The Final Siege of Dura: Ancient 'Chemical Warfare'?


Archival work reappraising the evidence for the final siege of the site suggested that twenty Roman soldiers killed in a siege-tunnel during the final struggle for the town were victims of early 'chemical warfare'.


Dura was destroyed as a result of a Sasanian Persian assault, which involved construction of a siege ramp and extensive use of mining. The Sasanian mining operations around Tower 19 ended in a bloody stand-off; the attackers failed to bring the city walls down as planned, but in their attempts to stop them through digging a ‘counter-mine’ of their own, the Romans lost about twenty men entombed under the rampart.

A spinoff of study of the arms and armour found in the mine, detailed reanalysis of the records of the 1930s excavation suggests the interpretation of the finds made by the original excavators missed dramatic elements of what was clearly a gruesome sequence of events. The conformation of the tangle of Roman bodies in the mine does not suggest, as hitherto believed, that the Romans died where they were found. Rather, this was a deliberately-made stack of bodies of men who had died elsewhere, almost certainly as a result of deliberate asphyxiation by the Sasanians using fumes from burning sulphur and petroleum. This, and the wider evidence of the fighting, shows that the early Sasanian army was a highly capable military force, which had fully mastered the techniques of war invented by Greeks and Romans—including use of poisonous smoke in mines.


A more detailed account is available in an article in Current World Archaeology (issue 38, pp.20-27).

The full academic publication is:

'Stratagems, combat, and "chemical warfare" in the siege mines of Dura-Europos', American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011) 69-101

This research was rated one of the top ten archaeological discoveries of 2009 by Archaeology Magazine.

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