The Devastating and Diabolical Ancient Origins of Biological Warfare

Image from an illuminated manuscript depicting a Byzantine siege of a citadel. A tactic of ancient biological warfare was to hurl infected dead bodies over city walls.

History paints a bleak picture of the devastating effects that disease, contamination, or poison can have on humans. But with those hard lessons came experience and knowledge, and mankind has effectively harnessed that knowledge to create biological weapons, using them against enemies since prehistoric times.

The deliberate use of biological agents against enemies has been practiced time and time again throughout history to lethal effect.

Acts of ancient biological warfare generally fall into three categories: deliberate contamination of water sources and food supplies with poisons or contagions; the use of toxins and microbes from plants and animals on a weapon; and the purposeful infection of goods and people with disease.

Aboriginals have long coated arrowheads and spear points with plant and animal toxins, from frog or snake. In prehistoric times toxins were used on hunting weapons to quicken the death of enemies or prey. As the advantages of poison became clear, tools and weapons were specifically constructed for poisons.  In fact, the word “toxin” itself comes from the ancient Greek term for arrow poison.

The black-legged dart frog is a species whose secretions are used in the preparation of poison darts. Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, (CC By-SA 3.0)

The black-legged dart frog is a species whose secretions are used in the preparation of poison darts. Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, (CC By-SA 3.0)

The ways in which tribes, nations, and civilizations plotted with biological agents against foes are beyond numerous, and include an ancient Hindu treatise advising poisoning the food of enemies, 2nd century BC writings in China advocating the use of a “soul-hunting fog” through the burning of toxic vegetables, and tactics in ancient Greece encouraging the tainting of vital aqueducts with the harmful hellebore flower.

Tools of Infection, Illness, Disease and Terror

In antiquity there was an incomplete understanding of the spread of disease, but it was believed the rotting corpses of animal or man were sources of illness. Scythian archers dipped their arrows in rotting bodies and in feces-tainted blood as far back as 400 BC. Later, English Longbowmen would stab their arrows in the ground in front of them, arrowheads in the dirt, so not only could they be drawn and fired quickly, but the points would be unclean, increasing the likelihood of infection in the unfortunate target.

From 300 BC, Greek, Roman, and Persian warriors were said to contaminate water wells with feces and animal carcasses.

In the 14th century The Black Death, or the plague, swept through Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, resulting in the widest-spread health disaster in history, killing 75 to 200 million people. It is harrowing to realize that a part of the terrible pandemic was due to the deliberate infection of populations during warfare.

Dead bodies were flung over the walls of besieged cities in attempts to terrify, and to introduce intolerable stench (the smell itself was thought to carry disease), rot, and infection to the enemy.

Citizens of Tournai, Belgium bury plague victims.

Citizens of Tournai, Belgium bury plague victims. Public Domain

Based on a 14th century account by the Genoese Gabriele de’ Mussi, it is said that in 1343 a war erupted between the Genoese and Mongols over control of caravan trade routes between the Black Sea and the Orient. The Mongols attacked Caffa, a Genoese colony in Crimea, but the sieging armies also had to contend with the Black Plague which had ravaged their numbers. In the end, the Mongols could not sustain the years-long attack, but as a parting shot they hurled “mountains” of plague-ridden dead across the walls with the intent of infecting the whole of the city with stench alone. It is said plague devoured the population inside the city walls. This nasty tactic has been repeated many times since then, even as late as 1710 when Russians besieging Swedish forces in Estonia allegedly catapulted dead plague victims into the city of Reval.

Beasts of Biological Warfare

Animals also played a large role in biological warfare.

They were not only used as a weapon of killing and war due to their natural venoms, but they also served as vessels for disease and plague.

In the region that is now Turkey, the ruling Hittites purposefully left infected sheep outside enemy cities in 1325 BC. The sheep carried tularemia, known as rabbit fever – a dangerous disease which remains incurable today. When the locals ate the sheep, or bred them with their own stock, the infection spread like wildfire, killing many. A weakened population cannot defend a city.

Much like the legendary tale of the Trojan Horse, in which a large, wooden, horse-shaped construction allowed the infiltration of Greek soldiers into the city of Troy to the Trojans’ ultimate loss, real, disease-carrying horses were flung by catapult in the attack on the castle of Thun L’Eveque in northern France in 1340.

The venomous snake appears in myth and history around the world, and the Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, used the deadly serpent as a weapon of bio-terror. In 184 BC Hannibal won the battle of Eurymedon against King Eumenes II of Pergamon. The cunning commander placed poisonous snakes into clay pots and hurled them onto the decks of enemy ships. When the pots shattered, the snakes both terrified and struck at enemy sailors.

From Ancient to Modern War

Biological warfare was allegedly used deliberately by the British forces in their dealings with the Native Americans in 1763. According to correspondence between British officers, blankets tainted with smallpox were purposefully given to Native Americans at diplomatic talks during the French and Indian War. The British knew the Native Americans were uniquely vulnerable to the deadly virus, and the British commanding general Sir Jeffrey Amherst ordered the use of smallpox in order to prevent sieges on British forts by the Native Americans.  The disease did notoriously ravage the indigenous populations of the New World.

Iroquois Native Americans engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722.

Iroquois Native Americans engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722. Public Domain

Truly warfare, and the history of the world, has been shaped by humanity’s practice of biological warfare. It is a tactic that remains in use today, with or without treaties, regulation or law, for the very reason that it is so devastatingly effective.

Featured image: Image from an illuminated manuscript depicting a Byzantine siege of a citadel. A tactic of ancient biological warfare was to hurl infected dead bodies over city walls. Public Domain.

By Liz Leafloor

Originally published at Ancient Origins.

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