Weird and Wonderful

Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons

Apologies for getting slightly carried away with the alliteration in the title; it’s to make up for the fact that I wanted to call this ‘Classics and Explosions’ but couldn’t, because frankly there just weren’t much in the way of explosives in the ancient Mediterranean. As already discussed, the closest we really get is ‘Greek Fire’, the mysterious substance invented by the Byzantines: since it couldn’t be extinguished by water, it came in pretty handy in sea-battles. That definitely comes under the W&W heading, but sadly it’s a little bit late for ‘Classics’, and it didn’t really explode as such. However, it turns out on further investigation that there are easily enough other weird and wonderful weapons to make up for this lack.

‘The Claw of Archimedes’ by Giulio Parigi (1571–1635)

Of course we have to start with Archimedes’ weapons, used against the Roman besiegers of Syracuse. Plutarch (Life of Marcellus 17) reports that he not only hurled rocks at enemy ships with catapults, but also used a giant iron claw to lift them out of the sea and dash them against the cliffs; he’s also supposed to have set ships on fire by focusing the sun’s rays on them with giant mirrors.

However improbable the mirrors may seem (they are, apparently, scientifically possible, but fairly unlikely at this period; not to mention the fact that none of the earliest sources mention it at all), it seems it wasn’t just the Byzantines who were good at setting things on fire. Thucydides 4.100 describes how the Boeotian besiegers of Delium invented a flamethrower out of a large log, some bellows, and a cauldron of coal, sulphur and pitch. Needless to say, the defenders fled.

Ancient catapults are, of course, best known in the form of the Roman ballista and onagerbut also existed in ancient Greece, and were even used by Alexander the Great, as reconstructed in this episode of “Man, Moment, Machine” (I highly recommend watching at least the first few minutes for a truly great combination of massively over-simplified history, over-dramatic voiceovers, slow-motion battle scenes with soldiers in improbably plastic helmets, and a whole bunch of academics trying to pretend they’re taking part in a serious scholarly programme. Look out for appearances from two of our own Faculty members!)

But what is this? I hear my regular readers cry. Half-way through a Weird and Wonderful blogpost, and no mention of any animals?! But fear not, reader, for thankfully people in the ancient world, in their infinite resourcefulness when it came to killing people, made use of whatever materials came to hand. In the course of the Mithridatic Wars, the inhabitants of the besieged city of Themiscyra, realising that the attacking Roman army was tunnelling under the walls, retaliated by digging into the tunnels themselves and releasing ‘bears and other wild beasts and swarms of bees’ (Appian, Mithridates 78). Quite what the bears were doing in the city is not explained.

A special mention for ingenuity goes to the swineherds of Aelian 8.19 (translation A.F. Scholfield, Loeb Classical Library, 1959):

“Some miscreants beached their pirate vessel on the shore of Etruria, and proceeding inland came upon a fold belonging to some swineherds and containing a large number of Sows. These they seized, put them on board, loosed their cables, and continued on their voyage. Now so long as the pirates were on shore the swineherds kept quiet, but when they were offshore…then the swineherds with their accustomed cry called the Swine back to them. And when the Swine heard it they pressed together to one side of the vessel and capsized it. And the miscreants were drowned forthwith, but the Swine swam away to their masters.”

Pigs could also be put to good use against the most well-known battle animals, elephants: according to tradition the mere sound of a pig squealing was enough to terrify them. Alexander the Great is supposed to have used this tactic (according to the Letter to Aristotle about India*); the Megarians, beseiged by the Macedonians, took it a step further by covering the pigs with pitch and setting them alight to make them squeal even more loudly (Polyaenus 4.6.3).

But the W&W first prize has to go to Hannibal the Carthaginian. Not for his famous elephants, but for his rather less well-known invention of a kind of early hand-grenade, recounted in Cornelius Nepos’ Hannibal X-XI: pots which, when thrown onto the deck of an enemy ship, would shatter to release large numbers of poisonous snakes. The tactic was later copied by the inhabitants of Hatra in Mespotamia, who fought off Septimius Severus’ troops by dropping clay pots full of poisonous insects, and possibly even scorpions, on their heads. Snake grenades and scorpion bombs: now *that* is Weird and Wonderful.


Source credit: some stories courtesy of J.C. McKeown’s A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities (OUP, 2010), R. Stoneman’s Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend (Yale U.P., 2008), and A. Mayor’s Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Duckworth, 2009).

*I can only find a translation of the Old English version of this text online. This Letter was originally composed in Greek but, since it became a major component of the Alexander Romance, was translated into various languages. I highly recommend the book by Stoneman listed above for anyone interested in the transmission of the various Alexander legends.

4 thoughts on “Weird and Wonderful Classics: Warfare and Weapons

  1. My favourite part of Archimedes’ superweapons is that they turned into a form of psychological warfare (Plutarch, Life of Marcellus 17):
    At last the Romans became so fearful that, whenever they saw a bit of rope or a stick of timber projecting a little over the wall, ‘There it is,’ they cried, ‘Archimedes is training some engine upon us,’ and turned their backs and fled.

  2. What is it about onagers and warfare? The beasts themselves pulled war-chariots in various Near Eastern societies. But just look at the picture on this page: They’re adorable. It’s like having an infantry unit made up of baby penguins.

    • That’s what’s so cunning about using them. The enemy take one look and think, aww, how sweet, that can’t possibly be dangerous….

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