Fire and Sword: Ferocious and Deadly Thermal Weapons set the Ancient World Ablaze

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The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts (1850), shows the city burning.

Fire and Sword: Ferocious and Deadly Thermal Weapons set the Ancient World Ablaze

One only had to witness cities devoured by flames, see fleets of ships sinking, their sails ablaze, or behold screaming victims doused in boiling pitch to know the deadly efficacy of ancient thermal weapons.

Warfare was brutal, but effective, in the ancient world, between conventional arms of sword, bow and shield, to the invisible but deadly poisons and biological weapons. But perhaps none were as instantly terrifying and widely destructive as thermal weaponry.

Early thermal weapons were used inventively in warfare during the classical and medieval periods (eighth century BC to mid-16th century AD) around the globe. These substances or devices used heat, whether from flame or burning action, to attack the enemy armies, civilians, fortifications, and infrastructure.  Fire was the easiest way of destroying land and people, and could be done quickly and by small forces or raiding parties, making it a fundamental strategy in war. It was particularly useful in inspiring fear and confusion among the enemy. Fire was used in defense, as “scorched earth” tactics involved setting one’s own land and homes on fire and reducing them to ashes to deprive the enemy resources: buildings, food, or treasure.

The most common and basic thermal weapons available to the ancient warriors were: fire, wood, boiling water, hot sand, hot pitch (bitumen or resin), oil and animal fats, quicklime and sulfur, and even excrement. These items could be heated or ignited, launched with arrows, or poured or thrown from heights. The aim of the thermal weapons was not to explode but to inflict burns or collapse structures due to the spreading fire.

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