, and used them to asphyxiate Roman tunnelers. Then of course there is everyone's favorite: naptha and Greek Fire, the precursors to modern napalm.

The epilogue concludes with a note on modern bio-chemical programs, and the (often mixed) efforts of modern states to safely store their stockpiles.

There are several reoccuring themes throughout the book. One is the fact that, in ancient times as well as now, there was a certain opprobrium against the use of these weapons. It was considered against the manly and honorable "rules of war." Of course, then as now that did not prevent its use under the expediency of military necessity, particularly when its defensive use against aggressors could be extolled.

Another theme is that of unintended consequences. Bio-chemical weapons are notoriously hard to control. Poisoners can very easily succumb to their own devices if they are not extremely careful. Winds can change and take with them the fire or fumes they are meant to convey. Animals are unpredictable on a battlefield. All of this is true of modern scientifically engineered bio-chemical weapons as well; once released, they have every potential to infect friendly forces as well as hostile ones.

Mythological allusions occur throughout the chapters as well, reflecting Mayor's skill as a folklorist. She has received criticism from some quarters for including mythology in what is supposed to be a historical study. Mythology however can be used to good effect when it is understood that it often contains a shadow of truth, as Heinrich Schliemann discovered with Troy. If nothing else, mythology embodies a certain cultural attitude - a collective psychology, if you will - which is useful in approaching a subject. On that note, mythology reveals that the ancients were ambivalent about the use of irregular weapons, and plainly understood their duplicitous potential.

This works contains various illustrations, notes, maps, a timeline, a bibliography and an index. It is clearly written for the casual reader. In the sum of things, it is a detailed work on an interesting and timely topic.

(This work inspired a forthcoming book on Mithridates, entitled The Poison King, which will also be reviewed by UNRV upon its release).

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Book Review of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World - Related Topic: Roman Artillery


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