The ruins of Dura-Europos are one of those astounding sites that archaeologists and historians can’t help but cherish. The Seleucid Empire—one of a few empires that came to power after the death of Alexander the Great—founded the city around 300 BCE. An array of different empires conquered the city. First, the Parthians took Dura-Europos in the 2nd century BCE. They ruled the region until the Roman Empire took the city from them in 165 CE. In less than a hundred years, the city was yet again under threat. This time, the invading army was the Sassanid-Persian Empire. They besieged and overran the Roman defenses somewhere around 256 CE and evidence from the battle can still be found there today.
While the Dura-Europos archeological dig site has an astounding variety of preserved art and city structures (Jewish synagogue, Christian house-church, and a cult of Mithras Mithraeum), the surviving evidence of the Sassanid siege of the city is equally important. Tower 19, one of the points the Sassanid attacked during the siege of Dura-Europos, gives tangible evidence of one of the less-discussed tactics of ancient warfare—sapping (tunneling and mining to weaken defenses). Dura-Europos’ assault ramps and sapping tunnels allow rare tangible visualization of ancient styles of warfare.
The archeological dig site of Dura-Europos not only has evidence of a Sassanid sapping tunnel; they also found a Roman counter mine, used by the Romans to intercept the besieging tunnelers. The tunnels of the sappers and the counter-miners met, and an underground skirmish broke out. What occurred next is not known, the only fact is that one Sassanid skeleton, and twenty Roman skeletons, were found still in their underground tunnels. Robert du Mesnil du Buisson’s theory of the events is that the Sassanians set fire to the Roman countermine, causing fearful city defenders to block the exit, trapping the twenty Roman soldiers inside. Dr. Simon James has an alternate theory that points to an early form of chemical warfare; he claims that the Sassanians created a poisonous smoke that killed the Romans in the tunnel. As the Roman countermine was higher up than the Sassanid sapping tunnel, any poisonous smoke would have risen up to the Romans. Either way, something happened to leave men dead in the tunnels of Dura-Europos until their recent excavation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture Attribution: (A Synagogue painting combined with a photograph of Sassanid skeleton (both from Dura Europos), c. 3rd century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
If remains from an underground skirmish are not exciting enough, numerous beautiful paintings have also been found at Dura-Europos:
(Wall painting in the Dura Europos synagogue, North wall, B register – the battle of Eben Ezer, right part. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
(Illustration of a scene from the Book of Esther discovered in Dura Europos, c. 3rd century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
(Wall painting from the West wall, register B, in the Dura Europos synagogue, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)