VSL:SCIENCE // The ancient world’s WMD

Seventy years ago, archaeologists working on the site of Dura-Europos found the bodies of 20 Roman soldiers. They were lying in a pile, and the body of a single Persian soldier lay 20 feet away. How did that one Persian manage the slaughter? Thanks to modern forensics, a British archaeologist named Simon James appears to have solved the mystery.

The 21 bodies lay at the intersection of a Persian tunnel and a Roman countertunnel, both dug in A.D. 256, when Persians overran the Syrian town and routed its Roman occupiers. James analyzed the tunnel walls and found residue of bitumen and sulfur crystal, which produce poison gas when burned together. He concluded that the Persians had armed themselves with braziers and bellows, added the chemicals, and pumped the resulting gas at their attackers. The Romans would have died in minutes, and the Persians likely stacked their bodies in order to slow additional attackers. And that last, single Persian? He wasn’t fast enough to run away from his own WMD.

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