I have I hope mentioned my passion for Byzantine history here. From its one thousand-year history comes a weapon that still today remains somewhat of a mystery. It is simply known to us as ‘Greek fire’.
No one is exactly sure of its composition, but it is believed that it was made from a crude oil procured from wells in the Crimea. It was primarily used as a naval arsenal that struck fear into the hearts of the Byzantine’s enemy. It was deployed in two main ways with destructive effect. Firstly, as an extremely hot liquid, it could be siphon through a long tube and ejected as a frightening plume of flames, reminiscent of a modern-day flamethrower. Just as lethal was its second form held in clay grenades. These clay grenades were wrapped in a piece of burning cloth and fired from a vessels catapult. Upon impact these clay grenades smashed apart and ignited its contents. Both these frightening compositions were used in both naval battles and land attacks on cities, where it was often successfully thrown onto enemy ships. Even unmanned vessels of Greek fire could be launched in favourable winds.
It should be said though that Greek fire was not the world’s first incendiary and flaming weapon. The use of fire alone was used well before the Byzantines, as a weapon to burn ships and fortifications. Even arrows wrapped with burning cloth were used as early as the 8th century attributed to the Assyrians. In around 674-8 AD, however, Greek Fire was supposedly invented by a man named Kallinikos, who arrived in Constantinople in around 674-8 AD from Helipolis (in modern-day Lebanon). He arrived at a time in Byzantium’s history, when the empire had been severely weakened by war, and upon presenting his marvelous new creation to the imperial court, its emperor was mesmerized. It was then first used in the Arab sieges of Constantinople during this period with devastating effect destroying enemy Arab ships. In another famous account during an attack by Russians in 941, the enemy was apparently seen jumping out of ships, preferring to be drowned rather than burned alive by Greek fire.
Greek fire is used in this compact Byzantine flamethrower. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.
The exaggerated depiction from the famous illustrated chronicle by John Skylitzes, as seen in the header image, shows the effects of shooting Greek fire upon its enemy. Not only was it capable of engulfing a ship, Greek fire was also known to burn on seawater. In later centuries it was used as a land warfare weapon as a portable flamethrower ‘the cheirosiphon’ from atop of siege towers for setting fire to fortifications. It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? However, if not for the experiments of John Holdon in 2006, Greek fire might have remained a weapon of legend or folklore. Holdon published an account of his attempt to recreate both Greek fire and its projection. He was quite successful being able to recreate something very similar to what the Byzantine would have used. His ‘Greek fire’ flame was able to project some 10-15 metres. It would have surely been a sight to behold and I can only imagine how something like this would have put the fear of God in Byzantium’s enemies.
It is likely because of its ability to stir great fear into the enemy, that emperor Constantine VII in the tenth century first listed it as a state secret. However, the Arabs would later invent a similar version of it, and successful use it in the Arab conquest of Crete in the early ninth century. Nonetheless, the Byzantine version of Greek fire and its ‘secrets’ would die largely with the Empire. Any mention of it from the thirteenth century onwards just simply disappeared.