They say all’s fair in love and war, but when it comes to Black Death Bombs and sending donkeys infected with deadly pathogens hurtling into the enemy, we’re not sure we agree. Long before Oppenheimer became Death, destroyer of worlds, with the atomic bomb, humans were coming up with creative ways to maim and kill one another, and many leaned on the devastating power of the natural world.
Admittedly not everything they came up with was particularly sophisticated – we’re looking at you, poo bombers of the Middle Ages – but others came up with catastrophic chemical concoctions that remain a mystery to science today. Let’s take a look at five of the worst – or best, depending on your outlook – weapons born from ancient warfare.
Almost 2,000 years ago, humans found a way to weaponize scorpions by creating earthenware bombs packed full of venomous arachnids. As author of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, And Scorpion Bombs Adrienne Mayor explains, they were hurled at Roman soldiers marching under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus in 198-99 CE as they tried to siege the ancient desert city of Hatra.
The soldiers endured 20 grueling days of exploding scorpion bombs raining down on them, their contents targeting exposed areas of skin including the face and eyes. Eventually, the Hatrien defenses were victorious, and Severus’s army pulled back.
Infectious rams and donkeys
One of the earliest examples of biological warfare is attributed to the Hittite Plague that struck the Eastern Mediterranean in the 14th century BCE. It’s thought that the bacterial disease tularemia (caused by Francisella tularensis) was weaponized in the form of infected rams and donkeys that were deployed along the trade routes of enemies.
A combination of accidental and malicious spreading of the disease saw it spread far and wide – not surprising given what the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention have to say about it: “Tularemia, a bacterial zoonosis, is caused by Francisella tularensis, one of the most infectious pathogenic bacteria known. It requires inoculation or inhalation of as few as 10 organisms to cause disease.”
Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, suffered a humiliating defeat as he tried to settle a dispute in Argos with a fleet of war elephants. The story goes that the body of one of his deceased war elephants was blocking the exit when it came time to leave, and it sent the remaining elephantine cavalry into a frenzy.
In the fallout, Pyrrhus was injured by an enemy soldier, and in return stabbed him to death. In her grief-struck rage, the mother of the stab victim hurled a tile at Pyrrhus’s head and struck her target.
War elephants were effective against cavalry on horseback and came in handy when squishing enemy humans, too. They could even have their tusks kitted out with spikes to add an extra element of danger, but the living tanks weren’t without their weak spots – oh no, because then came the battle pigs.
You can imagine the cacophony of sound that plays out during a battle of old: the clang of swords, the cry of slain humans. But for all that chaos there was one sound that got to war elephants unlike anything else: the squeal of a panicked pig.
When Pyrrhus first brought war elephants to the Romans in 280 BCE – can you imagine being on the frontline and seeing that? – they noticed that their poor eyesight paired poorly with a sensitivity to sound, and nothing upset them quite like squealing swine. As Mayor wrote for The Conversation, this motivated them to unleash a counterattack of pigs, contributing to the heavy losses that would earn the King the immortal phrase a Pyrrhic victory, which means to win, but at great personal cost.
Did you ever imagine you could set fire to water? The Byzantine Empire didn’t have to when architect Callinicus of Heliopolis created a deadly weapon called Greek Fire that was used in naval warfare. First introduced under Emperor Constantine Pogonatus’ reign in 672 CE, it contributed to the great Siege of Constantinople and its "secret formula" was closely guarded.
When hurled at ships, some chemical concoction made up of petroleum or naptha (a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture) would ignite, even catching fire on water. Its exact ingredients and mechanism of ignition aren’t known for certain, but according to Royal Museums Greenwich, quicklime may have been used to get the chemical reaction going. With water doing nothing to extinguish the flames, those under attack needed sand or vinegar to put the Greek fire out.
Corpse and feces projectiles
When the Hatrien defense started using their surfeit of venomous scorpions to tackle the enemy, they found an ingenious way to take something they had too much of and wield it to their advantage. Regrettably, in history, the same can be said of human excrement and corpses.
At the same time that people were fleeing the bubonic plague, others were hurling it at their enemies with gay abandon. It would have been a tough pill to swallow for the healers of old trying to come up with a remedy – some of which were worse than the disease itself – to know that elsewhere there were armies using infected corpses like bombs.
The Mongol army flung corpses infected with bubonic plague over the walls during the Siege of Caffa around 1346, reports Discover Magazine. In what served as a hearty lesson of the consequences of biological warfare, Genoese traders then carried the plague from Caffa to Europe, and we all know how that went.
Poop has similarly been flung to cover enemies in contagions and bad smells, but it’s also been used as an accessory for swords and arrows. According to the Office of Justice Programs, these approaches were popular among Scythian archers and Roman soldiers, respectively, who saw everything from excrement and blood to putrefying corpses as an opportunity to plus up the potency of their weapons.
So, just a few things to remember the next time you hear someone being nostalgic for the good old days. When were they, exactly?