Greek fire (also called Byzantine fire, wildfire and liquid fire, Greek Υγρό Πυρ, igró pyr) was a weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. It was invented by a Greek Syrian in about 673 AD. It was employed in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning even under water. "Byzantine fire" was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Eastern Roman Empire surviving as long as it did. The formula was a secret and remains a mystery to this day. As one contemporary victim of Greek fire said, "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."
Greek fire is said to have been invented by a Syrian Christian refugee named Kallinikos "Pyrpolitis" of Heliopolis (Syria), probably about 673 AD. Some people believe that he acquired this knowledge from the alchemists of Alexandria about its formula, but that too is lost to history. However many accounts note the fires it caused couldn't be put out by pouring water on the flames—on the contrary, the water served to spread them, suggesting a complex base-chemistry.
In its earliest uses it was applied onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a sea-borne variant of the Roman Legion's light catapult or onager (named after the onager, or wild ass, for the way it 'bucked' or 'kicked'). These were capable of hurtling light loads (ca. six to eight pounds— up to eighteen kg) four to five hundred yards (metres). Later technological improvements in machining technology enabled the devising of a pump mechanism discharging a stream of burning fluid (Flame thrower) at close ranges, and was devastating to wooden ships in naval warfare and also very effective on land as a counter-force suppression weapon used on besieging forces. There are many accounts of the Byzantine Empire driving off attacks on the walls using this devastatingly frightful secret formula.
However, it was used primarily at sea. It is rumored that the key to Greek fire's effectiveness was that it could continue burning under almost any conditions, even under water. It was known to the Byzantines' enemies as a "wet, dark, sticky fire" because it stuck to the unfortunate object it hit and was impossible to extinguish. Enemy ships were often afraid to come too near to the Byzantine fleet, because, once within range, the fire gave the Byzantines a strong military advantage. The last testimony of Greek Fire usage was in the Siege of Constantinople, where the secret itself was destroyed in the flames of the Ottoman torches when the great city finally fell after a thousand years of glory and many attacks.
Link to Byzantine Victories
Byzantine fire was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Eastern Roman Empire surviving as long as it did. It was particularly helpful near the end of the empire's life when there were not enough inhabitants to effectively defend its territories. It was first used to repel the Arab siege of Constantinople in 674-677 (Battle of Syllaeum), and in 717-718. The Byzantines also used this powerful weapon against the Vikings in 941 and against the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. It quickly became one of the most fearsome weapons of the medieval world. The mere sight of any sort of siphon, whether it was used for Greek fire or not, was often enough to defeat an enemy. However, Greek fire was very hard to control, and it would often accidentally set Byzantine ships ablaze.
Although similar substances have been invented in the modern age, the exact composition of the original Greek fire is currently a lost art.
The effectiveness of Greek fire was indisputable, however it was mainly effective under certain circumstances. For instance , it was less effective in the open sea than in narrow sea passages. Greek fire should not be considered as an invention that solved automatically all the maritime problems of the Byzantine Empire. Naval war continued to be based on the traditional art of maritime strategy, in which Greek fire added a new effective weapon for the Byzantines.
The ingredients, process of manufacture and usage were a very carefully guarded military secret, so secret it remains a source of speculation to this day. Speculations include:
- naptha, niter, sulfur
- petroleum, quicklime, sulfur
- phosphorus and saltpeter
It is not clear if it was ignited by a flame as the mixture emerged from the syringe, or if it ignited spontaneously when it came into contact with water. If the latter is the case, it is possible that the active ingredient was calcium phosphide, made by heating lime, bones and charcoal. On contact with water, calcium phosphide releases phosphine, which ignites spontaneously. However, Greek fire was also used on land.
These ingredients were apparently heated in a cauldron, and then pumped out through a siphon or large syringe, known as a siphonarios mounted on the bow of the ship. It could also be used in hand grenades, made of earthenware vessels. If a pyrophoric reaction was involved, perhaps these grenades contained chambers for the fluids, which mixed and ignited when the vessel broke on impact with the target.
The Memoirs of Jean de 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 therefore 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.
- Spears, W.H., Jr. Greek Fire: The Fabulous Secret Weapon That Saved Europe (1969) ISBN 0960010637
- James Riddick Partington A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder The Johns Hopkins University Press (1998) ISBN 0801859549