Other popular arrow poisons included aconite, or monkshood, a widespread toxic plant that paralyzes the nervous system, and hemlock (the poison that Socrates was condemned to drink), supposedly favored by archers around the Black Sea.


The Romans were not the first to poison an enemy’s water supply, and they certainly weren’t the last. The earliest recorded instance occurred in 590 B.C., during the First Sacred War in Greece, when an alliance of city-states waged a holy war against the city of Kirrha (near Delphi) for offenses against the god Apollo. The alliance laid siege to the city, then poured poisonous hellebore (Christmas rose) into the stream that supplied the Kirrhans’ drinking water. After the war, the Greek alliance regretted the ignoble strategy and vowed among themselves never again to interfere with one another’s water sources. The rule would be broken countless times.


For more on ancient siege warfare, see Paul Bentley Kern, “Under Siege! How the Ancients Waged War,” Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2004.