5

SWEET SABOTAGE

Men by their unbridled appetites
are the victims of plots against
their food and drink.

—AELIAN, On Animals

He’ll come with a deadly poison,
pour it in our wine, and kill us all.

—HOMER, Odyssey

XENOPHON WAS PLEASED with the campsite he had selected in the territory of Colchis in Pontus, along the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. The land was fertile and well-watered. It was 401 BC, and the great general was leading ten thousand Greek mercenaries on the long march home from Babylon, north through Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Asia Minor. The hoplites had fought with distinction in the attempted coup d’état by the Persian rebel Cyrus the Younger against the grand army of his brother, Artaxerxes II, king of Persia. But when Cyrus was killed by Artaxerxes’ men in the battle of Cunaxa (near modern Baghdad), the cause was lost. The Persians had invited the Greek generals to negotiate. At the supposedly friendly banquet, however, all the generals were assassinated and the Greek army was left stranded in a precarious situation with no leaders, thousands of miles from home.

Xenophon emerged from the ranks as their new leader. The murder of the Greek generals and his knowledge of Persian history made Xenophon exquisitely aware of treachery, but even he was unprepared for what happened in Colchis, the homeland of the legendary sorceress Medea and her magic potions and poisons.

Xenophon always followed his own advice to military leaders, “Above all, camp in a healthy place.” His men had battled natives and plundered towns for supplies all along the march from Babylon. Here, in Colchis, it seemed safe for the ten thousand homesick soldiers to rest and dream of soon reaching Greece. “There was nothing remarkable about the place,” wrote Xenophon in his memoir of the expedition, “except for extraordinary numbers of swarming bees.” The Colchian villages were well-stocked with food and there was even the special treat of wild honey for the taking. The men soon discovered the beehives and raided them for the sweet.

After feasting on the honey, however, the soldiers “succumbed to a strange affliction,” and began to act like intoxicated madmen. Soon they were staggering about and collapsing by the thousands. Xenophon reported that his troops were sprawled over the ground like victims of a terrible rout. As though under a spell, the men were totally incapacitated. Some even died. A “great despondency prevailed,” wrote Xenophon. The next day, the survivors began to recover their senses but were unable to stand until three or four days later. Still feeling weak, the army broke camp and continued west. The vulnerability of his men to an ambush in enemy territory while they were unconscious greatly troubled Xenophon.

Unknown to Xenophon, the culprit in this situation was naturally toxic honey, produced by bees that collected nectar from poisonous rhododendron blossoms. The powerful neurotoxins of the flowers have no effect on the bees, but the inhabitants of the Black Sea region knew all about the beautiful but baneful rhododendron plant. Its sap could be used as an arrow poison, and in very tiny doses the honey was a pharmakon, taken as a tonic or mild intoxicant. Today in northern Turkey and the Caucasus, the honey is called deli bal (“mad honey”) and known to Westerners as miel fou. A small spoonful in a glass of milk is a traditional pick-me-up, and a dollop in alcoholic beverages gives an extra kick. In the eighteenth century, deli bal was a major export from the Crimea, and tons of toxic honey were shipped to Europe to be added to drinks sold in taverns.

Strangers unfamiliar with the delicious honey made from poison flowers are liable to overdose, like Xenophon’s soldiers who eagerly devoured the honeycombs. I interviewed an American anthropology student who barely survived a bout with toxic honey in the 1970s, in Nepal, where great rhododendron forests thrive. His hosts, nomadic yak herders, had warned him about the dangers of wild honey, and told him how to distinguish toxic from safe honey—one method is to hold a handful: a tingling sensation indicates toxicity. But the student also knew that the herders purposely gathered the toxic honey. Assuming that it was a hallucinogenic drug, he sought out a hive in the rhododendron forest, identified the toxic honey, and ate an ounce or so. The high began pleasantly enough, he recalled, but soon turned ferocious. Tingling and numbness progressed to vertigo, severe vomiting, and diarrhea. His speech became garbled and the psychedelic visual effects were frightening, with whirling colored lights and tunnel vision. Delirious, he was able to reach the village just before muscle paralysis caused complete collapse. The villagers nursed him back from near death. A few days later, following the same course of recovery experienced by Xenophon’s men, the student was still weak, but able to stand. Later, he learned that the herders fed tiny doses to their livestock as a spring tonic. They told him the amount he had ingested was enough to kill a huge Tibetan mastiff.

By Roman times, the “mad” honey of the Black Sea area was well-known to natural historians. Pliny the Elder mused on the paradox that the “sweetest, finest, most health-promoting food” could be so randomly lethal. Noting that nature had already armed bees with venomous stings, Pliny surmised that the bees borrowed the toxins from poisonous plants to create an additional weapon, one intended to protect their honeycombs from human greed.

Xenophon’s close call was due to accidental poisoning, but it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to use the honey as a biological weapon. As John Ambrose, a historian of insects in warfare, commented, the ancients “were clever enough to realize that the honey . . . could have a military usage not unlike that of poison gas today.” Honey was just one of many attractive lures that could serve as a secret biological weapon to disable or kill enemies in antiquity. Fears of biotoxins inspired the search for antidotes and immunities, which were themselves sometimes based on poisons.1

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Four centuries after Xenophon’s experience with toxic honey, a Roman army marched through the same region, in about 65 BC. They too feasted on the delicious honey of the Pontus, this time with fatal consequences. The commander of the army was Pompey the Great, attempting to complete the long campaign to conquer Rome’s most dangerous enemy in the first century BC, the brilliant King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Mithridates’ colossal army—much feared for its hellish war-chariots with rotating scythes attached to the wheels—had swept across Asia, slaughtering tens of thousands of Romans. He had captured Greece, and was poised to attack Italy (89-85 BC). Pompey’s predecessor, Licinius Lucullus, had failed to finish the war against the elusive Mithridates in an arduous campaign of 74-66 BC, despite victories from Pontus to Mesopotamia. Pompey’s legions finally defeated Mithridates’ grand army in 65 BC, but the wily king slipped away over the Caucasus to Crimea, and began to plan an audacious land invasion of Italy.

Mithridates was a ruler obsessed with a phobia of assassination by poison, and with good reason: he had murdered his own mother, his brother, his four sons, and many others, and poison was a favorite weapon in his milieu. A team of Scythian shaman-doctors, called the Agari, accompanied Mithridates at all times. Famed for their healing potions made from various snake venoms, the Scythian shamans had cured several grave arrow wounds suffered by the king. (The paranoid monarch’s sleep was guarded by a bull, a horse, and a stag, who alerted him with a three-alarm cacophony—bellowing, whinnying, and bleating—whenever someone approached the royal bed.)

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FIGURE 20. King Mithridates VI of Pontus, arch-enemy of Rome, was a toxicologist searching for the most effective poisons and their antidotes. Here, he tests a poison on a prisoner, while his royal pharmacists display aconite and other toxic plants. Painting by Robert Thom.

(Courtesy of Pfizer Inc)

Early in his life, Mithridates had devised a remarkable personal poison-survival plan. His program was based on the concept of ingesting a minute amount of a toxin or contagion, just enough to confer immunity when the body encounters the toxin again (the same principle of modern vaccines). The king dined on smidgens of poisons and antidotes every day. Extremely erudite, Mithridates studied texts in many languages. Indian medicine was much admired, and disseminated as far as Rome by his day. The king may have known that in ancient India fears of assassination by poisoning were addressed in the Laws of Manu, the Hindu sacred code of conduct dating to about 500 BC. Perhaps the idea for his special regimen was influenced by the verse that instructed: “Let the king mix all his food with medicines that are antidotes against poisons.” 2

Searching for the fabled theriac, a so-called universal antidote to all poisons, Mithridates also tested various pharmaka on prisoners whom he caused to be poisoned or bitten by venomous snakes and scorpions. Eventually he created an elaborate compound of the fifty-four best antidotes mixed with honey—possibly the toxic honey of his native land—into a single drug for his own protection. His special theriac became known as mithridatium. Over the years after his death, the formula was improved on by various Roman toxicologists, including the personal physician to the emperor Nero (in about AD 60), who added ten more ingredients, including chopped viper flesh and opium. The imperial physician Galen prepared daily doses of this new, improved mithridatium for three emperors who feared biological attack, including Marcus Aurelius.

Complex concoctions thought to have panantidotal powers were also created in ancient India and China. The Indian medical writers Charaka and Sushruta (about 400 BC) mention two universal antidotes to poisons, one called Mahagandhahasti, with sixty ingredients, and another with eighty-five. Vials of theriac continued to be very popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance—and they were still dispensed by French and German apothecaries up to the late nineteenth century.3

Commanders who used poison weapons were especially sensitive to the need for antidotes or immunities. In his Indian military manual, the Arthashastra, Kautilya included a chapter on preparations to be administered to an army (and its animals) “before the commencement of battles and the assailing of forts,” to protect them against the enemies’ biological weapons and the potential backfire of their own biochemicals. The ingredients included known poisons, such as aconite, along with numerous plant, animal, and mineral substances of varying medicinal effects, such as jackal blood, mongoose and crocodile bile, gold, turmeric, and charcoal (these last three are effective agents in modern medicine). In a modern echo of Kautilya’s plans, in 2002, as the United States threatened invasion of Iraq (ancient Babylonia) to destroy its stores of bio-weapons, Saddam Hussein attempted to obtain antidotes for nerve gases in vast quantities, in an effort to protect his army from their own weapons.

Mithridates’ and Kautilya’s efforts to ensure immunity to poison weapons are mirrored in other crude—and sophisticated—methods carried out today. For example, in 2002 it was reported in the New York Times and other news media that Indonesian military training included drinking the blood of venomous snakes and undergoing snakebites to boost soldiers’ immunity to venom and poison arrows. In the United States, the ancient dream of a mithridatium that would protect civilians against modern germ warfare is promoted by a New Age organization called Tetrahedron. In 2001, the company began selling “Essential Oils for Biological Warfare Preparedness” via the Internet. One oil is said to have been originally compounded by Moses to protect the Israelites from the plagues called down on the Egyptians. Other oils are claimed to protect against bio-terrorist attacks with anthrax and bubonic plague.

But in a variation on the perils of accidental self-contamination with poison arrows or bottled plague, ancient and modern methods of seeking immunity to poison weapons can also have boomerang effects. In World War II, a complex example of the unanticipated results of attempting to protect against one’s own biological weapons occurred after the Germans had polluted a large reservoir with sewage, which caused outbreaks of highly contagious typhus. The Nazis themselves relied on taking blood tests of local people to avoid going into areas with typhus. In Poland, however, their defense was turned against them when local doctors secretly injected the Poles with a vaccine that gave false-positive readings for typhus in the Nazis’ blood tests, leading the Germans to stay away from the region.

More deleterious problems with attempts to protect an army from biochemical attack occurred in the Gulf War of 1991. The U.S. military vaccinated American soldiers against biochemical weapons expected to be unleashed in Iraq. In the years after the war, however, the vaccinated veterans have been afflicted by serious health problems, referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, attributed in part to the vaccinations that were intended to protect them. Since the terrorist attacks with anthrax in the United States in 2001 and the decision to vaccinate the U.S. armed forces and American citizens against smallpox in 2003, the public health hazards of mass vaccinations against anthrax and smallpox have been widely discussed in medical journals and the popular media.

In antiquity, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, fearing assassination by poison and plague, ingested a dose of Galen’s opium-fortified mithridatium every day. (The emperor himself was not immune to accusations of poisoning—it was rumored that he had murdered his co-emperor Lucius Verus with poison.) In a prime example of the backfiring of an antidote, not only did Marcus Aurelius become an opium addict, but he died of the great plague that was brought back to Rome from Babylon by his own army, commanded by Verus.4

Even King Mithridates fell victim to his search for immunity to poisons. Having escaped from Pompey, he was hiding out in his Crimean kingdom planning his invasion of Italy, when his fifth son led a revolt against him. Cornered in his castle tower, Mithridates was forced to commit suicide in 63 BC. He took poison, which he always kept at hand. But his attempt to die peacefully was ironically thwarted by his life-long regimen of toxins and antidotes. In desperation, Mithridates tried to stab himself. In the end, he had to order his bodyguard from Gaul to run him through with a sword.

Mithridates’ traitorous son sent his father’s corpse to Pompey, who interred his formidable foe with honors in the Mithridatic family sepulcher at Sinope on the Black Sea. Meanwhile, Pompey had seized the king’s headquarters and royal possessions, including an extensive library of toxicology treatises in various languages (the king spoke twenty-two tongues). There was also a treasure trove of Mithridates’ handwritten notes on his experiments with poisons and antidotes. Recognizing their value, Pompey sent the books and notes to Rome with orders that they be translated into Latin.

Pliny, writing a century later, consulted Mithridates’ personal toxicology library and cited several antidotes written out in Greek in the king’s own hand. Antidotes discovered by Mithridates in his bio-toxins research laboratory included the blood of Pontic ducks, who lived on poisonous plants; a pink flower he called mithridatia; and polemonia, “the plant of a thousand powers.” Pliny was deeply impressed by the “untiring research into every possible experiment in compelling poisons to be useful remedies.”5

As king of Pontus and a scholar of toxicology, Mithridates was well aware of the deadly properties of the rhododendron honey of his kingdom. He would have kept some in his royal laboratory of pharmaka and, as noted earlier, he may have included it in hismithridatium. He would also have been familiar with the arrow poisons concocted by the Soanes and Scythians of his territory. As a philhellene and scholar of Greek literature, Mithridates knew all about Medea, the legendary witch of Colchis who was the archetype of the scheming barbarian in Greek mythology. Medea, niece of the sorceress Circe, had poisoned the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece and devised potions to protect Jason and the Argonauts from pursuing enemies. Mithridates would also have known of Xenophon’s misadventure with the poisonous honey. With Medea as his model and with his historical knowledge of the effects of local rhododendron honey, Mithridates had a great advantage over Pompey and his Roman army, who were unaware of the dangerous honey as they pursued Mithridates north.

Mithridates, like Medea, had eluded his pursuing enemies by a series of ingenious tricks, and what subsequently happened to Pompey has the hallmark of Mithridates’ schemes. In about 65 BC, Pompey’s army was approaching Colchis. Mithridates’ allies there, the Heptakometes, were described by Strabo as “utterly savage” mountain barbarians, dwelling in tree forts and living on “the flesh of wild animals and nuts.” The tribe was feared for attacking wayfarers—suddenly leaping down on them like leopards from their tree houses. The Heptakometes may have received specific orders from Mithridates on how to ambush the Roman army. What we do know for a fact is that they gathered up great numbers of wild honeycombs dripping with toxic honey and placed them all along Pompey’s route. The Roman soldiers stopped to enjoy the sweets and immediately lost their senses. Reeling and babbling, the men collapsed with vomiting and diarrhea, and lay on the ground unable to move. The Heptakometes easily wiped out about one thousand of Pompey’s men.

Raw honey and its fermented product, mead, were the only natural sweets in antiquity, as irresistible as candy. The Heptakometes simply used a natural resource of their landscape, the delicious honey that also happened to be a deadly intoxicant, as a biological agent to incapacitate the Romans so they could be easily slaughtered. The same effect could be gained with mead, set out as alluring bait to entrap enemies. Later in the same region, for example, the Russian foes of Olga of Kiev fell for a ruse in AD 946, when they accepted several tons of mead from Olga’s allies. Was the mead fortified with deli bal? That is not known, but all five thousand Russians were massacred as they lay in a stupor. Several centuries later in 1489, in the same area, the Russian army slaughtered some ten thousand Tatar soldiers after they had gulped down great casks of mead purposely left by the Russians in their abandoned camp.6

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Aelian noted that soldiers on campaign were especially vulnerable to plots involving food and drink. The simplest biological ploy, other than denying an enemy drinking water, was to take advantage of their hunger or their overindulgence in eating and drinking. As Pliny lamented, “Most of man’s trouble is caused by the belly . . . it is chiefly through his food that a man dies.” Aeneas the Tactician advised commanders in the fourth century BC to wait until the enemy grows reckless and begins “looting to satisfy their greed.” They will “fill themselves with food and drink and, once drunk [will] become careless . . . and impaired in performance.” Writing in the same era in India, Kautilya told how to administer poisons “in the diet and other physical enjoyments” of the enemy.

Hannibal the Carthaginian relied on this tactic during his invasion of Italy in the third century BC. Noticing the lack of firewood in the district and aware of the dietary habits of the Roman army—they were used to eating cereals rather than meat—he devised a cunning plan. Hannibal abandoned his camp, leaving herds of cattle behind, and waited until the Romans eagerly took possession of the cows as booty. Then, when they could find no wood for cooking fires, they stuffed themselves with the “raw and indigestible” beef. Unused to such heavy, uncooked fare, the soldiers became severely bilious and lethargic from their steak tartare feast. Returning in the night when the indisposed Romans were “off their guard and gorged with raw meat,” wrote the military tactician Frontinus, the Carthaginians “inflicted great losses upon them.”

In his first victory, in northern Italy in December 218 BC, Hannibal had used another simple ploy based on biological vulnerability. Drawing up his forces at first light, he tricked the Romans into fighting in the freezing snow before they had eaten breakfast. Hungry and numb with cold, they were easily annihilated by the well-fed Carthaginian troops. Some decades later, Tiberius Gracchus, the Roman commander fighting the Celtiberians in Spain in 178 BC, also used hunger as a weapon. He learned through spies that the enemy was suffering from a lack of provisions. Like Hannibal, he abandoned his camp, leaving behind “an elaborate supply of all kinds of foods.” After the Celtiberians “had gorged themselves to repletion with the food they found,” says Frontinus, “Gracchus brought back his army and suddenly crushed them.”7

If setting out tempting food worked to trick enemies, plying them with inebriating liquor was even more effective. Barrels of alcohol could be left for them to find, or they could be sent gifts of wine. Many Greek myths tell how semi-human creatures—Centaurs, Satyrs, and Tritons—were captured or killed after being lured with wine, and this simple bio-subterfuge also figured in many ancient military engagements, especially those fought against “barbarians,” who were thought to be especially susceptible to liquor.

A historical example occurred when the ruthless emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), vexed by the revolt by the Nasamonian nomads of Numidia (North Africa), declared “I forbid the Nasamonians to exist!” When Flaccus, Domitian’s governor in Numidia, learned that the tribe had discovered barrels of wine and were lying helplessly unconscious, he sent troops to “attack and annihilate them, even destroying all the noncombatants.” 8

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FIGURE 21. Jugs of wine could be sent to enemies or left in an abandoned camp. Foes who fell into a drunken stupor were easily wiped out. Apulian red-figure amphora, about 400 BC, detail Perseus 1991.07.1066.

(University of Pennsylvania Museum)

Polyaenus, who compiled the “Stratagems of War” for the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, offered advice on how to defeat barbarians in Asia in the second century AD. He began his book with an “archaeology” of mythical examples of successful trickery, assuring the emperors that courage and strength in battle were all very fine and well, but the wisest generals should know how to achieve victory without risk, by cunning arts and subterfuges. When the god Dionysus marched against India, declared Polyaenus, he concealed his spears in ivy and distracted the enemies with wine, then attacked while they partied under the influence.

Polyaenus also shrewdly twisted the ancient myth of Hercules and the Centaurs. Although the myth says Hercules was forced to fight the Centaurs when an unruly mob of them crashed a party to get wine, Polyaenus claimed that Hercules had planned to wipe out the entire Centaur race all along, and lured them to their death by poison arrows by setting out jugs of wine.

Turning to real-life battles, Polyaenus cited the Celts as an example. Like all barbarians, he wrote, the Celtic race was “by nature immoderately fond of wine.” He reminded his readers that during treaty negotiations with them, the Romans sent many gifts, including “a large amount of wine as if to friends.” After the Celts “consumed a great deal of the wine and lay drunk,” wrote Polyaenus, “the Romans attacked and cut them all to pieces.”

It is notable that in the historical accounts of using wine in warfare, the victims were identified as barbarians, considered inferior to the civilized cultures of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Carthaginians. (Similar justifications were expressed in British decisions to use chemical poisons against ignorant and uncivilized tribespeople in Asia and Africa in the early twentieth century.) The Greek and Roman tacticians who recounted the stories consistently stressed the barbarians’ inordinate passion for alcohol, as though to justify a biological treachery that would not be employed against more cultured, noble enemies. For example, Polyaenus advised the emperors on how to defeat Asian barbarians by turning their “propensity” for trickery and terrorism and love of intoxicants against them.9

Polyaenus, it seems, was rather enamored of the method of defeating enemies with intoxicants. He also described how Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae (a tribe of Scythians), was said to have lured the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, to an ignominious death in 530 BC. But Polyaenus, writing nearly seven hundred years after the event, garbled the story. In his version, Tomyris pretended to flee in fear from the Persians, leaving casks of wine in her camp. The Persians consumed the wine all night long, celebrating as if they had won a victory. When they lay sleeping off their wine and wantonness, Tomyris attacked the Persians, who were scarcely able to move, and killed them all, including the king.

In fact, Cyrus did die an ignoble death during the conflict with Tomyris, but according to the Greek historian Herodotus, it was Cyrus who had tricked the milk-drinking nomads with strong wine. Herodotus’s version was based on information he gained from personal interviews with Scythians about one hundred years after the event, so his story is considered more credible.

According to Herodotus, the Massagetae were a tribe of nomadic Scythians living east of the Caspian Sea. These formidable warriors were unfamiliar with wine—their favored intoxicants were hashish and fermented mare’s milk. When Cyrus began a war to annex their territory to his empire, his advisors recommended a clever stratagem. Since the Massagetae “have no experience with luxuries [and] know nothing of the pleasures of life,” they could be easily liquidated by setting out a tempting banquet for them, complete with “strong wine in liberal quantities.”

The Greek historian Strabo, who also discussed the event, made the important point that Cyrus was in retreat after losing a battle with the nomads and therefore had to resort to underhanded trickery. Herodotus also stressed the moral aspect of the story, that Cyrus used biological treachery because his men lacked the skill and bravery necessary for a fair fight.

Cyrus ordered a fancy banquet to be set out under the Persian tents and withdrew, leaving behind a contingent of his most feeble, expendable soldiers. Tomyris’s army arrived and in quick order killed the weak men that were sacrificed to the ruse by Cyrus. Congratulating themselves, the nomads then took their seats at the splendid feast laid out for them and drank so much wine that they fell into a stupor. Cyrus returned and slew the drunken Massagetae. He also captured Tomyris’s son, but the youth killed himself as soon as he sobered up the next morning.

Enraged by the bloodshed achieved through such base bio-sabotage, Tomyris sent a message to Cyrus equating wine with poison. “Glutton that you are for blood, you have no cause to be proud of this day’s work, which has no hint of soldierly courage. Your weapon was red wine, with which you Persians are wont to drink until you are so mad that shameful words float on the fumes. This is the poison you treacherously used to destroy my men and my son.” Leave my country now, she demanded, “or I swear by the Sun to give you more blood than you can drink.” Cyrus ignored the message.

The battle that ensued was one of the most violent ever recorded, wrote Herodotus. According to his informants, the two sides exchanged volleys of arrows until there were no more, and then there was a long period of vicious hand-to-hand fighting with spears and daggers. By the end of the day, the greater part of the Persian army lay destroyed where it had stood. Tomyris sent her men to search the heaps of dead Persians for Cyrus’s body. Hacking off his head, she plunged it into a kettle of blood drawn from the king’s fallen men, crying, “I fulfill my threat! Here is your fill of blood!”10

Queen Tomyris’s milk-drinking warriors from the steppes were unfamiliar with the effects of wine, which made Cyrus’s strategy seem especially odious. In other instances, however, taking advantage of an enemy’s careless overindulgence in food or liquor did not seem unfair, since it was assumed that a commander should be able to restrain his men’s behavior, and also because of the element of free choice in the decision to indulge or not. Contaminating wine with poisonous substances was particularly treacherous, however, because it eliminated free choice, and offering poisoned wine as a gift was even more devious because it violated the ancient principles of trust and fair gift exchange. And yet, ever since the Trojan Horse trick took down Troy, vigilant generals and their armies should have been on guard against accepting “gifts” from enemies.

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Two different Carthaginian commanders, Himlico and Maharbal, were credited with defeating barbarian tribes with poisoned wine. According to Polyaenus, Himilco, a “pertinacious soldier” who owed most of his victories to his enemies’ errors (in the judgment of modern historians), had lost several battles when plague swept through his armies in 406 and 400 BC. With his forces severely reduced by this apparently natural disaster, he devised a biological strategy to conquer a rebellious North African tribe in 396 BC. Himilco defeated the Libyans by taking advantage of their fondness for wine. He tainted jugs of wine in his own camp with mandragora or mandrake, and pretended to retreat.

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FIGURE 22. Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae took revenge on King Cyrus of Persia for poisoning her army with wine. Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris, oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, about 1622-23.

(Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Mandrake, a heavily narcotic root of the deadly nightshade family (which contains strychnine), originated in North Africa and so was a well-known pharmakon in Carthage. Mandrake was a drug surrounded by ancient lore and danger. Like hellebore, there were two kinds of mandrake, white (male) and black (female), and the plant had to be gathered by shamans who knew the proper rituals. With their backs turned to the wind, the diggers first traced three circles around the plant with a sword and then dug it up while facing west. Some believed the root emitted screams as it was pulled from the ground and to hear that terrible sound spelled instant death. To avoid hearing the screams, an herbalist tied the mandrake stem to the leg of a dog, which uprooted the plant when it was later called from a distance. The strong-smelling roots were sliced and sun-dried, and then crushed or boiled and preserved in wine (this practice may have suggested the idea of tainting barrels of wine to Himilco).

According to Pliny, the mere fumes of mandrake made one drowsy and those who inhaled too deeply were struck dumb. The tactician Frontinus described mandrake as a drug whose “potency lies somewhere between a poison and a soporific.” A minute dose, either inhaled or drunk, could be used as a sleeping draught or anesthetic before surgery, but “those who in ignorance took too copious a draught” fell into a fatal coma. And indeed, the Libyans “greedily drank of the wine” while Himilco feigned his retreat. In what has become a timeworn tactic, the Carthaginians returned and killed the unconscious tribe.

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FIGURE 23. The collection of mandrake, the deadly root used by the Carthaginians and by Julius Caesar to poison wine, required special precautions. This medieval manuscript illustrates one ancient method, tying the root to a dog.

Hannibal’s hot-headed cavalry officer, Maharbal, also used mandrake against some unnamed “barbarians.” He mixed up a large batch of wine with pulverized mandrake root and left it in his camp. As Frontinus tells it, the barbarians “captured the camp and in a frenzy of delight greedily drank the drugged wine.” Maharbal came back and “slaughtered them as they lay stretched out as if dead.”

Julius Caesar may have been inspired by these old Carthaginian ruses with mandrake during his tangle with pirates in Asia Minor in about 75 BC. By Caesar’s time, Cilician pirates (from what is now the coast of Turkey and Syria) had become a serious threat in the eastern Mediterranean and the Romans undertook several campaigns to wipe out these “barbarians.” On a sea voyage from Rome to Bithynia (in northwest Turkey), the young Caesar was captured near Cape Malea by the Cilician pirates prowling the treacherous waters around southern Greece. The pirates sailed on to Miletus, a wealthy Roman city on the coast of Turkey, and demanded a large ransom for Caesar’s release.

Caesar managed to send a secret message to the Milesians requesting that they bring double the ransom money, along with provisions for a “great feast”—actually amphoras or jars of wine well-spiked with mandrake and another huge pot with swords hidden inside. “Overjoyed at the large amount of money,” the unsuspecting pirates celebrated with the wine and collapsed en masse on the deck of the ship. The Milesians returned and stabbed them all to death, and Caesar returned the ransom money. He then coolly proceeded to catch another ship to Bithynia.

Sometimes the people that the Greeks and Romans called barbarians used this biological tactic against other barbarians. When the Celts and Autariatae were locked in a long war, for instance, the historian Theopompus (fourth century BC) reported that the Celts “drugged their own food and wine with debilitating herbs and left them behind in their tents,” then abandoned camp by night. The Autariatae, thinking the Celts had fled in fear, “seized the tents and freely enjoyed the wine and food.” The effect was immediate: they “lay about powerless, undone by violent diarrhea. The Celts returned and murdered them as they lay helpless.” We can make a good guess at the identity of the toxic herb. The symptoms recall those of hellebore, which we know was employed by the Celtic archers to poison their arrows, and which was used to similar effect by the Greeks when they poisoned the water supply of Kirrha.11

The ancient practice of poisoning wine or other tempting goodies—turning what the Indian strategist Kautilya had termed the “enemy’s physical enjoyments” into a weapon—turns up regularly in later history, too. The modern examples are vicious enough to make the ancient incidents seem almost quaint. The humanist physician Andrea Cesalpino reported that during the Naples Campaign of 1494-95, the Spanish abandoned a village to the French, leaving behind caskets of wine that had been mixed with tainted blood drawn from leprosy and syphilis patients at Saint-Lazare Hospital and, during World War II, Dr. Shiro Ishii, the Japanese master of biological weapons, reportedly handed out anthrax-laced candies to Chinese children in Nanking. A CIA plot to create exploding cigars for Fidel Castro in the 1960s is another example, and as recently as the 1980s, South African government agents poisoned beer, whiskey, cigarettes, chocolates, sugar, and peppermints to murder anti-apartheid dissidents.12

FIGURE 24. One could secretly mix poisons, such as mandrake, hellebore, or aconite, into wine and leave it for the enemy to find. Detail of an Attic red-figure kylix, about 520 BC.

(Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Mass.)

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In our reconstruction of the murky world of ancient biochemical warfare, many of the insidious weapons and stratagems were developed by experts in natural toxins who remained anonymous, with the credit going to the commanders they worked for, such as Himilco. The arrow poisons concocted from plants and vipers, and the hellebore and mandrake used to contaminate water and wine, for example, were gathered and prepared by shamans, witches, Druids, magicians, and other skilled practitioners of clandestine arts. “Those who possessed knowledge guarded it with jealous care” and encouraged ordinary people to believe “that it was obtained by supernatural means,” remarks Vaman Kokatnur, in his article on chemical warfare in ancient India.13 They usually worked covertly, behind the scenes, and their successes could be described as “revenge of the gods” or magic, to maximize the psychological terror of biochemical warfare. These specialists in early botany, zoology, pharmacology, toxicology—and magic—were actually the first bio-war scientists, but their role has remained obscure to historians because of the secrecy that surrounded their arcane professions. As a result, the identities of only a few of the ancient bio-war professionals can be pinpointed—such as the Psylli of Africa and the Agari snake-venom specialists of Scythia, hired by the military leaders Cato and Mithridates, respectively. Mithridates stands out as a unique example of a famous military commander who was himself learned in toxicology, and Kautilya, the advisor to King Chandragupta, is another military toxicology expert whose name has been passed down.

One extremely early example of rare notoriety for a bio-weapons maker was Chrysame, a witch of Thessaly who devised a brilliant stratagem based on trickery and drugging the enemy with tainted comestibles. The legendary account, told by Polyaenus, is very old, dating to about 1000 BC. It was the time of the Greek colonization of Ionia (now western Turkey) and Cnopus, son of Codrus, the king of Athens in the eleventh century BC, was waging war with the Ionians who held Erythrae, a wealthy city on the Aegean coast. Cnopus consulted an oracle about how to achieve victory. The oracle advised him to send for Chrysame, a priestess of the goddess Hecate in Thessaly, to be his “general.”

Thessaly, in northern Greece, was the center of ancient witchcraft, and Thessalian witches like Chrysame were renowned for their black magic spells, poison potions, and drugs. Their dark powers were believed to come from Hecate, the sorceress-goddess of the Underworld, mistress of crossroads and the Hounds of Hell whose worship involved little cakes illuminated with burning candles and the sacrifice of puppies. Cnopus sent an ambassador to Thessaly and Chrysame agreed to sail to Ionia to direct his battle strategies against Erythrae.

As a priestess of Hecate, Chrysame was an expert in poisonous herbs and deadly pharmaka, and once in Erythrae, she surveyed the situation and devised a complex plot based on her special knowledge. She selected the largest and finest bull from Cnopus’s herds, decked it out in a purple robe embroidered with golden thread, gilded its horns with beaten gold, and hung garlands of flowers around its neck. Then she mixed madness-inducing drugs into its food. Meanwhile, in full view of the enemy encamped in the fields, Chrysame set up a great altar and all the regalia for an important sacrifice. Her plan was to stage a fake botched sacrifice.

Chrysame led the magnificently decorated bull toward the altar. “Crazy from the drug’s influence and in a frenzy,” wrote Polyaenus, “the bull leaped away and escaped,” bellowing and bucking like rodeo rough stock. Pretending dismay, Chrysame watched with hidden satisfaction as the bull barreled into the enemy camp. Polyaenus described with glee the success of her ruse: “When the enemy saw the garlanded bull with golden horns charging from Cnopus’s camp into their own camp, they welcomed it as a lucky sign and an auspicious omen.”

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FIGURE 25. The witch-priestess Chrysame of Thessaly devised a successful military strategy to defeat the Ionians. She drugged a sacrificial bull to deliver incapacitating intoxicants to the enemy. Priestess leading a cow to sacrifice, Athenian lekythos, 520-510 BC.

(Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Thinking that the gods had rejected Cnopus’s sacrifice, the Erythraeans captured the bull and sacrificed it to their own gods. Then, they feasted on the meat as though partaking of a “divine and miraculous omen” of their own victory. But as soon as they devoured the drugged flesh, they too were seized by madness. “Everyone began to jump up and down, to run in different directions, to skip with joy.” In this case, we can rule out the strong purgative hellebore. Rather, Chrysame’s drug apparently had hallucinogenic properties; perhaps it was strychnine from deadly nightshade, known in antiquity for causing “playful insanity” in certain doses. Whatever the pharmakon that Chrysame administered to the bull, it evidently retained enough potency after slaughter and cooking to affect the men who ate the meat.

As soon as Chrysame saw that the giddy guards had abandoned their posts and the whole camp was disordered and deranged, she ordered Cnopus and his army to take up their weapons and “speedily attack the defenseless enemy. Thus Cnopus destroyed them all and became master of the great and prosperous city of Erythrae.”14

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“We need something . . . like calmatives, anaesthetic agents, that would put people to sleep or in a good mood.” “I would like a magic dust that would put everyone in a building to sleep, combatants and noncombatants.” “In an age of terrorism, it would surely be desirable to develop a mist that could put people to sleep quickly.” These recent quotes from U.S. military personnel and a major newspaper editorial echo the ancient desire to disable adversaries with pacifying, sedating, or disorienting agents. The “magic dust” and calmative mists they describe would be the modern versions of the barrels of drugged wine and Chrysame’s bull, as well as the scores of chemical projectiles that were developed in ancient India with the express purpose of producing “stupor, enchantment, or hypnosis” and even “prolonged yawning” in the enemy.15

Modern efforts to find “nonlethal” ways of pacifying or disorienting a foe began during World War II, with a bizarre initiative by the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA), whose agents attempted to find a way of chemically pacifying Adolf Hitler. One plan—apparently never carried out—was to surreptitiously inject his vegetables with female hormones. In 1965-67, during experiments with LSD-like agents, the Pentagon secretly tested a hallucinogen that was being developed as a chemical weapon, on U.S. citizens in Hawaii. And in 2002, it was reported that the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate and the U.S. Department of Justice were developing what they call “calmatives or chemical peacemakers.” These “counter-personnel” weapons in the form of sedatives or mind-altering agents could be placed in water supplies, sprayed as aerosol mists, or packed into rubber bullets. The idea is to use the weapons indiscriminately on large populations, such as dissidents, refugees, or “hostile mobs.” U.S. troops would then sort through the mass of incapacitated people to identify enemies.

It’s worth noting that in all of the ancient incidents of narcotizing or incapacitating enemies with intoxicants like wine or other drugs, wholesale slaughter of the unconscious victims, often including noncombatants, was invariably carried out. The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate has acknowledged the need for “training soldiers to refrain from killing persons unable to defend themselves.” It’s also worth recalling that in Greek myth, even the master of devious ruses, Odysseus, rejected the morally ambiguous option of drugging the enemies who had taken his family hostage, preferring to trick them into meeting him face-to-face.16

The potential for lethal collateral damage with such agents in modern situations was vividly demonstrated in October 2002, when Russian troops pumped a powerful narcotic mist into a Moscow theater where more than seven hundred hostages were held by forty Chechen rebels. The plan was to neutralize everyone in the building with the gas, so that special forces could enter and shoot the unconscious rebels at close range, and then save the hostages. As with the drug hellebore in the water supply of Kirrha in the sixth century BC, however, the effect of the gas proved impossible to control. In the Moscow theater, the gas was responsible for the deaths of 127 innocent hostages and impaired the health of hundreds more.

In defending the Pyrrhic victory over the Chechen rebels, the Russian health minister, Dr. Shevchenko, sounded like the apologists for the Greek doctor Nebros who indiscriminately poisoned all the citizens of Kirrha, and Winston Churchill’s defense of the use of allegedly “nonlethal” gas on Kurdish villagers. Despite the high death toll, Dr. Shevchenko argued that the gas “cannot in itself be called lethal.”

“There is no such thing as nonlethal weapons,” countered Mark Wheelis, an expert on biochemical arms, in the aftermath of the Moscow crisis. The military’s attraction to such armaments may be understandable, he said, but one must consider the “grave risks and costs.” Besides generating “unrealistic expectations of bloodless battles” and the problems of overkill and friendly fire, Wheelis pointed out another drawback: the possibility of enemies obtaining and using the same technologies. That issue echoes a statement attributed to King Eumenes of Pergamum, defeated in a naval battle (second century BC) by Hannibal, who catapulted live snakes onto Eumenes’ ships. Eumenes remarked that he “did not think that any general would want to obtain a victory by the use of means which might in turn be directed against himself.”17

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