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Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World Hardcover – September 29, 2003

4 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This dense but highly informative volume narrates the long pretechnological history of the use of poisons and fire in warfare. Mayor, who has published in Military History Quarterly, begins with the first legend of poisoned arrows: Hercules and his quiver of missiles tipped with the hydra's venom (probably snake venom). He and his wife also figure in an early use of an externally applied poison-the "poisoned" garments that killed them both with an inextinguishable flame may have been impregnated with saltpeter. Using their powers of observation and a sound if rule-of-thumb grasp of cause and effect, our not-so-primitive ancestors went on to set fires, throw fires and project fires (Greek fire reached its apex when flung from a ship-mounted flame thrower). They also put poison on arrowheads, in food and wine and in water supplies, tamed elephants to use as living tanks, bottled scorpions to throw over walls and knew about the problems of accidental casualties, enemy retaliation and lowering the ethical level of warfare. Mayor clearly describes how some of the poisons caused gruesome deaths, and Greek fire was essentially napalm. One antielephant weapon consisted of coating live pigs with pitch, setting them on fire and driving them at the elephants. The sheer mass of information will be daunting for the novice, particularly to one not familiar with classical mythology, but the book is otherwise absolutely absorbing, if macabre, and a formidable source on classical warfare, with bibliography, illustrations and annotations to serve further research.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

We recoil from biological and chemical weapons as uniquely nefarious creations of modern science, but Mayor, combing classical writings both mythical and historical, has found that they existed throughout antiquity. Far from merely reciting the armory of poisons and plagues she found, Mayor shows how the ancients' reactions to biological weapons prefigure contemporary attitudes about them. Between the poles of the ethical and the expedient, the concept of the honorable in warfare swung back and forth: a toe-to-toe Homeric swordfight, yes; a poisoned arrow from afar, no. Mayor integrates these oscillations into a narrative embracing the contents of Pandora's box and their adaptation into articles of war. Ancient commentators expressed both repugnance and admiration for ingenuity, attitudes Mayor detects in Hercules' slaying of the Hydra, in Odysseus' adventures, and in other myths. Expanding her ambit to Indian writings, and to the use of animals such as bees, scorpions, and elephants on the battlefield, Mayor spices her astute commentary with diverse opinions about biological weapons. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 319 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook Books; 1 edition (September 29, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 158567348X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585673483
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,262,301 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Adrienne Mayor @amayor is a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford. Her work is often featured on NPR and BBC, Discovery and History TV channels, and other popular media, including the New York Times and National Geographic, and her books are translated into Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Italian, Russian, and Greek. In college during the Vietnam War, she received special permission to take ROTC courses in the history of war; 20 years later she began writing articles for "MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History." Mayor is especially interested in the history of science (the history of human curiosity) and she investigates natural knowledge embedded in classcial Greek and Roman literature and other "pre-scientific" myths and oral traditions.

"The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World" (2014) is the result of Mayor's long interest in the realities behind myths, legends, and ancient historical accounts of women warriors. "The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates" is the first full biography in half a century of one of Rome's deadliest enemies and the world's first experimental toxicologist. "The Poison King" was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, nonfiction and won top honors in Biography in the Independent Book Publishers Awards, 2010.

Mayor's two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America ("The First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans") opened new windows in the emerging field of Geomythology. "First Fossil Hunters" is featured in the popular History Channel show "Ancient Monster Hunters," about Mayor's discovery of the links between ancient observations of dinosaur fossils and the gold-guarding Griffin of mythology. "First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans" also inspired the BBC documentary "Dinosaurs, Monsters, and Myths" and the popular traveling exhibit "Mythic Creatures" (launched at the American Museum of Natural History, 2007-17).

Her book "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs," about the origins and early use of biological weapons, uncovered the surprisingly ancient roots of biochemical warfare. This book was featured in National Geographic, New York Times, and the History Channel's "Ancient Greek WMDs" --and it has become a favorite resource for diabolical, unconventional weaponry among ancient war-gamers.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
If war is one of the constants of human behavior (and sadly, it seems to be), it is unsurprising that we try to do all we can to make warfare as efficient and decisive as possible. We know in our hearts, though, that there are limits. The cruelties of war cannot be extended infinitely. In the ancient world, there was the supposition of a code of honor. Brave warriors were expected to fight to their fullest capacity and die if they must. There were classes of weapons, though, even in ancient times that made bravery and skill futile. The ancients had to confront germ warfare, chemical weapons, and weapons of mass destruction; no, these are not worries solely to our own times. In _Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World_, (Overlook Duckworth) Adrienne Mayor reviews the terrifying weapons that the ancients came up with, the ambivalence about their use, and the similarities to our own times.
Mayor's review is of both historic fact and legend, and she says that the mythic and historical evidence is here presented for the first time. It may have been that historians assumed that ancient people knew too little science to make what the military now calls "biochem" weapons. They may also have assumed that ancient warriors, if they could, refrained from use of those weapons because of a warrior's code of conduct which forbade such horrors. Mayor has found hundreds of examples to the contrary. She has plunged not only into Greek documents, but Roman, Muslim, Chinese, and Indian to show that some authors wrote disapprovingly of biochem weapons, but that also all these cultures used them, so that the issue of what was and was not acceptable was always clouded.
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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.)
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