When it comes to archaeology, few dig sites are as broad and astounding as Dura-Europos. The Seleucid Empire — one of a few empires that came to power after the death of Alexander the Great — founded the city around 300 B.C.E. An array of different empires conquered the city throughout its existence. First, the Parthians took Dura-Europos in the 2nd century B.C.E. They ruled the region until the Roman Empire took the city from them in 165 C.E. In less than 100 years, the city was again under threat. This time, the invading army was the Sassanid-Persian Empire. They besieged and overran the Roman defenses somewhere around 256 C.E. 

While the Dura-Europos archeological dig site has an astounding variety of preserved city structures and temples — 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, provides 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 visualizations of ancient styles of warfare.

The dig site of Dura-Europos not only has evidence of a Sassanid sapping tunnel but they also found a Roman countermine, which was 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 20 Roman skeletons were found in the 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 20 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.

Sassanid Soldier from Tower 19, Yale University Art Gallery

Remains of the south wall of Dura-Europos

Palmyra Gate of Dura-Europos

Synagogue of Dura-Europos

You can read HistoryBuff Contributor Carly Silver’s incredibly in-depth account of Dura-Europos’ history and excavation and Judith Weingarten’s article on the same subject.