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A CASKET OF PLAGUE IN THE TEMPLE OF BABYLON

The plague arose in Babylonia,
when a pestilential vapor escaped from
a golden casket in the temple of Apollo.

—JULIUS CAPITOLINUS

ONE OF THE MOST oft-cited incidents in the early annals of biological warfare occurred in AD 1346. That year, the Mongols catapulted bubonic plague-ridden corpses of their own soldiers over the walls of Kaffa, a Genoese fortress on the Black Sea, thereby introducing the dread disease in Europe. This macabre incident occurred centuries before epidemiology was formally understood, but modern science shows that even if the cadavers themselves were not the main vector of the flea-borne Black Plague, inhalation of airborne Yersinia pestis microbes remaining on the corpses or their clothing could cause the highly fatal respiratory form of the plague. To carry out an act of germ warfare like this, the Mongols only needed to know that proximity to corpses of people who had died of an epidemic would almost certainly lead to more deaths.

Apart from the biological outcome of the Mongols’ act, the psychological impact was horrendous, and horror has always been one of the goals of biological warfare. Terrifying the enemy was the sole object of a catapulting incident in 207 BC, when the Romans hurled the head of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal into the camp of his brother, Hannibal. Hasdrubal’s head probably carried nothing more contagious than lice (although lice can in fact carry typhus), but the act served to demoralize Hannibal, dashing his hopes of getting the reinforcements he needed to conquer Italy. Interestingly, Hannibal himself would later use catapults to fling venomous vipers at a different enemy in Asia Minor.1

So far no clear reports of catapulting disease-bearing cadavers or clothing have come to light before the fourteenth century, but the purposeful spread of contagion among enemies by other means could have occurred much earlier than Kaffa. Although the exact mechanisms of infection remained mysterious, people of many ancient cultures recognized that “foul and deadly miasmas arose” from plague-stricken cadavers and that cloth or other items that had touched a plague victim could be deadly. That knowledge made possible the use of disease-ridden animals, and people and their clothing, as weapons of war.

An incident reported by the historian Appian described how a besieging army was defeated by contagion from dead bodies. In 74 BC, King Mithridates of Pontus began a long siege of the city of Cyzicus on the Black Sea. The defenders of Cyzicus resisted with every strategy they could come up with, from breaking the invaders’ siege machines with rope nooses to hurling burning pitch. As the siege wore on, Mithridates’ troops began to suffer from hunger and sickness. Then, when “corpses that were thrown out unburied in the neighborhood brought on a plague,” Mithridates gave up the siege and fled. Although it is not clear if the defenders deliberately spread pestilence by throwing out their dead, or whether the corpses belonged to the besiegers themselves, the account shows that the link between the corpses and the plague was well understood.2

Greek and Latin historians demonstrated perceptive insights about epidemics, noting that those who tended the sick fell ill and that unburied or unburned corpses spread disease. As the Roman historian Livy remarked in the first century BC, during epidemics “the dead proved fatal to the sick and the sick equally fatal to the healthy.” Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, described the great Plague of Athens, which originated in Egypt, spread to Persia and Libya, and arrived in Athens in the summer 430 BC. The virulent epidemic (probably smallpox, but possibly typhus, measles, or bubonic plague, according to competing theories offered by modern medical historians) killed more than a quarter of the population. Thucydides, one of those who survived the plague, recognized the role of contact with the sick in transmitting the disease.

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FIGURE 15. It was realized early in human history that contact with corpses of victims of epidemics, or their possessions, could spread disease. Roman skeleton mosaic, Via Appia, Italy.

Some scholars have noted that the symptoms suffered by Hercules’ dying in the Hydra-poisoned cloak share some similarities to death from smallpox. In Sophocles’ version of the myth, written in about 430 BC when the epidemic was raging in Athens, the playwright used medical terminology for pustules and plague to describe the burning torment of the tunic. His play reflects the knowledge that not only poison but disease could be transferred by clothing. That idea was also expressed by Cedrenus, a historian who described the Plague of Cyprian (a pandemic that spread from Egypt to Scotland in about AD 250), when he remarked that the disease was transmitted not just by direct contact but also by clothing.3

Actually, the recognition that diseases could be transmitted by contact with the ill and their personal belongings goes back much earlier in recorded history, to ancient Sumer (in Syria). The evidence comes from several royal letters inscribed on cuneiform tablets in about 1770 BC, from the archives of Mari, a Sumerian outpost on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. One of the letters forbade people from an infected town from traveling to a healthy town, to avoid “infecting the whole country.” Another letter described a woman whose cup, chair, bed, and physical presence were to be avoided because of the danger of contracting her disease, which was very contagious (mustahhizu, literally “keeps on catching or kindling”).

The modern epidemiological term for articles like cups or clothing that harbor infectious pathogens is fomites. The principles of fomite contagion and quarantine were evidently understood 3,800 years ago, but the accounts of epidemics were often expressed in symbolic language or metaphors such as “angels of death smiting armies” or gods shooting “arrows of plague.” Because of the metaphorical imagery, descriptions of epidemics in Near Eastern and biblical texts, and in Greek mythology have often been viewed by scholars as superstitious explanations, even though they may have been based on sound empirical knowledge, as shown in the Mari letters.4

The Kaffa event of 1346 is considered by historians to be the first documented case of a deliberate attempt to spread contagion to achieve military victory, but much earlier incidents of transmitting disease for strategic purposes can be found in the ancient sources. Some of the evidence is legendary or inconclusive, like the Cyzicus event, but many other historical accounts record clear intentions to transmit disease to enemies in chillingly feasible ways.

The earliest clear examples of deliberate attempts to spread contagion appear in cuneiform tablets of the ancient Hittite civilization of Anatolia (1500-1200 BC). The tablets tell of driving animals and at least one woman infected with epidemics out of the city and into enemy territory, accompanied by a prayer: “The country that accepts them shall take this evil plague.” The intention is unmistakable and the means would have been quite effective.5

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The ancient Hittites and Babylonians worshipped the archer-god Irra, who was said to shoot arrows of plague at enemies in military contexts. In Greek mythology, it was the god Apollo who destroyed armies with his invisible plague-arrows—and by sending infestations of rodents, which were widely recognized in antiquity as harbingers of pestilence. These mythic images reflect the fact that epidemics did frequently coincide with military invasions, due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, stress, lack of food and pure water, infestations of rodents and other disease vectors, and exposure to new germ pools. When people of antiquity implored the gods to inflict pestilence on invaders, diseases that broke out among the enemy forces were seen as answered prayers. In an example from the fourth century BC, the people of Pachynus, Sicily, prayed to Apollo to strike the approaching Carthaginian fleet with pestilence. And, in fact, in 396 BC, a devastating epidemic did break out among the Carthaginians, causing them to abandon their plan to attack Sicily.6

It must not have been long before humans began to wonder if, instead of relying on requests to the gods, they could also take matters into their own hands and sow contagion and biological calamities among their adversaries by practical means, as the Hittites did by sending infectious animals into enemy lands. Some commentators have speculated on whether the ten plagues that Moses called down on the Egyptians (in about 1300 BC), might represent the earliest incidents of “using nature to gain strategic goals.”

Thinking along these lines, one might wonder if the first plague, the red waters of the Nile that killed fish and fouled the water for drinking, could have been due to deliberate contamination by the Israelites. According to Exodus, the Pharaoh’s “magicians” were able to produce a similar phenomenon, which would place them among the world’s first biochemists. Indeed, techniques for poisoning fish, by dumping powdered roots of deadly plants mixed with toxic chemicals such as lime, were also practiced in early Roman times in the Mediterranean, according to Pliny the Elder. The blood-red, polluted water of the Nile, however, could have been a natural phenomenon such as an algae bloom or an influx of red sediment.

Seasonal occurrences account for the frogs and insects of the second, third, and fourth plagues, as well as for the hailstorm, locusts, and hot dust storm (khamsin) of the seventh, eighth, and ninth plagues. But what about the diseases of the fifth and sixth plagues? In the fifth plague sent by Yahweh, the Egyptians’ herds and flocks were killed, followed by the sixth plague, a rain of “ashes” that caused black boils on beasts as well as humans. The progression here from infected animals to infected humans strongly suggests that what is being described is the spread of pulmonary anthrax, and the boils caused by powdery black “ashes” could describe the black sores of the cutaneous form of anthrax (the word comes from the Greek for “coal”).

A similar plague appeared in Homer’s Iliad, when the Greeks laying siege to Troy in about 1200 BC were assailed by a plague sent by Apollo. Homer’s details are realistic: first to sicken from Apollo’s “black arrows” were the pack animals and dogs; then the men began to die. Outbreaks of anthrax are devastating to both livestock and humans. The “Black Bane” anthrax epidemic that swept Europe in the 1600s, for example, killed millions of animals and at least sixty thousand people. Like smallpox and other infectious material, anthrax spores can remain viable for a very long time and they can conceivably be manipulated by humans. But natural cycles of anthrax have attacked periodically throughout history, and the fact that the Israelites’ cattle were spared while the Egyptian herds were struck has been attributed to the separate pastures of the Israelites.

Although neither the Iliad nor Exodus implicates humans in the anthrax-like plagues, the priests of Apollo and Yahweh took credit for summoning the epidemics, and that definitely reveals both the human desire and intention to wage what we now call germ warfare. The ten plagues of Exodus were most likely a series of natural calamities that were advantageous for the Israelites, but inherent in the story is the strong suggestion that plagues and biological disasters could be powerful weapons against enemies.7

The tenth plague, the sudden death of the Egyptians’ firstborn children, has been called the ultimate biological weapon. Although the Israelites’ children were spared the final plague, again there is no hint of human agency in Exodus. It is true, however, that if one could systematically destroy the genetic material of an enemy people that would indeed constitute biological strategy with a devastating effect on the population. Blocking an enemy’s genetic reproduction by killing entire populations or, alternatively, by slaying all males and/or systematically raping the women was an effective way of wiping out an enemy “root and branch” in antiquity.

The most notorious modern examples of such biological strategies are the Nazis’ attempt to eliminate all Jews and Gypsies in World War II, and the ethnic cleansing and systematic rapes by soldiers that occurred in former Yugoslavia and Burma and in Rwanda in the late twentieth century. After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation investigations (1998) revealed that government-sponsored doctors had researched “a race-specific bacterial weapon” and “ways to sterilize . . . the black population.” In 2003, a U.S. military report described a proposal for creating “non-lethal” weapons based on “genetic alteration.” With the very real ability to manipulate genetic material in the laboratory, the specter of an “ultimate biological weapon” that affects enemy DNA looms in the near future.8

Ancient examples of attempts to interfere with genetic reproduction are numerous. Before the onset of the ten plagues in Egypt, for instance, the Pharaoh had ordered midwives to kill all male offspring born to Hebrew women. Later, in the first century BC, King Herod’s preemptive biological strike—his order to kill all Jewish boys under age two—was another example of the strategy. In Greek myth, during the sack of Troy, the Greek warriors killed the infant son of Hector to make sure that none of the Trojan champion’s stock would survive (the tragic scene was featured in many Greek vase paintings). Greek and Roman historians report wars in which the victors killed all the males of an enemy population and raped and abducted the women en masse (the legendary Rape of the Sabine women by the founders of Rome is a famous example). Polyaenus referred to this legend when he noted that the Roman founders invited the Italian natives, the Sabini, to a festival and then abducted all the virgins. The Indian manual on devious ways of war, the Arthashastra, insinuated that there were secret ways of interfering with opponents’ reproduction: “When an archer shoots an arrow he may miss his target, but intrigue can kill even the unborn.”9

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The Latin expression pestilentia manu facta, “man-made pestilence,” shows that intentionally transmitted contagion was a suspected biological weapon in Roman times. The term was coined by the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s advisor in the first century AD, to refer to epidemics attributed to deliberate human activity. Livy and other Latin historians referred to the malicious transmission of plagues without giving specifics, but Dio Cassius, a Greek historian born about AD 164, reported on two man-made epidemics in detail.

According to Dio Cassius, the plagues were begun by saboteurs acting in Rome and in the provinces, apparently to spread chaos and undermine unpopular emperors’ authority. The first occurred before his time, in AD 90-91, during the reign of Domitian (himself suspected of poisoning his brother and predecessor Titus). Conspirators dipped needles in deleterious substances and secretly pricked many victims, who perished of a deadly illness. Dio Cassius says that the plague-spreaders were caught and punished after informers spoke out.

A similar plot occurred in Dio Cassius’s lifetime, during the reign of Commodus. Commodus had succeeded his father, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in AD 180 of a plague that was brought back to Italy and Europe by Roman troops fighting in Babylonia. While Commodus was emperor, in about AD 189, another plague wracked the empire, killing 2,000 people a day in Rome. This pestilence was said to have been spread by saboteurs who “smeared deadly drugs on tiny needles [and] infected many people by means of these instruments.”

These accusations may or may not have been true, but they do reflect the idea circulating in antiquity that humans—not just the gods—could propagate disease at will. The method, sticking victims with infected needles, was certainly plausible, and rumors of bio-sabotage aroused panic in Rome. Indeed, the rumors were in themselves a form of bio-terror that has proven effective through history. During the ravages of Black Plague in the Middle Ages, rumors that enemies were deliberately spreading the disease caused widespread hysteria. Similarly, fears fueled by rumors rose in the United States in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks of 2001 and amid continuing alarms over bio-terrorist activities.10

In India, during the fourth century BC, the ruthless strategist Kautilya demonstrated a clear intention to transmit infectious diseases to enemies. In the Arthashastra, he claimed that burning frog entrails and plant toxins would produce a smoke that would infect adversaries with gonorrhea; the addition of human blood to the recipe was supposed to bring a wasting lung disease. Powdered leeches, bird and mongoose tongues, donkey milk, plus jimsonweed (a toxic plant related to deadly nightshade) and other poisons were intended to cause fevers, deafness, and various diseases. Four different recipes were said to spread leprosy: one called for special seeds kept for a week in the mouth of a white cobra or lizard, then mixed with cow dung and parrot and cuckoo eggs. The ingredients of the concoctions may seem silly to modern readers but, once again, one of Kautilya’s stated purposes was to terrify his enemies with biological threats.

The idea of “manufactured pestilence” has taken on a new, sinister meaning in view of some recent scientific discoveries. One finding, reported by Richard Preston, whose popular books chronicle what he terms “Dark Biology,” showed that scientists could easily create a virulent version of mousepox by adding a mammalian gene to the smallpox-like virus. Much more ominous, however, are the experiments with diseases that attack humans, which were sponsored by the Pentagon in 2002. Scientists at the State University of New York proved that synthetic replicas of epidemic viruses could be created chemically in the laboratory from scratch, without live cells, simply by replicating the published DNA sequence of a natural virus. The laboratory used a blueprint for polio virus downloaded from the Internet and chemical material available by mail order. As one scientist remarked, the findings suggest that terrorists might soon be able to replicate viruses for “evil intent.” Some two thousand years after Seneca coined the phrase pestilentia manu facta to refer to pestilence manipulated by man, actual man-made pestilence has become a scientific reality.11

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The Greek myth of Pandora, who unwittingly opened the jar or box that held plagues and pestilence, is one of the earliest expressions of the ancient notion of confining disease in a sealed container. The related idea of sealing a virulent contagion in a container with the specific intention of inflicting plague on enemies who break open the seal is a widespread folk motif—and one that has scientific and historical plausibility. Some of the traditional stories about such bioattacks may reflect wishful thinking or imaginative worst-case scenarios, but the potential for deliberately spreading epidemics like smallpox or bubonic plague was real, since infectious matter on fomites and aerosols (tiny airborne particles) can retain virulence over long periods of time.

The story of the Philistines’ problems with the Ark of the Covenant, recounted in 1 Samuel, is a provocative, early example. In the twelfth century BC, when the Philistines were at war with the Israelites, they feared that Yahweh would smite them with plagues as he had done to the Egyptians. Sure enough, when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and took the sacred wooden chest to their capital, an epidemic marked by swollen buboes in the groin (a classic sign of bubonic plague) decimated the population. The survivors sent the Ark away to a series of Philistine towns, and each was struck with the same epidemic. The Philistines attributed the plague to Yahweh and also related it to an infestation of rodents in their land (bubonic plague is carried by fleas on rodents).

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FIGURE 16. The Greek myth of Pandora’s box is one of the earliest expressions of the idea that contagion could be “trapped” in a sealed container. Red-figure amphora by the Niobid Painter, 460-450 BC.

(The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

The coincidence of a plague breaking out upon the arrival of a special casket in each town raises interesting questions. It may simply have been that the Philistine escorts of the Ark brought the disease with them. But, given the worldwide occurrence of tales of plague begun by opening sealed containers from enemies and the modern knowledge that such a scenario is plausible, one wonders: Does the story of the Ark suggest that the chest might have contained some object, such as cloth, that harbored aerosolized plague germs, or an insect vector that infected the rodents in Philistine territory? The Ark of the Covenant was recovered and placed in Solomon’s great temple in Jerusalem. Notably, the Ark itself was never to be touched by the Israelites themselves, but was always carried suspended by poles through rings. One Israelite, named Uzzah, accidentally touched the Ark and died instantly.12

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FIGURE 17. The Ark of the Covenant, a wooden chest that the Israelites were forbidden to touch, brought plague to each Philistine town that it visited in the twelfth century BC. James Tissot, The Ark Passes over the Jordan.

(© De Brunoff 1904)

Two other narratives about the temple in Jerusalem suggest that material carrying plague could very well have been hidden away, stored in a safe place against the possibility of a military invasion. Consider, for example, the ancient legend about sealing up “plague demons” and placing them in the temple at Jerusalem. This story appears in the Testament of Solomon and other ancient texts of Hebrew, Gnostic, and Greek origins, dating from the first to fourth century AD, but based on earlier traditions. Solomon was a historical king who built the first temple in Jerusalem in the tenth century BC. According to legend, King Solomon summoned a crew of evil spirits of disease and disaster and forced them to help build the magnificent temple of Jerusalem. Then he imprisoned the demons inside copper vessels and sealed them with silver. These vessels were placed inside large jars or casks and buried in the foundations of the temple.

The legend can be seen as evidence of the belief that evil spirits could be magically imprisoned in containers, like genies or djinns in bottles. But, as the Mari tablets from Sumer showed, people of the ancient Near East also understood that things such as cloth and cups could actually transmit fatal disease. That knowledge, and the Old Testament tale of the Ark accompanied by outbreaks of plague among the enemy, gives the legend about Solomon deeper significance.

Indeed, the biblical stories of the plagues sent by Yahweh against the Egyptians in the time of Moses, and against the Philistines who stole the Ark, had already planted the idea of contagion as a weapon, and Solomon’s reserves of plague seem to be intended as a weapon. The Testament of Solomon predicted that when the temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the king of the Chaldeans, the plague spirits would be released. And in fact, in 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar (the cruel king of the Chaldeans, or Neo-Babylonians) sacked and burned Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. “In their plundering,” the invaders found the copper vessels and assumed that they contained treasure. The Babylonians broke open the seals and the pestilential demons flew out and “plagued men again.”

The ancient legend of Solomon imprisoning the evil spirits in the temple at Jerusalem is well known in Islamic lore. Today, among Muslim fundamentalists who practice “Islamic science”—a hybrid of modern scientific terminology and Islamic mysticism—invisible djinns are identified as the sources of nuclear energy and epidemics. These scientists point to Solomon’s ability to “harness energy from djinns” as evidence that special “spirits” of atomic power and contagion such as anthrax could be manipulated by secret knowledge. In 1988 and 1991, the leading Pakistani nuclear scientist, Bashiruddin Mehmood, spoke of the possibility of “communicating” with the invisible but powerful djinns or spirits that were long ago “harnessed by King Solomon.” In 2001, Mehmood was detained for questioning in Pakistan after plans and diagrams for creating anthrax-spreading devices were found in his offices in Afghanistan.

Solomon’s temple was rebuilt in the fifth century BC. In 1945, a trove of early Christian writings buried in about AD 400 were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. One of the scrolls contains a different version of the Solomon legend that dates to the first or second century AD. During the siege of Jerusalem by the future Roman emperor Titus in AD 70, the second temple was destroyed and, according to the scrolls, Roman soldiers discovered the ancient jars and broke them open looking for plunder. The plague demons, imprisoned in the foundations since the time of Solomon, escaped. Suetonius, the Latin biographer of Titus, records that “Titus’s reign was marked by a series of dreadful catastrophes,” including “one of the worst outbreaks of plague ever known.”13

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Almost a century later, in the same geographical region, a remarkably similar scenario was played out again, when looting soldiers destroyed a Greek temple in Babylon.

The terrible Plague of AD 165-180 swept out of Babylonia and raged across the Mideast and Mediterranean, reaching Rome and even Gaul and Germany. The great doctor Galen described the symptoms in enough detail for medical historians to suggest that the disease may have been smallpox. The epidemic is the second most famous in antiquity after the Plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

Accusations detailed in two fourth-century Latin accounts of the Parthian War in Babylonia—one in the Lives of the Later Caesars and the other in a history by Ammianus Marcellinus—strongly suggest that this plague belongs in the annals of biological sabotage. The epidemic began during the Roman campaign against the Parthians in Mesopotamia, led by the co-emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. The Parthians dominated Central Asia from the Indus River to the Euphrates, and constantly threatened Roman power. “The pestilence is reported to have arisen in Babylonia, when a spiritus pestilens, a pestilential vapor, escaped from a golden casket in the temple of Apollo,” wrote Verus’s biographer, “Julius Capitolinus” (one of the pseudonyms used by the anonymous authors of the Lives of the Later Caesars). A Roman soldier had “cut open the casket and from thence [the plague] filled the Parthians’ land and then the world,” extending all the way from Persia to the Rhine.

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FIGURE 18. The Great Plague of AD 165-80 began when a Roman soldier broke open a golden chest in the Temple of Apollo in Babylon, allowing the “spirits of plague” to escape. The “spirits” in this drawing are taken from a Greek vase painting of “spirits” in 460 BC.

Lucius Verus was accused, by the Syrians and others, of deliberately spreading the plague. But the plague was not really Verus’s fault, claimed Capitolinus, who said that the blame really lay with Verus’s ambitious general, Avidius Cassius. In AD 164, the bloodthirsty Cassius had stormed Seleuceia, a Greek city on the Tigris River in the district of Babylonia (the Parthians had used the city as their summer quarters). Cassius’s army committed atrocities and laid waste to Seleuceia, one of the last bastions of Hellenic culture, despite the fact that the Seleuceians had welcomed the Romans. Cassius thereby violated a generally accepted convention of war not to attack a friendly city or break a truce. It was Cassius’s soldiers who plundered the Greek temple and released the contagion, according to Capitolinus and Ammianus Marcellinus.14

The idea that plundering a temple or sacred site would be punished by plague was a very old one. The capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines followed by outbreaks of plague is one of the earliest examples. Another example comes from Diodorus of Sicily, who, as we have seen, noted that the Carthaginian army was struck by plague in 396 BC—and that plague began after the Carthaginians had pillaged a Greek temple in Syracuse. Appian told how plague ravaged the Gauls during their attempt to loot Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi in 105 BC. Capitolinus’s account also conveyed the strong implication that Cassius and his men had offended Apollo, who scourged invading armies with plagues. According to inscriptions discovered by archaeologists, the oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Claros (on the coast of Turkey) issued many dire warnings during the pandemic, attributing the plague to the anger of the god and advising cities to erect statues of Long-Haired Apollo wielding his bow to ward off the contagion released by the Roman looters.

Stories implying that biological weapons were stored in temples raise a flurry of questions. Why would biologically dangerous materials be stored in temples? And were the releases of the plagues accidental or intentional?

In the Greco-Roman world, temples often served as museums of revered relics, and all sorts of weapons with mythic and historical significance were treasures commonly displayed in temples. Indeed, Hercules’ original bio-weapons—the Hydra-poisoned arrows—were famously stored in a temple in Italy by the archer Philoctetes who dedicated them to Apollo, the god whose arrows carried pestilence.

But surely items of deadly biological potential were not merely retained for posterity. Evidence from antiquity relates that priests of the temples of Apollo were very knowledgeable about poisons and studied their effects. For example, the celebrated toxicologist Nicander was a priest of Apollo at the Temple of Claros, the same temple that issued oracles about the plague of AD 165, and Nicander compiled an encyclopedia on venomous snakes, plants, and insects. Apollo was also the patron of doctors, and we know that the doctor Nebros used his knowledge of poison to help destroy the town of Kirrha, which had offended Apollo. With these clues in mind, one is tempted to ask whether some temples may have functioned as ancient laboratories for experiments with poisons and antidotes, with diseases and even primitive vaccines.

In fact, some Greek temples were repositories of real disease vectors. Apollo was the guardian of rodents (in antiquity, no distinction was drawn between mice, rats, and voles). Rodent swarms were a presage of epidemics—and all sorts of rodents can be vectors of bubonic plague, typhus, and other diseases. At least one temple of Apollo—at Hamaxitus near ancient Troy—actually housed a horde of sacred white mice or rats around the altar, which were fed at public expense.

Another intriguing example of disease vectors associated with temples involves Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Her temple at Rhocca, Crete, was notorious for its rabid dogs, and Athena of Rhocca was invoked to cure human victims of rabies. Aelian described a complicated experiment by an old shaman-like character that took place in the vicinity of Rhocca, in which marine bio-toxins (the stomach acid of sea-horses) were administered to counteract rabies in a group of boys bitten by mad dogs. But, as Aelian acknowledged elsewhere, the bite of a mad dog was always fatal. Notably, in his section on various venoms and arrow poisons, Aelian included a reference to rabid dogs. The saliva of a mad dog could even imbue a piece of cloth bitten by the dog, noted Aelian, causing secondhand, fatal rabies to anyone who came in intimate contact with it. This ominous remark insinuates that mad dog “venom” could have weapon potential, although no evidence survives that the idea of using rabid dog “venom” on arrows was pursued in ancient Greece or Rome. There are two bio-weapon recipes in the Arthashastra of the fourth-century BC, however, that appear to be evidence of such an attempt in India. One describes how to make a poison arrow with a mixture of toxins and “the blood of a musk rat.” Anyone pierced with this arrow will be compelled to bite ten companions, who will in turn bite others, wrote Kautilya. The other weapon, concocted from red alum, plant toxins, and the blood of a goat and a man, induces “biting madness.” These symptoms of biting mania sound suspiciously like rabies. Two thousand years later, in 1650, the possibility of weaponizing rabies in projectiles occurred to an artillery general in Poland. He referred to catapulting “hollow spheres with the slobber from rabid dogs [to] cause epidemics.”

Going back to the original line of thinking, involving temples as places where toxins or pathogens and antidotes were sometimes stored, and taking the idea a step further, the question arises: Were some priests in temples of Apollo or Athena the keepers of lethal biological material that could be weaponized in times of crisis? One can imagine that a garment or other item contaminated with, say, dried smallpox matter, could have been sealed away from heat, light, and air in a golden casket in the temple of Apollo in Babylon, until a time of need. The items could maintain “weapons-grade” virulence for many years.15

Besides the literary evidence that temples might serve as emergency arsenals of disease vectors and fomites, there is archaeological evidence that very special weapons were actually stored in temples. For example, in the 370s BC a cache of catapult bolts was kept in the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. That was just a generation after the invention in Syracuse of the crossbow-style catapult, a terrifying weapon that took warfare to a higher level of destruction. Sacred sites and weapons have been linked in later times, too. During the Crusades, for example, when Greek Fire, the new chemical incendiary weapon based on naphtha inspired terror, Arabic sources reported that great stocks of naphtha were stored in Byzantine churches. Earlier, in the fourth century AD, it was rumored that the “Devil” was responsible for smuggling naphtha into the church of Saint Nicholas in Myra (on the coast of Turkey).” In 2003, there were allegations by the United States that Saddam Hussein had hidden biological and chemical “weapons of mass destruction” in mosques in Iraq.16

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FIGURE 19. A woman placing a cloth in a chest. If the material had belonged to a victim of an epidemic such as smallpox, it could retain virulence for many years. Terracotta pinax from Lokri.

(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Calabria)

In classical antiquity, the storage of catapult bolts in Athena’s temple suggests that the most deadly, technologically advanced ballistic armaments were watched over by the goddess of war. Likewise, it seems that the most virulent biological ammunition was guarded by the god of plagues, Apollo.

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It is notable how often plague gods like Apollo were “invoked in defensive military contexts [to] bring plague against an invading or besieging army,” remarked Christopher Faraone, a scholar of ancient religion. Like other commentators, he saw the story of the casket of plague in Apollo’s temple in Babylonia as simply another “curious historical anecdote,” further proof that Apollo was worshipped as the source of epidemics, which often coincided with invasions by armies.

But the story is much more complex, with significant implications for the history of attitudes toward justifiable biological warfare. There are many ancient accounts of people calling on gods who control plague to help them resist an invading enemy or oppressor, which seems to suggest a sense that using biological weapons was acceptable in situations of defense but less permissible as a “first strike.” In Exodus, the Israelites called on Yahweh to send plagues against their Egyptian captors. In Homer’s Iliad, the priest of Apollo called down the god’s plague arrows on the invading Greek army after they destroyed the priest’s city, Chryse, and captured his daughter. Even the bio-warrior-hero Hercules, who was regularly invoked for help by Greek armies, could only offer aid in defensive situations. For example, when the Syracusans sacrificed to Hercules to ask for assistance during the Athenians’ invasion of Sicily, Hercules could only promise to help “provided they did not seek battle, but remained on the defensive.”17

The principle of summoning plague for self-defense may be related to the reality that invaders are “immunologically naive” and therefore more vulnerable to endemic diseases in foreign lands than the local population. Simply put, epidemics often strike invading forces more severely than indigenous populations. But, another factor appears to be a strong intuition from earliest times that poisoning and spreading contagion could be justified when it was reserved for desperate emergencies. This principle allowed the practice of polluting water in advance of an invading army or booby-trapping an abandoned outpost. The same defensive principle appears in the modern Biological Weapons Convention (ratified in 1972 by 143 nations), which prohibits offensive weapons but allows “defensive” research to continue.

Various military leaders in modern history have hesitated to approve biochemical weapons for aggressive purposes. Louis XIV, for example, rewarded an Italian chemist for inventing a bacteriological weapon, but on the condition that the man never reveal the formula, and, in a similar account, Louis V declined an offer of the “lost” formula for Greek Fire. In 1969, President Richard Nixon supposedly terminated the offensive biological weapons initiative that the United States had begun in World War II. Even Hitler, a fan of Greco-Roman culture, reportedly forbade offensive biological weapons research in 1939, although his scientists continued to develop nerve gases and other bio-chemical agents. Of course, there have been, and still are, countless systematic violations of bans against offensive uses of weaponized contagion. For example, many modern nations simply label bio-weapons research and production as “defensive security,” even though nothing precludes the weapons from being used in a first strike. The salient point in these ancient accounts, though, is the surprising antiquity of the attitude that there is something heinous about attackingwith contagion, but as a weapon of resistance, self-defense, or retaliation, it is acceptable as a last resort.18

In AD 165, the Syrians and others accused the Romans of intentionally spreading the plague and taking it back to Rome. But the Romans themselves were the main victims of the epidemic. Even Emperor Marcus Aurelius succumbed to the plague—despite his daily dose of a special antidote to protect himself from biological attack. It seems more likely that the Romans were the victims of a biological timebomb, a kind of booby-trapped Pandora’s box, set against the invader, activated despite the dangers of friendly fire (the Parthians were also affected). If so, the chest in the temple may have been a very early precursor of the booby-trapped treasure chests in the late Middle Ages that were rigged with primitive explosives. In this case, trying to direct contagion only at the Roman enemy, without incurring collateral damage, must have been seen as a drastic last resort.

Imagine the scene at the Temple of Long-Haired Apollo, god of plague, in Babylon. Lucius Verus’s generals are laying waste to Babylonia, and Cassius has utterly destroyed the friendly Greek city of Seleuceia. Roman soldiers burst into the temple, looking for loot before setting it afire. They spy the golden casket, and the priests of Apollo allow the biologically devastating “accident” to happen, knowing that at least the Roman army will contract the plague and spread it across their provinces all the way back to Italy. As Faraone points out, soldiers far from home and living in crowded conditions were “excellent targets for a variety of new viruses and bacteria for which they had no immunity.”

The plague of AD 165-180 has been identified as smallpox, based on Galen’s description. Some of the local populace may have been immune to the pestilence stored in their temple, but the dangers of keeping plague as a secret weapon inside one’s own city would be considerable. Just as those who handled poison arrows and toxic substances suffered friendly-fire accidents, handling contagion always involves the chance of self-contamination.

Indeed, the backlash problems associated with handling contagion as a weapon persist in modern times. A prime example of the “poisoners poisoned” effect occurred in 1941, during Japanese attacks with infectious agents against eleven cities in China. The Japanese troops themselves are reported to have suffered 10,000 biological casualties and 1,700 fatalities trying to spread contagion in the city of Changteh alone. In grim irony, Dr. Shiro Ishii, the director of attacks, became a casualty of his obsession with germ warfare: he suffered from chronic dysentery. During the offensive bioweapons research program in the United States in 1943-69, there were reports of more than four hundred inadvertent “occupational infections,” and since the 1950s, military experiments with germ warfare agents have been linked to several outbreaks of disease in civilian populations. After smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, routine vaccinations were halted and laboratories around the world supposedly destroyed their stores of the virus (except for two authorized sites in the United States and the Soviet Union). But in 2002, evidence emerged that Russia may have continued to create staggering amounts of the virus and that vials of smallpox strains (rumored to be resistant to vaccines) lurk in lab freezers across the globe. The perilous situation is chronicled in Richard Preston’s 2002 book, The Demon in the Freezer, a striking title that calls to mind the ancient plague demons trapped in stoppered vials in temples.

Ancient recognition of the danger of trying to weaponize plague is evident in traditional Greek prayers urging Apollo to set aside his bow and quiver of plague-arrows during peacetime. And an ancient Hittite prayer bluntly requested their own plague-bringing god to “Shoot the enemy, but when you come home, unstring your bow and cover your quiver.”19

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The biological sabotage that I have suggested may have been planned by the priests at the temples at Babylon, and perhaps Jerusalem, took advantage of the invading enemies’ greed and lust for loot. The contagion was delivered in the form of something attractive. Indeed, the next chapter shows how military commanders could take advantage of adversaries’ desires, vices, or overindulgence, but before we turn to toxic sweets and tainted wine as weapons, let’s consider another unique subterfuge that concealed doom in an alluring gift.

In India, where all manner of toxic substances could be had, poisoning was a favored method of political assassination in myth and history. One of the most ingenious methods described in Sanskrit literature was to send an irresistible gift in the form of a so-called Poison Maiden. In the Katha Sarit Sagara, a collection of Indian lore compiled by the poet Somadeva (about AD 1050), King Brahmadatta “sent poison-damsels as dancing-girls among the enemy’s host.” In an ancient twist on the modern idea of “sleepers,” the term for undetected, lurking assassins or terrorists who await orders to kill, Poison Maidens were carefully “prepared” and dispatched as secret weapons. A touch, a kiss, or sexual intercourse with one of these ravishing but deadly damsels brought sure death.

The idea that certain individuals were personally poisonous, capable of killing with their mere touch or breath, is a folk motif of great antiquity. According to popular belief, one way that the toxicity could be achieved was by a lifelong regimen of ingesting poisons and venoms. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” about a Poison Maiden, and the Poison Sultan Mahmud Shah are two famous examples of the theme in Western and Indian-Persian folklore). The tales reflect folk knowledge of gaining immunity to venoms (exemplified by the Psylli, the snake charmers of North Africa), but they also were early attempts to explain how contagion is mysteriously passed from person to person.

According to ancient Indian and Arabic legends, both King Chandragupta and his Greek rival Alexander the Great were the intended victims of Poison Maidens. King Chandragupta’s Mauryan Empire was the most powerful dominion in India when Alexander invaded in 327 BC and defeated the king’s ally, Porus. In the seventh century AD, the historian Visakhadatta described how a plot to send a Poison Maiden to the king’s bedchamber was thwarted by Kautilya, Chandragupta’s minister and the author of theArthashastra, the book of Machiavellian statecraft. Kautilya cleverly rerouted the girl to one of the king’s enemies instead.

A similar intrigue was said to have been hatched to kill Alexander the Great, according to a body of ancient and medieval legends. The earliest description of the conspiracy to send a Poison Maiden to the Macedonian conqueror appeared in about AD 1050 in a Latin book, based on an earlier Arabic translation of a lost Greek manuscript. In that story, the King of India sent Alexander many precious gifts, among them a “beautiful maiden whom they had fed on poison until she had the nature of a venomous snake.” Smitten by her beauty, Alexander “could scarcely contain himself and rushed to embrace her.” Her touch or bite, even her perspiration, it was said, would have killed Alexander—had not his trusted advisor, the philosopher Aristotle, foiled the plot and prevented him from contact with the “messenger of death.”

The story of Alexander is clearly legendary (for one thing, Aristotle never visited India). But the concept of a Poison Maiden may contain a germ of truth. Comparing the beautiful girls to snakes plays on the idea that snake charmers gained immunity by ingesting small doses of venom, and as folklorist Norman Penzer points out, there was a popular notion in antiquity that the bite of a snake charmer might be as venomous as the snakes they handled. Penzer also investigated the possibility that the “poison” transmitted by intimate contact with deadly maidens was really venereal disease or other fatal infectious illnesses, such as smallpox, transmitted by personal contact.

The strategy of sending disease-ridden but alluring women to foes appeared again in later military history, too. During the Naples Campaign of 1494, for example, the Spanish not only poisoned French wine with contaminated blood, but according to the medical writer Gabriele Falloppia, they also “intentionally chased beautiful, infectious prostitutes into the French army camp.”20 Although the biological strategies are nearly three thousand years apart, this Spanish “poison prostitute” plot also has parallels to the ancient Hittite ritual of driving a plague-infected woman into enemy territory. Offering something tempting but lethal to a foe is an age-old path to victory via biological agents.

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