Sunday, September 25, 2016

Catapulting Snakes

In the naval battle between Prusias of Bithynia and Eumenes II of Pergamum in 184 BC, Hannibal, commander of the Bithynian fleet, used his catapults to fire pots filled with poisonous snakes onto the decks of the Pergamene ships. The initial amusement of Eumenes' men turned to horror when the contents of the pots were revealed, and the panic caused on the ships made them flee rather than fight, although their numbers were superior, and thus the stratagem helped to achieve a victory for Prusias' fleet.

The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007)


G. Verloren said...

This really sounds like a fabrication to me (if perhaps an ancient one).

Are we really supposed to believe Hanibal took his fleet of sailors into port, then out into the wilderness, and had them beat the bushes (and risk their own lives) looking for and capturing venomous snakes? That they either collected them immediately before the fight in order to use them straight away, or instead had some means to safely house and feed these dangerous creatures while keeping them in "storage", just on the off chance they might prove useful for hurling at enemy boats in a future naval battle? That they managed to handle this cargo without incident once embarked upon the seas, continuing to keep the snakes both healthy and safely contained despite the rigors of sailing and fighting?

And what are we to think of effectiveness? How many total snakes could they feasibly have rounded up? A few dozen, perhaps? Maybe a hundred? How many enemy boats could they realistically affect with such numbers? How accurate would your catapult fire have to be with such a limited ammunition supply? Is a single snake enough to create sufficient chaos, or do you need a half dozen per ship? How far can you stretch the resource and still achieve any real effect? Can snakes even survive being catapults from ship to ship without suffering debilitating injury in the process?

And why would the enemy flee? Surely after the immediate shock of seeing venomous snakes on your warship, your first instinct would be to simply use your weapons to kill them off before they start biting? And even if the snakes were instead aimed at the men with oars in their hands rather than weapons, wouldn't such a disruption simply disable a ship temporarily, rather than compel the rowers to stick to their oars in order to be able to flee?

And why specifically snakes? What would justify going to all that trouble? Why launch jars of snakes when you could instead launch jars of flaming oil, which is far easier to collect, store, and safely handle in battle? And wouldn't it be flatly superior to both cause your foes to panic and light their snips on fire at the same time, potentially even sinking them rather than merely forcing them to withdraw in terror?

Successfully launching jars of venomous snakes at the enemy is simply far too complicated and problematic a tactic compared to other, easier, simpler alternatives. And in warfare, simplicity almost always wins out. You want your weapons to be straightforward, reliable, efficient, economical, and replaceable. Snakes just don't fit the bill.

John said...

One thing to note is that snakes were raised at temples in several parts of the Greek world, so it's possible that many snakes could be obtained from such a source.

G. Verloren said...

Would such snakes not be sacred, though, having come from temples?

Either way, though, I just really don't think this is a terribly practical way to attack your enemies.

I mean, for comparison, the Greeks also practiced beekeeping, and surely could have acquired and catapulted bee hives at their enemies. And while a swarm of angry bees is not quite as immediately dangerous as highly venomous snakes, it's certainly a lot harder to deal with. You can easily stab or hack apart a few snakes with your spear or sword and then restore order and discipline aboard your ship relatively quickly - but you'd be incredibly hard pressed to kill or disperse a swarm of bees with such implements, meaning they'd cause more severe disruption for a far longer period of time. They might even spread from ship to nearby ship, which snakes could never realistically do.

And yet, for all that, I would be absolutely amazed to learn that any Greek warriors ever employed weaponized bee hives against their enemies. It just doesn't seem remotely practical, for so many reasons.