A. MAYOR, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 336. ISBN 0-7156-3257-4. STG £20 (Hb).
Review by Arthur Keaveney
University of Kent at Canterbury
There are a number of strange statements in this book. Lucan, Silius Italicus and Seneca are all described as historians (pp. 77, 96, 234). Plutarch is assigned to the first century BC (p. 81), but we find the truth on p. 115. For some reason the author believes Cicero?s de Republica survives only in paraphrases in later writers (p. 263). I am inclined to doubt if Theophrastus wrote about a cargo of togas and I can say with certainty that Livy never witnessed anything in 86 (pp. 226-27). A glance at the source (38; 13) will show what has happened here. An item from 186 has been transposed. It is not clear to me, however, how these things have got into the work of someone whom the blurb describes as a ?classical folklorist?. At any rate the presentation, too, is very wordy. Anyone who approaches this book can expect to encounter verbiage and repetition. There is also at times a tendency towards the excessively speculative. Thus it is, in my view, too readily assumed that the townsfolk engineered the plague at Cyzicus in 74 BC (p. 120) just as the idea that ancient temples could be laboratories for toxins (p. 135) does not wholly convince. Likewise attempts to trace a line of descent from the weapons of the past to those of the present day or draw parallels between them are not always successful. Nevertheless perseverance and diligence bring rewards.
Anyone who perseveres in the face of the blemishes I have described will find that the author?s diligence has assembled a wealth of interesting material. She seems to have interpreted her brief in a liberal fashion taking as her remit all kinds of fighting which deviated from a straightforward combat with sword and spear or the like. Geographically she reaches as far as India while her temporal boundaries extend to the medieval and Islamic periods. The topics covered are many but include poison, plague, warfare with chemicals and Greek fire. There is something nasty for everyone in a book which for all its faults, manages to be both entertaining and informative.