Adrienne Mayor starts with, intelligently, expanding the normal contemporary definition of ‘chemical and biological’ weapons to include pretty much anything that causes biological harm, such as poisons, noxious chemicals, and beyond, to the use of animals, heated sand, and other unusual items. Her book then combs all the ancient sources for examples of these in the ancient world. There’s a concentration on Greek and Roman sources, but there are repeated references to Indian and Chinese uses as well.

The problem is that the phrase ‘unusual items’ above does describe the book. While grouped into chapters for broad topics, its really a bunch of mini-essays on what are often ‘one-off’ uses of poisons and disease, and shows little systematic use of any of these. On the other hand, it does very well with making the point that the concepts were not unknown, and that even where deliberately spreading a disease might be difficult to do reliably, people were thinking about how to do it.

Sadly, the first item in the title of the book (Greek Fire), is the last thing discussed, and it doesn’t get much. It is shown that it is descended from earlier petroleum-based fire weapons. What was special about it was the delivery system, and that isn’t even speculated on.

Overall, the book does well in showing that, despite generally being ignored in histories of the era, ‘chemical and biological’ weapons were very much on the minds of the ancients, and it shows that they were probably in regular use with peoples we don’t have a lot of records from. It also shows that Western attitudes towards them match up with Greek and Roman thought, pointing out how the ‘boomerang’ effect of poisons and disease feature prominently in early myths. But, the mini-essay approach undermines the cohesion of the work, especially when the same thing is re-introduced over and over (yes, by the sixth time it’s brought up, I’m pretty sure I remember that the Arthashastra is from India).