Germs of Truth
Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and
Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.
319 pp. Overlook Duckworth, 2003. $27.95.
Saddam Hussein makes regular appearances in this colorful survey of
the ways in which people have been killing one another by ingenious
biochemical means ever since antiquity. He features primarily as a
warning that biological and chemical weapons, once created, are
almost impossible to contain and are liable to backfire against
those who design and deploy them. This is the moral message of
Adrienne Mayor's study, and it deserves our wholehearted agreement,
even if recent events have shown that Saddam was not such a good
example to have picked after all.
Mayor's other message is that biochemical warfare is not a modern
invention but was practiced thousands of years ago, and that even
then its dangers were recognized and were immortalized in myth. She
is absolutely right to stress that ancient warfare was not the
ritualized affair imagined by many scholars—not least the
leading ancient historian Josiah Ober, who happens to be her
husband—and that techniques of destruction were among the most
highly developed elements of ancient technology. Two chapters on the
military use of snake venom and plant toxins as poisons make a
strong case for its significance in ancient warfare. Included, for
example, are intriguing ideas about the Scythians of the Russian
steppes painting their arrows in snakeskin patterns and dipping them
into vials of poison attached to their belts. The concluding chapter
on the application of fire, culminating in the hellish Greek Fire,
which was much like napalm delivered by massive flame-throwers, is
also impressive, although it must be admitted that petroleum-based
incendiaries were relatively rare in the ancient world and gained
real prominence only in Byzantine and Islamic warfare.
Elsewhere in the book, the search for biochemical weapons is
sometimes too broad and uncritical. I am not sure whether
war-elephants really count as a form of "manipulation of the
forces or elements of nature to insidiously attack or destroy an
adversary's biological functions in ways that cannot be deflected or
avoided," or, if they do, why cavalry does not also qualify.
Nor am I convinced that the evidence for many of the imaginative
food- and animal-based tricks cited will stand up to scrutiny. A
large number are attested only in anthologies of stratagems compiled
in the first and second centuries A.D., and at least some are almost
certainly late inventions attributed to famous figures from the
past. To say of one such story, which features a woman tricking the
enemy into eating poisoned meat, that it "is very old, dating
to about 1000 B.C.," is therefore misleading. Worse is the
attribution of several farfetched biochemical wheezes to Alexander
the Great on the strength of the Alexander Romance, which,
as the name suggests, is a medieval fiction, with about as much
historical content as the average Arthurian romance.
The most sensational part of the book is without a doubt the middle
chapter, "A Casket of Plague in the Temple of Babylon,"
which argues that some temples in the ancient world stored
"lethal biological material that could be weaponized in times
of crisis." This is based on stories that "plague
demons" were contained in some temples, most famously in the
Ark of the Covenant in the Temple at Jerusalem, from which
infectious agents were inadvertently released by trespassers, who
thereby caused disastrous epidemics. By assuming, for example, that
the Ark may have contained a piece of cloth that "harbored
aerosolized plague germs, or an insect vector," Mayor is able
to rationalize these tales to spectacular effect as she conjures up
an image of priests using their temples as "laboratories for
experiments with poisons and antidotes, with diseases and even
primitive vaccines," all with a view to engaging in
"biological sabotage." Spielberg must be kicking himself
for missing a trick in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Unfortunately, as is revealed only in the final sentence of a long
endnote, it was not until nine years after the destruction of the
Temple in Jerusalem by Titus that plague broke out, so the theory
comes crashing down in this case. The evidence for biohazardous
temples in Babylon and Greece is no better. There is of course a
simple, prosaic explanation for the link between temples and
plagues: Epidemics were widely thought to be sent by gods and were
believed to be suitable punishment for acts of sacrilege such as
tampering with temple treasures.
Greek Fire should be handled with care, then, and readers
may have their fingers burnt if they do not retain their critical
distance. Nonetheless, it is an undeniably fascinating and engaging
book which, more often than not, contributes usefully to the history
of both early science and ancient warfare.—Hans van Wees,
History, University College London
Check out our most recent podcast: How You Can Better Communicate Your Science - science author and journalist Dennis Meredith discusses some of the ways he’s found to help scientists become more effective communicators.
Click the Title to view all of our Pizza Lunch Podcasts!
A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns,
and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.
News of book reviews published in
and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the
Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an
online profile, then sign up in the
My AmSci area.