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Books: Ancient Bio-Chem Threat Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Anjali Bhattacharjee

Chemical and biological warfare (or CBW in military shorthand) is a very modern preoccupation. Yet these dangers are far from recent developments. Warfare involving chemical and biological agents can actually be traced back to ancient civilizations that also experimented with the use of toxins, chemicals, and germ warfare.


Classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor describes the ancient world's involvement and interest in nontraditional warfare tactics in Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (New York: The Overlook Press, 2003; $27.95). Drawing upon ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Hindu, and Islamic texts, Mayor documents the long history of battlefield deployment of CBW and the moral dilemma military leaders experienced over the ethics of using such weapons. She notes that the ancients usually avoided the use of unconventional warfare "out of respect for the traditional rules of war." But despite this taboo, some military leaders condoned the use of arrowheads and darts poisoned with different plant and animal toxins. In fact, contaminating enemy food and water supplies, catapulting plague-ridden bodies into enemy fortresses, and improving existing weapons with chemical compounds (mainly petroleum, sulphur, and arsenic) are all documented as various tactics employed by mankind over the course of history. Even living creatures were used as weapons--beehives and wasps' nests were hurled at the enemy, along with baskets full of venomous scorpions.

It's worth noting that the ancients also experimented with defense against biological weapons. One of my favorite references in Greek Fire deals with King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Mithridates, a "ruler obsessed with a phobia of assassination by poison," tried to create a universal antidote that would counteract all poisons known to man. The king ingested a minute amount of different toxins to build tolerance to the poisons and eventually created a complex compound--methridatium--of 54 toxins that he took regularly. Methridatium was improved upon and served to future royals who feared assassination.

The use of CBW agents on the battlefield continues to pose an ethical dilemma for modern military and political leaders. Despite recent revelations about former Soviet weapons programs and the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin attack in Tokyo, most modern leaders thankfully still follow in the tradition of Cicero, who held that "obeying rules of war and refraining from cruelty was what set men apart from beasts."

Anjali Bhattacharjee is a research associate at the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program Center at the Monterey Institute of International Studies

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America