Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chemical Warfare Is Ancient History

Simon James, a researcher at the University of Leicester in the U.K. claimed in 2009 to have found the first physical evidence of chemical weapons, dating from a battle fought in A.D. 256 at the ancient Roman fortress of Dura-Europos.

James concluded that 20 Roman soldiers unearthed beneath the town's ramparts did not die of war wounds, but from poison gas.
War in antiquity rarely matched the heroism of myth. To stave off a Roman siege in A.D. 189, the defenders of the Greek city of Ambracia built a complex flamethrower that coughed out smoking chicken feathers.

At Themiscrya, another stubborn Greek outpost, Romans tunneling beneath the city contended with not only a charge of wild beasts but also a barrage of hives swarming with bees.
Roman armies routinely poisoned the wells of cities they were besieging. According to the historian Plutarch, the Roman general Sertorius in 80 B.C. had his troops pile mounds of gypsum powder by the hillside hideaways of Spanish rebels. When kicked up by a strong northerly wind, the dust became a severe irritant, smoking the insurgents out of their caves.

In 332 B.C., the citizens of the doomed port of Tyre catapulted basins of burning sand at Alexander the Great's advancing army.

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon developed c. 672 and used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The Byzantine formula was a closely guarded state secret.

The composition of Greek fire remains a matter of speculation with proposals including combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, and sulfur.

Byzantine use of incendiary mixtures used pressurized nozzles or siph┼Źn to project the liquid onto the enemy.
Poisoned arrows appear in classical literature. The epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey 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 he dipped his arrowheads in the venom.

Scythians were famed for their poisoned arrows; the poison was a concoction of decomposed poisonous snakes and human blood incubated in a manure heap. One of the terms that the Greeks used to describe this poison was toxikon, which stemmed from toxon meaning a bow. Our modern word toxicology clearly derives from this poison.

Even in antiquity, some feared the lurking consequences of unleashing what we call chemical weapons. The ancient Greek tale of Pandora's box offers a metaphor for their use. Pandora's box is an artifact in Greek mythology which contained all the evils of the world.

The phrase "to open Pandora's box" means to perform an action that may seem small, but that turns out to have severely detrimental and far-reaching consequences.

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