Medea's Wrath: Ancient Use of Chemical Weapons

Medea's Wrath: Ancient Use of Chemical Weapons
Medea's Wrath: Ancient Use of Chemical Weapons

When we talk about the use of chemical weapons, terrible pictures of the battles of the First World War, the blinded and suffocated soldiers, the concentration camps with the POWs of the Second World War and the recent incidents during the civil war in Syria immediately come to mind. However, chemical weapons have been known since the days of the Greeks and Romans, and they were actively used during the ancient wars.

… And then the princess put on a dress, a gift from the sorceress Medea, and spun in front of the mirror. Suddenly the dress burst into flames. The girl tried to rip off the flaming clothes, but the fabric stuck to the skin, and the hot fire flared up with renewed vigor. The princess, engulfed in waves of all-consuming fire, jumped out of her bedchamber and rushed into the fountain. But the water only kindled the flame more. The girl's father, King Creon, tried to extinguish the fire, but caught fire himself. They died together, burned alive. The flames spread, destroying the entire palace and everyone inside …

Frederic Sandis, Medea / Photo:

This scene from Euripides' Medea, based on ancient Greek myth, was performed in Athens in 431 BC. It describes a terrible fire weapon invented by Medea of ​​Colchis, who helped her beloved Jason and his Argonauts find the golden fleece. When Jason left Medea, she took revenge on his new passion - the Corinthian princess Glaucus. The sorceress treated the beautiful dress with secret substances that kept the power of fire, sealed the gift in an airtight box and gave it to the unsuspecting princess.

How did Medea create such a dress? The popularity of this story in Greek and Roman literature and art suggests that some real but unusual phenomenon associated with fire inspired the storytellers to create the legend. The idea that things can suddenly ignite due to water or heat must have sounded plausible to an audience as early as the 5th century BC.

Some thinkers, such as Diodorus of Siculus, believed that Medea knew about a certain magical substance that, once set on fire, could not be extinguished. According to Euripides, Medea combined special volatile substances that were isolated from air, light, moisture and heat until a certain point. The resulting combustion led to the appearance of a flame: it was sticky, slow burning, extremely hot and unquenchable water - very similar to modern napalm. The myth points to knowledge of chemical weapons more than a thousand years before the invention of Greek fire in the 7th century AD.

Greek fire / Photo:

Fire itself has always been a weapon since the moment when an angry hominid grabbed a burning log from a fire and threw it at the cause of his anger. The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote that fire became a weapon as soon as people learned to make fires. In Greek myth, Hercules used burning arrows and torches to destroy the monster Hydra. Flaming arrows served as a weapon for the heroes of the great ancient Indian epics "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana".

Fire arrows were a fairly early invention in human history, and Assyrian reliefs from the 9th century BC show attackers and defenders exchanging volleys of burning arrows and pots of fire, apparently filled with oil, over fortified walls. In ancient India, fire weapons were common enough to become prohibited under the laws of Manu.The oldest collection of law forbade kings to use weapons that were glowing with fire or covered with burning materials, although Kautilya's Arthashastra and several other Indian treatises from the same era give many recipes for creating chemical fire projectiles and smoke weapons. Meanwhile, in China, during the period of feudal conflicts between the warring kingdoms (403-221 BC), Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and other military treatises advocated the use of fire and smoke to intimidate enemies.

The first incendiary projectiles were arrows wrapped in flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw). Flaming arrows have become an effective weapon in breaking down wooden walls from a safe distance. For example, during the capture of Athens by the Persians in 480 BC, burning hemp arrows were actively used. By that time, Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities by fire.

But simple flaming sticks with straw weren't destructive and deadly enough to satisfy the ancient strategists. Flaming arrows are of little use against stone walls, and fires derived from them can be easily doused with water. Something was needed that would actively burn and would not succumb to extinguishing with water. What chemical additives can cause a fire strong enough to burn down walls, take over cities and destroy enemies?

The first addition was a plant chemical, a resin extracted from pine trees. Later, the distillation of the resin into crude turpentine became available. The tarry fire was actively burning, and the sticky juice resisted the water.

Extraction of resin from pine / Photo:

Extraction of resin from pine / Photo:

The earliest evidence that the Greek army used fiery arrows is in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans laid siege to the city of Plataea, an ally of Athens, and used a full arsenal of siege techniques against the stubborn inhabitants of the city. The Spartans used fiery arrows, so the Plateians protected their wooden palisades with raw animal skins, in the future many besieged cities will use similar tactics. Then the Plateians attacked and disabled the siege engines of the Spartans. Therefore, the Lacedaemonians had to move beyond the usual fiery arrows, into the as yet unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event took place just two years after Euripides' play about the mysterious recipe for Medea's miracle fire.

The siege of Plataea by the Spartans / Photo:

The Spartans piled up a huge pile of brushwood right next to the city wall. Then they added large amounts of pine sap and used sulfur as a bold innovation. Sulfur is a chemical element found in pungent, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic regions, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. People have long noticed that during volcanic eruptions, fiery rivers and lakes of burning sulfur arose. In ancient times, sulfur was actively used - from medicines and pesticides to bleaching togas. The flammable nature of sulfur also made it an extremely attractive incendiary.

When the Spartans set fire to the walls of Plataea with resin and sulfur, the act set off a fire like never seen before. The blue sulphurous flame and pungent stench must have made a startling impression on contemporaries, as burning sulfur creates a toxic gas, sulfur dioxide, which can be fatal if inhaled in large enough quantities. Most of the city's walls were destroyed, but then the wind changed and the fire eventually died down after a severe thunderstorm. Plataea was saved, as it seemed then, by divine intervention in technological innovation of the Spartans.Notably, this is also the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poisonous gas, although it is not clear if the Spartans were aware of this deadly side effect when they threw sulfur into flames.

Burning sulfur and pungent smoke / Photo:

The defenders quickly learned to use chemical bonfires against the besiegers. Written around 360 BC, Aeneas' book Tacticus, on how to survive a siege, devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring tar on enemy soldiers or their siege engines, and then using bunches of hemp and pieces of sulfur to stick to the resin, and then igniting the tar and sulfur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked "bomb" filled with flaming material that could be dropped on siege engines. Iron spikes stuck into the frame of the siege machine and its wooden base burned out.

During a grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorketes in 304 BC. both sides threw tar shells at each other - pots of fire and flaming arrows. In one night, the Rhodians fired more than eight hundred fiery shells of various sizes. Rhodes' resistance was successful, and Poliorketes retreated, tarnishing his own reputation by abandoning siege equipment. Through the sale of his cars, the Rhodians financed the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Ejection pots filled with sulfur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when the city managed to withstand the long siege of the emperor Maximinus in 236 AD. Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden barrels of catapult and scorpion bolts. Vegetius (late IV - early V century AD) military engineer, in his treatise gives a recipe for ammunition: sulfur, resin, tar and hemp, soaked in oil.

Ceramic pots that were filled with sulfur and bitumen / Photo:

A piece of bitumen / Photo:

Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century AD) described fiery arrows fired from bows. The hollow reed shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron, and many small holes were made in them on the underside (to provide an oxygen supply for combustion). The boom cavity was filled with bituminous materials (in ancient times, various petroleum products were called bitumen). The arrows flashed upon contact with water and the flame could be extinguished only by covering it with sand.

Burning arrow / Photo:

The fire dart described by Marcellinus is similar to the Chinese fire spear invented around 900 AD. It is a single-hole bamboo (later metal) tube filled with sulfur, charcoal and a small amount of explosive nitrate or nitrate salts, a key ingredient in gunpowder. The tube was attached to a spear with something like a pump, thus, a kind of flamethrower was obtained.

In one of the naval battles during the Second Punic War, the Roman general Gnei Scipio made prototypes of Molotov cocktails by lighting shells filled with resin and oil and throwing them onto the wooden decks of Carthaginian ships. However, wooden ships were not only good targets, their flammability also made ships attractive fire delivery systems. For example, during the ill-fated attack of the Athenians on Sicily in 413 BC. the Syracusans invented the creative use of fire in naval combat. They loaded an old merchant ship with pine twigs, set it on fire, and simply let the wind carry the fiery ship to the Athenian flotilla of wooden triremes.

Burning Carthaginian ship, computer model

Another formidable weapon was encountered by the soldiers of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. during the famous siege of Tire (an island city on the Lebanese coast).Phoenician engineers invented a cunning and terrible torture that even the most powerful warriors could not endure. They filled shallow iron or bronze bowls with fine sand and metal shavings. Then they heated these pans over a fire until the sand was red-hot and, with the help of a catapult, sent the burning sand to the Macedonians. This red-hot shrapnel fell under the soldiers' chestplates and left terrible wounds on the skin, causing insane pain. Alexander's men writhed, trying to remove their armor and shake out the burning sand.

The rain of burning sand in Tire, created over two millennia ago, bears a striking resemblance to the effects of modern metallic incendiary substances such as magnesium or thermite mixtures.

Burning materials often produce toxic, choking smoke, and this potentially beneficial aspect of incendiary agents was not overlooked in antiquity. Aeneas the Tactician, for example, advised the defenders of the city to make smoky fires and direct the smoke towards the besiegers, who were trying to dig under the walls.

Smoke was also used by the attackers. The Chinese created poisonous smoke clouds by burning sulfur and arsenic to fumigate insects as early as the 7th century BC, which may have led them to develop toxic gases for military use. Ancient Chinese texts contain hundreds of recipes for choking mists and clouds of smoke, and incendiary weapon manuals also provide directions for making poisonous smoke balls.

In the 4th century BC. Arthashastra provided formulas for creating burning powders, the vapors of which were believed to drive enemies crazy, blind, cause nausea, and sometimes death. Various smoke powders were prepared from the droppings of reptiles, animals and birds and mixed with real poisons and toxic substances. One deadly cloud was created by burning the bodies of poisonous snakes and stinging insects along with poisonous plant seeds and hot peppers. By the way, hot peppers were used in the New World: in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Caribbean and Brazilian Indians created an early form of pepper spray and used it against the Spanish conquistadors by burning piles of crushed hot pepper seeds. In India, the combustible components of smoke powders were turpentine, wood tar, charcoal and wax.

However, despite its effectiveness, toxic smoke is extremely difficult to control and direct, so it was most effective when used in confined spaces such as tunnels. As early as the 4th century BC, defenders of fortresses in China burned poisonous substances and plants such as mustard seeds in ovens connected by pipes with cowhide furs to pump poisonous gases into tunnels dug by the enemy. In western Greece in 189 BC, during the long Roman siege of Ambrakia, the city's defenders invented the smoke machine to fend off Roman attempts to tunnel under the city walls. The Ambrakites made a huge vessel, equal in size to the tunnel, drilled a hole in the bottom, and inserted an iron pipe. After stuffing a giant pot with layers of thin chicken feathers (burning feathers are known to create nasty smoke) and embers, they directed the end of the vessel towards the attackers and attached bellows to an iron pipe at the other end. With the help of furs, the Ambrakites filled the tunnel with puffs of acrid smoke, forcing the breathless Romans to hurry to the surface.

In China, lime dust was used as tear gas to quell riots. For example, in 178 AD, an armed peasant uprising was suppressed by harnessed limestone chariots equipped with bellows for blowing fine lime dust in the wind.

Lime dust / Photo:

Obviously, recoil from wind blown weapons was a significant problem.Those who used poisonous powders and smoke had to beware of unpredictable gusts of wind. Kautilya was well aware of the danger and, speaking of poisonous fumes, warned that soldiers, before using chemical aerosols, must protect their eyes with protective ointments.

A little later, the ancient strategists came up with the idea of ​​combining chemicals. A treatise often attributed to Julius Africanus, a philosopher born around 170 AD, mentions a recipe for a paste that is converted into sulfur, salt, tar, charcoal, asphalt and quicklime, and then sealed tightly in a bronze box protected by from moisture and heat. In the evening, the resulting paste was to be surreptitiously smeared on enemy siege engines. At dawn, she should have caught fire, igniting from abundant dew or light fog.

Perhaps a paste similar to that attributed to Julius Africanus could have been used by Medea to turn the dress of Princess Glauka into a murder weapon. By the 1st century AD, Roman authors, familiar with the magic tricks of self-igniting things and the destructive properties of oil, began to speculate about Medea's formula. In his version of the Medea legend, the Stoic philosopher Seneca named sulfur as one of the ingredients that ignited Glauca's dress. He also referred to Medea's knowledge of natural oil wells in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, Pliny and Plutarch came to the conclusion that oil was probably one of Medea's secret ingredients. These assumptions seem logical, because Medea came from Colchis - a region between the Black and Caspian Seas, famous for its rich oil deposits, where as early as the 6th century BC, burning gas wells were worshiped.

Greek fire became a new terrible weapon after the "discovery" of oil by the ancient military. The origin of Greek fire is associated with a fable. According to one legend, an angel whispered his formula to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor in AD 300. But Greek fire did not suddenly burst out of nowhere on the stage. Centuries of observation, discovery, and experimentation with combustible sulfur, quicklime, and oil - in formulas known by various names such as liquid fire, artificial or cooked fire, sea fire, wild fire, flying fire, and so on - have resulted in the invention of the incendiary device, which the Crusaders dubbed "Greek fire" in the 1200s. Although oil and its derivatives have been a weapon since Assyrian times.

In essence, Greek fire became a system for destroying ships in naval battles: the weapon consisted of advanced chemical munitions and an ingenious delivery system - boilers, siphons, pipes and pumps. The technology of pumping distilled oil under pressure through bronze pipes designed for ships was achieved thanks to the brilliant chemical engineering of a petroleum consultant named Kallinik. Fleeing the Muslim occupation of Syria, he took refuge in Constantinople around 668 AD and told the Byzantines about his invention. Greek fire was first used to break the seven-year siege of Constantinople by the Muslim fleet in 673 AD, and it again saved the city from the Muslim fleet in 718.

Kallinikos' formula and delivery system are lost to modern science, and historians and chemists trying to reconstruct how the device worked disagree about the exact composition of the ammunition and the design of the system. Greek fire burned in the water and may have been lit with water, sticking to the victims. In addition to distilled oil, ingredients could include thickeners such as gum or wax, quicklime, sulfur, turpentine, and saltpeter.The exact formula matters less than the amazing delivery system, which was capable of firing liquid fire from rotating nozzles installed on small boats, without the use of modern thermometers, safety valves and pressure gauges.

Beginning in the 7th century, the Byzantines and Arabs developed variations of Greek fire, which resembled napalm in the sense that it clung to whatever it touched, instantly igniting any organic material - ship hull, oars, sails, rigging, crew, and clothing. Nothing was invulnerable, and even a jump into the sea could not extinguish the flames. The weapon made enemies tremble with horror and start a desperate flight.

Greek fire was the main weapon of its time, and the horror that it instilled in contemporaries is comparable to the modern fear of the atomic bomb. In 1139, the Second Lateran Council, following Western ideas of chivalry and noble war, ruled that Greek fire or similar burning weapons were too deadly for use in Europe. The cathedral's decision was respected for centuries, but the issue may have remained controversial, as the formula for Greek fire appears to have been lost by the 13th century.

The first predecessors of the Greek fire, so clearly described in the ancient Greek myth of Medea and Glaucus, and then tested in real battles during the Roman Empire, were the most terrible and formidable weapons of their time. There was no adequate countermeasure, no way to counter this hellish weapon. Neither extraordinary valor nor bronze armor could save the soldier, engulfed in cascades of corrosive flames that burned both the metal of the weapon and the flesh of the warrior.

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