Sunday, October 31, 2010

Human feces a weapon of mass destruction?

English: A group of acorns.
English: A group of acorns. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While researching documented cases of psychosis following particularly brutal engagements of ancient warfare, I came across a new (2008) introduction to Adrienne Mayor's book, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, originally published in 2003. In it she mentions that during the Gothic War (CE 535-555) Romans, under siege by the Goths, were forced to eat human feces, toxic nettles, and acidic acorn flour resulting in mass fatal poisonings.

I had never read about this particular siege or its outcome before so was appalled at the level of desperation the Romans must have reached to engage in these last ditch efforts to stave off hunger.  But as I thought about these poor unfortunate wretches, I got to wondering about whether the items mentioned would really produce a mass poisoning.  Since all three items were mentioned, I assume there was not a definitive consensus about which of the three caused the fatalities.

So I began to research this issue further.
I learned that coprophagia, from the Greek copro which means feces and phagy which means eat, is common among some animals, particularly dogs.  That's why I've had to scold my little dachshunds for attempting to scarf down cat feces when they dig them up in the yard. Veterinarians are not really sure why dogs engage in this disgusting behavior although it does appear to increase in frequency in cases of severe disorders of the pancreas (pancreatic insufficiency) or intestine, severe malnutrition from massive parasitic infestations, or starvation.  (I assure you my little dogs are rather pudgy from my husband feeding them too many snacks so they don't have that excuse!)

I also learned that in ancient times physicians would taste the excrement of their patients to try to determine their state of health.  (I knew there was a reason I decided against becoming a medical doctor) I also read about the Bedouin using the consumption of warm camel feces as a treatment for bacterial dysentery.
So, as revolting as it sounds, apparently some people have eaten feces without initial harm although long term diseases can be contracted such as E. coli, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, pneumonia, polioinfluenza
and internal parasites.  But it doesn't sound like coprophagia could be the cause of an observed wide-spread poisoning.

So I started exploring the effects of eating nettles.  But I learned that nettles, even stinging nettles, actually have an edible bulb and, although the ancients may have only recorded that the inhabitants of the beseiged town were gathering nettles, they may not have realized they were only eating the tuber and not the "nettlesome" foliage.  So that leaves acorns as the only remaining suspect.

Acorns have been used as a protein-rich food source by both wildlife and humans for centuries although acorns from some species like red oak are high in tannic acid that must be leeched out by soaking them first. But processed acorns are susceptible to mold when stored.  Perhaps it was mold, then, that actually precipitated the poisonings, not the consumption of acorns itself.  Of course, poison concoctions could have been manually applied to potential foodstuffs and left where they could have been easily "stolen" by desperate townsfolk but the ancient sources were not admitting to anything like that.  Hmmm....

In this updated introduction to her book (it was written to coincide with a 2008 paperback re-release of her original work ) Mayor also mentioned that archaeologists found the remains of an ancient concoction termed "Mithridatium" in the bottom of a vat in a Roman villa near Pompeii in 2007.
Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI ...Image via Wikipedia
Mithradates VI "The Poison King" of Pontus
"Tests of the residue, published in 2007, revealed a mixture of powerful medicinal plants, including opium poppy seeds, along with the flesh and bones of reptiles. Was this an ancient witch’s poisonous brew? Quite the contrary; according to the archaeologists, the vat may have been used to prepare a secret “universal antidote” believed to counteract all known poisons.

This concoction, a combination of small doses of poisons and their antidotes, called  Mithridatium, had been invented by King Mithridates VI of Pontus, a brilliant military strategist and master of toxicology, about one hundred years earlier. His recipe was perfected by the Emperor Nero’s personal physician and became the world’s most sought-after antidote, long prescribed for European royalty."  - Adrienne Mayor
 I somehow missed hearing about this fascinating discovery back in 2007.  For 38 pages of similarly intriguing examples, I encourage you to read her "New Introduction" available online from Stanford.

Other Resources:

A Brief History of Chemical and Biological Weapons
Polybius: The Histories

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy   The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.   Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World   Siege Warfare in the Roman World: 146 BC-AD 378 (Elite)
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3 comments: said...

Great article! For more details about the vat discovered in Pompeii, please see my blog interview in two parts with Adrienne Mayor (with occasional outbursts from Mithradates!) in August 2010 at

mayor said...

I really enjoyed this essay, great detective work.

At the risk of appalling everyone even more, there is a new advanced therapy, disgustingly enough still in the preliminary, rather primitive stage of development, known as "stool transplants" or "fecal bacteriotherapy" using healthy donor feces.

Mary Harrsch said...

Adrienne, is this considered a new approach to combat antibiotic-resistant infections? If so, I hope I never get one!!