First instance of chemical warfare

We have all heard of deadly chemical weapons being used in modern warfare but did you know that such weapons are known to have been used as far as 2,000 years back in the battle between the Persians and the Romans? 

Published: 20th December 2012 12:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 20th December 2012 12:50 PM   |  A+A-


We have all heard of deadly chemical weapons being used in modern warfare but did you know that such weapons are known to have been used as far as 2,000 years back in the battle between the Persians and the Romans? 

This evidence came to light when the remains of 20 Roman soldiers were discovered in a tunnel. They were killed when the Persian army pumped a mixture of gases into the tunnel. 

These unfortunate soldiers were a part of a city garrison that had to dig a tunnel in a bid to attack the besieging Persians who were digging their own tunnels in order to bypass the city’s walls.

As the Romans were digging the tunnel, the Persians lay in wait and at the right moment, pumped a lethal toxic gas which was produced by sulphur crystals and bitumen.

Once they inhaled the gas, it took only a few minutes for the Romans to die. At first, archaeologists were at a loss as to what exactly had happened.  The mystery was finally solved by Dr Simon James, 70 years after the bodies were first discovered in Syria.

Dr James explained how the mixture would have produced gases such as sulphur dioxide and complex heavy petro-chemicals which would have caused the soldiers to asphyxiate and die in the tunnel where they lay forgotten for centuries. This amazing discovery has been described as the oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare ever to be found.

These Roman soldiers were a part of a large Roman garrison defending the Roman empire’s outpost city of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates river in modern day Syria, against a ferocious siege by an army from the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire in around AD 256.

Although there are no available historical texts describing the siege, archaeologists  have managed to piece the action together following excavations which were done in the 1920s and 1930s and renewed in recent years.

All the evidence pieced together demonstrated how the Persians used the full range of ancient siege techniques to break into the city such as mining operations to dig under and breach the city walls. The Roman defenders responded to the Persian assault with ‘countermines’ to thwart the attackers.

When their remains were discovered in the 1930s, their weapons were also found intact next to the skeletons.

When the corpses were analysed, it was found that they had been attacked at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians whose strategy was also to use their victims to create a wall of bodies and shields in order to keep the Romans at bay while they set fire to the countermine, collapsing it and allowing the Persians to resume sapping the walls.

But this still did not explain to the archaeologists how the Romans died. How could the Persians kill 20 men in a space less than two metres high or wide and about 11 metres long?

The mystery was solved when the finds from the tunnel revealed that the Persians used bitumen and sulphur crystals to get the fire burning.

Dr James was of the opinion that the Persians placed braziers and bellows in their gallery so that when the Romans broke through, they added the chemicals to the fire and pumped choking clouds of dense, poisonous gases into the Roman tunnel. 

The Roman assault party would have been unconscious in seconds and dead in minutes.

Although ancient history texts point to Greeks using a similar technique against the Romans — using smoke generators in a tunnel —  this was the first physical evidence that such an incident actually took place. The Persians were as clever and brutal in their warfare as the Romans.

The defenders and inhabitants of the city of Dura-Europos were slaughtered or deported to Persia and the city was abandoned for good.

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