As early as the 9th century BC, the Assyrians and the Greco-Roman world used fiery weapons such as incendiary arrows and pots that contained combustible substances in warfare. Thucydides mentioned the use of tubular flame throwers during the siege of Athens in 424 BC. According to the chronicler John Malalas, the naval fleet of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I used a sulphur-based mixture to subdue the revolt of Vitalianas in 515 AD as advised by Proclus, a philosopher from Athens.
During the classical and medieval periods – about 8th century BC until the mid-16th century AD, warring factions used thermal weapons such as burning projectiles and other incendiary devices to burn, damage and destroy enemy personnel, fortifications, towns, villages and farms.
In the simplest, and most common cases, the antagonists used boiling water and hot sand, as thermal projectiles. They poured or spewed hot liquefied bitumen, pitch, resin, animal fat and boiling oil, and at times chemicals such as sulphur and nitrates that burned or caused physical irritation over the enemy who tried to scale their fortifications, or projected the incendiaries onto the enemies waiting at a distance using war machines such as catapults. They used smoke to confuse or drive off attackers.
They followed the scorched-earth strategy – a practice carried out by an army in enemy territory or in its own home territory that involved destroying large tracts of land, towns, villages, and assets used or can be used by the enemy such as food sources, and transportation.
Though the Western Roman Empire fragmented and collapsed in the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire continued to thrive. It existed for more than a thousand years as the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe until 1453.
An incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire in naval battles known as “Greek fire” instilled fear in its enemies and helped to win many Byzantine military victories. It saved Constantinople from two Arab sieges securing the Empire’s survival. It provided a technological advantage over other incendiaries because It continued to burn while floating on water.
When the west European Crusaders came face-to-face with the Greek fire, it made an impression such that they applied the name to any incendiary weapon, including those used by the Arabs, the Chinese, and the Mongols.
Even though we use the term “Greek fire” in English and in many other languages, the original Byzantine sources called it by a variety of names, such as: “sea fire” (Ancient Greek: πῦρ θαλάσσιον), “Roman fire” (πῦρ ῥωμαϊκόν), “war fire” (πολεμικὸν πῦρ), “liquid fire” (ὑγρὸν πῦρ), or “manufactured fire” (πῦρ σκευαστόν).
The Byzantine formula for the composition of Greek fire, a closely guarded state secret, now lost, remains a matter of speculation and debate. Some suggest combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, sulphur, or nitre (the mineral form of potassium nitrate, KNO3, also known as saltpetre). Byzantines used pressurized siphons to project the liquid incendiary mixtures onto the enemy.
Saint Theophanes the Confessor, a member of the Byzantine aristocracy who became a monk and chronicler accredits Kallinikos, an architect from Heliopolis in the former province of Phoenice, by then overrun by the Muslim conquests, as the developer of the Greek fire around 672 AD. However, Thephanes also reports the use of fire-carrying and siphon-equipped ships by the Byzantines a couple of years before the supposed arrival of Kallinikos at Constantinople. The report of this chronicler stands unresolved due to the variance in the chronology of events.
Around 672, the Arabs who subdued Syria, Palestine and Egypt now set out to capture Constantinople, the imperial capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine navy used Greek fire to repel the Muslims during the first and second Arab sieges of the city. During the expansion of the Byzantine Empire in the late 9th and early10th centuries, the Byzantines used Greek fire in naval battles against the Saracens.
The Byzantines themselves used Greek fire in their civil wars, for example, in the revolt of the thematic fleets in 727 and during the large-scale rebellion in i821–823 led by Thomas the Slav. In both cases, the Imperial Fleet defeated the rebel fleets by using Greek fire. The Byzantines also used the weapon against the various Rus’ raids to the Bosporus in 941 and 1043, as well as in the Bulgarian war of 970–971, when the fire-carrying Byzantine ships blockaded the Danube.
The Byzantines believed that divine intervention led to the discovery of Greek fire during the Empire’s struggle against the Arabs. Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos who ruled from 945 to 959 in his book De Administrando Imperio, advised his son and heir, Romanos II never to reveal the secrets of its composition. He wrote that since 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.” He also warns by citing an incident of one official bribed into handing some of it over to the Empire’s enemies struck down by a “flame from heaven.”
However, the enemies of the Byzantine Empire captured their precious secret weapon: in 827, the Arabs captured at least one fireship intact, and in 812/814, the Bulgars captured several siphons and a fair amount of the substance. Even so, the Bulgars found the amount of substance not sufficient enough to copy it. The Arabs used a variety of incendiary substances similar to the Byzantine Greek fire, but they never succeeded in copying the Byzantine method of deployment by siphon – they used catapults and grenades.
Greek fire continued to be mentioned during the 12th century. Anna Komnene, a Greek princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator and the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium in her book Alexiad gives a vivid description of the use of Greek fire in a naval battle against the Pisans in 1099.
During the 1203 siege of Constantinople by the Crusade, though reports mentioned hastily improvised fire-ships, none of them confirmed the use of the actual Greek fire. This might be because of the disarmament of the Empire in the twenty years leading up to the sacking of Constantinople, or because the Byzantines had lost access to the territories where the ingredients that composed the Greek fire were to be found, or because the secret had been lost over time.
- Greek fire (en.wikipedia.org)
- Greek fire – a secret weapon (svmshippingblog.wordpress.com)
Early thermal weapons (en.wikipedia.org)
- Byzantine navy (en.wikipedia.org)
- List of sieges of Constantinople (en.wikipedia.org)
- Siege of Constantinople (674–678) (en.wikipedia.org)
- Siege of Constantinople (717–718) (en.wikipedia.org)
- Sicilian Expedition (tryartoutsend.wordpress.com)