23 May 2010

Scorpion bombs and other unconventional weapons

I've just finished reading Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs. Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (Overlook Press, 2003).  It has a lot of interesting information; here are some of my notes, with page references.

“Poison and arrows were deeply intertwined in the ancient Greek language itself. The word for poison in ancient Greek, toxicon, derived from toxon, arrow. And in Latin the word for poison, toxica, was said to derive from taxus, yew, because the first poison arrows had been daubed with deadly yew-berry juice. In antiquity, then, a “toxic” substance meant “something for the bow and arrow.” (41)

“… despite the thick leathern cuirasses [the Spanish conquistadors] wore to deflect the arrows, many early explorers died from weapons coated with deadly frog slime, or the plant toxins strychnine or curare… In the Amazon rainforest, natives carried as many as six hundred tiny curare darts in a quiver, and there were horrifying reports that curare was not only used on projectiles, but in hand-to-hand combat too: it was rumored that the natives painted their fingernails with the toxin.” (71)

“Solon, the great sage of Athens, diverted the channel from the River Pleistos so that it no longer ran through Kirrha… Solon then threw “a great quantity of hellebore roots into the Pleistos.”   When he determined that “the water was drugged enough, he sent it back through the city.” “The parched Kirrhans glutted themselves on the contaminated water, and of course because extremely ill… The men defending the walls had to abandon their positions out of never-ending diarrhea.” (101)

“… when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant … and took the sacred wooden chest to their capital, an epidemic marked by swollen buboes in the groin… decimated the population. The survivors sent the Ark away to a series of Philistine towns, and each was struck with the same epidemic… Does the story of the Ark suggest that the chest might have contained some object, such as cloth, that harbored aerosolized plague germs, or an insect vector that infected the rodents in Philistine territory?” (128-9)

“Heaving scorpions by the basketful at attackers was specifically recommended by Leo VI (AD 862-912) in his famous military Tactics handbook.” Romans may also have hurled pots of assassin bugs at their enemies. (182)

Phoenecians “filled enormous shallow bowls of iron and bronze with fine sand and tiny bits of metal. These pans they roasted over a great fire until the sand glowed red-hot.” Then they catapulted the burning sand over the Macedonians… “The molten grains and red-hot shrapnel “sifted down under the soldiers’ breastplates and seared their skinwith the intense heat, inflicting unavoidable pain.”

Greek Fire burned in water and may have been ignited by water, and it adhered to victims. Besides distilled naphtha, the ingredients may have included thickeners such as resin or wax, quicklime, sulphur, turpentine, and saltpeter. The exact formula matters less than the amazing delivery system, which was capble of shooting liquid fire from swiveling nozzles mounted on small boats…” (242) “Perhaps inspired by the celebrated statue of Hercules… public executions by the tunica molesta, a naphtha-soaked “shirt of torture,” became a popular diversion....  Executions “a la Hercules” continued to be staged for the amusement of Roman audiences through the third century AD.” (250)


  1. sounds like an awesome book, going to order it as soon as superfreakonomics comes out in paperback next month.

  2. Should the beginning of the last paragraph be corrected to say “...burned on water" rather than "...burned in water"? Book sounds great, but your last paragraph confused me a bit.

  3. ... burned "on" the water would probably be better, but I was quoting the book verbatim.

  4. Thought perhaps it was a typo; figured I'd ask. Sorry to be nit picky :) Love your blog.


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