Interwar excavators found the remains of about 20 Roman soldiers in an ancient siege tunnel beneath the walls of the Syrian fortress-city of Dura-Europos. No-one was sure how they had died. Now, archaeologist Simon James has pieced together the forensic evidence for the world’s first poison-gas attack.
Around the year AD 256, a ferocious siege took place on the Euphrates in eastern Syria. In burning sun on battlements and siege-ramp, and in stifling tunnels dug beneath the defences, Roman and Persian battled for control of an ancient frontier-city. Some of them appear to have suffered an especially gruesome end — in ways we tend to associate more with the trenches of the First World War than with the Classical world.
Europos, an old Macedonian-Greek military colony known to Syrians as Dura, ‘the stronghold’, had become the base for repeated Roman military invasions of the Parthian Empire. Roman aggression — in quest of glory, booty, and territory — proved disastrous, precipitating the collapse of Parthia in the 220s AD and its replacement by the far more dangerous Sasanian Persian Empire, a new superpower spanning modern Iraq, Iran, and beyond. Around AD 252, the Sasanians invaded Syria, one of Rome’s richest provinces, taking the capital, Antioch, before withdrawing from the region. In response, the Romans massively strengthened the defences of Dura to block the Euphrates road into the province.
Probably in AD 256, a Persian army attacked the city, intent on destroying this strategic obstacle to their further designs on Roman territory. The dramatic story of the struggle for the city can be told in detail, but entirely from archaeological remains — there is no ancient written account of what happened. Because the fallen city was abandoned and never reoccupied, the physical remains of the siegeworks, the weapons and equipment employed, and even the bodies of some of the combatants lay undisturbed until their rediscovery by archaeologists more than 1,600 years later.
The bodies in the mine
The grim details of the siege are still being investigated, not least through renewed excavations under Pierre Leriche and his colleagues in the current Franco-Syrian Mission to the site. Such work builds on the publications and unpublished records of the earlier excavators, especially those left by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, a French army officer and archaeologist who focused on digging the siegeworks during the major Yale-French Academy campaigns of 1928-1937.
My own long involvement with Dura began with the study of arms and armour from the excavations, of which du Mesnil recovered the lion’s share. The harshest but also most fascinating of his discoveries came from a complex of mines excavated in 1932-1933 under Tower 19. This lies north of the main city-gate, on the long wall that faced the principal Sasanian siege-camp across a flat plain, the only side of the city not protected by cliffs. Here, du Mesnil seemed to have found the gruesome ‘holy grail’ of Roman military equipment studies: an entire squad of Roman soldiers who had simply fallen dead where they stood and remained undisturbed with all their equipment ever since.
The more I examined du Mesnil’s drawings and his description of the discovery (there are hardly any photos, and the bodies were neither studied nor kept), the more mysterious it all seemed. Du Mesnil found about 20 bodies in the tunnel, in a tangle covering only a few square metres. How did they come to lie here? And how could so many men have met their deaths in such a small space?
Archaeology works in ways similar to crime-scene forensics. Whether a ‘CSI’ team confronted with the scene of a recent murder, or archaeologists dealing with an ancient site, investigators look for physical clues to try to work out the sequence of events leading up to the deposition of objects and human remains in their final resting-places. Indeed, sometimes the two professions come together completely, when archaeologists help investigate modern murders and war-crime cases; recently they have been involved in excavations of mass graves of victims of Saddam in Iraq. Understanding the mass fatality in the Tower 19 mine-complex at Dura requires just such a ‘CSI’-like approach, examining the positioning and interrelation of the bodies and associated evidence to help unravel how 20 Roman soldiers met their deaths there.
For more information on the artefacts from Dura Europos, see CWA 49
The siege of Dura-Europos
In AD 254-255, the Roman garrison made drastic preparation for a Persian assault. Dura’s relatively vulnerable western city-wall was massively strengthened against rams and undermining with a sloping mudbrick glacis outside and an earth rampart inside, entombing adjacent houses, temples, a synagogue, and a church.
Probably in the spring of AD 256, the Persians arrived. Their assault was massive. Along the western wall, three points of attack have been identified. The great Palmyrene Gate saw ferocious fighting. The Sasanians also began building a huge siege-ramp of earth and brick at the southern corner of the town, in parallel with mining operations designed to destroy an adjacent tower, from which men and catapults were raining projectiles onto the attackers. It was successfully brought down — but the Romans had not been idle.
They had not only been raising their own walls and rampart to thwart the rising ramp, they had also tunnelled into it — and as soon as it was ready to bear some massive tower-machine, they fired their mine, collapsing the ramp. Checkmate.
The third locus of attack lay north of the Palmyrene Gate. At Tower 19, du Mesnil’s excavations showed that the Persians had tried another tactic. They aimed to bring down a section of city wall, allowing a column of men to charge through the defences. To effect this, they dug a mine under the tower and 11m of wall on its north side. The logic is clear: towers were the main source of defensive fire, so the attackers aimed to destroy that closest to their unshielded right sides as they advanced across open ground towards the intended breach. The spectacular remains left in the mines allow us to reconstruct in detail the struggle in the dark below Tower 19.
Probably starting in a chamber tomb in the necropolis outside the city, the Persians cut an approach tunnel through the soft gypsum, and then, once under the defences, dug upwards through the stratum of tough limestone surfacing the plain. Once inside the body of the Roman rampart, they removed the lower courses of masonry from the wall, replacing them with timber props and combustibles. However, the mining operations were impossible to conceal on the open plain. The listening defenders located the tunnel, and dug a countermine through their own earth rampart to meet it. To thwart the intended attack, they needed to capture the Persian mine gallery.
But the defenders failed. We know this because the countermine was found to contain about 20 skeletons, and, from the evidence of their arms and the coins found amongst the bones, we can identify them all as Romans. The bodies were compressed into an area barely 2m by 3m. Heavily burnt, they still gave off a ‘charnel reek’ when found. The adjacent portion of their tunnel had been brought down by burning its pit-props. Clearly, the Persians had defeated the Romans, inflicting many casualties, and then collapsed the Roman mine, preventing further interference with their own mining operation.
Eventually, the Persians fired their mine: the props burnt through, and the city’s defences crashed downwards. The floors of Tower 19 collapsed, entombing a painted shield and horse armours. But the wall did not topple outwards into the plain as intended. It sank a metre vertically, but stayed upright. The defensive glacis and rampart had worked; no breach resulted. Stalemate here, too.
For the full article, see CWA 38
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