Gruesome Weapons and War Strategies from the Ancient World

Ancient Origins/ Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Origins/ Wikimedia Commons

Warfare has been a part of human nature throughout our whole written history.

The weapons, strategies and tactics are always changing, but some methods of warfare, such as chemical, biological and psychological, have been around for more than a thousand years and are still used to this day.

It would seem that there is no limit to the creativity of the ancient people when it comes to developing horrible and destructive weapons and war tactics.

Death Whistles of the Aztecs

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

When strange objects in the form of skulls were found close by an Aztec temple, archeologists thought that they were toys or ornaments. The objects were carefully chronicled and left in storage, but a couple of years later, experts figured out that they were actually “whistles of death”, which made piercing sounds, much like the scream of a person.

They were probably used in ceremonies, offerings, or in battles, wherein the goal was to bring fear upon the enemy. Imagine hundreds such whistles in battle – enemies of the Aztecs were probably at least very uncomfortable.

The sounds of the whistle are described are horrifying – “as if people are screaming from pain, fearsome howling of the wind or the shrieks of thousands dying”. Here you can hear the sounds that were made by the whistle of death.

Cataphracts – Armored Warriors Riding Armored Horses

Towards the beginning of the VIII century B.C. in the Middle East, a changeover began from carriages to cavalry units, which were heavily equipped with weapons and armor. The main goal of the cataphracts was to cut through enemy formations. The attacks were made altogether so that the attack unit would be unbreakable.

Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote of the aftermath of such raids: “When they attack the enemy on the back of a horse, there is no formation that can withstand them. “

Another historian by the name of Cassius Dio, wrote: “The irresistible force of the cataphracts probably had a psychological effect on the enemy as well…many died just from the horror of the attack.” The terrifying reputation of the cataphracts is mentioned by Plutarch as well, who explains that a single cataphract can put a pike through two men at the same time.

Poison as a Weapon of War


The earliest mentions of toxic weapons come from the Greek myths of Hercules, who had used the poison of the Lernaean Hydra on his arrow heads. Later on, in the Iliad by Homer, it is mentioned that poisonous arrows were used the battle of Troy.

People have used poison since a long time ago, be it for a weapon, antidote or medicine. In ancient times, poison was used with hunting instruments, so that the prey may die faster.

Some researchers believe that more secretive poisons used by high-ranking people of authority were considered magical. In some cultures, traditions have been formed that associate poison with dark magic, ghosts and unearthly creatures.

The ways in which tribes, nations, and whole civilizations planned to kill their enemies using poison are uncountable – from Indian tractate suggesting to poison the food of the enemies, to Chinese recommendations for a “fog” that haunts the soul, to the burning of toxic plants, all the way to Greek tactics for poisoning the canals with hellebore.

Even Leonardo da Vinci had suggested a vessel containing sulfate, arsenic, and copper oxide to be sent against enemies. After the vapors were inhaled, the crew should die from lack of oxygen.

Greek Fire


The Greek fire was invented during the VII century in the Еastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). According to historian, Theophanes, the weapon was invented by the Syrian Kallinikos from Heliopolis. This statement is not confirmed yet, as some historians believe that the weapon was developed by chemists in Constantinople.

The weapon was actually some sort of liquid, used to be launched in pots with catapults. Greek fire could ignite immediately and did not burn out in the water, but exactly the opposite – the water spurred it on even more. It’s clear from this, that the fire was tough to control and made significant damage to the enemies of the Byzantine Empire.

The Greek fire also helped a lot in their victory over the Arabians during their attack on Constantinople, and later, in the conflict against Byzantine as well.

Ancient Biological Weapons


History paints an ugly picture of the destructive effects caused by sickness, infections and poisoning. But with hard lessons, comes serious knowledge. The human race learned to use biological weapons way back in the past. The intentional use of biological agents has been done many times during a large period of the human history.

In ancient times, it wasn’t clear how diseases spread, but it was believed that the decaying bodies of dead animals were the source. Scythians used to dip their arrows in the blood and feces of the dead for more than 4400 years. Later on, English Longbowmen placed their arrows in the ground. This helped not only for quicker drawing and firing, but also the heads of the arrows were dirtier which increased the chance of infections.

It is also believed that 2300 years ago, Persians, Greeks and Roman Soldiers threw feces and bodies of dead animals in water wells, so they can poison their rivals.

The Battle of Pelusium

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The battle of Pelusium was fought during the VI century BC. In this battle the Egyptians were destroyed by the Persians. This is one of the earliest examples of psychological warfare. The Persians had known that Egyptians worshiped cats as sacred animals, so Cambyses II ordered all of his soldiers to paint on their shields the cat goddess, Bastet.

It is also believed that the Persian army used to put a large number of cats in front of them, which scared the Egyptians. They didn’t want to harm the sacred animals, so they surrendered to the Persians.

Archimedes’ Heat Ray Weapon

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the Greek mathematician, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, Archimedes, invented a heat ray (some call it death ray), to defend Syracuse from invading ships. According to some historic information, the weapon was a large reflector (most likely made from bronze or copper), which reflected sunlight onto the attacking ships and blinded them.

Despite the fact that this idea still sparks debates in the world of science, it has been proven that such a weapon is entirely possible. In 1973, Greek scientists recreated it – 70 mirrors with a copper coating were pointed towards a wooden model of a Roman navy ship, which was 50 meters away.

When the mirrors were positioned correctly, the ship immediately caught fire. In 2005, the experiment was repeated. MIT students used a mirror to burn down a boat on the harbor in San Francisco.