Here's How A Roman Army Lost A Battle Against Honey
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How do you lose a battle to honey? Yes, honey, is the liquid we get from bees and their beehives. One of the strangest true-life incidents you’ll ever come across is the defeat of a Roman legion due to the effects of what is now called ‘Mad Honey’.

This crazy story takes us to the year 67 BCE when Roman soldiers led by Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) were trying to chasing the king Mithridates VI of Pontus and his army along the coast of the Black Sea. The Persians did something strange: they collected the local honey in pots and left the honey for the Roman soldiers to find. And find it the Romans did. Upon consuming the honey, some of the Romans became disoriented, had hallucinations, started vomiting or suffered from diarrhea while a few lost consciousness. The Romans were left incapacitated and had to give up the fight. But things got worse, as the Persians quickly returned and slaughtered over 1000 Roman soldiers while taking far fewer losses.

Historians have found similar accounts that have led to the naming of what is now called ‘mad honey’. In 401 BCE, Xenophon, a Greek military leader, recounted a peculiar incident in his book Anabasis: The army he was leading was returning to Greece along the Black Sea coast after defeating the Persians. Near the region of Trabzon in present-day northeastern Turkey, the Greek soldiers decided to take stop for rest. They were tired and hungry, and anything would do to fill their stomachs. Soon, they stumbled upon a colony of bees and were happy to find some food. It seemed like an answer to their prayers, so they pounced on the honey-filled beehives and ate their fill. Later, something unexpected and strange occurred. They started behaving like drunkards and became seriously ill. There were many cases of vomiting, diarrhea and disorientation in their ranks, and if the Persians attacked, the Greeks would suffer heavy losses. But the illness disappeared the next day, and Xenophon, with his troops, made a quick exit from that area. 

So, what was it about that region that made the Romans and the Greeks go mad? The scientific explanation is ‘mad honey', and the blame rests with n a poisonous plant called the rhododendron.

Mad honey, called deli balin Turkish, acts like a psychoactive drug. Just a spoonful has can make an individual feel tingly, light-headed, euphoric or even trigger hallucinations. Consume too much, and the side effects include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, seizures and, in rare cases, death. When we say drug, it’s not like the narcotics of today. The honey in that region is sometimes contaminated with a type of neurotoxin called grayanotoxin, which is found in rhododendron plants. The people of that region believe mad honey has medical value. They use it as a treatment for conditions like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and sore throat. However, the research done on the medical benefits of hallucinogenic honey from Nepal and Turkey is inconclusive.

Bees accidentally pick up these toxins, and the toxins make their way into the honey. Very few locations in the world have rhododendron growing in large enough numbers for this to be a problem. Two that stand out: Turkey and Nepal.

There are a few accounts of similar ‘mad honey’ stories from the American Civil War. Union soldiers gorged on beehives they found in the mountains and fell ill in much the same way the Romans in Turkey did. The culprit in that scenario was the mountain laurel, not the rhododendron. 

You may think that this practice has died out in the modern age, but, as funny as it sounds, it is used even today to deal with enemies. Honey experts are well aware of it and add that the same ‘mad honey’ from eastern Turkey is available for purchase at $166 per pound. It is expensive because even a small dose of it can induce hallucinations.

Honey has been a source of making people feel high and has been used for recreational purposes. For instance, pre-modern Europeans used mad honey to give their alcohol an extra kick. Two centuries ago, in New Jersey, similar toxic honey taken from mountain laurels was added to liquor for the same extra kick. ‘Mad honey’ has been harvested in nearby Nepal for centuries and has been consumed by local people who seek that elusive high.