Ten Diabolical Weapons and Strategies of War from the Ancient World
Warfare has been a part of the human condition throughout recorded history. While weapons, strategies, and tactics have changed, there are a number of methods that have been used across the millennia, and which are still used today – chemical, biological, and psychological warfare was as active in the ancient world as it is in modern times. From poisons and other biological agents, to chemicals that could be used to burn or gas the enemy, and terrifying ‘death whistles’ used to strike fear in ones’ opponent, there was no limit to the ingenuity of ancient peoples when it came to the creation of diabolical and destructive weapons and tactics of war.
When odd, skull-shaped grave items were found by archaeologists decades ago at an Aztec temple in Mexico, they were assumed to be mere toys or ornaments, and were catalogued and stored in warehouses. However, years later, experts discovered they were creepy ‘death whistles’ that made piercing noises resembling a human scream, which the ancient Aztecs may have used during ceremonies, sacrifices, or during battles to strike fear into their enemies. When the whistle was used during battles, the psychological effect on an enemy of a hundred death whistles screaming in unison might have been great, unhinging and undermining their resolve. The sounds created by the whistles have been described as terrifying. The whistles make the sounds of “humans howling in pain, spooky gusts of whistling wind or the ‘scream of a thousand corpses”. Click here to listen to an Aztec death whistle.
By the 7th and 8th centuries BC, the role of the chariot in battle was gradually being replaced by cavalry units in the Near East. Some were armed lightly and were used to harass the enemy from afar with missiles or to pursue routing troops. Other types of cavalry units were heavily armed, and were used as shock troops to break enemy formations. The most heavily armed cavalry unit in the ancient world was the greatly feared cataphract. The word ‘cataphract’ has its origins in the Greek language, and is said to mean ‘fully armored’ or ‘closed from all sides’. The cataphract, however, was not a Greek ‘product’, and was only adopted by the armies of the Seleucid Empire sometime during the 4th century B.C., after they went on military campaigns against their eastern neighbors.
Generally, the cataphract is used to charge en masse into enemy lines. Due to the sheer weight of their armor, a cataphract charge can deal a great blow to the enemy. The impact of a cataphract charge is also highlighted by the historian Tacitus, who wrote that “when they attack the foe on horseback, hardly any line can resist them.” The irresistible force of a cataphract charge may also have a psychological effect on their enemies, as another historian, Cassius Dio, suggests. In his account of Crassus’ defeat at the Battle of Carrhae, Dio claimed that “many died from fright at the very charge of the pikemen”. The reputation of the cataphract is further enhanced by the statement (in Heliodorus and Plutarch) that their charge had enough force to impale two men in one go.
Humans have long used poison, most commonly as weapons, antidotes, and medicines. In ancient times it was used on hunting weapons to quicken the death of enemies or prey. As the advantages of poison became clear, tools and weapons were constructed for poisons specifically. Researchers suggest that the subtler and more mysterious means of killing may have been reserved for higher-ranking members of tribes, creating an appearance of magical power. So mystical and unexplained would these sudden deaths appear, that traditions formed in some cultures of associating poisons with black magic, spirits, and otherworld creatures.
The earliest references to toxic weapons are contained in ancient Greek myths about Hercules using the venom of the Hydra monster to poison his arrows. Later, Homer’s epics implied that poisoned weapons were used during the Trojan War.
The ways in which tribes, nations, and civilizations plotted with poison against foes are beyond numerous, and include an ancient Hindu treatise advising poisoning the food of enemies, 2nd century BC writings in China advocating the use of a “soul-hunting fog” through the burning of toxic vegetables, and tactics in ancient Greece encouraging the poisoning of vital aqueducts with the harmful hellebore flower. Even Leonardo da Vinci proposed a vessel containing a mix of sulfide, arsenic and verdigris which could be thrown at enemy ships. As the rising fumes were inhaled, the result would be a sudden mass asphyxiation of sailors.