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.
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 TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved