Biological Warfare

Today in my Google Alerts for Ancient Rome was an article from the Irish Medical Times on a topic that has long fascinated me. The topic and information is not terribly new. Adrienne Mayor may well cover it in her Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs book (she has another book — The Poison King: Mithridates VI of Pontus — that’s due out soon and I can’t wait). Here’s the passage from the newspaper article starting with our time period:

The earliest known application goes as far back as 600BC, when Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with Ergot. In 400BC, Scythian archers used to dip their arrows into a mixture of blood and manure. These archers were highly skilled and had a range of 500 metres and could fire at a rate of about 20 per minute.

It comes therefore as little surprise that the English word ‘toxin’ is derived from the Greek word ‘toxikon’, meaning ‘arrow’. The ancient Roman and Greek armies threw dead bodies into the wells of their enemies to compromise their water supply.

In the naval battle of Eurymedon, Hannibal fired earthen jars filled with poisonous snakes into the ships of his enemy. The chaos that followed meant that he had an easy victory. The ‘Dark Ages’ that followed saw little or no use of biowarfare tactics. Europe in the Middle Ages saw a great spread in the use of this style of warfare. In 1495, Spanish agents used blood taken from lepers to contaminate French wine. The German warrior Barbarossa, whose name was later used for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, also threw dead bodies into his enemies’ wells.


1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed seeing these recent references to ancient biochemical warfare in the Irish Medical Times. Spotted one oft-repeated error (corrected in “Greek Fire, Poison Arrrows” on p 259, n.2). It is often claimed that the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with LSD-like ergot, a fungus of rye and other grains. “Ergot” is mentioned in Assyrian texts but there is no basis for the notion that it was deliberately used as a weapon.Thanks for mentioning my forthcoming book “The Poison King: Mithradates the Great, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy.” I’m completing the ms now and expect the book to be out in 2009. I found N.S. Gill’s material on Mithradates in Ancient/Classical History a wonderful resource!Adrienne Mayor


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