In 256 AD a draining war worn out the Roman legions barricaded in the far Doura Europos, Mesopotamia. The troops of the Persian King of Kings Shapur I wanted to seize the city. They started digging tunnels to bring down the walls  (only partially) while in the meantime they rose a structure on top to cross it from above.

The walls of the Doura Europos, collapsed in the siege of 256 d.C.

Above: Imageby Marsyas via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The Romans shut the tunnels and tried to beat the enemies on top of the bastions. During one of these counterattacks they faced an unusual weapon:

Toxic fumes

Illustration of the use of toxic gas in Dura-Europos

Above: picture by Doctor Simon James, Leicester University

The Romans digged a tunnel one level above the one made by the Persians to push them back but they didn’t predict what their scheme was. The Persians burnt crystals of sulphur and bitumen while probably blowing air to channel the fumes in the upper tunnel. 19 Romans died within a few minutes and one Persian along with them.

Probably the one who set fire to the brazier

20 were the total victims of the very first chemical war we have archeological traces of.

Mouth of a Persian tunnel in Doura Europos

Above: image by Marsyas via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Warm and dusty, in the far East of the Roman Empire, Doura Europos that today belongs to Syria, was a place where many cultures joined together.

The Dux Ripae Palace on the bank of the Euphrate river

Above: image by Marsyas via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

In its long history it heard Semitic languages passing by and turned into a city when Alexander the Great conquered lands far away from his native Macedonia.

The Roman Citadel

Above: Image by Marsyas via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The warrior died at a young age and those territories in the far East were taken by the Seleucids, that in 303 BC founded the city on the Greek model, where caravans would carry goods along the Euphrates.

Rests of the Citadel

Above: Image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

Later on it was the turn of the Parthians, who turned it into a fort but in the meanwhile the city welcomed people of different religions, cultures and languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, Syrian and many others.

 Synagogue ruins

Above: Image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

When the Romans managed to grasp it from the Parthians in 165 AD, the city flourished, becoming stronghold of Mesopotamia. Within its walls there were the aristocrats descending from ancient Macedon conquerors, the Roman new entries and many people from the Semitic group, which gave to the city an Oriental vibe. The inhabitants could pray in a mithraeum, Christian church which was also a dwelling, in a synagogue or in the Temple of Bel.

Mithraeum Ruins

Above: Image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

All of this disappeared in 256 AD after the Persian sack of the city, which was never rebuilt afterwards. All the survivors, Romans included, were sold as slaves.

The Roman praetorium

Above: Image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

Sand and mud became for centuries the protective layer of that ancient city up until the 20’s and 30’s of the last century, when a group of French and American archeologists started digging.

The Temple of Bel

Above: Image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

They found those tunnels and soon the researchers realised the strategies of the Persians about taking down the walls, as well as the counterattacks of the Romans. When they found the 20 corpses buried in a tunnel they hypothesised of a hand-to hand combat happened down there, from the bowels of the Earth.

The Persian skeleton found in the tunnel

Above: Image with kind permission of Yale University Art Gallery, Collection Doura Europos

This reconstruction of the events  which dates back to the beginning of 1900 did not convince the archeologist Simon James from Leicester University for several reasons: a hand-to hand combat in a cosy space such as that tunnel seemed unlikely. Furthermore the positions of the bodies did not suggest such a scenario: those soldiers did not fall there, and not even stepped on one another after that the Persians burnt the tunnel.

Instead the Romans, according to James’ theory, walked into a trap: when from above they broke the barrier of their tunnel, a fire with sulphur and bitumen was lit up creating a suffocating gas. As James referred to it “a fume from Hell”.

Rests of Doura Europos

Above: picture by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 2.0

Along with the 19 Romans soldiers there was also a Persian who was not quick enough to run away from the toxic fumes. At that point his fellows brought down the tunnel built up by the Romans and piled up the corpses in that spot where, 18 centuries later, the French archeologist Du Mesnil found them. He made a sketch of the position of the bodies and, once the excavation was over, he filled the tunnel back up.

Palmyra Gate

Above: image by Heretiq via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5

Those Roman soldiers will stay buried there for eternity, most likely. James retraced the events in 2009 based on sketches and notes left by previous archeologists as well as on circumstantial evidence such as the traces of sulphur and bitumen recovered from the soil. Sadly no report from that time was found in support of the modern theories.

The rests of Doura Europos are there as witnesses of how brutal and violent ancient wars were. Today we imagine those scenarios only through the distorted filters of myths, while in reality they were not so different from the ones that still happen today. Even the ancient populations had unconventional and devastating weapons such as burning sand made with limestone of chalk powder. Not much has changed, has it?

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