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.
The chariot was a prominent weapon of war during the New Kingdom. In fact, it is often considered a superweapon of the ancient world. Some have speculated that the chariot was introduced by the invading Hyksos (although there is no factual evidence to support this claim). The history of the chariot, however, stretches back more than a millennium prior to its introduction into ancient Egypt.
In 1927/8, the British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating the Royal Cemetery of Ur in modern day Iraq, when he discovered an artifact known today as the Royal Standard of Ur (dated to the third millennium BC). Portrayed on one side of this artifact is the Mesopotamian war machine, which included four-wheeled, cart-like structures being pulled by four donkeys. The artist even demonstrates the use of this weapon by depicting it in different states of motion. Thus, the donkeys, first shown walking, begin to trot, and then break into a gallop. To clarify that this was a weapon of war, the artist adds a trampled enemy or two under it for good measure.
Egyptian chariots were used primarily used to protect the infantry, and that the terrain of Egypt and Canaan was not suitable for the deployment of heavy chariots. Instead of using them to charge into the enemies, the Egyptian chariots were used as mobile firing platforms. The warrior in the chariot was armed with a bow and arrows as well as several short spears. In addition to effectively raining a hail of arrows on the enemy before quickly moving away, the Egyptian chariot was also perfectly suited to chasing down fleeing enemies.
‘Υγρό Πυρ’, or ‘Liquid Fire’ if translated in English, is known as ‘Greek Fire’, or ‘Sea Fire’, in literature, and was a weapon invented in the 7th century AD by the Byzantine Empire. According to the historian Theophanes, it was invented during the 6th century AD by the Greek architect Kallinikos, a former resident of Heliopolis who was residing in Baalbeck. This claim is currently being debated, and other historians believe that it was discovered in Constantinople by a team of chemists of the Alexandrian school.
This weapon was some kind of liquid that used to be launched in pots with catapults, or by the use of tubes mounted on ships. It appears that ‘Greek fire’ could spontaneously ignite, but the most interesting feature of this weapon was that the fire continued to burn when in water and that throwing water on the fire could only spread it. Therefore, the fire was difficult to control and thus a mistake could create big destructions with many casualties for the Byzantine ships.
This weapon played an important role in the defeat of the Arabs when they attacked Constantinople, and later against other invaders such as the Venetians.
History paints a bleak picture of the devastating effects that disease, contamination, or poison can have on humans. But with those hard lessons came experience and knowledge, and mankind has effectively harnessed that knowledge to create biological weapons, using them against enemies since prehistoric times. The deliberate use of biological agents against enemies has been practiced time and time again throughout history to lethal effect.
In antiquity there was an incomplete understanding of the spread of disease, but it was believed the rotting corpses of animal or man were sources of illness. Scythian archers dipped their arrows in rotting bodies and in feces-tainted blood as far back as 400 BC. Later, English Longbowmen would stab their arrows in the ground in front of them, arrowheads in the dirt, so not only could they be drawn and fired quickly, but the points would be unclean, increasing the likelihood of infection in the unfortunate target. From 300 BC, Greek, Roman, and Persian warriors were said to contaminate water wells with feces and animal carcasses.
In the 14th century The Black Death, or the plague, swept through Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, resulting in the widest-spread health disaster in history, killing 75 to 200 million people. It is harrowing to realize that a part of the terrible pandemic was due to the deliberate infection of populations during warfare. Dead bodies were flung over the walls of besieged cities in attempts to terrify, and to introduce intolerable stench (the smell itself was thought to carry disease), rot, and infection to the enemy.
“The Scythians are best known for swarming the enemy, like at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, where they demonstrated this tactic during the initial stages of the attack. The swarming tactic is the first stage before any other mechanism is executed, like feinting or defense in depth…
The swarming tactic comprises many units converging on the intended target; however, the swarm moves with the target in order to fracture it. Thus, the method of swarming is to dislodge the enemy piecemeal, causing rank and file to implode. This is due to longstanding, snail-like movement during battle, meantime being continuously pelted from afar by projectiles; fear takes over, demoralizing an army. Roman soldiers were to have a taste of this, for they had a space of three feet all around them to allow for movement and maneuvering in battle. The Scythians took advantage of their three feet, as Plutarch mentions, at the battle of Carrhae: “Huddled together in a narrow space and getting into each other’s way, they were shot down by arrows.”
The heavy barrage of arrows would cause some to wander off, bit-by-bit, thus allowing horse archers to concentrate fully on the wandering enemy. In this scenario, one can argue that the initial battle tactic is to pelt the enemy with a volley of arrows, keeping the target tight in order to fracture it, which allows the horse archers to go from random pelting to accurately killing the enemy. In other words, they switch from firing up into the air to firing forward at the enemy, as demonstrated at Carrhae in 53 BCE.” By Cam Rea.
The earliest available archaeological evidence for the use of chemical weapons lies at the site of Dura-Europos, which is located on the bank of the Euphrates River in Syria. Dura-Europos was a Roman city which fell to the Sassanians around the middle of the 3rd century AD.
Although there are no literary records about the final siege, archaeology provides a clue as to what happened. Dura-Europos was excavated during the 1920s and 30s by French and American archaeologists. Among the features found by the archaeologists were mines, one dug by the Persians and another dug by the Romans as a counter. In addition, the piled bodies of at least 19 Roman soldiers and a lone Sassanian soldier in the tunnel were also found.
In 2009, an examination of the evidence led to an interpretation of the events that happened during the siege – the Sassanians employed toxic gases to kill the Roman defenders. Sulphur and bitumen were thrown onto a fire, causing it to become a choking gas, which turned into sulphuric acid when breathed in by the Roman defenders. Within minutes, the Romans who were in the tunnel were dead. This happened when the Sassanian mine was broken in by the Romans, whose counter-mine was right above theirs. The lone Sassanian soldier may have been a victim of his own weapons, and died of the poison gasses as well. Once the tunnel was cleared, the Sassanians stacked the Roman bodies at the mouth of the counter-mine as a shield wall, and proceeded to destroy this mine.
The Battle of Pelusium is an historically important battle that took place in the 6th century BC, in which the Egyptians were decisively defeated by the Persians, and the Persians became the new rulers of the land. The battle is one of the earliest known examples of the use of psychological warfare. Knowing that the Egyptians worshipped cats as a symbol of the goddess Bastet, Cambyses II ordered his warriors to paint images of the cat goddess on their shields, and during the battle itself, the army was said to have followed behind a large group of cats. The Egyptians, who were unwilling to harm the sacred cats, were forced to surrender their city to the Persians.
Greek mathematician, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, Archimedes (287 - 212 BC) is reported to have created a heat ray weapon (sometimes called the ‘death ray’) to defend against ships attacking Syracuse, an historic city in Sicily. According to 2 nd century AD author Lucian and centuries later, Anthemius of Tralles, the weapon was made of large reflectors (possibly made from polished bronze or copper), which were used to focus sunlight onto approaching ships, causing them to catch fire.
Although its existence has been hotly debated among historians, a number of tests have accurately proven that such a weapon is possible. In 1973, the Greek scientists Ioannis Sakkas set up 70 mirrors with a copper coating, which were pointed at a plywood model of a Roman warship at a distance of 50 meters. When the mirrors were focused accurately, the ship burst into flames.
In 2005, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also succeeded in reproducing the ancient weapon – they used square mirror tiles to combust a boat in San Francisco harbor.