Early chemical warfare comes to light

Remains of a Roman garrison in Syria document a third-century battle and offer a glimpse of a grisly tunnel fight

PHILADELPHIA — Roman soldiers defending a Middle Eastern garrison from attack nearly 2,000 years ago met the horrors of war in a most unusual place. Inside a cramped tunnel beneath the site’s massive front wall, enemy fighters stacked up nearly two dozen dead or dying Romans and set them on fire, using substances that gave off toxic fumes and drove away Roman warriors just outside the tunnel.

The attackers, members of Persia’s Sasanian culture that held sway over much of the region in and around the Middle East from the third to the seventh centuries, adopted a brutally ingenious method for penetrating the garrison wall, reported Simon James of the University of Leicester in England on January 10 at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

“In my view, this is the earliest archaeological evidence for the use of chemical warfare, which was later used by the ancient Greeks,” James said.

The Roman garrison at Dura (now called Dura-Europos) was located in what is now Syria and sat on a cliff overlooking the EuphratesRiver. The massive Sasanian siege of the garrison occurred in 256, give or take a few years. No historical records exist of this battle. Archaeological work conducted since 1920 at the ancient garrison has provided glimpses of the fierce conflict, although much remains unknown about precisely what happened.

James’ new findings vividly illustrate that “you can create a real story out of battlefield patterns that archaeologists find,” remarks Melissa Connor of NebraskaWesleyanUniversity in Lincoln.

James, who has conducted fieldwork at Dura-Europos for 30 years, examined a group of about 20 men’s skeletons adorned with military equipment that lay in a tunnel the Romans had dug to intercept Sasanian invaders, who were digging underneath the garrison wall via another tunnel.

French investigators at the site have suggested that when the Romans reached the subterranean Sasanians, the mouth of the Roman tunnel collapsed. Trapped Romans were then killed and fell on top of one another.

Although debris indeed blocked the entrance to the Roman tunnel, James doubted that explanation. First, he analyzed the positions of Roman soldiers’ bodies in the tunnel and determined that they had been deliberately stacked into a pile, either when they were mortally wounded or after they had died. The Sasanians apparently wanted to create a human wall between themselves and approaching Romans.

To obstruct advancing Romans, the Sasanians blocked the tunnel entrance with stones before stacking up the Roman victims. The Sasanians then threw a cloak and some straw on the Romans and set them on fire using a mix of pitch and sulfur. Signs of severe burning appear on the pile of skeletons and military equipment. Remains of pitch and sulfur crystals were found near the bodies, which had not been observed in earlier research, James reports.

Toxic fumes from the fire would have driven off any further Roman soldiers hoping to enter the tunnel, James said. One skeleton in the tunnel, lying by itself on the Sasanian side of the pile of bodies, is that of a helmeted Sasanian soldier carrying a sword. He apparently had set the fire and failed to flee before succumbing to the fumes, James suggests.

Research above ground at Dura-Europos indicates that, rather than surrendering, residents of the garrison engaged in street fighting as the city fell to the Persians. But then everyone, even the conquering Sasanians, abandoned the isolated site. The garrison sat in a desolate no-man’s-land that made it unappealing to the conquerors once the Romans had been vanquished. As a result, material evidence of the siege stayed in place, including a massive assault ramp built up to the garrison’s wall.

James suspects that the assault ramp was used to bring some type of battering apparatus up to the garrison wall.
Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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