8 Terrifying—and Unconventional—Ancient Weapons

iStock.com/hudiemm
iStock.com/hudiemm

Ancient chemical weapons and weaponized animals (think flaming pigs) didn't have the devastating reach of our warheads and delivery systems today, but they were terrifying nonetheless. Some of these unconventional weapons, on a primal fear level at least, may have been even more terrifying than the weapons of today—when they worked.

1. SIEGE OF BALA HISAR, CHARSADDA, PAKISTAN, 327 BCE 

Much of the evidence for ancient weapons is in written sources of questionable accuracy, but in 1995 archaeologists found a small burned ball in a ditch outside the Bala Hisar (meaning High Fort) in Charsadda, Pakistan, from the 4th century BCE. The ditch was part of the defenses during the time of Alexander the Great's siege of the fort in 327 BCE.

Chemical analysis found the ball was a man-made object composed of the heavy mineral barite and flammable resins from various pine trees. Archaeologists believe it was lit on fire and thrown from the ramparts onto the besieging army, making it south Asia's earliest fireball.

2. THE LIMESTONE DUST TEAR GAS OF QUINTUS SERTORIUS, PORTUGAL, 80 BCE

Plutarch tells how Roman general and rebel Quintus Sertorius defeated the Characitani in modern-day Portugal by fashioning makeshift tear gas out of lime dust and earth. The Characitani were holed away with their booty in impregnable limestone caves laughing at Sertorius. While they were hooting, Sertorius was figuring out that the lime dust kicked up by his horse was being blown toward the caves by the cool north wind, so he had his soldiers collect a large quantity of the fine lime dust and mound it up underneath the faces of the caves.

The Characitani thought it was some pathetic, budget attempt to build a ramp to reach them and laughed it off, but the next morning when the wind began to blow, Sertorius's men stirred up the dust mound, breaking up the clumps, even trotting their horses through it to get the particles good and airborne. Huge clouds of the caustic lime dust were blown into the caves. With no source of fresh air other than the cave openings, the Characitani had to choke on lime dust, which irritates the eyes and lungs and causes alkaline burns to mucous membranes if not washed off immediately. After two days of such suffering, they surrendered to Sertorius on the morning of the third day.

3. THE NEW AND IMPROVED LIMESTONE DUST TEAR GAS OF CHINA, 178 CE

Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han Dynasty may have been a dissipated, corrupt, eunuch-dependent wastrel, but he had some great generals. With widespread famine and resentment at his failed leadership instigating regular peasant uprisings, the emperor really needed them, too. One of the peasant revolts in the Guiyang Commandery (modern-day Hunan province) in 178 CE was suppressed by lime dust, only the Han troops made it portable.

According to the court history of the period, the Hou Han Shu, one Yang Hsuan, governor of the Lingling prefecture, kitted out dozens of chariots with bellows and lime powder. The lime chariots advanced, blowing the corrosive dust "according to the wind" at the rebels encircling them. While the peasants were choking and blinded by the powder, Yang's men tied incendiary rags to the tails of horses, lit them on fire, and drove them into the enemy lines.

With the peasant army scattered and in chaos, Yang's bowmen picked them off easily and the rebellion was crushed.

4. THE BURNING PIGS OF MEGARA, 266 BCE

Turning a living animal into an incendiary device is a diabolical form of "biological" warfare, but an effective one, as seen in the Siege of Megara in 266 BCE. Polyaenus notes in Stratagems in War that it was flaming pigs that broke the siege. Antigonus II Gonatas, King of Macedon, brought two dozen Indian war elephants to besiege the city, but the Megarans:

daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions.

Antigonus learned his lesson, though. He instructed his Indian elephant trainers to raise them next to pigs so they wouldn't freak out at the sound of them in battle.

5. HANNIBAL'S SNAKE BOMBS, 186 BCE

The great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who is probably best remembered for his attempt to cross the Alps with his own war elephants, found himself in reduced means toward the end of his life. He'd gone into voluntary exile when the Romans got antsy over his excessive competence and wound up traveling around the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, trying to stay out of Roman hands and offering his military genius to various kinglets.

In 186 BCE, King Prusias I of Bithynia, then at war with King Eumenes II of Pergamon, put Hannibal in charge of his navy. It was a meager fleet, vastly outnumbered by the Pergamene ships, so Hannibal had to come up with a stratagem to ensure his side's victory. A key part of his cunning plan was putting large numbers of live venomous snakes in earthenware pots and distributing them to his ships. He directed the captains to focus on attacking King Eumenes's ship and let the snakes defend them.

The coordinated attack almost worked—Eumenes wasn't captured or killed, but he did have to flee—and when the rest of the Pergamene navy bore down on the Bithynian ships, the Bithynians started lobbing snake pots at them. Suddenly finding themselves ankle-deep in extremely pissed-off and bitey snakes, the Pergamenes beat a hasty retreat.

6. THE BURNING CHICKEN FEATHERS OF AMBRACIA, 189 BCE

When the troops of Roman consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior besieged the Greek town of Ambracia in 189 BC, the defenders proved remarkably effective against the Roman battering rams, so the general decided to go under the wall instead. The Ambracians soon realized, despite Marcus's efforts at concealment, that tunnels were being dug, and they started digging their own tunnels, until the twain met under the city. At first the confrontation was conventional—they tossed spears at each other—but when shields and wattle screens deflected the weapons, the defenders got crafty.

In Histories 21.28 Polybius describes how the Greeks took a jar as wide as the tunnel, bored a hole in the bottom and inserted an iron funnel into it. They then filled the jar with chicken feathers, lit a fire next to the mouth of the jar, and topped it with an iron lid peppered with holes. When they got to the enemy's position, they placed the jar in the tunnel and filled in the empty space around it, creating a block with only two holes on each side just wide enough for spears to be thrust through to keep the Romans from messing with the jar.

They then took a pair of bellows such as blacksmiths use, and, having attached them to the orifice of the funnel, they vigorously blew up the fire placed on the feathers near the mouth of the jar, continually withdrawing the funnel in proportion as the feathers became ignited lower down. The plan was successfully executed; the volume of smoke created was very great, and, from the peculiar nature of feathers, exceedingly pungent, and was all carried into the faces of the enemy.

Burning feathers don't just smell painfully acrid. Combustion of the cysteine in feathers releases toxic sulfur compounds. This was the first known use of poison gas against a Roman siege tunnel and while it worked like a charm in the moment, it wasn't enough to defeat the Roman army. Shortly after the weaponized burning feather incident, a group of envoys from Athens and Rhodes convinced the city to surrender to Marcus Fulvius.

7. THE SULFUR GAS OF DURA-EUROPOS, 256 AD

The outcome was very different when the shoe was on the other foot about 445 years later. This time it was the Romans defending the city of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria, and their besiegers, the Persian Sasanian Empire, digging tunnels under the city's massively thick walls. Roman troops dug a counter tunnel, apparently hoping to intercept them from above, but the Persians heard them coming and hatched a cunning plan.

When the Romans broke through into the Persian tunnel under Tower 19 of the city's western wall, the Sasanians lit a fire and threw sulfur and bitumen on it. They may have used a bellows like the Greeks did to direct the fumes, or they may have taken advantage of the chimney created when the Romans dug down to intercept them. Whatever they did, it worked. The Romans were gassed to death, the sulfur dioxide turning into sulfurous acid in their lungs. The skeletal remains of 19 Romans and one Persian (perhaps the man who lit the fire got a little too close?) were discovered stacked in the Persian tunnel during archaeological excavations in the 1930s. A jar coated with pitch residue and yellow sulfur crystals was found near the bodies.

8. THE (FAILED) SULFUR GAS OF PLATAEA, 429 BCE 

King Archidamus II of Sparta tried to deploy the deadly gassing power of sulfur, pitch, and fire against the city of Plataea in 429 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, but conditions were not as propitious for him. There was no tunnel, for one thing, so this was going to have to be an open-air gassing, dependent on the whims of the wind. If it stood any chance of working, it was also going to have to be far bigger than a little jar fire.

As Thucydides tells it in his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans spent 70 days building a massive earthwork framed in timber. Initially the plan was to breach the city walls, but the Plataeans weren't just going to wait that out. They added to the wall in front of the mound, matching its height as it grew, while stealthily digging the earth out of the bottom of the mound.

Archidamus saw the futility of this exercise and changed gears. He had his troops throw bundles of brushwood into the gap between the mound and city walls. When that was full they started throwing the wood into the city itself. Then they set the whole thing ablaze complete with sulfur and pitch additives. Thucydides says "the consequence was a fire greater than any one had ever yet seen produced by human agency," comparable to a forest fire.

The weather did not cooperate, however. The wind didn't blow the deadly gas into town and soon a thunderstorm put out the great bonfire.

14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Over a century ago, a deadly flu pandemic swept across the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where early news reports of the disease originated, though research has put its actual origin anywhere from China to Kansas to France—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the deadly flu and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney sitting in a chair.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

If Walt Disney hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Mary Pickford

A close-up photo of silent film star Mary Pickford smiling.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, Pickford’s bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well. While stores were not forced to close, schools were and public gatherings were banned.

3. David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George sitting outside with his dog and reading a newspaper.
Ernest H. Mills // Getty Images

Weeks before the end of World War I, Lloyd, Prime Minister of the UK at the time, came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. Because it was thought that news of the Prime Minister’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness as “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.

5. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson circa 1912.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Considering Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

6. Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II in his uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

7. John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing in uniform sitting on a horse.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.

8. Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie sitting in a chair drinking tea.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

9. Leo Szilard

A black and white photo of Leo Szilard in a suit and tie.
Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Leo Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

10. Katherine Anne Porter

Author Katherine Anne Porter sitting in a chair wearing a hat with a bow on it.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease and dies.

11. Alfonso XIII

The King of Spain working at his desk.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.

12. Edvard Munch

A portrait of Edvard Munch standing in the snow.
Nasjonalbiblioteket, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Munch, the artist behind The Scream, had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu—he painted many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially: He painted a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.

13. Lillian Gish

A portrait of Lillian Gish.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104-degree fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford a doctor and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

14. Clementine Churchill

Clementine Churchill speaks at a microphone.
Arthur Tanner/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot despite being sick herself. Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived. (Sadly, Marigold would die from a bacterial infection that developed into sepsis in 1921.)

During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

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