Friday, January 16, 2009

Chemical Warfare in Roman Syria


Interesting article about chemical warfare in Roman Syria was posted by the University of Leicester:

"A re­search­er has iden­ti­fied what he says may be the old­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence for chem­i­cal war­fare: a poison-gas at­tack that killed about 20 Ro­man sol­diers in the wan­ing years of their Em­pire.

The grim events occurred in a mine at the city of Du­ra-Europos, Syr­ia, around 256 A.D., ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­o­lo­g­ist Si­mon James of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Leices­ter, U.K.

The city, on the riv­er Eu­phra­tes, had been con­quered by the Ro­mans, who in­stalled a large gar­ri­son. The city lat­er suf­fered a fe­ro­cious siege by an ar­my from the pow­er­ful new Sasa­nian Per­sian em­pire. The dra­mat­ic sto­ry is known en­tirely from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains; no an­cient text de­scribes it, James said.

Ex­cava­t­ions dur­ing the 1920s-30s, re­newed in re­cent years, have re­sulted in spec­tac­u­lar and grue­some dis­cov­er­ies, he added.

The Sasa­nians used the full range of an­cient siege tech­niques to breach the city. These in­clud­ed build­ing “mi­nes” or tun­nels un­derneath the city walls in an at­tempt to make them col­lapse.

Ro­man de­fend­ers re­sponded by build­ing “counter-mines” to thwart the at­tackers, James said. In one of these nar­row, low gal­ler­ies, a pile of bod­ies—a­bout 20 Ro­man sol­diers still with their weapon­s—turned up in the 1930s. James re­cently re­vis­ited the site to un­der­stand how the war­riors died.

“It is ev­i­dent that, when mine and coun­ter­mine met, the Ro­mans lost the en­su­ing strug­gle,” he said. “Care­ful anal­y­sis of the dis­po­si­tion of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the coun­ter­mine by the Per­sians,” he added. The Per­sians had used their vic­tims “to cre­ate a wall of bod­ies and shields, keep­ing Ro­man counterat­tack at bay while they set fire to the coun­ter­mine, col­laps­ing it.”

“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 and sul­fur crys­tals and bi­tu­men, a nat­u­ral, flam­ma­ble, tar-like sub­stance, to get it burn­ing, he added. These chem­i­cals pro­vid­ed the vi­tal clue, James said: when ig­nit­ed, they give off dense clouds of chok­ing gas­es.

The Per­sians evidently “heard the Ro­mans tun­nelling,” said James, “and pre­pared a nas­ty sur­prise for them.” When the Ro­mans broke through, the Sasa­nians ap­par­ently set fire to the chem­i­cals and pumped the gases in the Ro­mans’ di­rec­tion us­ing bel­lows, he added.

“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 de­stroy the walls, but the Sasa­nians some­how broke in­to the city an­y­way, James said. He has ex­ca­vat­ed a row of cat­a­pult bolts, ready to use by the wall of the Ro­man camp in­side the city, rep­re­sent­ing the gar­ri­son’s last stand dur­ing fi­nal street fight­ing.

The de­fend­ers and in­hab­i­tants were slaugh­tered or de­ported to Per­sia, the city aban­doned for­ev­er, leav­ing its grue­some se­crets un­dis­turbed un­til mod­ern ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search be­gan to re­veal them. James pre­sented his find­ings at the meet­ing of the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute of Amer­i­ca in Phil­a­del­phia last week.

I found this bit about Dr. James paper on the subject as well:

"
Death in the Dark, Blood in the Streets: New Insights into the Siege and Fall of Dura-Europos
Simon James, University of Leicester

Around A.D. 254, anticipating renewed invasion of Syria by the Sasanians, the Roman garrison of Dura-Europos massively strengthened the city’s defences, intending to hold it at all costs. The Sasanian attack came c. 256, in a ferocious siege known entirely through archaeology: no historical account survives. This involved the full range of known siege techniques, including artillery, an assault ramp, mines, and countermines. The mine complex around Tower 19 has provided especially gruesome testimony of underground combat, which the speaker argues included the earliest archaeological evidence for “gas warfare.” Other recent research has identified evidence for street fighting during the fall of the city to the Persians, and of the fate of the civil population. Permanent abandonment of the site meant these dramatic remains lay undisturbed until its rediscovery in 1920. Dura exemplifies the potential of archaeology for investigating ancient warfare. Continuing work by the speaker and others also illustrates the value of archival reexamination of early excavations, and of new, limited-scale, targeted fieldwork at “old” sites.

Some additional info on the study of the Roman base:

"Building on his recently-completed study of the spectacular finds of Roman and Sasanian military equipment from Dura, Simon James is now studying other aspects of the Roman military presence in the city. This includes some further work on the remains from the siege itself, and a primarily archaeological study of the Roman military base in the city. In contrast to the West where the imperial armies were normally housed in custom-built fortified bases, in the East urban basing of garrisons was routine. Dura provides the only archaeologically accessible, and reasonably well explored example of such an urban base from the principate." - More

And a nice image of a fresco discovered at Dura-Europos:

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