Death on the Euphrates

Military History Carnival #27 is now up at Cliopatria. One of the posts featured is from Zenobia: Empress of the East and concerns a recent scholarly suggestion (made by Simon James, an archaeologist) that in the 3rd century CE, Sassanid soldiers used chemical weapons against Dura-Europos, a Roman fortress city on the Euphrates. As a weapon, gas is associated with the First World War so strongly now that it's always surprising to think of it being used before then (or at least considered: I've long been meaning to write a post on Thomas Cochrane, Lord Dundonald, and his chemical warfare proposals in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars). The post at Zenobia is quite detailed, so I won't recap the argument here; instead I'll confine myself to a couple of remarks.

Firstly, the gas in question is sulfur dioxide, described as 'a poisonous gas, that turns to acid in the lungs when inhaled'. I'm not a chemist or a medical doctor, but while sulfur dioxide is no doubt highly unpleasant, it's not particularly dangerous. It would now be classed as an irritant or lachrimator (i.e. tear gas). I don't think it's ever been used as a weapon in modern times (though only because Cochrane's idea was turned down by the Admiralty). Secondly, one of the criticisms of Jones's idea made at Zenobia is that there is no written record of this stratagem being used at Dura-Europos or anywhere else, either by the Sassanids or the Romans. That's the sort of problem historians always have with archaeology, though; and it's precisely because the written record is so patchy that archaeology is necessary. The way gas was used at Dura-Europos, if it was used at all, meant that it could only be used in a very limited number of tactical situations and so might not have been used very often, or have interested contemporary writers. It's still probably doubtful that anything of the sort happened, but it's certainly intriguing to ponder.

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4 thoughts on “Death on the Euphrates

  1. Interesting note, Brett, thanks. One of the issues I always encounter is that I'm not qualified to evaluate some of the posts sent in, especially those concerning ancient and medieval military history. I wonder if there's space for prearranging to have people comment on specific eras?

  2. Post author

    That's an idea. I'd be happy to comment on my areas of semi-expertise. But there are always going to be gaps, I think -- there's a lot of history to cover!

  3. Walter E. Gourlay

    Unless I'm mistaken, gas was also used (ineffectively) by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War about ten years before the First World War.

  4. Post author

    I've heard that too, but have never seen an authoritative source for it. If it was used, it also would likely have been tear or choking gas. A post-WWI Encyclopedia Britannica says that 'At the time of the Russo-Japanese War the subject of lachrymators was taken up by the Japanese', which suggests experiments rather than actual use.

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