Did Persians Succeed With Chemical Weapons?

Jan. 19, 2009
Archaeologists unearth roots of chemical warfare in Roman times.

Iraqi chemical weapons may have been conspicuous by their absence at the back end of the 20th century, but now an English archaeologist believes that they may have been in use in the region almost 1,800 years earlier.

Dr. Simon James of the school of archaeology and ancient history at the University of Leicester in the English midlands, together with his colleague Dr. Jen Baird from Birkbeck College, University of London, is carrying out research at Dura-Europos in Syria.

This abandoned Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates river in Eastern Syria was destroyed by the Sasanian Persians in about A.D. 256. However, its well-preserved archaeological remains were largely sealed within the city and were the reason behind numerous U.S. and French excavations carried out there in the in the1920s and the 1930s.

Speaking at the Archaeological Institute of America’s 109th meeting on Jan. 3, in Chicago,  James outlined his latest findings, possibly the oldest archaeological evidence for chemical warfare.

James argued that about 20 Roman soldiers found in a siege-mine at the city met their deaths not by the more usual sword or spear, but by asphyxiation.

Dura-Europos was conquered by the Romans, who installed a large garrison there. Around A.D. 256, an army from the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire subjected the city to a ferocious siege. The dramatic story is told entirely from archaeological remains; no ancient text describes it.

The excavations from the 1920s and the 1930s, which have been renewed in recent years, have led to spectacular and gruesome discoveries.

To break into the city, the Sasanians used the full range of ancient siege techniques, including mining operations to breach the walls, according to James, who believes the Roman defenders responded with “counter-mines” to thwart the attackers.

In one of these narrow, low galleries, a pile of bodies, representing about 20 Roman soldiers still with their armaments, was found in the 1930s. While conducting new fieldwork at the site, James has recently reappraised this coldest of cold-case “crime scenes” in an attempt to understand exactly how these Romans died, and came to be lying where they were found.
“It is evident that, when mine and countermine met, the Romans lost the ensuing struggle,” he says. “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 20 men in a space less than two meters high or wide, and about 11 meters long, required superhuman combat powers — or something more insidious."

Finds from the Roman tunnel revealed that the Persians used bitumen and sulphur crystals to get it burning. These provided the vital clue. When ignited, such materials give off dense clouds of choking gases.
“The Persians will have heard the Romans tunneling,” says James, “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 were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes. Use of such smoke generators in siege-mines is actually mentioned in classical texts, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence at Dura that the Sasanian Persians were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic.”

Ironically, this Persian mine failed to bring the walls down, but it’s clear that the Sasanians somehow broke into the city. James recently excavated a  “machine-gun belt,” a row of catapult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Roman camp inside the city, representing the last stand of the garrison during the final street fighting.

The defenders and inhabitants were slaughtered or deported to Persia, the city abandoned forever, leaving its gruesome chemical warfare secrets undisturbed until modern archaeological research began to reveal them.

Seán Ottewell is Editor at Large for Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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