Today, if a nation has to attack enemies hidden in a cave or a bunker, they will simply hurl bombs into the caves until they collapse and whoever is inside dies by whichever gets to them first. In 1000 BC, the Hittites would hurl snakes or pots filled with scorpions into that cave until the enemy came out with hands up or died from whatever got to them first. Although we assume that the art of war has changed significantly over the years, it is fair to admit that human nature has hardly changed. The desire to end battles quickly while inflicting quick and maximum damage on the enemy remains the motivation for creating WMDs and our ancestors had a generous supply of their own versions of WMDs.
The canon was one of the most important weapons in medieval times but the Romans had a simpler version of it named the Ballista. Some people call it the bolt thrower because that is what it was used to do. It was used to hurl virtually anything that could inflict damage. The speed of its projectiles and their accuracy were incredible which is why the Greeks and Romans used them as the primary siege engines. If you needed to scare an enemy frontline, you could insert spiked iron balls or even sharp bolts and hurl them to wipe out the frontline with each shot. They were the tanks of ancient civilizations, except for the explosive part.
Imagine you are in a small city-state off the coast of the Mediterranean just before the summer when you are about to harvest then you watch the entire state’s supply of wheat going up in flames. Worst-case scenario; you are laying a siege, then you watch all frontline soldiers going up in flames after oil is poured on their heads and they are set ablaze. The very sight of fire on the battlefield was enough to scare off armies if not decimate them.
Depending on how well the army deployed fire, it could burn down entire cities or army camps taking away the advantage from the enemy. Fire could also be employed in naval battles where pots of oil could be thrown at entire fleets and set them ablaze resulting in death and panic in enemy camps.
Venomous Animal Bombs
Archaeological discoveries of scorpion pots in Mosul Iraq have changed many archaeologists view of what biological warfare in the ancient days looked like. Many states such as the Hittites had large reserves of venomous snakes and scorpions preserved for times of war. You had to train the handlers to ensure the animals don’t become an attack against your own army though.
When an enemy attacked, they would hurl bags full of snakes and pots full of scorpions at the enemy causing panic and confusion. Whoever survived the scorpions and the snakes and was brave enough to continue fighting would now face the Hittites in battle. Many neighbouring communities viewed them as cowards for using these methods.
Catapults are common in most historical dramas and fictional films that express life in ancient days because they were one of the deadliest weapons ever invented. With a catapult, you could fly death to your enemy without sustaining casualties. A catapult could be used to throw heavy projectiles like rocks and flaming balls over long distances depending on how well the military technology was used.
The catapult was the ancient days’ version of a missile launcher. If a besieging army had hundreds or even thousands of catapults hurling pots of oil, rocks and flaming balls at city walls and into a besieged city, the inhabitants had little chance of fighting back unless they had powerful catapults themselves.
The Repeating Crossbow
The Chinese had their own version of the machine gun over 4,000 years ago before they lay their hands on gun powder. Normal crossbows can only throw one arrow at a time then require reloading which gives the enemy a chance to defend themselves or fight back. However, with the repeating crossbow, there is no room for the enemy to breathe.
The crossbow has a chamber that could store anywhere from 20 to 50 arrows allowing archers to continue firing again and again without reloading. If an army of 1,000 archers approached, they could easily render a 10 times larger army useless. It was even worse if the arrows being used were poisoned.
The Polybolos was invented in the third century by Dionysius of Alexandria for the Greek army and it changed the direction of many battles. It deployed the same technology as the Ballista when throwing a bolt or a large spear but it also had a magazine like the Chinese repeating crossbow which allowed it to store dozens of bolts and release repeatedly with no need to stop and reload. With hundreds of these on the battlefront or a siege, the enemy had very little chance of protecting themselves.
Archimedes’ Death Ray
Did you know how you can use convex glass to direct the sun’s rays at a piece of paper and set it on fire? That is how a mathematician named Archimedes, who used his skills to protect his city of Syracuse against Roman invasions, decimated an entire Roman naval fleet in 212BC. He was able to put mirrors together at an angle that allowed them to direct a powerful ray at oncoming ships causing them to burst into flames. His invention forced the Romans to change their approach towards conquering Syracuse to diplomacy and cooperation rather than decimation.
Most records of poisoning from ancient days focus on the use of poisons to target an individual or a small group of people but it didn’t stop there. Ancient Chinese are believed to have been the earliest armies to employ chemical warfare in the form of toxic smoke laced with arsenic and other harmful gases blowing it in the direction of the enemy. In 2009, archaeologists discovered that stoves that emitted a mixture of poisonous gases were used to kill Roman soldiers in tunnels in the ancient city of Dura Europos. Ancient civilizations studied poisonous and actually employed chemical weapons almost as effectively as any other WMD.
Dead Body Bombs
We use the term bombs here because in 1346 while attempting to capture Caffa, the Mongols literally used the dead bodies of their soldiers as bombs. The marching army had caught the plague on the journey and so they were in no position to conquer the city. They knew they would come back to attack the city after replenishing their numbers. They also threw bodies of their own warriors that had died from the plague over the city walls causing the disease to spread in Caffa making it the first large scale application of biological warfare in Europe.
Inhabitants fled the city and spread the disease all over Europe making it easy for the Mongols to conquer cities when they finally returned. Dead bodies thrown in rivers and in wells were a weapon that could decimate entire nations. Some suicidal victims of plagues would actually walk into enemy camps to bring malady on the invading armies.
Imagine sitting in your house then all of a sudden, the walls become hot as an oven and start baking you inside. That is how effective flame throwers were. They were the most advanced use of fire as a weapon of war. Flamethrowers were used as early as the first century AD as siege tools by the Greeks. The flame thrower could be mounted in ships and burn down wooden fleets. It could also be used to set wooden walls on fire or for burning stone walled castles to become too hot for the inhabitants to stay inside during a siege. If mixed with urea and other flammable substances, a flame thrower could effectively render stone walls useless.