Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday Warbooks: Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs

A review of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological And Chemical Warfare In the Ancient World, by Adrienne Mayor.

Yes, it came time for the Citadel and it's come time for Sunday Warbooks: for the first time, the author is... a girl. I know! Hard to believe, but they say women-folk can be just as handy with the pen as their betters. Let's find out.

Nope! I knew it! Case closed!

In all seriousness, I was slightly disappointed with this book. The subject is, of course, intriguing as hell: the use of poisons and other biological agents in the ancient world is a starting-point surely rife with obscure tidbits. In addition, Mayor promises to refute the commonly-held belief that the ancients had some sort of code against biological warfare and subterfuge.

As to the first, the book is rather heavy on the padding, relying on mythological sources for some stories and rather stretching the definition of "biological agents" to include war elephants and strategic use of terrain such as pushing the enemy toward swamp, or diverting rivers. That's not to say that there isn't fascinating material here --- there is. We hear tales of toxic rhododendron honey, poisonous snakes being catapulted onto ships, red-hot iron scraps flung onto armor, the use of burning naphtha, arrows with detachable barbs dipped in poison and feces, and other horrors. I was particularly intrigued by Mayor's well-supported hypothesis that the Hebrews' Ark of the Covenant was actually a plague box, where elders kept infected items to be distributed to enemies.

The book is written in large part like a doctoral thesis, with repeated passages meant to support main ideas, which is a bit distracting. What is more disappointing is that Mayor doesn't, in fact, refute anything definitively --- the ancient sources she cites are, as is to be expected, ambivalent on the subject of biological warfare, as one might suppose all people are. Some hawks are all for using poison on their enemies, some forward-thinking men hesitate due to moral concern, and of course most end up using whatever is necessary to defend their homes and lives, and "moral standards" go hang.

In the end, this is a book full of interesting anecdotes, but without an overarching idea to tie it all together. That's not a deal-breaker even so, except that Mayor tries too hard, with myth and other less than solid examples, to present the historical material as if there were an overarching theme. There isn't. The ancients used a lot of biological weapons. Some hated the idea and some didn't, but it happened anyway.

Mayor gains a good chunk of validation by bringing us to the present at the end, when she compares our modern attempts at disposing of chemical weapons to the ancient Greeks' "many-headed hydra." We can bury it under a boulder like the hydra's immortal head, but it's still festering there, poisoning the earth.


Sunday warbooks scoreboard:

Greco-Persian wars: 2
WWI: 2
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2
General warfare: 2

1 comment:

Churlita said...

it sounds like an interesting topic, even if she didn't handle it as well as she could have.