Thursday, 12 February 2009


Police in Australia are questioning two men in connection with the bush fires that have killed at least 180 people, though it is not clear whether they are under suspicion of arson or looting. If many of the fires turn out to be arson, this will be one of the worst cases in recent years, though probably not as deadly as the incident on February 18, 2003, when 198 people died on an underground train in Daegu, South Korea.

The arsonist was an unemployed former taxi driver, who was apparently unhappy about the medical treatment he had received following a stroke, and the fire may have been a failed suicide attempt. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but died in gaol a year later.

A more novel punishment was handed out to an arsonist in the fourth century BC, who destroyed the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus - one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The young man was named Herostratus, and apparently did it so that, in the words of a Roman historian, “his name might be spread through the whole world”. Not only did the authorities execute Herostratus, they also forbade anyone to mention his name under pain of death. The fact that we are still writing about him 2,300 years later suggests this latter penalty was not altogether effective.

The very worst acts of arson, of course, have been committed by armed forces in wars. The Luftwaffe tried the tactic of creating a firestorm – notably in Coventry, where they killed more than 500 people. The same method was adopted with even more deadly effect by the allies, who killed more than 40,000 at Hamburg, a similar number at Dresden, and perhaps 140,000 in Tokyo.

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