6 Crazy Examples of Biological Warfare Used throughout History

Uncover the six craziest examples of biological warfare throughout history, from the ancient Romans to the First World War.

Jun 10, 2023By Molly Dowdeswell, MA Early Modern History, BA History

crazy examples of biological warfare throughout history


While biological warfare has certainly been enhanced by modern science and technology, it is not a product of them. Biological weapons have been in use for much of history, and although the earliest methods were primitive, they were by no means less deadly.


From the use of snake bombs to the catapulting of the dead bodies of plague victims, techniques have evolved alongside science and have caused devastation to armies for centuries. Today, biological warfare has largely been outlawed by conventions and legislation, but how was it used throughout history, and what effects did it have?


1. Hannibal, Snakes, & Scorpions

Image of Hannibal from Mommsen’s “Römische Geschichte” page 265, Phaidon Verlag, 1932, via Dickson College Commentaries


It is said that, in around 184 BCE, when fighting the King of Pergamum (Eumenes II), the Carthaginian general Hannibal made use of biological weapons. In fact, by doing so, he managed to win a significant yet surprising victory against his enemy.


The main source of this event comes from the work Lives of Eminent Commanders by the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos. According to this source, realizing he did not have an adequate supply of conventional weapons, Hannibal ordered his troops to collect deadly venomous snakes.

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They were then ordered to put them to put the snakes into clay pots, which were then thrown onto the enemy’s ships. According to Nepos, the enemy’s first reaction when they saw the pots launched from Hannabils boats was laughter. They thought the sight of projectile clay pots was highly amusing.


However, this did not last long, as the snakes were highly agitated when they arrived on the ships and posed as highly effective weapons. The snakes caused such terror and commotion that Eumenes’ fleet retreated.


A similar method was later used in about 198 CE, but instead of snakes, scorpions were used. During the siege of Hatra (an Arabain city) in the Second Parthian War, similar bombs were made but filled with scorpions. They were thrown at the Roman army of Emperor Septimius Severus and were scary enough to send them running.


Furthermore, the historian John Ambrose records the Roman use of beehives, which they also catapulted at their enemies. Ambrose goes as far as to attribute the declining number of beehives in the Roman Empire to the fact that they were consistently used as weapons.


2. Barbarossa & Water Supplies

Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of Germany by John Chapman, 1805, via The British Museum, London


One particularly popular method of biological warfare, before the developments of modern science and technology, was the contamination of water supplies. This was done in various ways, most commonly by throwing substances or bodies into wells.


The method could be highly effective and offer a quick and easy way to spread deadly diseases and infections around an enemy camp.


One of the most famous examples came from the 12th century when the method was used by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. In Tortona, Italy, during his First Italian Campaign, he threw decomposing bodies into the wells of his enemy.


The harmful bacteria and germs from the decomposing corpses mixed into the water, meaning that when Barbarossa’s enemies drank from the well, they became extremely ill and died.


3. The Mongols & The Plague

Tartar Huntsman by unknown artist, ca. 1530, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


There is no doubt that throughout history, the plague has been shrouded in absolute terror and dread. While this fear was crippling for many societies, some made use of it. Several examples of this deadly disease were used during times of war, and one of the most prominent comes from Mongol history.


In the 1340s, the city of Caffa, in what is now Crimea, spent three years in a siege perpetrated by the Mongol and Kahn of the Golden Horde, Jani Beg, with the use of his Turkish mercenaries. Understandably, those stuck inside the city became restless and agitated, having been held within its walls for so long. The plague was also ravaging the population causing death and devastation.


The besieged people decided to make use of the deadly disease. Using catapults, they began throwing the bodies of those who had died from the plague at their enemies. Eventually, Beg’s troops were severally affected. Many caught the plague and died, leaving his forces considerably weakened.


The historian Gabriele de’Mussi (1280-1356) wrote:


“What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply. … Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.”


4. The British & Smallpox

John Wesley preaching to native Americans, unknown artist and date, via the Wellcome Collection


A particularly famous use of biological warfare was the deliberate spreading of smallpox among Native Americans by British colonizers during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is said that blankets contaminated with the disease were given to the native tribes in the hopes that the disease would spread and cause a great number of deaths.


Although some have argued that the disease spread to the Native Americans naturally, there is compelling evidence that suggests otherwise. For example, according to the journal of militia captain William Trent, the British “gave [the Native Americans] two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital…[Trent] hope[d] it [would] have the desired effect.”


There are claims that the same method was used elsewhere too. It is said that the commander of Fort Pitt (modern-day Pittsburgh), Captain Simeon Ecuyer, gave Native Americans contaminated items after a series of failed peace talks.


When Colonel Henry Bouquet heard of what Ecuyer had done, he wrote, “I will try to inoculate the b*****ds with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.” Because the Native American tribes lived in small communities, the disease spread quickly among them and had devastating consequences.


5. Napoleon & Malaria

Napoleon Bonaparte: head and shoulders print by M Meroli after L. Bacler d’Able, c. 1800, via the Wellcome Collection


In the summer of 1809 during the Napoleonic wars, British troops (about 39,000 of them) occupied Walcheren, an island off the mouth of river Scheldt. The island is swampy and low-lying, which not only made it prone to flooding but to disease as well. Because of the constant rising and falling water levels, diseases were rife. For example, evidence suggests that during a French expedition that had taken place earlier, about 80% of troops died because of fever.


The death toll on the island was made worse when Napoleon and his army commanders deliberately flooded the island to encourage malaria and make the conditions even worse for the British troops. Sources record Napoleon stating that “We must oppose the English with nothing but fever, which will soon devour them all.”


The effects of the disease were devastating. In the early days of August, only 700 men had the disease, but by early September, more than 8,000 were ill. Eventually, the effects of the disease became so crippling that the British had to give up their campaign.


This was made worse by the fact that doctors in the period did not understand malaria and how to treat it. Some of the treatments used in this period included laxatives and emetics, which were ineffective. Records imply that by the end of the campaign in the February of the next year, only 60 officers and 3,900 soldiers remained. These figures are even more staggering when the fact that only 100 men were killed by the fighting that took place is considered.


6. Word War I & Gas

Gas mask, Germany, 1915-1918, via the Wellcome Collection


Several gases were used and tested during the First World War, many of which had the potential to have devastating effects. One of the most well-known was mustard gas. The gas was given its unusual name because it was said to smell like mustard, garlic, or horseradish.


Mustard gas was first used in Ypres, Belgium, in July 1917. Soldiers said they saw a “shimmering cloud around their feet.” Unfortunately for these soldiers, mustard gas is extremely deadly because it can be absorbed not only through inhaling but also through the skin. This meant that the soldiers’ gas masks were ineffective at preventing the attack. It is said that this use in Ypres alone caused 10,000 deaths.


The gas causes the skin to redden and blister. When inhaled, blisters form on the lining of the lungs. If individuals are exposed to a considerable amount of the gas, the corneas of the eyes are attacked, which may lead to blindness.


World War I: lung tissue damaged by mustard gas poisoning: microscopic section, by A.K Maxwell, 1917, via the Wellcome Collection


If any area of the body is wet, then it is even more at risk of the effects of mustard gas. This is because a chemical reaction called hydrolysis (when water causes a compound to split) happens extremely quickly with mustard gas. This fact is made even more terrifying when one considers the fact that mustard gas is incredibly difficult to wash off the skin because it is not very soluble in water. If the gas causes death, it is not a quick, painless death, and people who had been attacked with it could take up to six weeks to die.


Biological warfare has a long and gruesome history. Even in the ancient periods, before science and technology were entirely understood, people made use of biological weapons. Many of these early methods proved to be extremely effective in holding off the enemy with deadly consequences.

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By Molly DowdeswellMA Early Modern History, BA HistoryMolly graduated from the University of Birmingham with a master's degree in early modern history and from Swansea University with a bachelor’s degree in history. She has a long-standing interest in the subject and enjoys researching and writing on a broad range of historical topics and is most interested in the history of medicine and disease. Molly is currently working as a writer based in Birmingham, England and is planning on returning to university to complete a PhD in history.