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10 of the Most Remarkable Ancient Weapons of Mass Destruction

The use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in war has been part of humanity since 4000BC. While modern bombs are scary as well as fascinating, most of them are rarely used since wars are not so frequent anymore. Our ancestors, however, loved conquering and wars were more frequent leaving the fate of the land to the country with the most lethal weapons. From the battles of Alexander the Great to the French wars, these weapons were being improved. The result was a set of deadly tools and techniques that could clear out entire armies without even having to fight them. The power similar to a ballistic missile launched bomb more than 6000 years ago sounds impossible, but these ten weapons of mass destruction were already being used to conquer the world in the “good old days.”

1. The Greek Fire

The Greek Fire

Imagine a massive destroyer in the middle of an ocean surrounded by a fire burning over 4000 Degrees Celsius, the flames burnt for many hours drowning entire armadas. This fire was invented by Callinicos of Heliopolis, a Jewish immigrant who ended up serving the Greek army against the very people that declared him homeless, the Arabs. It is still a mystery that the best chemists in the 21st century have not cracked. The fire came from a perfect mixture of chemicals, probably petroleum-based mixed with an unknown accelerant. It could be ignited over water or simply flung at the enemy in pots to deliver death in flames.[1]

However, the Romans gave the Greeks the ultimate method of delivery that perfected this deadly fire, the hand pump. Boats fitted with the pump could burn down an entire fleet more than 100 meters away before even making contact giving the enemies no room to fight or escape. In 673, the fire smothered more than half of the Arab fleet at Constantinople; many emperors proceeded to use it even Emperor Romanus 1 in the 10th century. It was the perfect navy weapon mounted on prows.[2]

2. Archimedes’ Catapult

Archimedes' Catapult

Every missile needs a powerful launcher that can gain the right thrust for both height and distance; this was the job of the catapult. The power of this death launcher was improved over the years with the Romans claiming credits for the most potent catapults that could bring down walls in a single blow. While the Roman canons could launch stones as heavy as 30kg over 100 meters away, Archimedes, the Greek mathematician created another catapult miracle. He built the ultimate catapult able to throw nearly 100kg of fatal Greek fire and rocked deep into the sea. It was the perfect missile launcher, considering its wooden design, it could be rolled from one position to another allowing a military army to strike deeper and deeper into an approaching enemy army. He combined perfect scientific calculations creating the ultimate weapon of his time.[3][4]

3. Fireballs

Ancient Weapons of Mass Destruction

Hand grenades are small explosives that work effectively if activated with substantial impact, they cause enough damage when launched by hand, but if a projectile is used, the damage quadruples. These fireballs are simply the ancient versions of grenades, just that they were delivered from catapults at over 40 miles an hour, and of course way larger. The Romans used these especially to break down walls during a siege; just a few explosions would render enemy gates useless.[5]

Alexander the great is, however, the biggest beneficiary of these killer balls, he used them to smoke enemies out of their castles. The earliest evidence of fireballs were substances excavated in Pakistan believed to have been used by Alexander the Great to attack a castle there. Although Alexander’s fireballs were made from pine tree extract, the Chinese had something else. Gunpowder that could explode on impact, a large volume mixed with other substances would make a heavy missile from the simple powder. The intention was to blow chariots and ships in any formation before having to attack them directly. The impact was however disastrous; the powder was so lethal that it poses a danger even to the launchers themselves.[6]

4. Chinese Repeating Crossbow

Chinese Repeating Crossbow

Bow and arrow were the guns of the ancient armies. The Chinese terracotta army discovery revealed a version of this simple tool that had never been seen before. With the ability to load more than ten arrows and repeatedly release from the quick backward flapping lever, this tool could shoot and be reloaded faster than a machine gun. It was mainly an open field tool for combat with a powerful bow that could launch arrows as far as 100 meters in quick succession. To allow the launch of thousands of arrows into the enemy’s ranks, the bow was kept small and light with simple arrows. Despite the low penetration rate, most of the arrows were dipped in poison meaning every arrow delivered was a two-way death agent. It would wipe out a large portion of the enemy army even if they were outnumbered.[7]

5. Biological Weapons

Ancient WMD Biological Weapons

The 1925 and 1972 International war conventions both banned the use of biological agents in war, but this is a long shot considering it is the most readily available weapon of mass destruction on earth. In ancient battles, soldiers used to die from diseases in large numbers because medicine was not advanced, but the infections were part of the war. Some would get too sick to fight before being crushed. The disease used to spread fastest through poisoning water and food.

Taking plagued bodies and dumping them in wells on enemy territory was a common practice in the middle east and even Roman wars, the disease would wipe out armies and civilians silently. The use of bees to spread confusion in army territory has also been associated with many ancient battles. The black death that wiped out more than 25 million people in the 1340s has also been linked to war. The plague was allegedly spread through the war at Caffa where soldiers first handled dead Crimean soldiers with signs of the disease. Their return to Europe brought the scary death that nearly wiped out humanity.[8][9]

6. Rocket Arrows

Rocket Arrows

Fireworks are always lovely and a bit scary sometimes, however, the ancient Chinese version of this entertainment was a weapon of mass destruction. Gunpowder was never invented for war in the old Chinese empire, but frequent attacks forced the fun tool to turn to the worst killer of the time. They created fire arrows that involved a tube filled with the powder which burned to release smoke that propelled the shaft; it was the weapon they used to subdue the Mongols in the 13th to the 15th century.[10] The rocket arrows were launched like modern fireworks, no need for human guidance. Gunpowder was attached to lots of arrows in a large bucket-like quiver then released simultaneously into enemy crowds. The whooshing of the burning powder was used to scare enemies who would look up only to be met by certain death raining in the form of poisoned arrows.[11]

7. Chinese Landmines

Most retreating armies in Rome and Ancient Greece were either pursued to annihilation or just left to retreat, but the Chinese did something else, “blow em up!” Regularly known as the mother of all landmines. The Song and Yang dynasty are the two foremost inventors of this magic trick. There were three main types of mines, the burning mines, blinding mines (smoke) and the poison mines used to cripple incoming armies. The weapon is credited to the victory against the Mongols in the South China war when they used them to break a siege. They were made of a combination of gunpowder mixed with the agent for the desired role, sometimes a poisoned arrow or simply an exploding sphere loaded in iron canons and triggered by horses or feet by moving soldiers. Everyone believed the invention of dynamite which was used in landmines was a significant advancement until this 14th-century genius proved otherwise.[12][13]

8. Archimedes’ Burning Mirror

Archimedes’ Burning Mirror

It is the description of the use of steel melting laser beams in war. Syracuse was a helpless Island in the face of a Roman Armada. However, a mathematician that could build a flame igniting mirror mounted on a pole allegedly saved them that day. In 212 BC, the Romans besieged Syracuse, as was usual with Roman sieges, the ships were the primary enforcers preventing residents from fleeing by sea. The mathematician Archimedes created a combination of small mirrors and a large mirror that concentrated sun rays powerfully on the Roman fleet setting it aflame.[14]

Many historians disagreed in the past because science could not explain how bronze reflectors, which were common then, could burn wood. The question was however answered when strong beam reflectors that released enough heat from solar power to melt steel were discovered. Some accounts still associate the flames to steam canons, a theory proved by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century. However, cannons that could force an entire Roman fleet to retreat were definitely no ordinary cannons.[15][16]

9. The Greek Polybolos

Greek Polybolos

All versions of history identify this as the perfect ancient version of a modern machine gun. Dionysius of Alexandria designed it in the third century; historians talk of a magic catapult that could launch deadly arrows again and again without reloading. It was simply an advanced version of the Chinese repeating crossbow. However, unlike the crossbow, the Polybolos used a strong string and a wooden chain that allowed it to run continuously releasing more than ten arrows in less than a quarter of a minute. It was more than a single man could throw manually in 2 minutes, giving them a hell of an advantage there.[17]

As the crossbow eliminated the need for reloading which affected the rate of strike delivery, The Polybolos added more power and speed making the automatic fire more lethal. The open chamber at the top of the Polybolos did the same job as a machine gun magazine; it could carry 100 arrows and be reloaded in seconds. With such a powerful repeating ballista, the Greeks were able to subdue enemy advances by wiping out the front lines with the Polybolos before even meeting their enemy.[18][19]

10. Lethal Modified Cannons

The knowledge behind a cannon has not changed much, and if you have a lethal projectile to release, you need fuel and a release mechanism. The cannon could be used to launch almost any deadly substance including steam as done by the Greeks which could kill thousands of soldiers far away. Cannons have improved into modern lethal tanks used in virtually every army in the world. While the modern version of the tank and canons used on destroyers are traced to Da Vinci in the 15th century, he gave the credit to Archimedes.

The Archimedes version was, however, a development of what the Chinese had already developed. Unlike other cannons which emitted garrotes and sharp granite, Archimedes’ cannons emitted flames strong enough to down ships. Cannons could vary from small ones to huge ones depending on the supply of gunpowder, terrain, and experience. The reason for cannon popularity was the ability to make accurate strikes and reload quickly from a safe distance. The cannon was, however, a two-way destroyer, if mishandled, it would explode right there at the shooting man’s feet. One victim is James I of Scotland.[20]

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