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In a narrow tunnel under the fortress-city of Dura (now Dura-Europos) in the eastern Syrian desert, 20 Roman soldiers met their fate defending the city from the Sasanian Empire. The archaeologists who found them in the 1930s assumed they had died in a tunnel collapse, but University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James thinks they met a more unusual demise--as victims of chemical warfare.


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(Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Excavation Archive)

Sometime around A.D. 256, forces of the powerful, expanding Sasanian Empire laid siege to the Roman fortress. They dug tunnels to undermine the city's outer wall, while the Romans excavated countermines to intercept them. Reexamining the site as if it were a crime scene, James noted that the bodies of the soldiers had been deliberately stacked where the Roman and Sasanian tunnels met. The Sasanians had apparently used their enemies' bodies as a barricade, behind which they could light a fire to collapse the tunnels and bring down the wall. But how had the Persians killed so many Roman soldiers in such a dark, confined space? "The Persians would have heard the Roman counterminers and, I believe, prepared a deadly surprise for them," says James.

Based on chemical residues and sulfur crystals in the tunnel, he concluded that the Sasanians readied braziers of pitch and sulfur, and lit them as the Romans broke through. The resulting cloud of sulfur dioxide, rising into the higher Roman tunnel, could have knocked the soldiers out in seconds, with their only escape from the dark, narrow space blocked by their comrades behind them. There was also a single Sasanian soldier in the tunnel (right). "I believe he was the man who started the fire," says James. "Lingering too long to ensure it was properly alight, he was himself overcome by the fumes."

Though the defensive wall did not fall, eventually the Sasanians broke through, killed or deported everyone in Dura, and left the city to fall into ruin. "The bodies probably constitute the earliest archaeological evidence, albeit circumstantial, of gas warfare," says James.

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