GREEK FIRE, POISON ARROWS, & SCORPION BOMBS: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

Adrienne Mayor, Author . Overlook $27.95 (319p) ISBN 978-1-58567-348-3

This dense but highly informative volume narrates the long pretechnological history of the use of poisons and fire in warfare. Mayer, who has published in Military History Quarterly, begins with the first legend of poisoned arrows: Hercules and his quiver of missiles tipped with the hydra's venom (probably snake venom). He and his wife also figure in an early use of an externally applied poison—the "poisoned" garments that killed them both with an inextinguishable flame may have been impregnated with saltpeter. Using their powers of observation and a sound if rule-of-thumb grasp of cause and effect, our not-so-primitive ancestors went on to set fires, throw fires and project fires (Greek fire reached its apex when flung from a ship-mounted flame thrower). They also put poison on arrowheads, in food and wine and in water supplies, tamed elephants to use as living tanks, bottled scorpions to throw over walls and knew about the problems of accidental casualties, enemy retaliation and lowering the ethical level of warfare. Mayor clearly describes how some of the poisons caused gruesome deaths, and Greek fire was essentially napalm. One antielephant weapon consisted of coating live pigs with pitch, setting them on fire and driving them at the elephants. The sheer mass of information will be daunting for the novice, particularly to one not familiar with classical mythology, but the book is otherwise absolutely absorbing, if macabre, and a formidable source on classical warfare, with bibliography, illustrations and annotations to serve further research. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 09/01/2003
Release date: 09/01/2003
Open Ebook - 336 pages - 978-1-59020-374-3
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