Persians routed Romans with help of chemical weapons

January 15th, 2009 - 5:46 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Jan 15 (IANS) Persians had routed Romans with the help of chemical warfare nearly 2,000 years ago, according to the oldest archaeological evidence uncovered by a researcher.Simon James, reader in the School of Archaeology, University of Leicester, presented popular “CSI (Crime Scene Investigation)-style” arguments at the Archaeological Institute of America, that about 20 Roman soldiers, found in a siege-mine at Dura-Europos in Syria, met their deaths not as a result of sword or spear, but through asphyxiation.

Dura-Europos on the Euphrates was conquered by the Romans who installed a large garrison. Around AD 256, the city was subjected to a ferocious siege by an army from the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire. The dramatic story is told entirely from archaeological remains; no ancient text describes it.

Excavations during the 1920s-30s, renewed in recent years, have resulted in spectacular and gruesome discoveries. In one of these narrow, low galleries, a pile of bodies, representing the Romans, still with their arms, was found.

While also conducting new fieldwork at the site, James has recently reappraised this coldest of cold-case ‘crime scenes’, in an attempt to understand exactly how these Romans died, and came to be lying where they were found.

“It is evident that, when mine and countermine met, the Romans lost the ensuing struggle. Careful analysis of the disposition of the corpses shows they had been stacked at the mouth of the countermine by the Persians, using their victims to create a wall of bodies and shields,” James said.

It kept the “Roman counterattack at bay while they set fire to the countermine, collapsing it, allowing the Persians to resume sapping the walls,” he added.

“This explains why the bodies were where they were found. But how did they die? For the Persians to kill 20 men in a space less than two metres high or wide, and about 11 metres long, required superhuman combat powers - or something more insidious,” said James.

The Sasanians used the full range of ancient siege techniques to break into the city, including mining operations to breach the walls. Roman defenders responded with ‘counter-mines’ to thwart the attackers.

Finds from the Roman tunnel revealed that the Persians used bitumen and sulphur crystals to get it burning. These provided the vital clue. When ignited, such materials give off dense clouds of choking gases, said a Leicester university release.

“The Roman assault party were unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes. Use of such smoke generators in siege-mines is actually mentioned in classical texts, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence at Dura that the Sasanian Persians were as knowledgeable in siege warfare as the Romans; they surely knew of this grim tactic,” the archaeologist said.

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