Greek Fire

Greek fire was the most terrifying weapon of its day. It was a flammable liquid that could be sprayed on its target from a distance, could not be put out easily, and burned even on water. To this day, we do not know how it was made.

Greek fire                                             photo from WikiCommons

The first mention we have of Greek fire comes from the Chronicle written by Theophanes the Confessor, an administrator for the Byzantine Empire who became a monk. Written in the year 810 CE and based partly on the Empire’s official records, the Chronicle tells us that in the year 672, an Arab force under the Caliph Muawija the First established bases along the coast of Asia Minor and prepared to launch a naval attack on Constantinople. While the Byzantine Empire had a strong land army, its naval force was weak, as the city had always relied on its superb ring of defensive walls and towers to defend itself. When the Muslim fleet began systematic naval raids to weaken the city’s defenses, the Byzantine Christians were unable to stop them.

Then, Theophanes tells us, a Greek-Jewish alchemist named Kallinikos, who had just escaped the Arab occupation of Syria, arrived in Constantinople and went to the Emperor, Constantine IV, with a new weapon: a liquid fire that could be sprayed through a tube. Similar to today’s napalm, the burning fluid stuck to surfaces, burned at a high temperature, and could not be extinguished by water—even remaining alight when floating on the sea. The only way to put it out seems to have been to smother the flames with sand.

Byzantine ships were hastily fitted with a long nozzled tube, called a “siphon”, which was operated by a hand pump to eject a burning stream of fire. With this devastating new weapon, the Byzantines were able to turn back a series of Arab naval blockades between 674 and 678, then gain naval supremacy. According to the stories that have come down to us, only Kallinikos and the Byzantine Emperor himself knew how to make Greek fire, and that secret was passed down only from father to son.

Later Byzantine Emperors declared that the secret of Greek fire had been given to the Holy Emperor Constantine I himself by the angels. In the naval sphere, Greek fire proved to be a decisive weapon, allowing Byzantine ships under Emperor Leo III to defeat another Arab naval blockade in 717, Emperor Romanus I to turn back Russian naval attacks during the Rus-Byzantine War of 941, and Romanus II to reverse the Rus takeover of Bulgaria in 967.

By the time of the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise, the Byzantines had also produced a hand-held version of the naval siphon called a “cheirosiphon”, which enabled ground troops to use it almost as a modern-day flamethrower. Greek fire was found to be especially useful during sieges in clearing enemy walls from a siege tower. Clay jars would also be filled with the mixture, set alight, then thrown against enemy troops or siege engines—the equivalent of hand grenades. And large clay pots were catapulted over castle walls to touch off raging fires inside. In 972, the use of Greek fire enabled Emperor John I’s troops to capture the Russian fortress at Preslav.

greek fire handheld
Greek fire being used from a siege tower against a castle                                       Photo from WikiCommons

One fragment of a description of how the substance was made comes from the Alexiad, an account of the reign of the early 12th century Emperor Alexius written after his death by his daughter Anna. She writes: “This fire is made by the following arts: From the pine and certain such evergreen trees, inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.” The historian Liutprand of Cremona, says, of a naval battle in 941, “The Greeks began to fling their fire all around; and the Rusii seeing the flames threw themselves in haste from their ships, preferring to be drowned in the water rather than burned alive in the fire.”

Arab alchemists tried desperately to produce their own versions, such as a mixture of saltpeter and turpentine, but were never successful in duplicating the effects. Others tried to protect their ships from the Byzantine weapon by covering their hulls with wet leather, or even by attacking during a heavy rainfall. None of it worked.

The Byzantines managed to keep the secret of Greek fire for 550 years. By the time of the Fourth Crusade in 1202, however, the knowledge seems to have been lost, and all mention of the weapon disappears from the historical texts and military manuals. It is likely that the secret had died out because so few people ever knew how to make it in the first place.

There has been much debate since then over the ingredients of Greek fire and the process by which it was made. It is generally agreed that the base for the flammable liquid was crude petroleum, which is available in the area from natural seeps and tar pits. But to account for some of its reported properties, such as burning in water, other materials must have been added. Among the possible additional materials that have been proposed are phosphorus (which ignites when exposed to air), quicklime (which burns in water), and various flammable substances such as sulfur, pine resin, naptha, charcoal, saltpeter, and turpentine. The actual formula remains unknown today.

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