Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological


  • Kindle Edition
  • 336 pages
  • Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World
  • Adrienne Mayor
  • English
  • 27 March 2016

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

  1. Jon Nakapalau Jon Nakapalau says:

    How little things changebefore I read this book I never imagined that there were such weapons in the ancient world The ethical uestions still remain but the pace of production is uicker than any meaningful answers


  2. Diane Diane says:

    This was a reread for me This is an eye opening and often shocking account of the use of biological and chemical weapons by the ancient people of Greece Italy India and the Near East To uote Mayor Although it is tempting to imagine an ancient era innocent of biochemical weaponry in fact this Pandora's box of horrors was opened thousands of years ago There are accounts in Greek myths Hercules Philoctetes of the use of poison though the ancient Greek heroes were supposedly too noble to resort to such things However that did not stop Athena from suggesting poison arrows as a way to dispose of Penelope's unwanted suitors Ironically Odysseus was killed with a poisoned spear wielded by his son Telegonus Black hellebore Christmas rose was used to poison arrows and water supplies Of course it helped to have an antidote since it was uite easy to accidentally poison oneself in the process The water supply for the town of Kirrha was supposedly poisoned with hellebore Though there are various accounts of how this was accomplished the result was the same the destruction of the populace of Kirrha Around 150 CE Pausanias visited the area and wrote The plains around Kirrha are completely barren and people there will not plant trees because the land is still under a curse and trees will not grow there Harming noncombatants was supposedly against ancient Greek beliefs of fair war but Mayor states during sieges of cities the entire population was considered the enemy Ancient Indians used similar tactics in their wars In Arthashastra by Kautilya there are actual recipes for poisonous mixtures to use on the enemy These would cause blindness disease insanity or death There was a special smoke to destroy all animal life as far as it is carried off by the wind Obviously it's a form of poison gas There are also ancient accounts of plague being spread by arrows and various containers When the Chaldeans sacked and burned Solomon's temple in Jerusalem they are said to have opened copper vessels which they assumed contained treasure Instead they were attacked by a plague During the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the future Roman emperor Titus the second temple was destroyed Once again invaders broke open jars they assumed held treasure Instead Titus's reign saw one of the worst outbreaks of plague ever known There's also the fascinating story of Colchis the homeland of the infamous Medea Greek soldiers unwisely feasted on Colchian honey and soon began acting like intoxicated madmen Xenophon found his troops spread around on the ground as if they were under a spell They were totally incapacitated and some of them even died The survivors could not stand for three or four days The culprit? Naturally toxic honey which was produced by bees from the nectar of the beautiful but poisonous rhododendron The powerful neurotoxin has no effect on bees but people are a different matter In very tiny doses it is used as a tonic or mild intoxicant It is still used today in a glass of milk as a pick me up believe it or not known as deli bal or miel fouAnother novel odd weapon is the use of insects such as bees and hornets There are accounts in the Bible of their use For example in Joshua hornets were used to drive away the Amorites In Nigeria the Tiv people kept bees in large horns which also contained a toxic powder The powder may have been used to calm the bees and make them safer to use During battle the bees would be released towards the enemy The Romans used catapults to launch hornets' nests at the enemy This was a tactic that was still being used centuries later by the Germans in the Thirty Years' War and by Ethiopians against Italian invaders in the 1930s Of course fire was also used as a weapon Writing around 360 BCE Aeneas the Tactician detailed how to supplement fires with chemicals He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy or their siege weapons following by hemp and sulphur which would stick to the coating of pitch Then the pitch and sulphur mix was set afire The Phoenicians used fire ships against enemy vessels They would coat a ship with flammable mixtures set the ship on fire and send it towards the enemy with great effect They also used a mixture of sand and tiny bits of metal which they heated until it glowed red hot and then catapulted at the enemy The sandy metal mix sifted down under the soldiers' breastplates and seared their skin with the intense heat inflicting unavoidable pain Mayor concludes soberly Once created toxic weapons take on a life of their own resistent to destruction and threatening harm over generations Tons of still active chemical weapons from World Wars I and II lurk in long forgotten dumping areas releasing toxins and posing grave risks to unwitting finders She compares them to the plague demons in the jars in the temple in Jerusalem and the golden casket in Babylon Amazingly during excavations of the historic fort at the Presidio in San Francisco archeologists discovered glass vials of still toxic mustard gas that was buried by the US military during World War II 60 years earlier How are we to dispose of still deadly chemical and nuclear weapons? This is the only second time I have read this book and it was definitely not easy The subject is sobering incredibly sad and terrifying Thousands of years ago people were using horrific weapons against each other Things have not changed This is still going on One can only hope that a deeper understanding of toxic warfare's mythic origins and earliest historic realities might help divert the drive to transform all nature into a deadly arsenal into the search for better ways to heal Then Appian's sorrowful words about war 'They left nothing untried that was within the compass of human energy' could refer to human ingenuity striving to turn nature's forces to good


  3. Jennn Jennn says:

    Honestly I'm not that interested in biological and chemical warfare Maybe because it scares me to the core due to humanity's immature nature and I'm a natural worrier anyway So usually I avoid books about it However it's about ancient examples or at least I thought soDespite my initial worry Mayor does an excellent job at paralleling the ancient world and the present She gives examples of how today's army is looking into strategies of the past no matter how silly eg the army looking into using bees as weapons for targets It's eerie surprising and unsettling like infrasound see below in 'notes'The book is packed with facts and examples well researched and thankfully usually mentions key people repeatedly so the slow students ahem me can remember who they are and their history It may be annoying to people who already know the history but I was uite appreciative so I could get my facts right and it made a longer lasting impressionThe book is balanced wonderfully and I think it was better handled than her first book although I liked the content better in The First Fossil Hunters She is a wonderful teacher and importantly in this case a good writer I took notes and learned a lotuotesOver and over the ancient historians repeated the refrain the only hope of uelling such ghastly fire was to cover it with earth That solution echoed Hercules' method of getting rid of the monstrous Hydra's head by burying it under the earth Now those desperate attempts to bury poison and fire weapons seem to foreshadow our own efforts to dispose of dangerous weapons underground out of sight but never completely out of mind pg 252 3A geologic solution on a massive scale was proposed in 2002 when plans were developed to bury a huge cache of radioactive material deep under the Yucca Mountain in Nevada in the desert about one hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas The seventy seven thousand tons of nuclear material are expected to remain dangerously radioactive for one hundred thousand years The government hopes to make the toxic sepulchre impregnable for at least ten thousand years until the year AD 12000 pg 254There are two bio weapon recipes in the Arthashastra of the fourth century BC however that appear to be evidence of such an attempt in India One describes how to make a poison arrow with a mixture of toxins and 'the blood of a muskrat' Anyone pierced with this arrow will be compelled to bite ten companions who will in turn bite others wrote Kautilya pg 136 reminds me of zombies Oo but it was meant to try for rabiesRandom notesDeli bal aka miel fou is called 'mad honey' for a reason the bees collect nectar from the poisonous rhododendron which causes even in small amounts to get horribly ill and hallucinate Some people in present day use a small amount to give their drinks a little kickMithridates was interesting why did I never learn about him in history? So afraid of being poisoned he had poisoned some family members himself after all he had 13 Sycthian shamandoctors called The Agari at ALL TIMES He also built up an immunity to poisons by taking small doses everyday When he finally was on the verge of being capture it took a while he was good at giving the slip he tried to poison himselfonly to survive here's a great example of irony He tried to kill himself but couldn't so had his bodyguard do itAndrea Cesalpino a physician reported during the Naples Campaign 1494 95 the Spanish abandoned a village to the French leaving behind winemixed with blood from leprosy and syphilis patient from the Saint Lazare HospitalThe Hittites had a ritual of driving plague infected women and dogs into enemy territory to infect them this was before the black plague infected bodies were tossed over Kaffa which a lot of people believe was the first instance of awareness of diseasesThe army is doing experiments with infrasound which they've successfully been able to make victims feel nauseous hallucinate and even die from internal injuries makes me think of serenity and the hands of blueElephants hate pigs' suealsIn approx 270 BC Antigonus Gonatus and his war elephants were defeatedby flaming pigsFolk belief cited by Pliny was that it takes 27 hornet stings to kill a manNapalm burns at than 5000 degrees FIn 424 BC short ranged primitive flamethrowers were invented by the BoeotiansIt was believed the black mandrake was female while the white was male In most cases it was harvested according to rituals and pulled out by animals usually


  4. Dana Stabenow Dana Stabenow says:

    What you thought napalm was a new thing? This book will disabuse your mind of that notion pronto According to Mayor mankind has been thinking up new and horrible ways to spread terror and kill people faster since before Alexander Beehive bombs Snake bombs Poisonous spider bombs Naphtha bombs Arrows poisoned with snake venom or tipped with burning pitch to set the besieged city on fire Catapulting the plague dead over the castle walls There is no end and evidently a very early beginning to mankind's ingenuity and bloodthirstinessDid you know rhododendrons were poisonous? And did you know that if bees fed on rhododendron nectar that if you ate the honey they produced that it would kill you? It's how Colchis defeated Xenophon in 401 BCThat ancients' idea about getting the plague if you sacked a temple? Might very well have been based on fact There are lots of stories about attacking troops breaking into sanctuaries and plundering what they found there only to find that they were filled with the garments of those who had died from the plagueThere is a legend that Pharaoh defeated Sennacherib with the help of the god Ptah who sent thousands of mice into the Assyrian camp to eat the leather holding their weapons together Mayor writes that a core of historical truth may lie behind the legend Greek Babylonian and Assyrian evidence refers to a military campaign that was aborted after Sennacherib's army was beset by disease carrying rodents who incidentally ate the leather parts of their weapons at Pelusium The bad omen and the rumor of the approaching Ethiopian army caused the Assyrians to abandon their invasion of Egypt and retreat through Palestine while the rodent borne disease perhaps bubonic plague or typhus incubated in the men As they arrived at Jerusalem the epidemic swept through the troops killing tens of thousandsAll I want to know is who scattered all those bazillions of crumbs to attract the plague carrying rodentsA fascinating and pretty horrifying read


  5. Rindis Rindis says:

    Adrienne Mayor starts with intelligently expanding the normal contemporary definition of 'chemical and biological' weapons to include pretty much anything that causes biological harm such as poisons noxious chemicals and beyond to the use of animals heated sand and other unusual items Her book then combs all the ancient sources for examples of these in the ancient world There's a concentration on Greek and Roman sources but there are repeated references to Indian and Chinese uses as wellThe problem is that the phrase 'unusual items' above does describe the book While grouped into chapters for broad topics its really a bunch of mini essays on what are often 'one off' uses of poisons and disease and shows little systematic use of any of these On the other hand it does very well with making the point that the concepts were not unknown and that even where deliberately spreading a disease might be difficult to do reliably people were thinking about how to do itSadly the first item in the title of the book Greek Fire is the last thing discussed and it doesn't get much It is shown that it is descended from earlier petroleum based fire weapons What was special about it was the delivery system and that isn't even speculated onOverall the book does well in showing that despite generally being ignored in histories of the era 'chemical and biological' weapons were very much on the minds of the ancients and it shows that they were probably in regular use with peoples we don't have a lot of records from It also shows that Western attitudes towards them match up with Greek and Roman thought pointing out how the 'boomerang' effect of poisons and disease feature prominently in early myths But the mini essay approach undermines the cohesion of the work especially when the same thing is re introduced over and over yes by the sixth time it's brought up I'm pretty sure I remember that the Arthashastra is from India


  6. Liz Liz says:

    This was a pretty thorough look at the different types of biological and chemical weapons use in ancient warfare It is broken down into sections each detailing a different type of tactic She describes how poisons incendiaries biological weapons such as plague corpses and even animals such as hornet’s nests were used and cites examples of battles in which these techniues were employedI thought this was very enlightening read Many people assume that the use of biological and chemical weapons is an issue that is uniue to our current society but this book shows that this type of warfare is nothing new The ancients knew how to fight dirty and their battles weren’t exactly as fair and honorable as some romantics would have us think At the same time these ancient civilizations battled with the same issues of conscience that our civilization is facing today as to the use of these highly effective but often needlessly destructive techniues It’s definitely food for thought I enjoyed this author’s style of writing She was able to share this material in a way that was informative but still interesting and not at all dry as some historical narratives can be I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history and seeing how our own society mirrors these past events


  7. Edward Taylor Edward Taylor says:

    An outstanding detailed and well researched book about chemical and biological weapons since the dawn of time literally neolithic combatants tossed beehives into adversaries' caves An engaging and illuminating read for historians military arts aficionados and general readers My only issue and what kept it from being 5 stars is that there is a lot of rehashing about the same items and those using them again in subseuent chapters Hell the book itself refers to its own references over and again so the writer makes you self aware that it is self aware


  8. Dorthe Dorthe says:

    This is a somewhat slapdash treatment of a hugely interesting subjectPoints of annoyance the book could have been cut by at least a third by omitting repetitions the long self congratulatory introduction presents all chapters then come the chapters themselves and finally a conclusion repeating all the author's points several characters in the book dabbled in kinds than one of bio chemical warfare and so show up in different chapters to be introduced anew every time Do we really need to be reminded four times that Mithridates was a threat to the Romans and himself was afraid of being poisoned? I have this on audio and was treated to extra annoyance from the US English mangling of Greek and other names eg Kyzikos probably spelled Cyzicus pronounced 'Sissicus' That is pretty standard though and not the fault of the author comparisons are made without much regard to chronology over distances of centuries This method can be useful in bringing new insights but only so long as it is based on a firm grasp of the facts avoiding superficial similarities words like δορύκνιον and πῦρ αύτόματον being referred to as Latin words the author seems not to have grasped the concept of differential diagnosis the dramatised effect of an envenomed garment Herakles' tunic in Sophokles' tragedy are compared to accounts of the effect of cobra venom and concluded to have been just that Later the symptoms of the Athenian 'plague' whichever disease that may have been in 430 BCE are described in much the same terms though not claimed to be the same One might conclude that widely differing causes can produce effects on the human body which are described by the sufferers using similar terms a 'burning' can be caused by fever acid nerve toxin actual fire c the same goes for literary echoes Thucydides in describing the Athenian plague consciously echoes the homeric description of the plague afflicting the Greeks at Troy the Roman general Lucullus while chasing the aforementioned Mithridates during the 70s and 60s BCE is said to have found a statue of the dying Herakles and to have brought it back to Rome placing it next to a statue of 'Divine Caesar' That would have taken some foresight


  9. Michael Michael says:

    It's somewhat saddening to realise that although the earliest mythological stories about the use of biochemical weapons came with the moral too dangerous and inhumane to use they're still in use today and causing all the same tragic miseryDespite this chastening theme this is an engrossing book The author makes her points well and is clear about what is known and what is speculation and opinionAnybody interested in mythology ancient history or military tactics should find this a rewarding read


  10. Mark Isaak Mark Isaak says:

    An informative survey of the various military uses of biological and chemical measures in antiuity It covers not only the straightforward devices from the title but everything from military use of elephants suealing pigs make an effective countermeasure leaving wine in the buildings you retreat from so you can return to massacre the invaders after they overindulge and using animals sacred to your opponents as a shield Practical and ethical concerns are considered and are often shown in parallel to similar weapons of modern times I would have liked to see illustrations of the various plants and animals referred to and some of the illustrations which are there add no information The first chapter tells much of the myth of Hercules who created poison arrows from the Hydra's venom arrows which later caused much trouble for him and the guy who inherited them The afterword effectively ties the lessons from the myth to actual practices and problems


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