Princeton (revised edition, 2022) p/b 384pp £14.99 (ISBN 9780691211084)

Was Alexander the Great really the intended victim of a ‘Poison Maiden’? How were ‘scorpion bombs’ used against the Roman soldiers besieging the city of Hatra? Why did thousands of mice in about 700 BC force King Sennacherib’s invincible Assyrian army to flee from Egypt? Did you know that catapulting beehives at enemy troops became a favourite Roman tactic and that using bees as weapons of war was still being practised by the Vietcong in their war against the Americans from 1961-1975? What’s the connection between the arrows of the mounted archers of the steppes and The Doors, Alice Cooper and The Clash?

The answers to these questions and many more are explored and verified or dismissed as mere legendary fables in this fascinating read.

In the Preface to this revised edition of her highly detailed account of ancient biological, chemical and unconventional warfare, M. begins with mention of the conspiracy theories surrounding the spread of Covid 19 in 2020. M. then compares them to those circulating in Athens in 430 BC regarding the poisoning of water supplies by the Spartans at the beginning of the Plague in Athens. Thus, right from the start, M. constantly cites episodes of ‘unconventional’ ancient warfare as the precursors of modern technological invention.

Just one example is needed to get the picture: drugged food and wine that caused the Autariatae ‘to lay about powerless, undone by violent diarrhea’ (sic) returns in 1494 as casks of wine mixed with tainted blood drawn from lepers and syphilis patients, and then as anthrax-laced candies in World War 2.

Each chapter—‘Arrows of Doom’, ‘Poison Waters, Deadly Vapors (sic)’, ‘A Casket of Plague in the Temple of Babylon’, ‘Sweet Sabotage’, ‘Animal Allies’, ‘Infernal Fire’—concentrates mainly on a particular aspect of warfare. Thus Heracles invents the first biological weapon by dipping his arrows in toxic venom. Alexander’s army is so wracked by thirst that the soldiers leap into wells, polluting their water with their bloated corpses. The Phoenicians cast burning sand over their foes, searing the skin of their enemy causing excruciating agony, madness and finally, death. Elephants are made to stampede at the sight of pigs with their skin on fire. The examples are many, varied and strangely entertaining.

The scope of the book is wide-ranging, taking in cultures from around the world, ancient and modern. M. continually highlights the ingenious ways in which mankind has used nature and science in war and the arguments it has used to consider the morality of such methods while constantly creating yet more lethal weapons. Examples of chemical and biological warfare and textual references from Greek to Indian and the Bible to the Maya are fully documented throughout. The depth of research, as revealed in the ‘notes’ and the Bibliography, is impressive. The accounts of the use of poisons, plagues, insects, camels, elephants and naptha—an extremely volatile, strong-smelling, gaseous liquid—make this an informative and gripping, if occasionally gruesome, read.

Having read this book, one may finally understand why the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle is such a valuable resource, why the screech of bagpipes can be an effective war weapon and why Mr. Burns in the Simpsons so frequently says ‘release the hounds’.


Mike Smith