Snake in a pot

Biological weapons may seem like relatively modern participants in the bloody history of human conflict, and why not? The term it itself was not invented until the 20th century, entering the lexicon during the horrors of the First World War. Its shorter synonym, biological weapon, it didn’t even appear in dictionaries until the 1960s.

Today, on The United Nations describes biological weapons as devices or methods that “spread disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals, or plants,” as chillingly succinct a definition as anyone would like to have.

But the concept of biological warfare is undeniably ancient—and as weapons of mass destruction, the bioweapons of past centuries were as terrifying to soldiers and civilians then as their modern equivalents are to us today.

Ancient bioweapons

There was a surprisingly wide variety of biological weapons in the ancient world. After all, arrows and spears technically became bioweapons the moment their tips were dipped in poison, excrement, or even just plain germ-rich dirt. Infected and rotting corpses, whether animal or human, were ready bioweapons when dumped into an enemy’s water supply or hurled over a city wall, bringing terror as well as disease.


Read more: Scientists reveal the story of the origin of the Black Death


Some military leaders of the past have been more fiendishly creative than others in waging biological warfare. They did not understand the science behind the methods they used; they just knew what worked.

But because historical biological warmongers did not fully understand (or control) the forces they wielded, their ancient bioweapons often had unintended consequences, harming their own people and sometimes causing catastrophic collateral damage that stretched across the globe and across the centuries .

14th century BC: Hittite plague

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The Hittite Empire arose around 1600 BC in what is now Turkey. Their domain was considerable, with the empire becoming a significant power in the Middle East. They are mentioned frequently in the Bible – in the Old Testament they are said to be powerful neighbors of King Solomon. To their credit, history records that the Hittites, along with Egypt, signed one of the first known peace agreements, Treaty of Kadesh. But the Hittites may also have the dubious honor of being involved in one of the earliest examples of biological warfare.

some say the researchers that around 1320 BC the Hittites released infected rams and donkeys along the trade route used by their enemies, which drove the homeless back to their villages. Together with the animals came tularemiaa bacterial disease that, although curable now, caused significant disability and death in ancient times.

Intended to weaken only their enemies, the so-called “Hittite plague” had wider ramifications, causing an epidemic that spread from Cyprus to Iraq and from Israel to Syria. Even today, tularemia is considered a serious biohazard, and it once was stored by both the US and the former Soviet Union as a potential biological weapon.

Third century BC: The Roman army of mosquitoes

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The Pontic Marshes historically inhabited more than 300 square miles south and east of Rome. They provided a natural obstacle to invading armies, and not least because the swampy terrain offered grueling, merciless work for the men on the march. The greatest advantage of the Pontic Marshes was that they were home to the most devastating army of ancient Rome: malaria-causing mosquitoes.

Although they were well aware of the marshes’ ability to sap the strength of an invader, the Romans did not actively use malaria as a weapon. In ancient times, they had no way of confirming that mosquitoes were the delivery system for the devastating disease.

In fact, they blamed the condition on the noxious atmosphere of the swampy areas—when the disease was eventually named, malaria derived from the Italian words that literally mean bad air. Malaria has proven to be a great biodefense for centuries. Even the great Hannibal (who used creative bioweapons of his own) was like that foiled from the disease.

Maybe these swamps were, though too great: Over time, malaria became an endemic threat to Roman citizens and may have contributed to fall of the empire. By the 20th century, various efforts to drain the marshes mitigated the disease. But during World War II, the german army, remembered for history, flooded the swamps again. They once again turned the swamps into a bioweapon barrier, this time to impede the advance of the Allied forces. But the ruse affected Italy itself, causing an outbreak of malaria in the region in 1944.

Second Century BC: Hannibal’s Venomous Vanguard

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One of the greatest enemies ancient Rome ever faced, Hannibal of Carthage, possessed a a tactical and martial genius which made him an enduring legend. It is true that in the end he was defeated and took his life. However, people remember Hannibal for his audacity, which at times seemed to border on madness.

One of his most epic exploits involved the advance on Rome from crossing the Alps. And he did this with no less than 40,000 soldiers, thousands of horses and about 40 trained war elephants. Talk about biological weapons.

Alas, after an impressive run in northern Italy, Hannibal was defeated, spending his final years working for other powers that could use his military intelligence. So around 184 BC Hannibal found himself in what is now Turkey at war between Bithynia and Pergamon. Fighting for the defeated Bithynians, Hannibal commanded their fleet. In an age before cannon, Hannibal attacked his enemy—whose fleet included the king’s own ship—with a different kind of bombardment.

in De Viris Illustribusan early biographical collection of the lives of “famous men,” the scribe Cornelius Nepotus (c. 110-24 BC) recounts that Hannibal ordered his men to collect a large number of poisonous snakes, which were placed in earthen vessels. Nepos’ account is vague about how exactly Hannibal was able to collect enough snakes (and pots) to mount an effective defense against a fleet of 400+ enemy ships, but no matter.

History records that Hannibal launched his snake bombs, paying particular attention to the king’s ship. The king’s nerves could not stand, he fled with his fleet and Hannibal once again left his mark in the annals of military history.

14th Century: Bombs of the Black Death

Medieval painting showing the characteristic buboes of bubonic plague. (Credit: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Throughout history, many armies have thrown the bodies of dead animals and people over city walls to harass their enemies. Manure—both human and animal—was also a popular bioweapon to hurl at besieged opponents. But on Mongolian the military takes dubious pride in using world-changing technology.

Around 1346, during the siege of Kaffa, the Mongols reportedly threw corpses over the walls, corpses that were infected with bubonic plague – The Black Death.

Unfortunately for Kapha and the least – at least — 25 million other people, Genoese traders brought the plague from Caffa to Europe, delivering a disease that quickly killed 70 to 80 percent of its hosts. Even worse, plague epidemics would recur several times over the next five centuries.

Although today it can be treated with modern antibiotics (if treated quickly), plague remains a serious bioterrorism a threat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some bomb blasts continue to reverberate through the ages.

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