Atrenian Scorpion-Handlers
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Basic Information

The soldiers of the Mesopotamian city-state of Hatra had a unique secret weapon unknown elsewhere in the Ancient World: Scorpion Grenades! The Atrenians (as the people of Hatra were known) had figured out a method of gathering or raising scorpions (hopefully without getting stung!). They would fill clay pots with scorpions, probably give them a good shake to get the stinging arachnids properly riled up, and then hurl them at the enemy. In addition to the venom, you've also got psychological weapon aspect, as no doubt some percentage of the enemy troops were probably arachnophobic or at least freaked out by the creepy-crawlies.

This weapon/tactic was apparently effective enough to lift the Roman Legion's siege from Hatra in 198 BC.

The Atrenian Scorpion Handlers had to gather or raise huge quantities of scorpions needed to effectively weaponize this on a scale large enough to end a siege. According to folklore, if you spit on the tail of a scorpion, it will prevent them from stinging you, but please don't try that at home. Enough dry-mouth to stop you from hawking a loogie, and you're in for a world of hurt. In the modern day, you can slow the metabolism of a bug by putting them in the refrigerator (again, please don't try any of this at home), but that would be a lot trickier a thousand years before in the invention of such a machine. It seems likely they had a bit of a cottage industry breeding scorps, and packing them into ceramic jars. That's a heck of an undertaking.


3. Non-Fiction: Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor

Game and Story Use

  • Historically, this seems pretty much limited to one city, Hatra, which was founded sometime in the 3rd Century BC, and abandoned in 241 AD. In those intervening years, sometimes Hatra was it's on small Kingdom, and at other times it was part of the Parthian Empire or Seleucid Empire. Hatra successfully resisted attempted conquests by Rome in 116 BC, and again in 198 BC. The Atrenians also fought off the Sassanid Empire in 238 AD, but then fell in the re-match in 241.
  • As-is, it's a weapon that's best for defense. You need some sort of infrastructure for scorpion wrangling, for starters, and that's probably easiest from a stable base of operations. Then you've got the weapon's themselves. It's easy to drop terracotta jars on the enemies at the base of your big wall, and probably easier than hurling such objects long distances on an open plain.
    • But that does raise the question of blowback. If you unleash thirty-thousand scorpions just outside the city gates, you have to expect some amount of them will end up crawling inside.
    • Other options may include some sort of artillery delivery. At least that increases the time before hordes of icky bugs end up wandering to your own lines. Finding the right balance of a catapult good enough to deliver a large supply a long distance, without accidentally crushing all the critters inside the pot may take some trial-and-error to get it right.
    • There's no evidence to believe this method of warfare was exported beyond the region, but in a game world it might be interesting to see some sort of mercenary unit or military advisor take the stingers on the road. It's likely to have an impact far beyond the strict military effectiveness, possibly breaking the enemy morale or will to fight not unlike a weapon of mass destruction. There may be desertion or a rout at the mere threat of the bug bomb getting dropped.
  • A fantasy world can push this to greater extremes.
    • You may have nastier creepy-crawlies, possibly with venom that's more potent or more dramatic. It might inflict tarantism, paralysis, mutation, etc. The beasts might be especially aggressive, fast, or armored. They could be airborne, like miniature wyverns. Winged scorpions. Nice.
    • Magic may be useful for summoning, cloning, wrangling, or cleaning up after scorpions.
      • The scorpion handlers may have a few levels of Druid to facilitate animal control.
        • you could, indeed, skip the bombs altogether and have a creepy guy covered in scorpions who can unleash them as a swarm. Or perhaps a swarm-shifter with a scorpion form.
      • Levitation or flight abilities could be used to move them into position, and drop the bombs from the best altitude.
      • There could be some sort of artifact that controls or summons arthropods.
    • The scorpion handlers could be actual scorpion men, who have some sort of telepathic power to coax the desired behavior out of their tiny cousins.
    • Using ghosts instead of scorpions would be an interesting alternative. The "bombs" might be urns or grave goods or cursed gold. After every major battle you restock your supply with a bit of necromancy on the fresh corpses.
  • Probably works best in a system that's fairly crunchy, with unique poison rules, and a way to handle swarms as an ongoing threat on the battlefield. If your rules-set just abstracts poison out into the same die roll as all other damage types, then it doesn't really matter if your flinging scorpions, poisoned arrows, or even just a volley of normal arrows.
  • Wondering what Hatra looks like? Ever seen The Exorcist? The ruins being excavated at the start of that movie are the ruins of Hatra.
    • Unfortunately, the ruins have suffered significantly under ISIL. From 2015 to 2017 they systematically destroyed all the graven images of the ancient world they could get their hands on. The walls of Hatra still stand, but it's not nearly as impressive to look at without the sculptural details.
    • An adventurer archaeologist might try to smuggle artifacts out before ISIL could destroy them. Perhaps while working covertly to do so, they stumble across an ancient pit full of a previously unknown species of scorpion that the ancient Atrenians had bred for military or ritual purposes.
    • Swarms of undead scorpions, mummified in their jars, could also be fun.
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