A couple of years ago, Simon James presented a very interesting paper at the AIA meeting suggesting the use of ‘chemical warfare’ at Dura Europos in the third century A.D. . At the time, the paper received a pile of coverage and, of course, we dutifully blogged it, so we won’t repeat that aspect. What’s new about the story is that James’ paper has appeared in the latest issue of the AJA (115.1) … here’s the abstract:
As often is the case, though, the media apparently has no recollection of its previous coverage and so is covering it again anew. We won’t repeat much, except for some comments from Adrienne Mayor who, as we mentioned when we previously blogged this, deals with this in her Greek Fire tome. Here’s the excerpt from the LiveScience piece that’s bouncing around the blogosphere of late and which will likely be the source for subsequent coverage:
Chemical warfare was well established by the time the Persians besieged Dura, said Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University and author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (Overlook Press, 2003).
“There was a lot of chemical warfare [in the ancient world],” Mayor, who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. “Few people are aware of how much there is documented in the ancient historians about this.”
One of the earliest examples, Mayor said, was a battle in 189 B.C., when Greeks burnt chicken feathers and used bellows to blow the smoke into Roman invaders’ siege tunnels. Petrochemical fires were a common tool in the Middle East, where flammable naphtha and oily bitumen were easy to find. Ancient militaries were endlessly creative: When Alexander the Great attacked the Phoenician city of Tyre in the fourth century B.C., Phoenician defenders had a surprise waiting for him.
“They heated fine grains of sand in shields, heated it until it was red-hot, and then catapulted it down onto Alexander’s army,” Mayor said. “These tiny pieces of red-hot sand went right under their armor and a couple inches into their skin, burning them.”
So the idea that the Persians had learned how to make toxic smoke is, “totally plausible,” Mayor said.
“I think [James] really figured out what happened,” she said.
In the new interpretation of the clash in the tunnels of Dura, the Romans heard the Persians working beneath the ground and steered their tunnel to intercept their enemies. The Roman tunnel was shallower than the Persian one, so the Romans planned to break in on the Persians from above. But there was no element of surprise for either side: The Persians could also hear the Romans coming.
So the Persians set a trap. Just as the Romans broke through, James said, they lit a fire in their own tunnel. Perhaps they had a bellows to direct the smoke, or perhaps they relied on the natural chimney effect of the shaft between the two tunnels. Either way, they threw sulfur and bitumen on the flames. One of the Persian soldiers was overcome and died, a victim of his own side’s weapon. The Romans met with the choking gas, which turned to sulfuric acid in their lungs.
“It would have almost been literally the fumes of hell coming out of the Roman tunnel,” James said.
Any Roman soldiers waiting to enter the tunnels would have hesitated, seeing the smoke and hearing their fellow soldiers dying, James said. Meanwhile, the Persians waited for the tunnel to clear, and then hurried to collapse the Roman tunnel. They dragged the bodies into the stacked position in which du Mesnil would later find them. With no time to ransack the corpses, they left coins, armor and weapons untouched.
Horrors of war
After du Mesnil finished excavations, he had the tunnels filled in. Presumably, the skeletons of the soldiers remain where he found them. That makes proving the chemical warfare theory difficult, if not impossible, James said.
“It’s a circumstantial case,” he said. “But what it does do is it doesn’t invent anything. We’ve got the actual stuff [the sulfur and bitumen] on the ground. It’s an established technique.”
If the Persians were using chemical warfare at this time, it shows that their military operations were extremely sophisticated, James said.
“They were as smart and clever as the Romans and were doing the same things they were,” he said.
The story also brings home the reality of ancient warfare, James said.
“It’s easy to regard this very clinically and look at this as artifacts … Here at Dura you really have got this incredibly vivid evidence of the horrors of ancient warfare,” he said. “It was horrendously dangerous, brutal, and one hardly has words for it, really.”