Note: Below is my 2014 review, but a new edition of Mayor’s 2003 book will be published tomorrow by Princeton University Press. New material includes three new maps, twenty new illustrations, and ten color plates. Mayor writes, “[There is] new material on most recent archaeological discoveries of evidence for chemical weapons use at Dura-Europos and against Alexander the Great in Pakistan. I figured out why the Ambracians burned chicken feathers VS the Romans–creates sulfur dioxide gas!”
What, you thought napalm was a new thing? This book will disabuse your mind of that notion pronto. According to Mayor, mankind has been thinking up new and more innovative ways to spread terror and kill more people faster since long before Alexander. Beehive bombs. Snake bombs. Poisonous spider bombs. Naphtha bombs. Arrows poisoned with snake venom or tipped with burning pitch to set the besieged city on fire. Catapulting the plague dead over the castle walls. There is no end, and, evidently, a very early beginning to mankind’s ingenuity and bloodthirstiness.
Did you know rhododendrons were poisonous? And did you know that if bees fed on rhododendron nectar, that if you ate the honey they produced that it would kill you? It’s how Colchis defeated Xenophon in 401 BC.
That ancients’ idea about getting the plague if you sacked a temple? Might very well have been based on fact. There are lots of stories about attacking troops breaking into sanctuaries and plundering what they found there, only to find that they were filled with the garments of those who had died from the plague.
There is a legend that Pharaoh defeated Sennacherib with the help of the god Ptah, who sent thousands of mice into the Assyrian camp to eat the leather holding their weapons together. Mayor writes that a core of historical truth may lie behind the legend
Greek, Babylonian, and Assyrian evidence refers to a military campaign that was aborted after Sennacherib’s army was beset by disease-carrying rodents who, incidentally, ate the leather parts of their weapons at Pelusium. The bad omen and the rumor of the approaching Ethiopian army caused the Assyrians to abandon their invasion of Egypt and retreat through Palestine while the rodent-borne disease (perhaps bubonic plague or typhus) incubated in the men. As they arrived at Jerusalem, the epidemic swept through the troops, killing tens of thousands.
All I want to know is who scattered all those bazillions of crumbs to attract the plague-carrying rodents.
A fascinating and pretty horrifying read.
Dana the writer speaks–Mayor’s book was infinitely informative for battle scenes in both Silk and Song and Death of an Eye, and I expect it to be even more so for future novels. This book is a gift for any writer of historical fiction and any student of human history.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.