The mystery of Greek fire

A Byzantine ship using Greek fire - Public Domain

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon invented by the Byzantine Empire during the 7th century AD, that gave the Byzantines a technological advantage during naval and land battles.

All the information we have on Greek fire comes from references in Byzantine military manuals, and a number of secondary historical sources and contemporary chroniclers of the period, who referred to the substance as “sea fire”, “Roman fire”, “liquid fire”, “sticky fire” or “manufactured fire”, that was inextinguishable by water, with some sources suggesting that water actually intensified the flames.

Incendiary and flaming weapons had been used in warfare as early as the 9th century BC, using combustible substances such as sulphur, petroleum, and bitumen-based mixtures, but the first mention of Greek fire comes from the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor (AD 758–760), who credited the invention to the chemist Callinicus of Heliopolis (although Theophanes also documents that the Byzantines used fire-carrying ships equipped with nozzles prior to the arrival of Callinicus to Constantinople).

The invention of Greek fire came at a critical period when the Empire was weakened by wars with the Sassanids of Persia. The Byzantines deployed Greek fire against the Arab fleets during the first and second Arab sieges of Constantinople, naval battles against the Saracens, the Rus’ raids on the Bosporus during the Rus’–Byzantine Wars, the Byzantine civil wars, and the Sviatoslav’s invasion of Bulgaria.

The chief method of deploying Greek fire was by projection through a tube called a siphōn, which was placed aboard ships or on siege engines called cheirosiphōnes. A handheld portable siphōn was also invented that is the earliest analogue to a modern flamethrower. Byzantine military manuals also give mention of Greek fire filled jars, caltrops wrapped with tow soaked in the substance, and cranes called gerania that would pour Greek fire onto enemy ships.

Use of a hand-siphon – Public Domain

The Byzantines ascribed the discovery of Greek fire to “divine intervention”, for which the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos (AD 945–959) would later account in his book De Administrando Imperio to never reveal the secrets of its composition, as it was “shown and revealed by an angel to the great and holy first Christian emperor Constantine” and that the angel bound him “not to prepare this fire but for Christians, and only in the imperial city.”

The only account of the partial composition comes from the Byzantine princess and author of the Alexiad, Anna Komnene (AD 1083 – 1150s), who provides a description of the weapon used against the Normans in the Alexiad text:

“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.”

When and how the use of Greek fire was discontinued is not exactly known, but from the Fourth Crusade (AD 1202-1204) onwards the secret of Greek fire appears to have been lost, remaining a mystery that many chemists throughout the centuries have tried in vain to replicate.

Header Image – A Byzantine ship using Greek fire – Public Domain

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