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.