Ancient History & Civilisation



Attacked by a terrible stream of consuming fire, her flesh fell from her bones, like resin from a pine-torch, a sight dreadful to behold.

—EURIPIDES, Medea, 431 BC

THE PRINCESS DONNED the gown, a gift from the sorceress Medea, and twirled before the looking glass. Suddenly the gown burst into flames. Like Hercules in his envenomed tunic, the princess tried to tear off the flaming dress, but the material stuck to her skin, creating a fire so hot that it melted the flesh from her bones. Engulfed by “clinging streams of unnatural, devouring fire,” she dashed outside and threw herself into a fountain. But water only made the fire burn more intensely. Her father, King Creon, tried to smother the flames, but he too caught fire. Both perished, burned alive. The blaze spread, destroying the entire palace and everyone inside.

This scene from Euripides’ Medea, based on ancient Greek myth, was performed in Athens in 431 BC. It describes a terrible fire weapon concocted by Medea of Colchis, who had helped her lover Jason, and his Argonauts, find the Golden Fleece. When Jason abandoned Medea, she took revenge on his new love, the Corinthian princess Glauke. She treated a beautiful gown with secret substances that “stored up the powers of fire,” sealed the gift in an airtight casket, and delivered it to the unsuspecting princess.

How did Medea create such an extraordinary conflagration? The graphic details—and the popularity of the story in Greek and Roman literature and art—suggest that some real but unusual fire phenomenon inspired the legend. The notion that materials could be made to suddenly combust in the presence of water or heat must have been plausible to audiences as early as the fifth century BC.

Some, like Diodorus of Sicily, speculated that Medea knew of a magical “little root” that, once set afire, was impossible to extinguish. But, according to Euripides, Medea combined special volatile substances which had to be sealed from air, light, moisture, and heat. The violent combustion resulted in flames that were clinging, corrosive, extremely hot, and unquenchable by water—much like modern napalm in its ghastly effects. The myth points to knowledge of chemical weapons more than one thousand years before the invention of Greek Fire in the seventh century AD.1

Fire itself has been a weapon “from the first time an angry hominid snatched a burning brand from a campfire and threw it at the cause of his wrath,” writes historian Alfred Crosby in Throwing Fire. More than two millennia before Crosby, the Roman philosopher Lucretius had written that fire became a weapon as soon as men learned to kindle sparks. In Greek myth, the hero Hercules used burning arrows and torches to destroy the Hydra monster, and blazing arrows were shot by heroes of the great Indian epics, the “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana.”

Fire arrows were a very early invention in human history and Assyrian reliefs from the ninth century BC show attackers and defenders exchanging volleys of burning arrows and firepots, apparently filled with local oil, over fortified walls. In ancient India, fire weapons were common enough to be forbidden in the Laws of Manu, which proscribed kings from using “weapons made red-hot with fire or tipped with burning materials,” although Kautilya’s Arthashasta and several other Indian treatises of the same era give many recipes for creating chemical fire projectiles and smoke weapons. Meanwhile, in China, during the Warring States period of feudal conflicts (403-221 BC), Sun Tzu’s Art of War and other military treatises advocated ways to deploy fire and smoke to terrify foes.2 The inventory of fire armaments devised in antiquity is impressive in its variety, beginning with burning arrows and progressing to chemical additives and sophisticated incendiary technologies.


The first incendiary missiles were arrows wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw, often referred to as tow) and set afire. Burning arrows of these materials could be very effective in destroying wooden walls from a safe distance. Indeed, Athens was captured by flaming hemp arrows in 480 BC, when the Persians invaded Greece. Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities with fire and, as the grand Persian army approached Athens, the populace was evacuated to the countryside. A few priests and poor and infirm citizens were left behind to defend the Acropolis. These defenders put up barricades of planks and timber around the Temple of Athena and managed to hold off the Persians for a time by rolling boulders down the slopes of the Acropolis. But, in the first recorded use of fire projectiles on Greek soil, the Persians shot fiery arrows to burn down the wooden barricades. The Persians then swarmed over the Acropolis, slaughtering all the Athenians in the temple and burning everything to the ground.


FIGURE 35 Greek warrior assaulting a city wall with a burning pine-resin torch. Campanian neck-amphora, about 375 BC.

(The J. Paul Getty Museum)

But simple flaming missiles of straw were “insufficiently destructive and murderous” to satisfy ancient strategists for long, notes Alfred Crosby. They were not much use against stone walls, and ordinary fires could be doused with water. “What was wanted was something that would burn fiercely, adhere stubbornly, and resist being put out by water.” What kinds of chemical additives would produce fires strong enough to burn walls and machines, capture cities, and destroy enemies?

The first additive was a plant chemical, pitch, the flammable resin tapped from pine trees. Later, distillations of pitch into crude turpentine were available. Resinous fires burned hotly and the sticky sap resisted water. Arrows could be dipped in pitch and ignited, or one could set fires fueled with pitch to burn the enemy’s equipment. Other mineral accelerants for making hotter and more combustible weapons were discovered, too.3

The earliest evidence that flaming arrows were used by a Greek army appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans besieged the city of Plataia, an ally of Athens, and used a full panoply of siege techniques against the stubborn Plataians. We know the Spartans used fire arrows, because the Plataians protected their wooden palisades with what would later become the standard defense against flaming projectiles—they hung curtains of untanned animal skins over the walls. Then, the Plataians lassoed the Spartans’ siege engines, winching them into the air and letting them crash to the ground. With their machines smashed and with their archers unable to ignite the rawhide-covered walls, the Spartans advanced beyond mere flaming arrows, into the as-yet-unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event occurred just two years after Euripides’ play about Medea’s mysterious recipe for “unnatural fire.”

The Spartans heaped up a massive mound of firewood right next to the city wall. Then they added liberal quantities of pine-tree sap and, in a bold innovation, sulphur. Sulphur is the chemical element found in acrid-smelling, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic areas, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. Sulphur was also called brimstone, which means “burning stone.” Volcanic eruptions were observed to create flowing rivers and lakes of burning sulphur, scenes that corresponded to ancient visions of Hell with its lakes of fire. In antiquity, clods and liquid forms of sulphur had many uses, from medicine and pesticides to bleaching togas. Sulphur’s highly flammable nature also made it a very attractive incendiary in war. “No other substance is more easily ignited,” wrote Pliny, “which shows that sulphur contains a powerful abundance of fire.”

When the Spartans ignited the great woodpile at Plataia, the combination of pitch and sulphur “produced such a conflagration as had never been seen before, greater than any fire produced by human agency,” declared Thucydides. Indeed, the blue sulphur flames and the acrid stench must have been sensational, and the fumes also would have been quite destructive, since the combustion of sulphur creates toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which can kill if inhaled in large enough quantities. The Plataians abandoned their posts on the burning palisades. Much of the wall was destroyed, but then the wind reversed and the great fire eventually subsided after a severe thunderstorm. Plataia was saved by what must have seemed to be divine intervention against the Spartans’ technological innovation. Notably, this also happens to be the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poison gas, although it is not clear that the Spartans were aware of that deadly side effect when they threw sulphur on the flames.

Defenders quickly learned to use chemically fed fires against besiegers. Writing in about 360 BC, Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy soldiers or onto their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulphur, which would stick to the coating of pitch. Then, one used ropes to immediately let down burning bundles of kindling to ignite the pitch and sulphur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked wooden “bomb” filled with blazing material that could be dropped onto siege engines. The iron spikes would embed the device into the wooden frame of the machine and both would be consumed by flames. Another defense strategy was to simply “fill bags with pitch, sulphur, tow, powdered frankincense gum, pine shavings, and sawdust.” Set afire, these sacks could be hurled from the walls to burn the men below.

During the grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”) in 304 BC, both sides hurled resinous missiles—firepots and flaming arrows. On moonless nights during the siege, wrote Diodorus of Sicily, “the fire-missiles burned bright as they hurtled violently through the air.” The morning after a particularly spectacular night attack, Demetrius Poliorcetes had his men collect and count the fire missiles. He was startled by the vast resources of the city. In a single night, the Rhodians had fired more than eight hundred fiery projectiles of various sizes, and fifteen hundred catapult bolts. Rhodes’ resistance was successful, and Poliorcetes withdrew with his reputation tarnished, abandoning his valuable siege equipment. From the sale of his machines, the Rhodians financed the building of the Colossus of Rhodes astride their harbor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Technological advances in fire arrows were reported by the Roman historians Silius Italicus and Tacitus, who describe the large fire-bolt (the falarica), a machine-fired spear with a long iron tip that had been dipped in burning pitch and sulphur. (The opening scene of the 2000 Hollywood film “Gladiator” showed the Roman falarica in action in a night battle in Germany). The burning spears were “like thunderbolts, cleaving the air like meteors,” wrote Silius Italicus. The carnage was appalling. The battlefield was strewn with “severed, smoking limbs” carried through the air by the bolts, and “men and their weapons were buried under the blazing ruins of the siege towers.”

Machine-fired fire-bolts and catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when that city managed to hold off the long siege by the hated emperor Maximinus in AD 236 (his own demoralized soldiers slew him in his tent outside the city walls). Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden shafts of the bolts. Vegetius, a military engineer of AD 390, gives one recipe for the ammunition: sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil.

Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century AD) described fire-darts shot from bows. Hollow cane shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron and punctured with many small holes on the underside (to provide oxygen for combustion). The cavity was filled with bituminous materials. (In antiquity,bitumen was a catchall term for petroleum products such as asphalt, tar, naphtha, and natural gas.) These fire-darts had to be shot with a weak bow, however, since high velocity could extinguish the fire in the shaft. Once they hit their target, the fire was ferocious. They flared up upon contact with water, marveled Ammianus, and the flames could only be put out by depriving the blaze of oxygen, by smothering it with sand.4

The fire-dart sounds similar to the Chinese fire-lance, invented in about AD 900. This was a bamboo (later, metal) tube with one opening, packed with sulphur, charcoal, and small amounts of the “fire chemical” (explosive saltpeter or nitrate salts, a key ingredient of gunpowder). The tube was affixed to a lance with a kind of pump, which Crosby describes as “a sort of five-minute flame thrower.” At first, they “spewed nothing but flame,” but soon the Chinese added sand and other irritants like sharp shards of pottery and metal shrapnel, and many different kinds of poisons, such as toxic plants, arsenic, and excrement, to the saltpeter mixture. As Robert Temple, historian of ancient Chinese science, remarked, “Bizarre and terrible poisons were mixed together” to make bombs and grenades. “Practically every animal, plant, and mineral poison imaginable was combined,” for “there hardly seemed to be a deadly substance unknown to them.”

In India, a military manual by Shukra, the Nitishastra (dated to the beginning of the Christian era) describes tubular projectiles thrown by devices used by the infantry and cavalry. The tube, about three feet long, contained saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, with other optional ingredients, such as iron filings, lead, and realgar (arsenic). The tubes shot iron or lead balls by “the touch of fire” ignited “by the pressure of flint.” Shukra remarked that “war with [these] mechanical instruments leads to great destruction.”5


“In practice,” speculates one modern historian of incendiaries, the earliest fire weapons were probably used “against large, inflammable targets at close range,” such as wooden walls and ships. Indeed, the Spartans’ great sulphur and pitch conflagration at Plataia was piled next to the walls of the fort. In a navel battle during the Hannibalic War, the Roman general Gnaeus Scipio fashioned early Molotov cocktails, by lighting jars filled with pitch and resin and hurling them onto the wooden decks of Carthaginian ships.

Lucan (a Roman writer of the first century AD) writes of casting burning torches dipped in oil and sulphur onto ships’ decks and shooting arrows smeared with burning pitch or wax to ignite the flaxen sails. To make the arrows “burn even more vehemently,” the archers soon learned to melt a mixture of varnish, oil and petroleum, colophon (dense black residue of turpentine boiled down with “sharp” vinegar), and sulphur. Lucan’s description of one firefight at sea is harrowing. Fire, fed by chemicals and the extremely flammable wax caulking of the ships, coursed swiftly through the riggings. It consumed the rowers’ wooden benches and spread everywhere, even over the water itself. Houses near the shore also caught fire, as wind fanned the conflagration. Such fire weapons were clearly intended to destroy the ship and the crew, and the victims faced the choice of burning or drowning. Some sailors clung to blazing planks in the waves, terrified of drowning, while others grappled with the enemy amid the burning wreckage, thinking it best to go down fighting.

Wooden ships were not just good targets, their flammability also made them attractive delivery systems for fire. During the ill-fated Athenian attack on Sicily in 413 BC, for example, the Syracusans came up with a creative deployment of resinated fire in a naval battle. They loaded an old merchant ship with faggots of torch-pine, set it alight, and simply let the wind blow the ship of fire toward the Athenians’ fleet of wooden triremes. Frontinus, the Roman strategist, reported that in 48 BC, the commander Cassius, also fighting in Sicily, copied the Syracusans and filled several decrepit transport vessels with burning wood, and “set them with a fair wind” to destroy the enemy fleet. Fire-ship tactics required favorable winds, of course, or else the boomerang effect could be disastrous.

The most stupendous fire ship of all was manufactured in 332 BC, by the Phoenicians, during Alexander the Great’s famous siege of Tyre (an island city on the coast of Lebanon). The historians Arrian and Quintus Curtius described the ship as a floating chemical firebomb. The Phoenician engineers fitted a very large transport ship (originally used for carrying cavalry horses) with two masts and yardarms. From these they suspended four cauldrons brimming with sulphur, bitumen, and “every sort of material apt to kindle and nourish flame.” The foredeck of the ship was packed with cedar torches, pitch, and other flammables, and the hold was filled with dry brush liberally laced with more chemical combustibles.

Waiting until the wind was favorable, Phoenician rowers towed the great fire ship right up to the offensive mole (a pier extending from the shore to the fortified island) erected by Alexander’s men. The mole had two movable towers and many ballistic engines behind its palisades, all protected with curtains of raw hides in case of flaming arrows. But the Macedonians were unprepared for the unstoppable ship of flames. The Phoenicians ignited the transport and then rowed like mad to crash the burning mass into the mole. They escaped by jumping overboard and swimming to skiffs that returned them to safety. On impact with the mole, the cauldrons on the burning ship spilled their flammable contents, further accelerating the flames. Propelled by the wind, the raging chemical fire incinerated Alexander’s palisades and his siege engines. The Macedonians on the mole were either consumed by flames or leaped into the sea. The Phoenicians chopped at the desperate swimmers’ hands with stakes and rocks until the men drowned or were taken prisoner.6

The casualties and destruction of the mole did not end Alexander’s siege, nor was the fire ship the last of the fiendish incendiary devices thought up by the Phoenician engineers of Tyre. The Phoenicians, noted Diodorus of Sicily, realized that the Macedonians possessed superior hand-to-hand fighting qualities. They needed an antipersonnel weapon to “offset such a courageous enemy.” There is a clear sense of disapproval in Diodorus’s account, deploring the cowardice of those who turn to chemical weapons to defeat honorable warriors.

The Phoenician engineers “devised an ingenious and horrible torment which even the bravest could not deflect,” wrote Diodorus. They filled enormous shallow bowls of iron and bronze with fine sand and tiny bits of metal. These pans they roasted over a great fire until the sand glowed red-hot. “By means of an unknown apparatus” (a catapult of some sort), the Phoenicians cast the burning sand “over those Macedonians who were fighting most boldly and brought them utter misery.” There was no escape for anyone within range of the sand. The molten grains and red-hot shrapnel “sifted down under the soldiers’ breastplates and seared their skin with the intense heat, inflicting unavoidable pain.” Alexander’s men writhed, trying to pull off their armor and shake out the burning sand. “Shrieking like those under torture, in excruciating agony, Alexander’s men went mad and died.” The scene at Tyre brings to life in astonishing detail the mythic image of Hercules struggling to escape from his burning tunic.

The rain of burning sand at Tyre, created more than two millennia ago, also has an uncanny resemblance to the effects of modern metal incendiaries, such as magnesium and thermite. Burning particles of magnesium and molten iron are dispersed by the combustion of intensely hot metal bombs and splatter on victims, making myriad small but extremely deep burns. The high-temperature metallic embers, just like the red-hot sand, penetrate far into the skin and keep on burning, causing deep tissue injury and death.7


A century after Alexander’s tribulations with burning weapons at Tyre, the Syracusans invented a long-range thermal weapon of amazing effectiveness. During the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, Archimedes, the brilliant philosopher-mathematician, was commissioned by King Hiero to develop ingenious ways of defending Syracuse. The elderly engineer developed an array of formidable weapons that were used against the Romans, from catapults that hurled burning fireballs to gargantuan grappling cranes that lifted warships completely out of the water and smashed them down with such force that they sank.

But the most celebrated weapon invented by Archimedes was essentially a heat ray used against the Roman navy commanded by Claudius Marcellus. According to ancient accounts, Archimedes had soldiers polish the concave surfaces of their bronze shields to a mirror finish. Then he assembled them to stand in a parabola shape and tip their shields to create a huge reflective surface to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships’ riggings. Like burning ants or matchsticks with a magnifying glass, the intense heat of the concentrated rays caused the sails and wooden masts to catch fire instantaneously. Marcellus’s fleet was reduced to ashes. He gave up the naval blockade and finally captured Syracuse “by thirst.”

Marcellus ordered his men to capture Archimedes alive, thinking that the Romans could learn from him (this appears to be the first recorded instance of the practice of capturing or giving immunity to enemy biochemical weapons scientists). But the old man was killed during the brutal sack of the city. Marcellus buried the scientist with honor, decorating his tomb with a geometric cylinder and sphere. The grave was long forgotten, until it was discovered in a bramble patch outside the gates of Syracuse by the Roman orator Cicero, more than a century later. About seven hundred years after Syracuse, in AD 515, the philosopher Proklos was said to have used Archimedes’ mirror technique to burn the ships sent by Vitalianus against the Emperor Anastasios.

Since the Enlightenment, many scientists have undertaken complex calculations and experiments to learn whether Archimedes’ method could have worked. The first series of experiments, by Count Buffon of the Paris Museum of Natural History in 1747, used mirrors to instantly ignite a pine plank 150 feet away. The most recent test was carried out in 1975 by a Greek scientist, Dr. I. Sakkas. He lined up sixty Greek sailors each holding a mirror shaped like an oblong shield. In concert, they tilted the mirrors to direct the sun’s rays at a wooden ship 160 feet away. It caught fire immediately.8

According to the Latin sources, Marcellus’s Roman sailors were sent into deepening panic at each new weapon deployment, with many believing that the Syracusans were being aided by the gods or by magic. The burning ray that caused their ships to suddenly burst into flame must have seemed like a bolt from the heavens. Indeed, the impressive effects of long-range thermal-ray weapons continue to be sought by weapons designers today. A burning ray in the form of a laser gun that incinerated victims was apparently one of many sophisticated secret weapons tested by the United States during its invasion of Panama, in 1989, according to interviews with medical personnel and eyewitnesses. And a burning ray is the feature of another secret weapon recently developed by the U.S. military: in 2001, the Pentagon unveiled an antipersonnel weapon that fires a beam of intense heat more than a third of a mile. The painful burning sensation, caused by the same microwave energy used to heat food is, however, supposed to disperse crowds without actually cooking or killing anyone. The idea is to mount the microwave ray gun on a military vehicle and point it at individuals or groups. “It’s safe, completely safe,” said Colonel George Fenton, the director of the U.S. Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, in 2001. “You walk out of the beam [and] there’s no long term effect, none, zero, zip.” Critics point out, however, that severe burns could result if the beam is focused on someone long enough, say someone already incapacitated by other “nonlethal” weaponry such as tear gas or calmative mists—or immobilized in a crowd. That person might be as unable to escape as a Macedonian trapped in the range of the burning sand at Tyre, or a Roman sailor who happened to be in the riggings when Archimedes aimed his heat ray.9


Bows and arrows, Archimedes’ mirrors, and burning ships proved to be good systems for delivering fire. Torsion catapult technology (based on the spring-tension of ropes made of elastic materials such as sinew or hair), invented in about 350 BC, greatly expanded the horizons for hurling fire-pots and fiery projectiles over the walls of cities, and onto vessels. An even earlier invention for propelling fire, a remarkable flame-blowing contraption, was created at a very early date, in 424 BC, by Sparta’s allies during the Peloponnesian War, the Boeotians.

This device was built just four years after the Spartans had created the super-conflagration at Plataia, which had ultimately failed due to shifting wind. The design of the primitive Boeotian flamethrower got around the problems encountered by the Spartans at Plataia by creating man-made wind. The device had a large capacity but a short range, like modern flamethrowers. Thucydides described how the flamethrower destroyed the wooden fortifications at Delium, held by the Athenians. The Boeotians hollowed out a huge wooden log and plated it with iron. They suspended a large cauldron from the log by a chain attached to one end of the hollow beam, and an iron tube was inserted through the length of the hollow beam, curving down into the cauldron, which was filled with lighted coals, sulphur, and pitch. The apparatus was mounted on a cart and wheeled right up to the wall. At that point the Boeotians attached a very large blacksmith’s bellows to their end of the beam and pumped great blasts of air through the tube to direct the chemical fire and gases in the cauldron at the wall. The walls and many defenders were incinerated as they attempted to flee their posts, and Delium was captured.10

A similar flamethrowing device—with the surprising addition of vinegar to the combustibles—was devised by Apollodorus of Damascus, the military engineer for Roman emperors in the second century AD. The addition of vinegar reputedly allowed the flamethrower to destroy stone fortification walls. Historians such as Dio Cassius and Vitruvius also reported that vinegar and fire in combination could shatter rock, but modern scholars have puzzled over how vinegar could accomplish this. The use of vinegar and fire for breaking up stone was first described by the historians Livy and Pliny, in their accounts of how Hannibal’s engineers solved a logistics problem while crossing the Alps in 218 BC. To clear a landslide obstructing Hannibal’s route in the mountains, the Carthaginians felled large trees into a pile on top of the rock slide, then set them on fire. When the huge bonfire had caused the rocks fall to glow red, they poured vinegar on the rocks, which instantly disintegrated.

The ancient claims that vinegar and fire could somehow destroy walls and the story of Hannibal’s feat were long ridiculed as legends, until scientific experiments in 1992 proved that rocks heated to high temperatures will indeed fracture if a considerable quantity of acidic vinegar is splashed on the hot stone. Further experiments with sour red wine (the source of vinegar in antiquity) produced even more violent results, as the hot rocks sizzled and cracked apart. The scientists found that the chemical reaction worked best on limestone and marble, which happened to be the favorite building stone for ancient fortification walls.11


With the multitude of types of fire weapons proliferating through the ages, methods of defense against them were sought. Aeneas the Tactician advised that those fighting flaming weapons should shield their faces if possible. He also recommended covering wooden parapets or walls with felt or raw animal hides, the practice carried out by the Plataians defending against Spartan fire arrows, and by the Macedonians besieging Tyre.

Alum (double sulphate of aluminum and potassium) was known as a fire retardant that could prevent wood combustion: it was mined in Egypt and Pontus. After the temple of Delphi burned down in 548 BC, for example, King Amasis of Egypt sent a large quantity (one thousand talents) of alum to fireproof the timber used for rebuilding. King Mithridates of Pontus fireproofed the wooden towers of his fortresses with alum in 87 BC, and in AD 296 the emperor Constantine fireproofed his siege engines with alum against Persian incendiaries.

Incendiaries containing sulphur, resins, tar, or petroleum would stick tenaciously to any surface and could only be put out with difficulty, using sand or dirt, wrote Aeneas. To protect siege machines from chemical fires or melted lead poured from above, he suggested that the housings should be covered with clay mixed with hair, or wet mud. Advice on protecting men from chemical burns is notably nonexistent in Aeneas and other ancient Greek and Roman military manuals. In India, however, it was believed that certain ointments rubbed on the skin could protect a soldier from burns and Kautilya’s military treatise of the fourth century BC told how to make fire-resistant salves from sticky plant juices and frog skin. Muslim military books gave recipes for fire retardants that called for a paste of talc, eggwhites, gum, and “salamander-skin” (an early name for the fire-resistant mineral asbestos).

Another well-known fire retardant in antiquity was vinegar, despite its ability to shatter stone when heated. “If the enemy attempts to set fires with highly combustible materials” such as pitch and sulphur, water cannot soak into or wet the fire, wrote Aeneas. Only “vinegar will put it out and also makes it difficult to restart the fire.” In 74 BC, the city of Cyzicus on the Black Sea successfully beat back Mithridates’ siege and managed to extinguish his fire missiles with vinegar, just as Aeneas advised.

Defenders using vinegar to put out flames directed at their stone walls would have to take care lest they cause their own heated walls to crack, however, and the besiegers could also use vinegar to resist burning materials thrown on them by defenders. To protect siege equipment, Polyaenus recommended that vinegar, “particularly good at extinguishing every kind of fire,” should be poured or sponged periodically onto wooden siege machines. Vinegar could also help neutralize choking fumes from fires: Pliny noted its beneficial effects on sneezing and other respiratory problems. Interestingly, in skirmishes between political dissidents and riot police today, the sharp odor of vinegar often hangs in the air; protestors routinely soak handkerchiefs in vinegar and hold them over their faces to counteract the pepper and tear gas sprayed by the police.12


Burning materials often produce toxic, asphyxiating smoke and this potentially useful aspect of incendiaries was not overlooked in antiquity. Aeneas, for example, advised defenders to build smoky fires and channel the smoke toward besiegers who were attempting to tunnel under walls. This “will be injurious to the men inside and may even kill many of them.” A Chinese historical text, Mo Zi, written around the same time, told how to lower burning bundles of kindling, hemp, and reeds, by chains into tunnels to smoke out diggers: “The enemy will immediately die.”

Smoke could be used by attackers, too, as the Spartans proved when they created the sulphur and resin fire at Plataia in 429 BC. To overtake Cromium in Sicily in about 397 BC, the Carthaginian general Himilco created a fire with thick black smoke that blew into the eyes of his enemies. Smoke from ordinary fires can be very harmful, even deadly, but sulphurous fumes from chemically activated fires, like at Plataia, would be even more toxic and lethal.

One could create choking, irritating gases by burning particularly noxious substances. The Chinese had created poisonous smoke clouds by burning sulphur and arsenic to fumigate insects as early as the seventh century BC, a practice that may have led to their interest in developing toxic gases for military use. Ancient Chinese writings contain hundreds of recipes for producing irritating fogs and fumes, and incendiary-weapons manuals also give directions for making poisonous smoke balls. One extremely effective smoke ball compound called for powdered aconite root and wolfbane (species of lethal monkshood), croton beans (a drastic purgative that also causes blisters and pustules), the poisonous mineral arsenic, hallucinogenic hemp, blister beetles, toxic sulphur, plus charcoal and resin.


FIGURE 36. Noxious substances could be burned to create toxic smoke. Here, two men make a smoky fire. Attic vase painting, 510 BC.

(Toledo Museum of Art, Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey)

In the fourth century BC, the Arthashastra provided formulas for creating burning powders whose fumes were supposed to drive enemies mad or blind, or cause them to sicken or perish immediately. Different smoke powders were concocted from the droppings of certain reptiles, animals, and birds, and mixed with genuine poisons and intoxicants. One lethal cloud was created by burning the bodies of venomous snakes and stinging insects along with the seeds of toxic plants and hot peppers. (Incidentally, hot peppers were used against enemies in the New World, too: in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Caribbean and Brazilian Indians produced an early form of pepper spray against the Spanish conquistadors by burning piles of ground-up hot pepper seeds.) In India, turpentine and tree resins, charcoal, and wax were the flammable components of smoke powders.

Poisonous smokes that combined magical and toxic ingredients intended to kill or disorient enemies also appeared in ancient Greek and early medieval alchemy treatises. For example, Hippolytus (AD 230) claimed that burning powdered magnets would produce a deadly smoke. The addition of weasel feces to the magnets was supposed to create the sensation of an earthquake to terrify the foe.

Noxious smoke was hard to control and direct, and therefore most effective when employed in confined spaces like tunnels. As early as the fourth century BC, defenders of fortresses in China burned toxic substances and plants such as mustard seeds in furnaces connected by pipes to ox-hide bellows to pump poison gases into tunnels dug by attackers. In western Greece in AD 189, during the long Roman siege of Ambracia, the defenders invented a smoke machine to repel the Romans attempting to tunnel under the city walls. The Ambracians prepared a very large jar equal in size to the tunnel, bored a hole in the bottom, and inserted an iron tube. Packing the giant pot with layers of fine chicken feathers (burning feathers were known to create nasty fumes) and smouldering charcoal, they capped it with a perforated lid. They aimed the lidded end of the jar at the tunnelers and fitted blacksmith’s bellows to the iron tube at the other end. With this device—which calls to mind the primitive flamethrower at Delium—the Ambracians filled the passage with clouds of acrid smoke, sending the choking Romans hurrying to the surface. “They abandoned their subterranean siege,” was Polyaenus’s succinct comment.

Tunnelers mining under towers would employ wooden timbers to temporarily prop up the structure and then set them afire to cave in the tower. Opponents defending the fortresses dug countermines, and sometimes battles with incendiaries took place in the tunnels. A fascinating archaeological discovery in 1935 at Dura-Europos in Syria revealed evidence of such an underground battle. The Persians had besieged the Roman fort there in AD 265, and each side dug tunnels. The archaeologists found many weapons and skeletons (one in Persian armor) and a jar containing the telltale burnt residue of sulphur and pitch.

Plutarch (writing in about AD 100) described a chemical aerosol (particulates suspended in air) created by the Roman general Sertorius when he was trying to defeat the Characitani of Spain, in 80 BC. The Characitani lived in caves carved out of an impregnable mountainside. Frustrated, Sertorius rode around the hill “muttering empty threats.” Then, he noticed that his horse was kicking up clouds of caustic dust from the fine white soil at the foot of the caves. The soil may have been soft limestone or gypsum, since Plutarch compared it to “ash or unslaked lime powder”: limestone powder is a severe irritant. Sertorius also noticed that the prevailing winds blew each day from the north, and that the cave entrances faced north. Putting these natural facts together, Sertorius ordered his men to pile great heaps of the powdery soil in front of the caves. The next day as the north wind gathered force, the Romans stirred up the mounds and rode horses over the powder, raising great clouds that blew into the cave entrances. The Characitani surrendered after three days of enduring the choking, blinding dust.

In China, lime dust was used to make an early form of tear gas to quell riots. In AD 178, for example, an armed peasant revolt was quelled by horsedrawn “lime chariots” equipped with bellows to blow fine limestone dust “forward according to the wind.” This very effective fog was accompanied by stampeding horses with burning rags tied to their tails, loud drums and gongs, backed up by ranks of crossbow-men. The revolutionary forces were blinded, thrown into chaos, and “utterly destroyed.” When the dust interacts with the moist membranes of the eyes, nose and throat, the effect is corrosive. A poison aerosol described in the Byzantine emperor Leo’s Tactics was based on the same principles: pots of powdered quicklime (burnt lime) were thrown to form a caustic cloud that blinded and suffocated the enemy as they inhaled the dust.

Obviously, the blowback problems of wind-borne weapons would be an issue. Those who made use of toxic powders and smoke had to beware of unpredictable, reversing winds. Kautilya was highly aware of the danger and, in his chapter on poison smokes, he warned that the army must keep their “eyes secure” with applications of protective salves before deploying chemical aerosols. Only after “having applied these remedies to ensure the safety of himself and his army, should the king make use of poisonous smokes and other mixtures” against an enemy.

An Islamic manuscript from the early Middle Ages suggested the use of “smokes, prepared liquids, and ill-smelling deadly odors for causing damage to forts and castles and horrifying the enemy.” Noxious smokes have not gone out of style in modern arsenals. Dense clouds of smoke, chemicals weapons like mustard gas, pepper sprays, and tear gas still present blowback problems, however, requiring the users to don gas masks to avoid eye injury and inhalation.13


By the time of the Peloponnesian War, three combustible chemicals were known in the Mediterranean world—pitch, sulphur, and quicklime—and the first two were definitely used in warfare in during that era. Pitch, the highly flammable resin from pine trees, has a sticky consistency and burns hotly. Sulphur, a mineral characterized by corrosive combustion, burns at extremely high temperatures and creates sulphur dioxide gas. As it heats, sulphur liquefies, and also releases corrosive vitriol, sulphuric acid.

The choking effects of lime powder were apparently weaponized by Sertorius in the first century BC, but lime’s ability to spontaneously burst into flame was known centuries earlier. As Pliny remarked, lime “possesses a remarkable quality: once it has been burnt, its heat is increased by water.” Roasting limestone produces a crumbly residue called calx—caustic quicklime or calcium oxide. Sprinkled with water, quicklime becomes slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), which generates enough heat to cause spontaneous combustion—and more water feeds the blaze. Theophrastus, a natural philosopher of the fourth century BC, reported that ships laden with cargoes of new togas, which were commonly bleached by brushing them with lime and sulphur, sometimes went down in flames when water splashed on the treated wool. Such accidents were rare, but they would have demonstrated to observers the concept of mixing spontaneously combustible materials for use as weapons.

Sulphur, quicklime, and other substances were combined to make what was known in Latin as pyr automaton, “automatic or self-lighting fire.” The combination was first used to produce pyrotechnic tricks staged by priests and magicians. In 86 BC, for example, the historian Livy watched a religious ceremony in which torches drenched in sulphur, tar, and quicklime continued to burn after being plunged into the Tiber River. Other Latin authors provided recipes for pyr automaton in which sulphur, pitch, quicklime, and naphtha were tightly sealed in containers and then ignited with a single drop of water. Naphtha is the highly flammable light fraction of petroleum, an extremely volatile, strong-smelling, gaseous liquid, common in oil deposits of the Near East. It was the quicklime that caused the mixture to ignite with a drop of water. In the Old Testament, a similar self-lighting fire trick was described as a miracle performed by Elijah to impress the priests of Baal, in about 875 BC.

The potential of combining these substances as an implement of warfare was not realized until much later. A remarkable automatic incendiary weapon, ignited by morning dew, appears in a compilation often attributed to Julius Africanus, a philosopher born in about AD 170 who wrote on magic and military tactics. The recipe calls for sulphur, salt, resin, charcoal, asphalt, and quicklime to be very carefully mixed into a paste during the day, and then tightly sealed in a bronze box, protected from moisture and heat. In the evening, the paste was to be surreptitiously smeared on enemy siege engines. At sunrise, the paste was supposed to combust, ignited by heavy dew or light mist. Such an unpredictable weapon with serious backfire issues was “probably not viewed with favor by military commanders,” commented the British historian of ancient incendiaries, James Riddick Partington, but the elaborate combination of the chemical reactions of sulphur, petroleum, and quicklime hydrated by the natural condensation of dew was one of many experiments that eventually led to the development of complex incendiary weapons.

Perhaps a paste like the one attributed to Julius Africanus could have been used by Medea to turn Princess Glauke’s gown into a murder weapon. By the first century AD, Roman authors familiar with “automatic fire” magic tricks and the destructive properties of petroleum had begun to speculate on Medea’s formula. In his version of the Medea legend, the Stoic philosopher Seneca named “the fire that lurks in sulphur” as one of the components that ignited Glauke’s gown, and he also referred to Medea’s knowledge of “fire-breathing” natural petroleum wells in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, Pliny and the historian Plutarch both concluded that naphtha must have been one of Medea’s secret ingredients.14


The extraordinary conflagration created by Medea, which adhered to the victims’ clothing and skin and burned them alive, has striking similarities to modern napalm. A mixture of a volatile naphtha (or gasoline, another petroleum derivative) and a thickening agent to make it jell, napalm burns at more than five thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Invented in the 1940s at Harvard, napalm was used widely against combatants and civilians by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War. One of the most unforgettable images of that war was the 1972 photograph of a naked girl fleeing an aerial napalm attack on South Vietnamese villagers. The jellied, liquid fire consumed her clothes and clung to her body, as she and the other victims ran away in pain and terror. The searing, sticky flames burned down to the bone, and water was of no avail. The ghastly scene could have been written by Euripides 2,500 years ago. Just as the use of napalm was an emotional issue during the Vietnam War and “came to symbolize the horrific nature” of advanced war technologies, so the fate of Glauke burned alive by liquid fire symbolized for the ancients the horrors of nefarious toxic weapons.15

The connection between the fate of the young Vietnamese girl and the Corinthian princess suggests that the myth of Medea was based on arcane knowledge of the destructive burning nature of petroleum. Medea hailed from Colchis, a region between the Black and Caspian Seas known for the rich oil deposits of Baku, where burning gas wells were worshipped as early as the sixth century BC. In antiquity, the Greek name for petroleum—Medean oil—could refer either to Medea or to the land of the Medes (Persia), which also has abundant oil deposits.

Petroleum hydrocarbons come in many forms—all combustible—from the vaporous light fractions and volatile natural gas and liquids like naphtha, to heavier crude oils and tarry bitumen or asphalt. A few rare deposits of petroleum exist in the Mediterranean, but very rich petrochemical resources exist throughout the Middle East (some deposits occur in China and India, too). In the deserts, oily and highly flammable liquid petroleum wells up from the sand and seeps from bedrock (petroleum means “rock-oil” in Latin), and natural gas wells send up cascading flames and burn under water.16

Ancient texts from Mesopotamia show that spontaneously burning lakes and fountains of fire—fire that behaved like water and was unquenched by any liquid—evoked awe from earliest times. Persians, Babylonians, Jews, and other people of the ancient Near East had special reverence for the mystifying phenomena of “liquid fires.” As in Baku by the Caspian Sea, the ancient worshippers in Persia and Babylonia built temples at sites where natural gas wells burned perpetually. For example, the so-called Eternal Fires, a naphtha fountain at Baba Gurgur (near Kirkuk in northern Iraq), had burned continuously since 600 BC before it was tapped by the first modern oil well in Iraq in 1927. Naphtha figured in Jewish religion, too. Elijah’s self-lighting fire was described earlier, and in about 169 BC, Nehemiah gathered a thick liquid from Persia, called nephthar, to create another miraculous self-lighting fire that astounded witnesses. Nehemiah’s trick was analyzed by Partington, who pointed out that spontaneous combustion would occur if naphtha and water were poured over quicklime, or if water was poured onto wood soaked in petroleum and quicklime, or onto sulphur and quicklime. All these components were known and available for experimentation from earliest times. This simple chemical reaction could have produced the effects of Medea’s mythical murderous gown.


FIGURE 37. This burning petroleum fountain at Baba Gurgur (in modern Iraq) has been worshipped since 600 BC.

Archaeological evidence shows that surface deposits of oil in the Near East were exploited—for lamps, torches, pigments, waterproofing, cleaning, magic fire rituals, and weapons—as early as 3000 BC, and evidence from cuneiform tablets and inscriptions indicates that even the dangerously volatile liquids and gases were used. Ancient Assyrian texts indicate that burning petroleum was used to punish criminals, and naft (naphtha) was apparently a siege incendiary in Mesopotamia at an early date, as shown in Assyrian reliefs of flaming firebombs of the ninth century BC.17

It took longer for the early Greeks and Romans to understand the origins and uses of the petroleum of exotic lands. Herodotus was the first Greek historian (about 450 BC) to refer to the awesome powers of the “dark and evil smelling oil the Persians callrhadinace.” Around the same time, Ctesias, the Greek physician who lived in Persia and wrote often garbled accounts of wonders from the strange lands further east, described a curious fire weapon of India. The method of gathering this combustible substance was surrounded by fable, probably to keep it a state secret. Only the king of India was allowed to possess the special oil that derived from giant “worms” lurking in the Indus River, reported Ctesias. The power of the oil was marvelous: “If you want to burn up a man or an animal, just pour some oil over him and at once he is set on fire.” With this weapon, Ctesias heard, the Indian king captures cities without the use of battering rams or siege engines. He simply fills clay vessels with the oil, seals them up, and slings them against the city gates. Upon impact, the oil oozes down and fire pours over the doors. The miraculous oil consumes enemy siege machines and covers the fighting men with fire. Water cannot put it out; the only hope is to smother the flames with dirt.

Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek sage who traveled to India in the first century AD, also heard about something resembling a “white worm” in the River Hyphasis in Punjab that was melted down to render a flammable oil, which could only be kept in glass vessels. Once ignited, it was virtually inextinguishable, and it was the king’s exclusive secret weapon against enemy battlements.

The mystical “worm” oil of India was obviously some form of petroleum, ignited by various means. Other reports about the remarkable effects of liquid fire from the East filtered back to Greece and Italy, but the true sources and ways of controlling the substances remained shrouded in mystery until Roman armies began besieging cities in the Middle East to expand their empire and encountered weapons made from local naphtha.18


Alexander the Great was introduced to the wonders of petroleum “magic” after he captured Babylon in 324 BC. Naft was the most singular of these, wrote Strabo, for “if it is brought near fire it instantly catches fire; and if you pour the liquid on a body and bring a flame near, the person will burst into flames. It is impossible to quench those flames with water, which makes them burn more violently.” The only resort is to suffocate the fire with mud, vinegar, alum and glue, or enormous volumes of water. To impress Alexander, one night his hosts at Ecbatana sprinkled a street with naphtha and set fire to one end—the flames flashed instantaneously to the other end.

Intrigued, Alexander, “for an experiment,” poured some naphtha on a young singer named Stephanus and then brought a lamp near him. Sure enough, the boy was immediately enveloped in flames and would have burned to death, like Glauke in the myth, had not bystanders quickly smothered the fire. Even so, the boy was severely burned.

For Alexander and the Greeks of the fourth century BC, naphtha was an exotic marvel of Babylonia, not a weapon. Although bituminous materials were used in the fire ship at Tyre, no ancient historian recorded the use of petroleum weapons against Alexander in Mesopotamia or India. Recently, however, archaeologists have recovered a bit of evidence indicating that Alexander may have encountered some kinds of incendiary weapons during his campaign in India. At the site of Gandhara (Pakistan), besieged and sacked by Alexander in 327 BC, a strange object was found in the defensive ditch. It was a charred, man-made ball composed of the minerals barite and sulphur, and organic pitch. Its form resembles incendiary balls of bituminous materials found in ancient Mesopotamian sites.

The archaeological team proposed that the sphere was a surviving specimen of fireballs that had been ignited and propelled by slingers at the Macedonian invaders. And indeed, among the incendiary formulas in the Arthashastra, the Indian manual written during the time of Alexander’s invasion, there are instructions for preparing “small balls” to be hurled at the enemy, along with fire arrows. The balls and arrows were made flammable from a paste of powdered plant fibers mixed with resins, dung, charcoal, zinc, “red metals” (perhaps the red mineral realgar, the source of arsenic), lead, and wax. Other Indian recipes for making naphtha arrows and fireballs included magical herbs and ground-up reptiles and worms—as well as the very effective pitch, charcoal, and petroleum. There was even an interesting method of painting the walls of an enemy’s chamber with a mysterious explosive substance—which may have been saltpeter.19

FIGURE 38 In antiquity the deposits of seeping, gushing, and flaming oil deposits from Baku to Persia were known as the “lands of the naphtha fountains.” Here, Alexander’s Greek soldiers watch local people gathering naphtha in Babylonia.

(Painting by Bob Lapsley/ Aramco Services/PADIA)



Burning naphtha could easily destroy siege engines, but unlike fire arrows aimed at wooden walls, liquid petroleum incendiaries seem to have been chiefly intended to burn humans alive, re-creating the mythical deaths of Hercules, Glauke, and Creon, and causing extreme suffering and injury for real-life soldiers. Plutarch, Pliny, and Seneca, the historians who identified naphtha as Medea’s secret weapon, based their speculation on firsthand accounts of liquid-fire weapons from Roman army veterans who had seen action in Asia in the first century BC. The armies that pursued Mithridates and his allies, from the Black Sea to Mesopotamia, were the first Romans to experience naphtha attacks, which continued over the next two centuries as the emperors attempted to maintain their rule in the Middle East.

Hatra was one of many Mesopotamian strongholds that relied on nearby petroleum seepages to defend itself against Rome. Ammianus Marcellinus described the lakes of naphtha found in the region (now the rich oil fields of northern Iraq). The liquid was prodigiously sticky, he said, with heavy, “mortally noxious fumes.” Once it begins to burn, “human intelligence will find no other means of quenching it other than covering it with earth.”

In AD 199, as we saw in chapter 6, Severus’s soldiers at Hatra were assailed by a gauntlet of terror weapons, including scorpion bombs and streams of burning naphtha. Because of its invisible but highly flammable fumes, the naphtha appeared to jump toward any spark, igniting the intervening air, and it was so sticky that it pursued anyone who tried to flee. Once again, water offered no hope, but fed the flames of intense heat. According to Dio Cassius, at Hatra the cascades of burning naphtha “inflicted the greatest damage, consuming the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell.” A horrified Severus gave the order to retreat even as his men breached Hatra’s walls.20

Conventional weapons of antiquity—arrows, spears, and swords—wounded or killed by penetrating the skin and damaging internal organs. One could depend on skill, courage, and armor for protection. But there was almost no way to prepare for or deflect weapons of fire. Ordinary fire was bad enough, causing severe injury or death from smoke inhalation and the destruction of skin—measured in degree (depth) and extent of burns over body surface. But fire weapons fueled by exothermic chemicals, because of their adhering nature and extremely high temperatures, intensified the degree of destruction of skin, deep tissue, and even bone, and prolonged the victim’s death or else inflicted torturous pain and lifelong injuries. For all these reasons, incendiary weapons have been considered exceptionally cruel and abhorrent.21


By the time of Muhammad, in the seventh century AD, naphtha projectiles had become favored siege weapons in the Middle East. Interestingly, in some Arabic, Persian, and Mongol traditions and treatises on military incendiaries, Alexander the Great (and his “grand vizier,” the philosopher Aristotle, Alexander’s teacher and friend) was credited with the invention of several infernal naphtha fire weapons. Two of those naphtha legends were recounted in the Shahnama epic by the Persian poet Firdawsi (AD 940-1020).

According to one legend, while in India Alexander forged thousands of life-sized horses and riders of hollow iron on wheels, each filled with naphtha. When these were rolled toward Porus’s war elephants, the eerie black metal figures spewed streams of fire (apparently ignited by a fuse or quicklime and water, since naphtha alone is not self-lighting). A dramatic color illustration of this battle appears in the elaborate Mongol version of the Shahnama. The tale is a curious combination of the old Homeric myth of the Trojan Horse and the later Greek legend of Alexander’s red-hot bronze statues deployed against Porus’s war elephants. In the other illustrated legend of Alexander’s ingenious inventions of chemical weaponry, Alexander constructed an invincible double wall of iron and copper, and filled it with charcoal, sulphur, and naphtha. When savage tribes attacked, the naphtha inside the wall could be ignited, to produce a shield of awesome flames and heat.22


FIGURE 39. According to legend, Alexander the Great created a naphtha-spewing iron cavalry, to rout King Porus of India and his war elephants. This illustration is from the Great Il-Khanid Shahnama manuscript, AD 1330-40.

(Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Gift of Edward W. Forbes)

The first use of catapulting naphtha by an Islamic army reputedly occurred during one of Muhammad’s last campaigns, in AD 630. At the siege of Ta’if, a fortified city in the mountains east of Mecca held by the pagan Thaqif tribe, Muhammad ordered a catapult attack with fire. The Thaqif responded with catapult fire that rained red-hot scraps of metal on Muhammad’s army, a reprise of the catapult loads of red-hot sand and shrapnel first used by the Phoenicians against Alexander the Great’s men besieging Tyre, more than a thousand years earlier.

In the civil wars after the death of Muhammad (AD 632), a specialized siege machine for delivering naphtha bombs was mentioned for the first time by name in Muslim annals. Created for the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Syria), the manjaniq or mangonel was a heavy-duty catapult designed to bombard cites with blazing naphtha. Prototypes were reportedly first manned at the siege of Alexandria in AD 645, but the mangonels saw massive use in AD 683, when the Umayyad army set out to take Medina and Mecca. In Damascus, the soldiers loaded a camel caravan with great numbers of the heavy catapults and many containers of volatile naphtha, and accomplished the astonishing feat of crossing the searing Nafud Desert in high summer to make surprise attacks on the two holy cities.

In AD 813, Baghdad, the Islamic capital, was totally destroyed by a new type of special forces—naphtha troops called naffatun, who manned hundreds of mangonels catapulting thousands of barrels of liquid fire. By AD 850, every Islamic army maintained regular naffatun units, and they were now protected by special fireproof uniforms and padding. Their gear was woven of the mysterious substance they called hajar al-fatila, asbestos, the fibrous rock impervious to flame that had been discovered by Muslims, in Tajikhstan, in the 800s. The invention of the fireproof uniforms led to a novel form of Islamic psychological warfare that brought Alexander’s legendary naphtha-filled iron horses and riders to life. In an innovation worthy of today’s Hollywood stuntmen on fire, Muslim riders and horses were covered with asbestos padding and then doused in naphtha and set afire to terrify the enemy cavalry.

In AD 1167, an extreme example of the “scorched earth” policy of denying resources to an invading army occurred. In this case, when Cairo faced attack by Frankish Crusaders, the Muslims used their petroleum weapons to destroy their own city. As the Crusaders advanced across Egypt, the Islamic ruler turned the entire city into a raging inferno in order to leave nothing but rubble for the Christians. As the terrified populace fled, twenty thousand naphtha pots and ten thousand petroleum bombs were ignited and flames engulfed the city for fifty-four days.


FIGURE 40. Naphtha grenades. These ceramic pots were filled with volatile naphtha, lit with a fuse, and hurled at the enemy.

(Painting by Bob Lapsley/Aramco Services/PADIA)

This historical incident shows that enormous stockpiles of volatile petrochemical weapons were stored in military warehouses in the Middle East at a surprisingly early date. The actions of desperate Cairo during the Crusades set a precedent for the threat, anticipated by U.S. intelligence in 2003, that Saddam Hussein might torch Iraq’s fifteen hundred oil wells, in order to deny them to U.S. invaders. In the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam’s retreating Iraqi troops had set fire to 650 oil fields in Kuwait, creating fires of stupendous magnitude that burned for eight months.

Archaeological evidence of the destruction of Cairo by its own chemical weapons surfaced in 1916, when French and Egyptian archaeologists began to uncover troves of the ceramic, fist-sized naphtha pots in the ruins of the old city. The grenades were of astonishing sophistication: they had been filled with volatile jellied naphtha (similar to napalm) and a crude gunpowder made of nitrates and sulphur.23


The dangers of backfire for the early users of weaponry based on pyrophoric chemicals were daunting. As Kautilya remarked in his discussion of how to use incendiaries to capture cities: “Fire cannot be trusted.” In the case of quicklime, sulphur, and petroleum, ensuring safety in collecting and storing the combustible substances was difficult, because volatile vapors and liquids had to be kept away from moisture, oxygen, heat, and sparks. (Notably, Medea had followed these precautions in treating the combustible gown, by sealing it in an airtight container.) During the chaos of battle, one had to mix the unstable, sticky materials, and ignite and aim them at the enemy, without allowing the rapacious flames to leap back toward the source of the spark or toward combustible fuel or water in the vicinity of the user.

One precaution when using combustibles, advised by Aeneas the Tactician in 360 BC, was to hurl or otherwise emplace the unlit fuel first and then fire a blazing arrow or throw a burning pot to ignite it. That technique was used in AD 1190 by Arabs besieging the Crusader castle at Acre. The Muslims tossed pots of naphtha without fuses against the towers. When nothing happened, the Christians crowded onto the towers and mocked the besiegers. The Muslims held their fire and waited for the naphtha to soak in. Then they threw a lighted pot, and the whole edifice and all the Christians exploded in flames.

With vaporous naphtha and other combustibles, the chances of accidental explosions were very high, as acknowledged in Byzantine warfare manuals. Preparations of volatile compounds were always done outdoors for fear of fire. Chinese texts warned that heating sulphur, arsenic, carbon, and saltpeter indoors had resulted in severe burns to the alchemists’ hands and faces, and even burned down the buildings where they were working. Naphtha bombs were especially difficult to aim and control, as the Umayyad Muslims learned during their siege of the holy city of Mecca in AD 683. As they catapulted naphtha projectiles into the city, they tried to avoid the Ka’aba, the sanctuary of the Black Stone worshipped by Muslims, but the covering was struck and caught fire. The intense heat split the sacred Black Stone into three pieces.

And of course, wind could also betray wielders of liquid fire. In a famous military disaster on the Yangtze River in AD 975, the Chinese admiral Chu Ling-Pin watched in horror as the liquid fire his troops were propelling toward the enemy fleet of the Sung emperor was suddenly swept up by a strong contrary wind. The “smoke and flames were blown toward his own ships and men,” immolating more than 150,000 sailors and soldiers. “Overcome with grief,” the admiral “flung himself into the flames and died.”

Petroleum bombs and naphtha flamethrowers posed hazards to the users because of the low viscosity and vaporous light fractions: the fuel tended to explode prematurely. The use of soaps and other agents to thicken and stabilize naphtha and/or gasoline in the 1940s is what led to the formulation of napalm, and allowed it to adhere to targets and burn at very high temperatures over a prolonged time. In antiquity, it was discovered that liquid naphtha could be somewhat stabilized with heavier oils, tar, or pitch, but those additives are themselves flammable. Handlers of such weapons always had to exercise great caution, even after the discovery of distillation techniques to remove the flammable vapors, a technique that led to the creation of the weapon known as Greek Fire.24


According to evidence that survives in Islamic and Byzantine chronicles, the weapon known as Greek Fire was based on the development of effective distillation and siphon pump technologies which enabled a flammable mixture to be propelled under pressure from boats, thus introducing the deployment of “something new, dreadful, launchable, and flammable,” in the words of the historian Alfred Crosby.25

Greek Fire’s origin is surrounded by fable. According to one legend, an angel whispered the formula to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor in AD 300. But Greek Fire did not suddenly burst on the scene out of nowhere. Centuries of observations, discoveries, and experiments with combustible sulphur, quicklime, and naphtha—in formulas known by various names such as liquid fire, maltha, pyr automaton or automatic, artificial, or prepared fire, sea fire, wild fire, flying fire, oleum incendiarium, fierce fire oil, water-white naft abyad, and so on—ultimately led to the invention of the naval incendiary that was dubbed “Greek Fire” by the Crusaders in the 1200s. Naphtha had been a tool of siege-craft since Assyrian times and with Islamic mangonels and naffatun,naphtha weaponry reached its peak performance in land engagements. Further inventions in Syria and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) perfected naphtha armaments for battles at sea.

What exactly was the “terrible agent of destruction” known as Greek Fire? The story of how the Byzantine and Islamic formulas, once heavily guarded state secrets, were lost, and the evolution of similar weapons in Indian and Chinese warfare, has been recounted in detail in modern military literature. Basically, Greek Fire was a weapon system for blasting ships in naval engagements: the weapon consisted of a refined chemical ammunition and an ingenious delivery system of cauldrons, siphons, tubes, and pumps.

The main ingredient of the ammunition was naphtha, originally used as an incendiary poured over or hurled at besiegers in Mesopotamia, and later in firebombs catapulted by mangonels invented in Damascus and used by Muslims to bombard fortifications, as described earlier. The Byzantines had used small siphons and syringes to squirt petroleum incendiaries as early as AD 513, but the new technology of pumping pressurized, distilled naphtha through bronze tubes aimed at ships was achieved through brilliant chemical engineering by a “petroleum consultant” named Kallinikos. Fleeing the Muslim occupation of Syria, Kallinikos sought refuge in Constantinople in about AD 668 and taught the Byzantines about his invention. Greek Fire was first used to break the Muslim navy’s seven-year siege of Constantinople in AD 673 and it saved the city again from the Muslim fleet in AD 718.

Kallinikos’s formula and delivery system are lost to modern science, and historians and chemists who try to reconstruct how the device worked disagree on the exact composition of the naphtha ammunition and the system design. Greek Fire burned in water and may have been ignited by water, and it adhered to victims. Besides distilled naphtha, the ingredients may have included thickeners such as resin or wax, quicklime, sulphur, turpentine, and saltpeter. The exact formula matters less than the amazing delivery system, which was capable of shooting liquid fire from swiveling nozzles mounted on small boats without the benefit of modern thermometers, safety valves, and pressure gauges.

The only recourses available to crews facing Greek Fire—draping ships with masses of heavy, wet hides; only sailing in stormy weather; and attempting rapid, evasive maneuvers—were rarely successful and dangerous in themselves. “In short,” writes military historian Alex Roland, “there was no adequate countermeasure to Greek Fire.” From the seventh century on, the Byzantines and Arabs formulated variations on Greek Fire, which resembled napalm in the way “it clung to everything it touched, instantly igniting any organic material—ship’s hull, oars, sails, rigging, crew, and their clothing. Nothing was immune,” and even “jumping into the sea failed to quench the flames.” The weapon caused enemies to “shiver in terror” and capitulate in despair.

Greek Fire was the ultimate weapon of its time. “Every man touched by it believed himself lost, every ship attacked with it was devoured by flames,” wrote a crusader in AD 1248. Partington, the historian of Greek Fire, compared the ancient reaction of horror to the modern dread of the atomic bomb. In 1139, the Second Lateran Council, following Western ideas of chivalry and honorable war, decreed that Greek Fire or similar burning weapons were “too murderous” to be used in Europe. The council’s decision was respected for centuries, but the issue may have been moot since the formula for Greek Fire seems to have been lost by the thirteenth century. The recipe was rekindled in a treatise published for Napoleon, with the chilling title “Weapons for the Burning of Armies.”26


FIGURE 41. An artist’s conception of naval battle with Greek Fire.

(Painting by Bob Lapsley/Aramco Services/PADIA)

Centuries before the invention of Greek Fire, however, naphtha was already a weapon of devastating destructive power. The early precursors of Greek Fire, first described so graphically in the ancient Greek myth of Medea and Glauke, and then experienced in real battles during the Roman Empire, were the most dreaded, fearsome weapons of their day. There was no adequate countermeasure, no way to withstand such infernos. Neither extraordinary valor nor a suit of bronze armor could save a soldier enveloped by cascades of corrosive flames that melted both metal and flesh. The experiences of Lucullus and his Roman legions in the first century BC serve as a compelling case study of the effects of liquid fire.


Veterans who served with Licinius Lucullus were among the first Romans to undergo naphtha attacks and they had nightmarish tales to tell of their campaigns in Asia. The story of Lucullus’s campaign is a fitting conclusion to this chapter on infernal fire weapons—and it also draws together a full range of the biochemical weapons described in the preceding chapters. Lucullus’s army faced a panoply of bio-terrors, from poisoned arrows, stinging bees, and savage bears to burning mud.


FIGURE 42. Licinius Lucullus, the Roman general who pursued Mithridates and encountered biochemical attacks in the Near East in the first century BC.

(From Harry Thurston Peck, Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898)

For eight years, in 74-66 BC, Lucullus was one of a series of generals who unsuccessfully pursued King Mithridates, the master of terror tactics and an arch-poisoner whose dream was to create the ultimate personal antidote to biotoxins. Mithridates and his allies invented a stunning array of terror strategies directed at the Romans. He had begun his challenge to Roman power in 88 BC, with a shocking atrocity. He secretly ordered the massacre of every Italian man, woman, and child living in the new Roman Province of Asia, to take place on a specified date. So hated were the imperial colonists that more than eighty thousand Romans were reportedly slaughtered on a single day. Mithridates then swept west through Greece and threatened to invade Italy, while his client princes took control of significant cities in Rome’s Asian Province.

The Roman army’s first battle with Mithridates in Bithynia ended very badly for the Romans. When Mithridates’ vicious scythe-bearing chariots plowed at high speed through the ranks, the legionaries were overwhelmed by the sight of their companions “chopped in halves but still breathing, and others mangled and cut to pieces” by the whirling blades. It was the “hideousness of the spectacle,” not the losses, that sent the Romans fleeing in horror, commented the historian Appian.

Next, Mithridates captured the Roman legate Manius Aquillius, the son of the brutal Roman commander who had been criticized for poisoning wells in Asia in an earlier war (chapter 3). Mithridates paraded the official on an ass, and then executed him for bribe-taking in a particularly horrid way—by pouring molten gold down his throat. These acts ushered in the long Mithridatic Wars (90-63 BC), in which a succession of Roman generals achieved victory after victory on land and sea against the monarch and his allies, but failed to capture Mithridates, who eluded their grasp like quicksilver.

Beginning in 74 BC, Lucullus relentlessly attacked and sacked the monarch’s allied kingdoms from Pontus to Mesopotamia and back again. After difficult sieges of several cities near the Black Sea, where the defenders let loose swarms of bees and rampaging bears to assault the Roman tunnelers, Lucullus tracked Mithridates south, to Armenia. There, Lucullus laid siege to Tigranocerta on the Tigris (in eastern Turkey), where Mithridates had taken refuge with his son-in-law King Tigranes. The new fortifications were only half-built and the city was captured, but the two monarchs slipped out of Lucullus’s hands, and began to gather up new armies.

Despite his victory at Tigranocerta, “the barbarians did Lucullus serious injury” with a new weapon of unexpected savagery. Dio Cassius described how the Tigranocertans poured streams of fire on the Romans and their siege engines. The extraordinary fire flowed over and consumed everything, wood, leather, metal, horses, and human bodies. “This chemical,” marveled Dio Cassius, “is full of bitumen and is so fiery that burns up whatever it touches, and cannot be extinguished by any liquid.” The weapon was naphtha, from the rich local petroleum deposits. This event and similar attacks on Roman armies in the region counter the suggestion by biochemical warfare historian Eric Croddy that “the combustible properties of naphtha and its utility as a weapon” only came to the Romans’ attention with the invention of Greek Fire in AD 668.27

In the Armenian countryside, the Romans suffered another kind of bio-attack by Mithridates’ allies. In skirmishes with mounted barbarians, Lucullus lost a great many men to the skilled archers, who shot arrows backwards as they galloped away from the pursuing Romans. The men’s wounds were “dangerous and incurable,” wrote Dio Cassius, for the archers used “double arrow-points of iron and moreover, they poisoned them.” The missiles had a loosely attached second point that broke off deep inside the wound when the shaft was pulled out. With so many dead and dying from the poison arrows, Lucullus retreated.

After facing these weapons of extraordinary brutality in battles of dubious outcome in 69-68 BC, Lucullus’s legionaries began to revolt. But Lucullus forged on, intending to conquer another ally of Mithridates, the Kingdom of Commagene in the oil fields along the Euphrates (on the border of southeastern Turkey and Syria). Samosata, the wealthy fortified capital of Commagene, guarded the Euphrates river traffic, the strategic crossroads from Damascus to Pontus, and the east-west trade routes.

When Lucullus stormed the fortified city in 69 BC, he was unaware that the Samosatans had a secret weapon to defend their walls. They had collected “a flammable mud called maltha that exudes from nearby marshy pools,” wrote Pliny, who described the battle.Maltha was apparently a very viscous form of naphtha skimmed from great pools of asphaltum, petroleum tar that oozes from fissures in sandstones in the region.

When the Samosatans poured the flaming mud over the Roman soldiers, the effect was horrendous. Maltha’s ravenous appetite makes it “cling stubbornly to anyone who tries to flee,” Pliny declared, “and water only makes it burn more fiercely.” Only covering the flames with earth could have extinguished the blaze, a fact discovered by later experiments, noted Pliny. At Samosata, the voracious flames burned up the men in their armor, and the extreme heat even turned the Romans’ own armaments against them. “They were repeatedly burned by their own weapons,” wrote Pliny.

In later times, other besieged populations in the region would capitalize on the unique ability of high-temperature incendiaries to turn an attacking soldier’s weapons and armor against him. We already saw how the Phoenicians, with a rain of hot sand, had turned the bronze chestplates of Alexander’s Macedonians into red-hot torture devices. And in AD 630, during the siege of Ta’if near Mecca, Muhammad’s army advanced on the walls under a “testudo” (turtle-shell) of interlocking shields held over their heads to deflect the arrows of the defenders. But they were unprepared for the rain of molten metal that heated their shields to intense temperatures. As they dropped the burning shields, the men were cut down by a barrage of arrows.

The terror of the burning maltha at Samosata forced Lucullus to withdraw again. His army, never very loyal, now began to mutiny and desert in significant numbers. And Samosata, like Hatra, remained an independent desert stronghold for another century. 28

Mythic parallels were beginning to accumulate for Lucullus, eerie reminders of the old stories of Hercules and Medea. First, the poison arrows of the Armenians caused torturous death and incurable wounds like those suffered by Hercules’ victims, and then the burning mud coated the soldiers, like the corrosive tunic that tormented Hercules. The scene at Samosata also replicated the deaths of Glauke and Creon and the Corinthians in the palace, in the unnatural conflagration engineered by Medea. Pliny was certainly struck by the coincidence, for in his description of the Roman disaster at Samosata, he suggested that some form of maltha must have been Medea’s secret weapon.


FIGURE 43. Hercules struggling to tear off the burning, poisoned tunic. Bronze sculpture by Pierre Puget, 1680.

(Jules Bache Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

During his campaign in the region, Lucullus discovered an art treasure with haunting mythical resonance: a large bronze statue of Hercules, showing the mighty hero contorted in pain, trapped in the garment that turned his own weapons against him. Lucullus wrapped the magnificent bronze in a linen shroud and brought it back to Rome. The statue was paraded along with the rich booty he had raided from Mithridates’ kingdoms, and then placed on permanent public display, next to the Temple of the Divine Julius. About a century later, Pliny recorded the layers of inscriptions that had been carved into the base of the “highly valued” art work by the unknown sculptor of Asia Minor. Known as Hercules in the Burning Tunic, it was admired by the Romans as a powerful evocation of the hero’s “final agony.”29

Yet another event with mythic implications occurred during Lucullus’s campaign. After capturing a string of cities loyal to Mithridates, Lucullus chased Mithridates’ navy—led by three of the king’s major allies, Varius, Alexander, and Dionysius—down the coast of Turkey. The historian Appian described how, at the same harbor where the Greeks had landed to attack Troy in Homer’s Iliad, Lucullus captured thirteen of Mithridates’ ships, and overtook the rest of the fleet on a small, barren island near Lemnos. The trio of captains escaped, but Lucullus discovered them hiding in a cave on the small island. Varius, he killed; Alexander, he captured; but Dionysius, a true follower of Mithridates, drank the poison that he always carried with him and died by his own hand.

As Appian pointed out, the tiny island was none other than Chryse, the desert isle where, according to myth, Philoctetes had suffered an accidental wound from Hercules’ Hydra-venom arrows. Philoctetes was marooned in misery for ten years in a cave on the island, perhaps in the very cave where Mithridates’ allies took refuge. Chryse was a well-known landmark, where many travelers stopped to pay their respects to Philoctetes’ shrine. A learned scholar of Greek mythology, Lucullus would certainly have been aware of the island’s fame, and it was common for Roman commanders to visit mythological landmarks during their campaigns. In 191 BC, for example, after his victory over Antiochus in Greece, Manius Glabrio sought out the sacred site of Hercules’ pyre, where Philoctetes had inherited the poison arrows. Lucullus probably paid a visit to the shrine on the isle of Chryse after his major victory there, to admire Philoctetes’ bow and breastplate and the bronze serpent symbolizing the envenomed arrows.

Ancient authors describe Lucullus as a compassionate and generous man (early in his campaigns, for example, he had burst into tears at the site of a city he had reduced to ashes). Perhaps his war experiences with poison arrows and all-consuming fire gave a him a unique appreciation for Philoctetes’ and Hercules’ sufferings. On the other hand, maybe the beleaguered commander wished that Philoctetes could miraculously appear with a quiverful of Hydra arrows to turn the tide against Mithridates. Had Lucullus been able to peer into the future, he would have seen his successor Pompey sabotaged by poison honey and his arch-enemy Mithridates done in at last by his own reliance on poisons. Lucullus’s own end came in 57 BC, after a descent into insanity brought about by poison—deadly drugs administered by his freedman.

There is no evidence that Lucullus or other Roman commanders ever fought “fire with fire,” or retaliated with naphtha in Mesopotamia—probably because their enemies controlled the petroleum resources there. Eventually, however, the Romans found an even more morally repugnant use for the chemical weapon. In the Roman arena, one could witness the spectacle of prisoners condemned to reenact the fiery fate suffered by so many Roman soldiers at Tigranocerta and Samosata, and later at Hatra and other Mesopotamian cities. Perhaps inspired by the celebrated statue of Hercules displayed in Rome after Lucullus’s campaign and by veterans’ tales of burning maltha, public executions by the tunica molesta, a naphtha-soaked “shirt of torture,” became a popular diversion. The gruesome death sentence was first devised by the emperor Nero in AD 64, as one of many inventive execution methods designed to re-create mythic death scenes. Executions “à la Hercules” continued to be staged for the amusement of Roman audiences through the third century AD.30 Meanwhile, in distant Mesopotamia, Rome’s own soldiers, pursuing the imperial agenda demanded by their emperors, were compelled to endure the very real ordeals of poison and hellfire.

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