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Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World Paperback – December 30, 2008

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1590201770 ISBN-10: 1590201779 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


"Illuminating... Adrienne Mayor marshals not just myth, but also the writing of ancient authors and evidence from archaeological digs to show that biological and chemical weapons saw action inbattles long before the modern era." -The New York Times

"A sound and very imaginative account....Mayor's historical research has made a significant contribution toward filling in the gapsof knowledge concerning weaponry in the classical age." -Newsday

"Mayor recounts in lively, sometimes darkly comic detail, the diabolical stratagems devised by devious warriors for tactical ends."-Discover

About the Author

Adrienne Mayor, a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science at Stanford University, specialises in ancient natural science, classical legends, and ancient military history. The author of "Poison King", Mayor is a frequent contributor to "Archaeology", "MHQ" and "Folklore", and is often interviewed by NPR, BBC, "New York Times", "USA Today" and The History Channel. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press; 1 edition (December 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590201779
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590201770
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #895,710 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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By nuckinfutz on March 17, 2011
Format: Paperback
This was a quick, light read. Finished it in two days, but a more diligent reader could easily finish this in an afternoon.

- Accessible; writing was clear, vocabulary and references were written for general consumption
- Notes; almost an 1/8th of the bound pages are dedicated to notes for additional info (...YMMV on their usefulness)
- Entertaining; it was Discovery channel-ish. There aren't many five-syllable words aside from almost every Greek name mentioned.
- Reference; it contains a lot of information that can be kept on the back burner to do further research on later if there are particular things you find interesting.

- Sourced material; there is no shortage of using myths for citations. This would probably not be an ideal primary source for serious research purposes, but some of the bibliography certainly could. Serious historians could easily take offense.
- Definitions become a little muddy; there were times I thought a couple of the "weapons" were really pushing the boundaries of contemporary definitions of chemical/biological weapons, BUT this isn't a book about contemporary definitions, so it has that much going for it.
- Repetition; I could swear there are a few paragraphs that are repeated almost verbatim throughout the entire book. It's not REALLY noticeable, but I remember having a sense of déjà vu on more than one occasion.
- Images; I can't speak for the hardcover version, but the paperback's images were almost worthless. There may have been a 10-20 images in the entire book, and less than half were actually of relevance as they relate to the text.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lynn J. Smith on July 12, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent history of the use of ancient bio-chemical weapons which belies the fact that the ancients fought only in a fair manner. Tho the rules of engagement in antiquity stated that battles must be "fairly fought", the use of biologic and chemical weapons often dipped in poison (from serpents and human remains or excrement) was not uncommon, tho considered not "manly". Also shooting arrows from afar as opposed to combat face to face was frowned upon, even tho it was widely used (often by mercenaries) It would appear from mythology that those Greeks who used biochemical warfare were then made to suffer from it themselves, proving that the Gods really did frown upon that usage. Armies in ancient times used not only personal types of bio weapons, but also made great use of poisoning water supplies to effect victory. I came across this book's title in the back of a novel by the American author of thrillers, Brad Thor, who used it in reference for background for his novel. Thanks to Brad Thor for this and the other great book to which he made reference in the same novel, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, another wonderful history and analysis of an event in antiquity. I highly recommend this book for the history and veracity on this topic---well annotated and illustrated w/ancient Greek pottery of the periods in discussion.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By inner exile on June 8, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Aside from a new preface, the book is a reissue of the first edition (2003). Most of the historical examples come from the Greek world, the Roman empire and Asia Minor, yet the reader can also encounter other cases from the Middle East, China and India, although those related to this latter country are almost exclusively based on Kautilya's (4-3rd c. BCE) "Arthashastra" ('Treatise on Polity') and on the accounts of Alexander the Great's experiences.
Overarching Greek mythological themes include Hercules's Hydra-venom arrows and his gruesome death owing to a poisoned shirt, in similar vein to the gown received as a gift from the sorceress Medea and donned by the Corinthian princess Glauke; and the accidentally self-inflicted wound of Philoctetes on his way to the Trojan War. Among the historical personages and locations that come up frequently we find Alexander the Great, Mithridates VI of Pontus (d. 63 BCE), and Syracuse (Sicily).

Topics discussed: poison arrows, especially those of the Scythians and the related toxin known as "scythicon" (drawing on sources from Herodotus, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Aelian; pp. 77-86); venomous plants used in warfare (hellebore species, aconite, nightshade); poisoning drinking water, toxic honey, contaminated wine, etc.; plagues as weapons of war, i.e., driving disease-ridden animals to enemy land or sending 'poison maidens' to their camp; the idea that certain temples in the ancient world were utilized for storing contagious pathogens (and their antidotes?); deployment of chemical incendiaries and protective measures against them; and much more. While certainly interesting, the inclusion of war dogs, elephants, camels, etc. (chapter 6) in a discussion about bio/chemical weapons is quite a bit of stretch for me.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Shuffy2 on February 26, 2012
Format: Paperback
Biological and Chemical Warfare a thing of the past- actually yes! The idea that biological and chemical weapons are a modern invention is naive, it is merely how you view and/or define the terms.

Poisoned arrows, tampering with water supplies, deadly scorpions used inside bombs and spreading disease as a weapon are ancient tactics used in the ancient world. Adrienne Mayor sheds light onto the use of "weapons of mass destruction" thousands of years before one would associate the term to warfare. Using first sources she points out various civilizations that employed 'dishonorable' acts in early battles.

The book while informative was at times very repetitive, it could have been just as thorough in a shorter amount of pages. I would still recommend the book to anyone interested in ancient warfare.
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