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The History of Greek Fire

by littlegloomy

In a world where new warfare technology is adopted so quickly by so many nations, it’s hard to imagine that the method of creating a weapon as devastating as Greek Fire would be lost to the passage of time. But the recipe for this weapon was so closely guarded that within only 50 years of its invention, the knowledge was lost even to the original owners. While incendiary weapons had been in use for centuries (petroleum and sulfur had both been in use since the early days of the Christians) Greek fire was much, much more potent. Very similar to our modern napalm, it would adhere to surfaces, ignite upon contact, and water alone would not extinguish its flames.

The term “Greek Fire” was not attributed to the concoction until the time of the European Crusades. Some of the original names it was known by include “liquid fire”, “marine fire”, “artificial fire” and “Roman fire”. The latter was most probably due to the fact that the Muslims (against whom the weapon was most commonly used) believed the Byzantines to be Roman rather than Greek.

Greek Fire is believed to have been created in the seventh century (673 AD) by a Syrian engineer named Kallinikos (or Callinicus). The weapon was first used by the Byzantine Navy, and the most common method of deployment was to emit the formula through a large bronze tube onto enemy ships. Usually the mixture would be stored in heated, pressurized barrels and projected through the tube by some sort of pump while the operators were sheltered behind large iron shields.

The Byzantines used Greek Fire rarely, presumably out of fear that the secret mixture might fall into enemy hands. This was probably justifiable. The widespread usage of Greek Fire would be a far greater loss to the Byzantines then the loss of a single battle.

There are however two known incidents of the Byzantines using this weapon. In 678 they utterly destroyed a Muslim fleet (it is believed over 30,000 men were lost) and also in 717-718, when Caliph Suleiman attacked Constantinople. Most of the Muslim fleet was once again destroyed by Greek Fire, and the Caliph was ultimately forced to flee. As there is virtually no documentation of its usage after this time by the Byzantines, it is generally believed (partially due to the poor performance of the Byzantine fleets after this date) that it was during this era that the secrets of creating Greek Fire were lost.

While there has been much speculation involved in preparation of Greek Fire, no one to date has been able to successfully recreate this concoction. The closest would be the Arabian armies, who eventually created their own version (opinions differ as to exactly when this took place, presumably sometime between the mid-seventh century and the early tenth), but the formula was inexact and, compared to the original Byzantine substance, was relatively weak. This did not stop it from being one of the most devastating weapons of the era. The Arabs used the Greek Fire in very effective ways; much like the Byzantines, they used brass tubes aboard ships and upon castle walls. They also filled small glass jars with the substance, allowing them to hurl it by hand at their opponents. Arrows and spears would be used to carry the mixture further onto the battlefield and gigantic war engines could be used to hurl large amounts of the substance over a castle wall.

The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville, a thirteenth century French nobleman, include these observations of Greek Fire during the seventh Crusade:

“It happened one night, whilst we were keeping night-watch over the tortoise-towers, that they brought up against us an engine called a perronel, (which they had not done before) and filled the sling of the engine with Greek fire. When that good knight, Lord Walter of Cureil, who was with me, saw this, he spoke to us as follows: "Sirs, we are in the greatest peril that we have ever yet been in. For, if they set fire to our turrets and shelters, we are lost and burnt; and if, again, we desert our defences which have been entrusted to us, we are disgraced; so none can deliver us from this peril save God alone. My opinion and advice therefor is: that every time they hurl the fire at us, we go down on our elbows and knees, and beseech Our Lord to save us from this danger."

“So soon as they flung the first shot, we went down on our elbows and knees, as he had instructed us; and their first shot passed between the two turrets, and lodged just in front of us, where they had been raising the dam. Our firemen were all ready to put out the fire; and the Saracens, not being able to aim straight at them, on account of the two pent-house wings which the King had made, shot straight up into the clouds, so that the fire-darts fell right on top of them.”

“This was the fashion of the Greek fire: it came on as broad in front as a vinegar cask, and the tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven. It looked like a dragon flying through the air. Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.”

“Thrice that night they hurled the Greek fire at us, and four times shot it from the tourniquet cross-bow.”

Beyond the physical dangers of Greek Fire, this excerpt gives us an idea of its potency as a psychological weapon. The horrors of watching your comrades burn to death must have been a shattering blow to many a soldier. Many men were known to simply flee their posts rather than face the flames.

However, as devastating as Greek Fire might have been, there were some methods of combating it; as water alone was largely ineffective, common defenses included sand, vinegar and urine.


* denotes a former staff member.