April 17, 2007

Biochemical warfare was waged in antiquity, says classics scholar

Disease-bearing missiles, poison gas, flamethrowers and human-engineered plagues: All are typically considered the stuff of modern warfare. But according to Adrienne Mayor, a visiting fellow in Stanford University's Department of Classics, these technologies -- as well as the ethical concerns surrounding them -- have been part of warfare since before the ancient Greeks.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in Kaufmann Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall, April 12, Mayor presented a lecture on chemical and biological warfare in cultures dating to the Sumerians and Hittites, circa 1700 B.C.

"Killing enemies by borrowing the destructive forces of nature was not just a fantasy spawned by the mythmakers," she noted. "Biological and chemical warfare was actually carried out and is documented in the ancient sources."

Mayor's work deals with biological and chemical warfare in antiquity, including poisons, incendiary weapons and the use of live animals in combat. She referenced accounts of arrows tipped with snake venom, clay pots filled with scorpions, toxic garments and plague victims flung over city walls.

She also spoke extensively about the inherent problems brought about by these types of weapons, evident especially in Greek myths surrounding Hercules' poison arrows, which accidentally killed several of his allies and, eventually, Hercules himself.

"The mythical stories show that the idea of making biological weapons is an extremely ancient one, but they also reveal the complex attitudes toward weapons that deliver poison or take unfair advantage of the enemy," said Mayor. "Strategies to avoid face-to-face combat entailed practical and ethical problems, and that realization stands out even in the earliest myths about biological weapons."

Mayor is an independent scholar working at what she describes as "the history of science." In 2003 she published "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World." Her interest in ancient biological and chemical warfare, she said, was sparked by the post-Sept. 11, 2001, anthrax scare.

Historians once believed that the first use of biological weapons occurred during the siege of Kaffa by Tartar forces in 1346.

"They catapulted Black Plague victims over the city walls," she recounted. "So many reports referred to biological warfare being a 21st-century dilemma, but I had gathered extensive ancient references to the use of poisons, pathogens and Greek fire and realized that the roots of such weapons were very ancient."

The talk was sponsored by the Mortar Board Honor Society and co-sponsored by the Peace Studies Program and the Departments of Science and Technology Studies, History and Classics.