As far back as the 7th Century, fighting ships of the Byzantine Empire were dousing enemy vessels with a flaming liquid known by western historians as “Greek fire”. While the ingredients of this volatile and deadly mixture have been lost to history (the exact recipe was such a closely guarded secret that it disappeared with the fall of Constantinople), it was likely some sort of oil or sulfur-based fluid, possibly even mixed with pine resin. One thing we are certain of however is that once ignited, the mysterious solution could not be extinguished with water and was able to engulf a ship and its crew in minutes. Not surprisingly, Greek fire struck fear into the hearts of the empire’s foes. MilitaryHistoryNow.com has asked Κonstantinos Karatolios, author of the new book Greek Fire and Its Contribution to Byzantine Might to pen this piece on some of the fascinating facts about this ancient weapon of mass destruction. Enjoy!
By Κonstantinos Karatolios
The thousand-year Byzantine Empire could not have survived through the centuries without its powerful military. But Constantinople’s mighty army and navy didn’t just keep enemies at bay, they also helped it to expand into new territories and ultimately dominate the whole of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Of course, while the Byzantines’ stunning battlefield success was in part a by-product of military knowledge inherited from the old Roman Empire, it was also born out of new tactics and weaponry. One example of this is Greek fire. Also known as thalassion pyr, skeyaston pyr and medikon elaion, this incendiary liquid, which could be squirted or hurled into the ranks of an enemy, was perhaps the most fearsome of all of the empire’s armaments. Its use, whether on land or sea, verges on legend and yet almost all we know about Greek fire remains clouded in mystery. We are sure of one thing however — it was used with devastating effect throughout the whole course of the Byzantine Empire.
Here are nine little known facts about Greek fire.
Fiery Debut – Greek fire was initially used not against a foreign army, but on other Greeks. In 514, the emperor Anastasios I first unleashed the weapon against his own soldiers following a rebellion by the popular general Vitalian.
Who Invented It? — Although Kallinikos, an inventor from Heliopolis in modern-day Lebanon, is remembered as the discoverer of the incendiary mixture, we actually know that it appeared long before him. The Kingdom of Pontus of Asia Minor used a similar concoction against the Romans during the Mithridatic Wars in the 1st century BC. It seems that Kallinikos’ chief contribution was making the fiery weapon more effective, easier to use and harder to put out.
The Fire That Protected An Empire — Greek fire saved the Byzantine capital of Constantinople several times. During blockades of the city by the Arabs (674 to 678 and 717 to 718) and the Rus (941 and 1043), the defenders supposedly sprayed the blazing liquid from pumps (like a modern-day flamethrowers) or hurled clay containers of it from the city walls onto the attackers’ heads, siege engines and ships.
Terror Weapon — The torching of just seven of the Rus boats during the siege of Constantinople in 1043 was enough to put to flight the entire fleet of 400 ships! A century earlier, Emperor Nikephoros Phokas used the weapon in his expedition of 960 against the Arabs, which led to the Byzantine re-conquest of Crete.
Fire-Breathing Lions — When in 1099 the Byzantines used Greek fire against the Pisans, according to writings of Anna Komnene, they placed bronze and iron lions and the heads of other fearsome creatures on the prows of their ships, connected them with hoses or siphonia to pumps and shot Greek fire to drive off their enemies.
A Gift From God? Although several scholars have tried to solve the riddle of Greek fire, historians are still not entirely sure about its composition. That’s because the recipe for it was a state secret. In fact, Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennitos went so far as to claim that the liquid fire “was revealed and taught by God through angels and the first Christian saint Constantine”, meaning Constantine the Great.
New & Improved — There appear to have been not one but many formulas for Greek fire. In fact, its development was an ongoing process; the Byzantines made continuous efforts to make it better and to keep a step ahead of their enemies.
Far From Perfect – Although Greek fire was a terrifying weapon, it wasn’t always decisive in combat. Worse, when deployed in less-than-ideal conditions, it could be just as dangerous to the Byzantines as it was to the enemy. In the best of circumstances, it was only effective to maybe a few dozen yards and was too unstable to be used in choppy seas or high winds. The Arabs also developed a number of ways to mitigate its effectiveness. Supposedly, the sticky liquid would not adhere to heavy cloth or leather that had been immersed in vinegar.
Often Imitated, Never Duplicated — Other powers of the time, such as the Persians and the Arabs, also fielded similar incendiary mixtures, but the Byzantine formula was always superior because it couldn’t be extinguished by water.
Konstantinos Karatolios is a historian, teacher and the author of Greek Fire and its Contribution to Byzantine Might, which is available on Amazon. For more info about the author visit his website http://karatolios.webnode.com. He lives in Greece.
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