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Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World [Hardcover]

Adrienne Mayor
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

26 Sep 2003
This study traces biological and chemical warfare to its ancient roots and Mayor's findings are as riveting in their gruesomeness as they are surprising in their historical precedence. Drawing on a wide array of sources, both ancient and modern, Mayor recounts ancient recipes for concocting arrow poisons; she describes booby traps rigged with plague; toxic honey, poisoned wells, and spiked wine; petroleum-based combustibles, choking gases, and incendiary bombs; and the deployment of dangerous animals and venomous insects. The author also explores the ambiguous moral implications inherent in this kind of warfare: if intelligence and cunning are to be valued, as well as physical courage on the battlefield, then are these nefarious forms of warfare ingenious or cowardly?

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (26 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715632574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715632574
  • Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 15.6 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 359,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'an intruiging new book with often startling and unsettling results' -- Daily Telegraph

'fascinating...this book is really a collection of extraordinary anecdotes about a neglected aspect of ancient warfare' -- The Mail on Sunday

fascinating... tracing the use of biological and chemical weapons and warfare from 1770BC to 1300AD..a jam-packed gem' -- West End Extra

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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Funny reading 22 May 2007
This book shows an interesting point of view about biological and chemical warfare in Ancient World but it seems avoid the experimental metode to confirm or to deny its statements about the issue. I would recommend it for readers interested in history either graduates or amateurs, but I wouldn't for scientific readers.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
52 of 69 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars good research, bad analysis 17 Feb 2004
By RET - Published on
Classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor's Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs is an intriguing, if over-reaching look into the ancient antecedents of chemical and biological warfare. Wide-ranging and well-supported by history, literature and archaeology, it is an excellent reminder that certain seemingly recent ideas and practices are not as modern as they seem. The book is an engaging read for students of classical or military history. However, it lacks focus and suffers from the author's background as a folklorist.
Mayor begins not with the historical fact, but with mythology. The first chapter focuses on the poison arrows of the Greek demigod Herakles. Certainly the chapter is well-spent: ancient Greek myth is ancient Greek religion, and discussing the myths of Herakles and his arrows reveals a great deal of the moral attitude the Greeks had towards such weapons. However, it is also here that Mayor has her first stumble by categorizing poison arrows as "biological," when strictly speaking the use of such toxins should be chemical warfare. Indeed, Mayor herself makes the same comparison later on in the book.
This might seem to be a minor issue, but such distinctions are important, and it also underlines what Mayor's lack of familiarity with modern security studies. Later in the book, when discussing ancient and modern moral attitudes towards biological warfare, she contrasts the ancient attitude that the defenders of a city under siege are permitted any action with modern treaties dealing with chemical and biological warfare and their clauses permitting research for defensive purposes. Either she is overly vague in making the comparison, or she does not understand the treaties in question: these clause do not allow signatories to legitimately use chemical weapons under any circumstances. Instead, they allow for defensive research, ostensibly to develop countermeasures against these forms of attack. Such clauses are much abused, but their moral and legal standing is still very different from Mayor's description of ancient attitudes on the matter of defensive weapons use. The comparison is like apples and oranges.
Mayor returns to these mythological roots of chemical and biological warfare too often for what should be a book about what historical fact, not mythological fiction. The mythological references are interesting and have value in a moral context, but Mayor's folklorist background leads her to sprinkle her text with too much of this material.
Furthermore, the inclusion of unconventional animals into the study is questionable. The US military classifies trained animals as "biological weapons systems," but this is not biological warfare in the same sense that germ warfare would be. The sole instance that bears a distinct resemblance to modern techniques is the scorpion bomb - the very name conjures an image of a cluster bomb delivering stinging poisonous fragments onto the enemy.
These difficulties aside, there is value in gathering the many examples of ancient uses of poisons, germs and incendiaries into a single study. Greek Fire accomplishes that task very well. The incendiaries are the most obvious of the classical antecedents. The comparison between napalm and phosphorus with greek fire, hot sand and fire arrows is obvious.
However, the most fascinating (and perhaps disturbing) part of the book deals with the various poisons used for arrows, especially in the case of the Scythians. In many respects, a cloud of arrows that could produce horrible, lethal wounds would produce the same kind of terror in the enemy as a cloud of chemical nerve toxins would today. The detailed description of how some of these poisons were made in ancient times is certainly horrific enough.
If there were such a thing as an amusing tale of poisons, then this book has them by including the stories of the fabled "mad honey" that felled both Xenophon's and Pompey's soldiers. Both encountered the naturally toxic honey native to the region of Pontus, the product of the concentrated toxins in the rhododendron plants of the region. While the idea of hallucinogenic honey sounds funny, even modest amounts of the honey cause powerful hallucinations and painful death. Twice in ancient history, the local population remained silent about the deadly honeycombs, waiting for the hungry soldiers to forage their own demise in the rhododendron forests.
While the first recorded catapulting of plague victims' bodies into a besieged city is by the Mongols, Mayor reveals that the ancients also made primitive use of germ warfare. While unaware of the germ origins of disease, the ancients were naturally familiar with some methods by which diseases were transmitted and put these to use in early examples of biological warfare. For example, the ancients knew enough to put carcasses in wells and to try to maneuver enemies into unhealthy marshes and bogs, although once again Mayor over-reaches on the matter and tries to compare fighting on unfavorable ground to putting the enemy in a place where they are likely to be infected with disease. The former is sound, conventional operational practice; the latter is biological warfare.
Even worse, Mayor blunders historically and describes the possibility that certain temples kept infectious materials sealed away for use on invaders. However, the problem with this is that it is speculation. The examples all carry the stamp of being a moral device in the classical style of historical storytelling. For example, Mayor puts much weight on the story of Roman soldiers releasing the plague of 165-80 AD by breaking into a temple of Apollo and releasing the contents of golden chest. The tale is an obvious fable, directing moral criticism ad divine retribution upon the Romans for wrongfully sacking that city.
A folklorist would naturally be interested in such material. However, a historian would distinguish such stories for what they are and not include them in a study on the historical antecedents of chemical and biological warfare. In the same fashion, a security studies specialist would not misunderstand modern treaties or put maneuvering an enemy to fight on bad terrain with making them camp where they would they would catch malaria. The book would have been excellent as a study of folklore on ancient biological and chemical warfare. However, as a serious history on the subject it is badly muddled by blunders and material that should never have been included. The book does have value as a collection of sources on the subject, and is certainly an entertaining read much of the time, but fails as a meaningful history text on an interesting subject.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Real Eye-Opener on Ancient Warfare 10 Nov 2003
By A Customer - Published on
After reading this book, one tends to feel doubly uncomfortable for the warriors of ancient times. Not only did they need to dodge flying arrows and swinging swords, but they had to contend with the possibility that a mere scratch from either could be fatal, as could the consumption of local water, wine, food, etc. The author's knowledge of the field stands out as she describes the uses of these "unconventional" weapons in various engagements and the agonizing effects on their unfortunate victims. In addition, the author often compares the uses of ancient biological and chemical weapons to the current uses of modern equivalents. In my view, this is an excellent, authoritative and informative book that is written clearly and in a very pleasant and engaging style, i.e., a real page-turner that is difficult to put down.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ground-Breaking and Provocative 10 Oct 2003
By A Customer - Published on
The ancient Greeks and Romans were not just wise but toxic; they were as much at home with venom as with virtue; and their heroes fought with germs as well as arms. Thse are the conclusions of this ground-breaking new book. Fascinating and provocative, Greek Fire will make you rethink the legacy of the ancient world.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars New Insights into Biowarfare/Bioterrorism (BW/BT) Origins 29 Nov 2003
By John S. Marr MD - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This delightful read explores the origins of what today we now know as biological warfare. Many books on BW/BT begin their summaries with the 14th century Tatars, but Mayor convincingly traces the use of poisons/chemicals and infectious diseases back to Greek myths and ancient battles/seiges. Those who argue that "moral repugnace" has historically limited use of BW/BT agents are proved wrong. It appears that even the classical Greeks and othe near-contemporaneous societies used venoms, toxins, plant alkaloids, and naturally occurring (and later synthezied) chemicals to defeat their enemies.
For those interested in the history of military tactics, weaponry, toxicology, and biowarfare this books adds many news heuristics to consider. (Despite the title, there is very little space devoted to Greek fire. Readers might look to Alfred Crosby's "Throwing Fire" for a more complete discussion on this subject.)
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 11 Sep 2003
By R. Riis - Published on
An outstanding, detailed, and well-researched book about chemical and biological weapons since the dawn of time (literally : neolithic combatants tossed beehives into adversaries' caves!). An engaging and illuminating read for historians, military arts afficianados, and general readers.
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