Chemical weapons have been used for millennia in the form of poisoned spears and arrows, but evidence can be found for the existence of more advanced forms of chemical weapons in ancient and classical times.

Ancient Greek myths about Hercules poisoning his arrows with the venom of the Hydra monster are the earliest references to toxic weapons in western literature. Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, allude to poisoned arrows used by both sides in the legendary Trojan War (Bronze Age Greece).

Some of the earliest surviving references to toxic warfare appear in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The “Laws of Manu,” a Hindu treatise on statecraft (c. 400 BC) forbids the use of poison and fire arrows, but advises poisoning food and water. Kautilya’s “Arthashastra”, a statecraft manual of the same era, contains hundreds of recipes for creating poison weapons, toxic smokes, and other chemical weapons. Ancient Greek historians recount that Alexander the Great encountered poison arrows and fire incendiaries in India at the Indus basin in the 4th century BC.

Arsenical smokes were known to the Chinese as far back as c. 1000 BC and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” (c. 200 BC) advises the use of fire weapons. In the second century BC, writings of the Mohist sect in China describe the use of bellows to pump smoke from burning balls of mustard and other toxic vegetables into tunnels being dug by a besieging army. Other Chinese writings dating around the same period contain hundreds of recipes for the production of poisonous or irritating smokes for use in war along with numerous accounts of their use. These accounts describe an arsenic-containing “soul-hunting fog”, and the use of finely divided lime dispersed into the air to suppress a peasant revolt in 178 AD.

The earliest recorded use of gas warfare in the West dates back to the fifth century BC, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Spartan forces besieging an Athenian city placed a lighted mixture of wood, pitch, and sulfur under the walls hoping that the noxious smoke would incapacitate the Athenians, so that they would not be able to resist the assault that followed. Sparta was not alone in its use of unconventional tactics in ancient Greece; Solon of Athens is said to have used hellebore roots to poison the water in an aqueduct leading from the River Pleistos around 590 BC during the siege of Kirrha.

There is archaeological evidence that the Sassanians deployed chemical weapons against the Roman army in the Siege of Dura Europos in the third century AD. Research carried out on the collapsed tunnels at Dura-Europos in Syria suggests that the Persians used bitumen and sulfur crystals to get it burning. When ignited, the materials gave off dense clouds of choking sulfur dioxide gases which killed 20 Roman soldiers in a matter of two minutes. This is the earliest evidence of gas warfare.

In the late 15th century, Spanish conquistadors encountered a rudimentary type of chemical warfare on the island of Hispaniola. The Taíno threw gourds filled with ashes and ground hot peppers at the Spaniards to create a blinding smoke screen before launching their attack. –Wikipedia


Fiction Writing Prompt: Create a chemical weapon for your protagonist to use.

Journaling Prompt: How afraid of terrorism are you? Why do you feel that way?

Art Prompt: Chemical warfare

Non-Fiction / Speechwriting Prompt: Tell your audience about the history of chemical warfare.

Photo Credit: Gustave Moreau on Wikimedia

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