Cover image for Greek fire, poison arrows, and scorpion bombs : biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world
Greek fire, poison arrows, and scorpion bombs : biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world
Mayor, Adrienne, 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press ; London : Duckworth, [2003]

Physical Description:
319 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
U29 .M276 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Adrienne Mayor's exploration of the origins of biological and unethical warfare is an attention-grabber that follows through with fascinating illustrative episodes. "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs is a meticulously researched pagertumer that draws extraordinary connections between the mythical worlds of Hercules and the Trojan War, the accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides, and modern warfare. Mayor describes ancient recipes for arrow poisons, boobytrops rigged with plague, petroleum-based combustibles, choking gases, and the deployment of dangerous animals and venomous insects. She also explores the ambiguous moral implications inherent in this kind of warfare.

Author Notes

Adrienne Mayor is a classical folklorist who specializes in the early history of science. A frequent contributor to Archaeology, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Folklore, and the Journal of American Folklore, she is often interviewed on NPR and the BBC, as well as on the History and Learning Channels. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, the historian Josiah Ober

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

We recoil from biological and chemical weapons as uniquely nefarious creations of modern science, but Mayor, combing classical writings both mythical and historical, has found that they existed throughout antiquity. Far from merely reciting the armory of poisons and plagues she found, Mayor shows how the ancients' reactions to biological weapons prefigure contemporary attitudes about them. Between the poles of the ethical and the expedient, the concept of the honorable in warfare swung back and forth: a toe-to-toe Homeric swordfight, yes; a poisoned arrow from afar, no. Mayor integrates these oscillations into a narrative embracing the contents of Pandora's box and their adaptation into articles of war. Ancient commentators expressed both repugnance and admiration for ingenuity, attitudes Mayor detects in Hercules' slaying of the Hydra, in Odysseus' adventures, and in other myths. Expanding her ambit to Indian writings, and to the use of animals such as bees, scorpions, and elephants on the battlefield, Mayor spices her astute commentary with diverse opinions about biological weapons. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Mayor's thesis in this useful book is that biological and chemical warfare is nothing new, that ancient history is replete with examples of humans attempting to "weaponize nature" in as many ways as possible. The somewhat rambling collection of anecdotes is full of graphic detail; indeed, the author seems fascinated by the gore, vomiting, putrefaction, and other undelightful symptoms and consequences of various plant- and animal-based poisons. The period covered is intended to be the 3000 years between 1700 BCE and 1300 CE, but in fact there are many references to events after 1300, including recent events of 2002 and 2003. The book's time line is essential, since the narrative constantly bounces back and forth through time; but this is not intended to be a historical narrative, and any chapter can, in fact, be read independently and out of order. The chapter headings are misleading in places, because they name historical persons or places that the text often has little to say about. Not a particularly scholarly book, the ancient sources are used uncritically and not always cited. However, the bibliography and footnotes will be a useful starting place for subsequent scholarly work. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All collections, especially for general readers. J. J. Gabbert Wright State University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. 9
Historical Time Linep. 11
Mapsp. 19
Introduction: War Outside the Rulesp. 23
1 Hercules and the Hydra: The Invention of Biological Weaponsp. 41
2 Alexander the Great and the Arrows of Doomp. 63
3 Poison Waters, Deadly Vaporsp. 99
4 A Casket of Plague in the Temple of Babylonp. 119
5 Sweet Sabotagep. 145
6 Animal Allies and Scorpion Bombsp. 171
7 Infernal Firep. 207
Afterword: The Many-Headed Hydrap. 251
Notesp. 259
Bibliographyp. 295
List of Illustrationsp. 307
Indexp. 313