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In the Name of God بسم الله

Ancient Persians who gassed Romans were the first to use chemical weapons

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Buried Soldiers May Be Victims of Ancient Chemical Weapon
by Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor   |   March 08, 2011 09:24am ET
Soldier, Battle of Dura
 
Soldier, Battle of Dura
The skeleton of a Persian soldier found in the siege tunnels of Dura. The man may have choked on toxic fumes from a fire he himself started. The man's armor is pulled up around his chest; archaeologists suspect he was trying to pull it off as he died.
Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Collection


Almost 2,000 years ago, 19 Roman soldiers rushed into a cramped underground tunnel, prepared to defend the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura-Europos from an army of Persians digging to undermine the city's mudbrick walls. But instead of Persian soldiers, the Romans met with a wall of noxious black smoke that turned to acid in their lungs. Their crystal-pommeled swords were no match for this weapon; the Romans choked and died in moments, many with their last pay of coins still slung in purses on their belts.

Nearby, a Persian soldier — perhaps the one who started the toxic underground fire — suffered his own death throes, grasping desperately at his chain mail shirt as he choked. [Image of skeleton of Persian soldier]

These 20 men, who died in A.D. 256, may be the first victims of chemical warfare to leave any archeological evidence of their passing, according to a new investigation. The case is a cold one, with little physical evidence left behind beyond drawings and archaeological excavation notes from the 1930s. But a new analysis of those materials published in January in the American Journal of Archaeology finds that the soldiers likely did not die by the sword as the original excavator believed. Instead, they were gassed.


Where there's smoke

In the 250s, the Persian Sasanian Empire set its sights on taking the Syrian city of Dura from Rome. The city, which backs up against the Euphrates River, was by this time a Roman military base, well-fortified with meters-thick walls.

The Persians set about tunneling underneath those walls in an effort to bring them down so troops could rush into the city. They likely started their excavations 130 feet (40 meters) away from the city, in a tomb in Dura's underground necropolis. Meanwhile, the Roman defenders dug their own countermines in hopes of intercepting the tunneling Persians.

The outlines of this underground cat-and-mouse game was first sketched out by French archaeologist Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, who first excavated these siege tunnels in the 1920s and 30s. Du Mesnil also found the piled bodies of at least 19 Roman soldiers and one lone Persian in the tunnels beneath the city walls. He envisioned fierce hand-to-hand combat underground, during which the Persians drove back the Romans and then set fire to the Roman tunnel. Crystals of sulfur and bitumen, a naturally occurring, tar-like petrochemical, were found in the tunnel, suggesting that the Persians made the fire fast and hot.

Something about that scenario didn't make sense to Simon James, an archaeologist and historian from the University of Leicester in England. For one thing, it would have been difficult to engage in hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels, which could barely accommodate a man standing upright. For another, the position of the bodies on du Mesnil's sketches didn't match a scenario in which the Romans were run through or burned to death.

"This wasn't a pile of people who had been crowded into a small space and collapsed where they stood," James told LiveScience. "This was a deliberate pile of bodies."

Using old reports and sketches, James reconstructed the events in the tunnel on that deadly day. At first, he said, he thought the Romans had trampled each other while trying to escape the tunnel. But when he suggested that idea to his colleagues, one suggested an alternative: What about smoke?

Fumes of hell

Chemical warfare was well established by the time the Persians besieged Dura, said Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University and author of "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World" (Overlook Press, 2003).

"There was a lot of chemical warfare [in the ancient world]," Mayor, who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. "Few people are aware of how much there is documented in the ancient historians about this."

One of the earliest examples, Mayor said, was a battle in 189 B.C., when Greeks burnt chicken feathers and used bellows to blow the smoke into Roman invaders' siege tunnels. Petrochemical fires were a common tool in the Middle East, where flammable naphtha and oily bitumen were easy to find. Ancient militaries were endlessly creative: When Alexander the Great attacked the Phoenician city of Tyre in the fourth century B.C., Phoenician defenders had a surprise waiting for him.

"They heated fine grains of sand in shields, heated it until it was red-hot, and then catapulted it down onto Alexander's army," Mayor said. "These tiny pieces of red-hot sand went right under their armor and a couple inches into their skin, burning them."  

So the idea that the Persians had learned how to make toxic smoke is, "totally plausible," Mayor said.

"I think [James] really figured out what happened," she said.

In the new interpretation of the clash in the tunnels of Dura, the Romans heard the Persians working beneath the ground and steered their tunnel to intercept their enemies. The Roman tunnel was shallower than the Persian one, so the Romans planned to break in on the Persians from above. But there was no element of surprise for either side: The Persians could also hear the Romans coming.

So the Persians set a trap. Just as the Romans broke through, James said, they lit a fire in their own tunnel. Perhaps they had a bellows to direct the smoke, or perhaps they relied on the natural chimney effect of the shaft between the two tunnels. Either way, they threw sulfur and bitumen on the flames. One of the Persian soldiers was overcome and died, a victim of his own side's weapon. The Romans met with the choking gas, which turned to sulfuric acid in their lungs.

"It would have almost been literally the fumes of hell coming out of the Roman tunnel," James said.

Any Roman soldiers waiting to enter the tunnels would have hesitated, seeing the smoke and hearing their fellow soldiers dying, James said. Meanwhile, the Persians waited for the tunnel to clear, and then hurried to collapse the Roman tunnel. They dragged the bodies into the stacked position in which du Mesnil would later find them. With no time to ransack the corpses, they left coins, armor and weapons untouched.

Horrors of war

After du Mesnil finished excavations, he had the tunnels filled in. Presumably, the skeletons of the soldiers remain where he found them. That makes proving the chemical warfare theory difficult, if not impossible, James said.

"It's a circumstantial case," he said. "But what it does do is it doesn't invent anything. We've got the actual stuff [the sulfur and bitumen] on the ground. It's an established technique."

If the Persians were using chemical warfare at this time, it shows that their military operations were extremely sophisticated, James said.

"They were as smart and clever as the Romans and were doing the same things they were," he said.

The story also brings home the reality of ancient warfare, James said.

"It's easy to regard this very clinically and look at this as artifacts … Here at Dura you really have got this incredibly vivid evidence of the horrors of ancient warfare," he said. "It was horrendously dangerous, brutal, and one hardly has words for it, really."

 

Link/source: http://www.livescience.com/13113-ancient-chemical-warfare-romans-persians.html

Other articles providing an interesting perspective: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/4240365/Ancient-Persians-who-gassed-Romans-were-the-first-to-use-chemical-weapons.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7837826.stm

Edited by Enlightened Follower
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motif12.gif Simon James

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Dawn at Dura: the citadel and the excavation house overlooking the Euphrates and Mesopotamia beyond (Photo © S James 2005)

Dura-Europos, 'Pompeii of the Syrian Desert'

 

Dura-Europos is an ancient city in Eastern Syria, destroyed by war and abandoned in the third century AD. Excavations in the 1920s and ‘30s, renewed since the 1980s, have revealed spectacular remains of elaborately decorated buildings (including a painted synagogue and a very early Christian shrine), and astonishingly well-preserved artefacts. These famous finds led to the city being dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Syrian desert’.

Contents

  1. Origins & early development
  2. Dura's later history: Rome
  3. The city under Rome
  4. A cosmopolitan community
  5. The destruction of Dura
  6. Abandonment and rediscovery
  7. The Exploration of Dura-Europos
  8. Further information about Dura
  9. Specialist literature on Dura

Return to Simon James's homepage

   

 


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1 Origins & early development

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The city of Europos was founded around 300 BC by Macedonian Greeks of the Seleucid empire, soon after Alexander overthrew Achemenid Persian power. It was alternatively known to local people as Dura, 'the fortress' (the modern compound name Dura-Europos was not used in Antiquity). By the first century BC it had been absorbed into the Arsacid Parthian empire. In the AD 160s it was seized by the Romans, and then in the 250s was destroyed by the new Sasanid Persian empire.

Dura was outwardly a Greek city. Its history was always dominated by great imperial powers based in the Mediterranean and Iran. Nonetheless much of Dura’s population, and much of its culture, clearly belonged to the local Syro-Mesopotamian peoples.

Dura overlooks the Euphrates river, and is protected on three sides by cliffs and steep wadis. On the fourth, it looks westwards across the flat steppe plain towards the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra (Tadmor),with which it shared very close cultural links. Like the rest of the city’s perimeter this most vulnerable side was protected by a long curtain wall and towers, flanking the heavily defended main landward entrance, known as the Palmyrene Gate. (There was another major gate leading out onto the bank of the Euphrates, but this has been eroded by the river.)

Over the first three centuries of its existence, Dura grew to be a major regional urban centre, probably less the ‘caravan city’ it was once held to be, and more a centre of manufacture, trade

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Dura's Palmyrene Gate (Photo © S James 2005)

and regional administration for the rich Mesopotamian agricultural lands just across the river, the smaller settlements along the Middle Euphrates, and the pastoral communities of the surrounding steppe.

Dura gradually expanded to fill its great wall-circuit, with residential streets and administrative buildings around the central market, and many temples scattered across the town. Next

   


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2 Dura's later history: Rome

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Although originally a military road-station between the Seleucid empire’s Mediterranean capital at Antioch on the Orontes, and its Mesopotamian capital at Seleucia on the Tigris, Dura was not an important military centre until late in its history. Largely for local policing purposes, it probably maintained its own local militia, backed up later by Palmyrene mercenary horse-archers. All this changed with the coming of the Romans.

In the AD 160s, aggressive Roman wars against the Parthian empire led to the permanent seizure of Dura and parts of Mesopotamia to its north. From the early 200s, it became a major forward base for repeated Roman aggressions against the crumbling Arsacid power. But by the 230s, Rome was on the defensive; Parthia collapsed, and in her place arose a new Persian empire, under the Sasanid dynasty, which proved a much tougher proposition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Roman soldiers at Dura c. AD 230, based on a wall painting and archaeological finds. © S. James 2004

   


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3 The city under Rome

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Dura-Europos, overlooking the Euphrates (top right)

The city measures roughly a kilometre from the northern to the southern ravines, and is up to 700m from the river cliffs to the 'desert' wall, an area of over 50 hectares (over 120 acres). An extensive necropolis of elaborate tombs sprawled across the plain to the west of the town. Outside the Palmyrene Gate lay a huge rubbish dump.

Within the walls, many of the most important visible archaeological remains belong to Dura’s last decades. The city became more and more dominated by the presence of the Roman army, which took over many buildings and the entire northern part of the town as a garrison cantonment, while its economy was apparently undermined by constant wars and the severing of trade down-river into Persian territory. Yet paradoxically, with new arrivals from the Roman provinces, the rich cultural mixture of life in the city grew ever more cosmopolitan. Next

   


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4 A cosmopolitan community

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In addition to the established mix of Syrians (especially Palmyrenes), Mesopotamians, and Steppe pastoralists, some of whom probably already thought of themselves as Arabs, plus elements of Greek and Iranian descent, there were now many other groups resident or passing through the town. These ranged from Roman provincial soldiers, perhaps even conscripted ‘barbarians’ from Northern Europe, to an evidently thriving community of Jews with strong connections to the major Jewish population of Babylonia. They constructed a rich synagogue, with stunning wall-paintings of Biblical scenes.

And then there were the Christians, who maintained a house-church and baptistry in the town. Their evidently open and tolerated presence in the middle of a major Roman garrison town reveals that the history of the early church was not simply a story of pagan persecution.

Ironically, it was the prolonged and devastating series of wars between Rome and Persia during the third century which resulted in the survival of all this rich testimony down to our times; for things like the wall-paintings of the synagogue and baptistry, behind the city wall between Tower 19 and the Palmyrene Gate, were buried by the Romans in their drastic preparations to withstand an anticipated Persian siege. Once the city fell, the remains were left undisturbed because the region became ‘no-man’s-land’ between the two states.

 

Next

 

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A cross-section through the synagogue and city wall, showing how it was interred in the the earthern anti-siege rampart

   


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5 The destruction of Dura

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Dura’s death-throes left their own spectacular remains. The pre-siege strengthening of the ‘desert’ wall with the great earth rampart enshrouded the synagogue, baptistry and many other houses, temples, artefacts and documents. The siege itself, when it came, resulted in the burial of much more.

The Persians built a great siege ramp, and dug several mines under the walls, including one at Tower 19. Here, the Romans tried to stop them undermining the walls, by digging a countermine; but in a sharp underground battle, the Romans were beaten, and the Persians persisted in their task. We know this, because the countermine was still full of dead Roman soldiers when excavated, and the Persians completed and set fire to their mine as planned.

Yet here they failed, for the wall, supported by its great earth and mudbrick revetments, simply sank into the ground, but stayed upright. The floors of Tower 19 itself collapsed, sealing a remarkable array of Roman military equipment–a painted wooden shield, some complete horse-armours–to add to the astonishing discoveries from the mine. It is this material which I have been studying.Next

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Above, the undermined defences at Tower 19 (background), where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved. © S. James 2000

 

   

 


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6 Abandonment & rediscovery

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We do not know for sure how the Persians finally broke into the city, but once they did, Dura’s fate as a major centre of population was sealed. In later centuries, other Roman armies would hunt gazelle through its deserted streets, and it became a ruin desolate enough to attract Christian hermits. Its very identity was completely forgotten. However, it was rediscovered in 1920, in an ironic, and rather fitting historical symmetry.

In April 1920, Indian troops under British command encamped in the anonymous ruins, during the Anglo-French carving-up of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish empire. Fighting local Arab groups who sought at last to be free of foreign domination, the Indian soldiers dug defensive trenches along the earth-enshrouded walls. They were astonished to find wall paintings, the first showing Syrian priests, the second showing a Roman officer making sacrifice to deities, one of whom was the Fortune of Dura. Dura-Europos was rediscovered.

The soldiers shown ranked behind the officer in the painting are identifiable as men of a Palmyrene regiment in the Roman service (right). Curiously, then, on that spring day in 1920, Asiatic auxiliaries of one European imperial power came face to face, so to speak, with Asiatic auxiliaries of another, from almost seventeen centuries earlier.

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For Rome's Palmyrene soldiers were Syrians, and most of the history of Dura-Europos was about Syrians; and now the further unravelling of that history is a joint enterprise between Syrian, other Arab and Western archaeologists. Next

   

7 The Exploration of Dura-Europos

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Dura has been extensively excavated in a series of campaigns since the 1920s. This has been a truly international effort. The first archaeologist to work at the site, when the Indian troops found the paintings in 1920, was the American James Henry Breasted. Within a couple of years, with the site now part of French-ruled Syria, the detailed expolration of the site begain in earnest. The Belgian scholar Franze Cumont conducted some important initial excavations, followed by a major Franco-American project (the French Academy and Yale) which saw ten seasons of excavations from 1928 to 1937 when funding ran out. It was this large-scale project, overseen by the Russian scholar Mikhail Rostovtzeff, which made most of the famous discoveries.

Little further work was conducted at the site until a new, Franco-Syrian project was initiated in the mid-1980s by Pierre Leriche. On a more modest scale than the pre-war campaigns, it has the advantage of more sophisticated modern technology and techniques, and has made major achievements in conserving and presenting the site, and in further developing our knoweldge of the history and development of the city through survey, renewed excavation, and analysis of finds and chronology. I am currently an associate researcher on the project, and am working on the archaeology of the Roman military base.

Right, 2005 excavation on the line of the mud-brick boundary wall of the Roman military base inside the city, with the 'desert wall' in the background

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8 Further information

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Visiting Dura-Europos

Dura remains relatively remote from the major cities of Syria, but is increasingly visited by tourists, especially coach-parties. One of the houses of the city has been reconstructed, to serve as an on-site orientation centre, shop and restaurant.

Be warned that the site is very large, with little shelter from sun, strong winds, the rare, seasonal, but phenomenal rainstorms, and more frequent dust-storms.

However, the rewards of a visit are great: although the largely mud-brick architecture means that it is no challenge to Palmyra visually, the dramatic remains of the walls and siegeworks, and precipitous views over the Euphrates cliffs, are very striking.

Dura lies close to the main Deir-ez-Zor to Abu Kemal road, and is accessible by bus or taxi, but there is still nowhere to stay in the immediate vicinity.

Museums displaying Dura material

  • National Museum, Damascus (the synagogue paintings, horse armour)
  • Musée du Louvre, Paris (wallpaintings, sculptures)
  • [Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, holds much of the Dura archive, but currently is undergoing renovation and so no Dura material is on display for the present]

Books

  • Hopkins, C, 1979, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, Yale University Press, New Haven
  • There is also much specialist literature

Link/source: 

http://www.le.ac.uk/ar/stj/dura.htm

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"The earliest recorded use of gas warfare in the West dates back to the fifth century BC" by the Spartans. The Roman soldiers at Dura-Europos died in the third century AD. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_warfare#Ancient_times

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45 minutes ago, hameedeh said:

"The earliest recorded use of gas warfare in the West dates back to the fifth century BC" by the Spartans. The Roman soldiers at Dura-Europos died in the third century AD. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_warfare#Ancient_times

Salam sister,

I agree I was simply pointing out a topic for readers to reflect, also this was the first documented case where evidence was attached. I also have a fascinated interest in Persian and Middle Eastern history.

WS

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Reflect on what ?  That because the majority of Persians are now Muslim, this should give us something to reflect on?

This is only interesting for people who have an interest in this kind of thing, it isn't some topic that merits deep contemplation, they weren't even Muslim at that time. 

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Historically or scientifically, the article in the OP is interesting. However, the author of the article, Stephanie Pappas, seems to have succumbed to the western idea that Persians are the enemy. No doubt she was swayed by the movie 300. :dry: 

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Ohh evil Iranians.. I mean Persians. They used a wmd on people?? On the poor Romans? How unfathomably cruel. That war crime there is another 10.5 billion dollars to pay for Iran!

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3 hours ago, Darth Vader said:

Ohh evil Iranians.. I mean Persians. They used a wmd on people?? On the poor Romans? How unfathomably cruel. That war crime there is another 10.5 billion dollars to pay for Iran!

Did you even read the article? It was simply interesting due to the fact this was the first historical evidence of chemical weapons whether "Persian" or not, it was in no way an attack on Iranians infact it was an examination of battle tactics used in Ancient times and how advanced the weaponry may have been.

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10 hours ago, Ali_Hussain said:

Reflect on what ?  That because the majority of Persians are now Muslim, this should give us something to reflect on?

This is only interesting for people who have an interest in this kind of thing, it isn't some topic that merits deep contemplation, they weren't even Muslim at that time. 

Of course, but even the Prophet(SAWS) was involved with Persians before they were Muslim and he foretold the death of the Emperor Khosrow as he had ripped up a letter sent to him by an emissary representing the prophet.

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