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Earliest Chemical Warfare The tunnel is dark, it's crowded, and the air is foul and dank. But then, you break through!

You and your troops have dug through to another tunnel in order to confront an invading enemy. But then you feel your eyes burning, your skin, your lungs… and you realize, there will be no victory today.

It's a battle that took place in 256 AD and it was unknown until the remains of the 20 Roman soldiers were unearthed in Syria in the 1930's.

Because there are no written accounts of this brutal seige by the powerful Persian empire, the death of the soldiers was attributed to a tunnel collapse.

But not so fast. More modern CSI-like investigations have a far more intriguing explanation.

A strategy of the Persian soldiers was digging mines or tunnels under the city walls. But the Roman defenders were prepared by digging counter-mines.

The new evidence suggests that when the two tunnels met, the Romans lost the ensuing battle. But how?

Archeologists now have evidence this battle was one of the earliest examples of chemical warfare. They found bitumen and sulfur crystals in the tunnels.

Bitumen which you know as tar or asphalt is a black and oily byproduct of decomposed organic materials.

When burned with sulfur, these two compounds would have set fire to the tunnels and produced a highly toxic mixture of gases including sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide readily reacts with the moisture of mucous membranes in the lungs and eyes to form sulfurous acid, a severe irritant.

Very high or prolonged exposures cause death from airway obstruction.

Imagine, the Persians in their mine hearing the Romans tunneling toward them and preparing this nasty surprise.

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For more information…

The "World Science" website has a web page that describes the discovery of the evidence for the chemical warfare that took place in 256AD. For more information…

ABC Science has a similar article.

To learn about more modern chemical warfare, their use in history, the types and their proliferation read the chapters found here.

The Canadian government has a website with additional information about chemical warfare in history and the issues for people today.
For more information…

 
 

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