With Syria in the news lately, the specter of chemical warfare once again rears its despicable, gassy head. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really did attack a select number of his own civilians with mustard gas, sarin, or another agent, it actually won’t be the first time such an event has occurred in the region. Archaeology Magazine reports that around A.D. 256, Roman soldiers at a fort in Dura-Europos – a part of the Sasanian Empire – fell victim to a chemical attack. There’s no written account of the battle, but recent analyses of remains unearthed in the 1920s and 1930s substantiate claims made by University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James in 2009.
Until then, scientists thought the soldiers had died when the tunnel they apparently tried to utilize to enter the fort collapsed. Now, according to James, sulfur residue found along in a jar near several of the bodies reveals a bloodier truth. The Sasanians had strategically placed fire pits throughout the tunnel. As the Romans encroached, the Sasanians added sulfur crystals and bitumen to the fires. The invaders inhaled the toxic fumes and perished alongside their armor.
Defining ancient chemical attacks is obviously difficult, if not impossible. But, in this case, the remains of that sulfur makes it pretty clear what happened. More importantly, it shows that while we modern folks think we’ve invented everything, history always upstages us.