Monday, 19 January 2009

Chemical Warfare in Roman Times

The body of one of the Sasanian attackers lay in the mine, still clad in his iron mail shirt, his helmet and sword near his feet. (Please credit as follows: Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Excavation Archive).

by Kathryn Hadley

In a recent colloquium held as part of the 110th annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Dr Simon James, from the University of Leicester, presented evidence for what may be the earliest archeological signs of “gas warfare”. He argued that around twenty Roman soldiers found in a siege-mine at the city of Dura-Europos, Syria, died not as a result of sword or spear, but instead through asphyxiation.

The site of Dura-Europos on the banks of the Euphrates was conquered by the Romans around AD 160. In approximately AD 256 it was, however, attacked and subjected to a violent siege by an army from the rising Sasanian Persian Empire. There are no written records of the attack, the dramatic story of which is merely told by archeological remains. The Sasanians notably employed mining operations in an attempt to breach the walls of the Roman city, to which Roman defenders responded with counter-mines.

By studying the position of the bodies of the Roman soldiers found in a tunnel entrance, Dr James concluded that they had been deliberately stacked there in order to hinder the advance of remaining Roman army. Evidence of bitumen and sulphur in the tunnels provided that vital clues: the materials were used to start fires, which when ignited give off clouds of choking gases. Scars of severe burns on the corpses confirm that the bodies were indeed set on fire.

Dr James explained how:
“Careful analysis of the disposition of the corpses shows they had been stacked
at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians, using their victims to create a
wall of bodies and shields, keeping Roman counterattack at bay while they set
fire to the countermine, collapsing it, allowing the Persians to resume sapping
the walls. This explains why the bodies were where they were found. But how did
they die? For the Persians to kill twenty men in a space less than 2m high or
wide, and about 11m long, required superhuman combat powers – or something more

“The Persians will have heard the Romans tunneling and prepared a nasty surprise
for them. I think the Sasanians placed braziers and bellows in their gallery,
and when the Romans broke through, added the chemicals and pumped choking clouds
into the Roman tunnel. The Roman assault party was unconscious in seconds, dead
in minutes.”

Ironically however, this Persian mine failed in the end to destroy the city walls. Archaeological evidence reveals, nevertheless, that the Sasanians did manage to break into the city. Its inhabitants were massacred or deported to Persia and the city was abandoned forever. The site was only rediscovered in 1920. Recent excavations are part of a new research project on the archeology of Dura in order to build on previous campaigns of excavations conducted French and American teams in the 1920s and 1930s.

For more information about the history and archaeology of Dura, visit
For more information on the Archaeological Institute of America and its last annual meeting, visit
For further general information on the relationship between the Roman Empire and Syria, read our article The Syrian Cuckoo: Rome and the Unconquered Sun

No comments:

Blog Directory