“In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire was defeated by flea-borne plague, and three years later his bid to establish a stepping stone into North America was crushed by yellow fever mosquitoes in Haiti. Napoleon’s worst defeat by insects came in 1812. Rather than taking Russia, his Grande Armée lost 200,000 men to louse-borne typhus…”
- Jeffrey A. Lockwood, “Six-Legged Soldiers”
There’s an entire complex world occupied by uncountable creatures beneath your feet. This world mainly goes unnoticed during the course of your day — well, until one of these creatures scurries across your floor. At this point you call it a pest and call an exterminator or find something to smash the critter.
However, these tiny creatures are much more than pests. As mentioned in the quote above, they managed to stop one of the greatest conquerors of all time by hamstringing his armies. If history is to be believed, an insect killed the greatest conqueror of all time, Alexander the Great. In fact, these “pests” have been killing humans by the millions throughout the course of history.
Moreover, humanity has noticed the destructive power of these creatures and harnessed it. Jeffrey Lockwood in his book listed above mentions countless uses of insects in war. From bee cannons fielded in Nigeria to “pots of pain” which were containers holding stinging insects for launch, humanity has figured out ways to harness nature’s little warriors.
Beyond just the direct method of attack, clever humans have also discovered insects can be used as vectors to carry horrific pathogens or poisons. This is where our story today takes us. Not much could stand in the face of Rome’s impressive legions, however, versus insects they didn’t have much of a defense. This was particularly true when they were treated to a pleasant byproduct of pests — honey.
A Strange Region With Many Bees
“Given that the Pythia was also called a bee-oracle (melissa, after the nymph who invented mead) and that she predicted the future under the influence of an intoxicating substance, it seems quite possible that mead spiked with mad honey was the secret inspiration of the Delphic Oracle.”
— Adrienne Mayor, “Mad Honey!”, Academia.edu
According to Lockwood, sometime in the 5th century BC, an army of Greeks led by the legendary Xenophon camped at a spot in Turkey called Colchis. They soon found incredible numbers of bees and their hunger drove them to look for their honey-filled hives. After eating their fill, something strange happened. They suddenly lost all bearings, almost as if they were drunk or high. This strange state was followed by sickness.
The soldiers became so sick they were barely able to stand for days. Their leader came to the logical conclusion they were vulnerable to attack and forced his barely mobile army to escape from the area. There was a scientific explanation to this sudden euphoria, then sickness — rhododendron.
Rhododendron Ferrugineum — Picture By Albert Kok Via Wikimedia Commons
This poisonous plant had been used by people in the region to poison arrows because its nectar could be deadly to humans. However, it had no effect on bees. So, the creatures incorporated the nectar into their honey and hence Xenophon’s soldiers poisoned themselves. The exact science of this poison is known to man today.
Vaughn Bryant, a professor at Texas A&M, has in depth knowledge of honey. Yes people, there is such thing as a “honey expert”. Bryant says the secret chemical in the rhododendron is a neurotoxin called grayanotoxin. The professor states this toxin can “cause light-headedness, feelings of euphoria and even hallucinations.” If enough quantities are ingested, a person can also become quite sick and possibly pass out. There are rare instances of fatal reactions too.
It’s not known how well this story of Xenophon and the “mad honey” traveled in the local region of Turkey, but it appears at least one group of natives knew it well.
The Romans And Pontus
Mithridates VI was the type of ruler almost designed by the heavens to be an enemy to Rome. According to Professor Joshua J. Mark at the Ancient History Encyclopedia, his father was assassinated when he was a child, and the leadership of the kingdom was given to his mother. She favored Mithridates’ younger brother and plotted against him.
The future king left the royal palace until he was older. Then, he swept back and imprisoned his mother and younger brother. While away, he spent time studying and exposing himself to small doses of poisons to develop tolerances. Also, by the time he advanced to the throne he could speak many languages, understood military tactics, and had knowledge of art.
Mithridates VI developed a carefully crafted image. He claimed to be a descendant of Cyrus the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great Of Macedon. By appealing to both civilizations, he gathered support from Greek and Persian followers. Plus, he formed alliances with local powerful neighbors.
He expanded his kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor to encircle the entire Black Sea and slowly started to conquer much of the region. As he did this, he incorporated the armies he conquered, making his forces even larger. This expanding empire didn’t go unnoticed by a rising power named Rome.
Both countries expansionist foreign policies put them on a collision course. Mithridates VI soon concluded he wanted to remove Rome from the region altogether.
Mithridates VI and Rome fought 3 wars. At one point the king of Pontus managed to talk his neighbors into killing whatever Romans they could find. According to Professor Mark, anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 Romans were killed in the slaughter.
The two sides battled back and forth for years. Rome would come in with legions and push Mithridates back only for the king to rise again to reclaim territory. Pontus also regularly proved to be a wily and ingenious adversary.
In his book Lockwood mentions a siege of Eupatoria by the Roman Licinius Lucullus. During this attack, Roman sappers dug tunnels beneath the city’s walls to collapse them. Mithridates replied with bees released through holes drilled into the tunnels. In a mixture of bees, poison arrows, and flaming tar the king of Pontus broke the siege and sent the Romans fleeing.
The final fight against Mithridates was led by Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey The Great). He managed to finally crush the army of Pontus in 65 BC. However, Mithridates wasn’t done yet. He fled to a region of Turkey called Colchis, which had numerous swarming bees.
Pompey sent out troops to chase the king, instead they found provisions his army “dropped” — a nice supply of honey. As Xenophon’s troops did hundreds of years before, the poorly supplied Romans dug in. After a time, the soldiers became sick and eventually collapsed due to weakness.
A tribe allied with Mithridates was waiting and dispatched nearly 1000 incapacitated soldiers. This win wasn’t enough to turn the tide, but it was an embarrassing loss for the Romans — one which went down in history.
Mad Honey In The Present Day
As funny as it sounds, we still deal with issues of tainted honey to this very day. In fact, honey expert Professor Bryant explains “mad honey” from Eastern Turkey can fetch up to $166 per pound. This is mainly due to the hallucinogenic effects it can cause in small doses.
Yup, people are getting high from honey. Moreover, VICE did a recent documentary about harvesting mad honey in Nepal. This honey has been used for recreational purposes for the local community for years.
In another present day concoction of tainted honey, bee keepers in the town of Ribeauville in France started to find blue and green honey in their hives. The cause of the artistic bee creations you ask? Apparently, the bees found a local supply of M&M’s. Like rock stars Van Halen, they only seemed to desire certain shades of the candy.
So ancient history tends to repeat itself in the modern day, carried on the wings of insects. Even a simple treat like honey can become a hallucinogenic or even deadly in certain sections of the planet. Although you might have had a hard time convincing Xenophon or Pompey people would pay a good deal of money to experience what their troops went through.
I’m sure they’d also never believe bees could subdue Roman Legions and the Greek Phalanx as well.