Book Review: Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare, in the Ancient World


by Adrienne Mayor

New York: Overlook Press, 2003. Pp. 352. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN:1-58567-348-X

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. Despite this, the book lacks focus and suffers from the author's background as a folklorist.

Mayor begins not with 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. It is, however, here that Mayor makes 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 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 that deal 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 in the treaties in question these clauses do not allow signatories to legitimately use chemical weapons under any circumstances; they only allow 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.

In what is supposed to be a book about historical fact, not mythological fiction, Mayor returns to the mythological roots of chemical and biological warfare much too often. 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" – 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, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs 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.

The most fascinating (and perhaps most disturbing) part of the book, however, 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. Mayor's detailed description of the ancient manufacture of these poisons is certainly horrific enough. If there were such a thing as an amusing tale of poisons, then this book collects them by including the stories of the fabled "mad honey" that felled both

Reviewer: Richard Thomas   

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