The fire sliced through the sea, stoking the flames of fear in the enemies of the Byzantine Empire. The “liquid fire” —as it was popularly known— and its secrets were so important that Emperor Romanos II, the Byzantine emperor who reigned between 959-963 AD, declared that three things must never fall into the hands of the enemy.
The Byzantine Imperial regalia. Any royal princess. And Greek Fire.
Indeed, incendiary weapons were not novel inventions during the medieval ages. They consisted of sulfur, petroleum, and bitumen-based mixtures.
Flaming arrows and pots comprised of combustible elements launched by catapults, caltrops, or spikes. The Assyrians used these weapons in the 9th BC and Greco-Roman era. Julius Africanus, the roman historian, aptly described this fiery weapon of destruction:
“…this is the recipe: take equal amounts of sulfur, rock salt, adhesive, thunder stone, and pyrite and pound fine in a black mortar at the midday sun. Also, in equal amounts of each ingredient, mix together black mulberry resin and Zakynthian asphalt, the latter in a liquid form and free-flowing, resulting in a product that is sooty-colored. Then add to the asphalt the tiniest amount of quicklime.
But because the sun is at its zenith, one must pound it carefully and protect the face, for it will ignite suddenly. When it catches fire, one should seal it in some sort of copper receptacle; in this way, you will have it available in a box without exposing it to the sun….”
However, the Greek fire was more mysterious and effective, with the “atomic bomb” of the medieval ages ensuring that the mighty Byzantine empire survived many decades and centuries of attacks until the empire’s eventual fall in the 15th century. However, the empire’s fall coincided with the Greek fire’s disappearance.
The Greek fire was the protector of Christendom for more than 700 years and was an integral arsenal of Constantinople and the Byzantines for as long as they used it.
This article seeks to thoroughly discuss the “sea fire,” explaining what it was and how it was used, and the exact recipe for this impressive weapon.
What is Greek Fire?
The Greek fire was part of the Empire’s arsenal developed and used on land and sea. However, this should not be confused with the arsenal of the Crusaders, who used a cheap imitation of “Greek fire.”
The latter consisted of a mixture of saltpeter and turpentine. On the other hand, the original Greek fire consisted of more potent substances. This made it very difficult to replicate in the hands of the enemies of Byzantine, who once spanned territories across Southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
Historical accounts alluded to the original crafting and use of the weapon during the reign of Constantine IV Pogantus (668-685). Meanwhile, around 678 AD, it is widely accepted that a Greek-speaking Syrian refugee, Callanish of Heliopolis, refined the recipe.
This refined substance supposedly could not be put out by water. Instead, it seemed to burn fiercely once it got in contact with water.
It was also known to stick to anything it came into contact with, although it appeared that the Arabian opposition to the empire had found a way to counter it, it involved them dousing their thick clothes or leather in vinegar. This stickiness ensured that Greek fire played a significant role during naval wars.
This fiery concoction could be utilized in diverse means. It could be thrown in pots or shot using handheld or ship-mounted tubes. The modern-day flamethrower is similar to the latter method of using Greek fire.
A good majority of historical accounts have suggested that Callinicus of Heliopolis developed the superweapon. Callinicus escaped from Syria —which had been captured and dominated by Muslims— to Constantinople around 668 AD.
Although, a similar substance was found to have existed long before the ingenious creation of Callinicus. During the Mithridatic Wars of the first century BC, the kingdom of Pontus used a similar weapon against the Romans.
This probably formed the foundation of the Greek fire for Callinicus, but with his knowledge and intuition, he made the concoction more potent and easier to use.
The potency of this weapon meant its recipe was closely guarded. Recent research into the Greek fire suggests light petroleum or naphtha was the main ingredient, as well as pitch, sulfur, pine or cedar resin, lime, and bitumen.
These ingredients were also probably sourced from Crimea. Speculations suggest melted saltpeter was mixed into the concoction, while sulfur accounted for the booming noise characteristic of the weapon.
Creating the concoction was also a dangerous affair, considering the substances used. Distilling the petroleum for the concoction also implied that they must have used sophisticated technology at that time to create the ingredients.
However, little to nothing is established about the contents of the mixture, as the formula was only handed down from one emperor to the other. This measure was so successful that they kept the secret for nearly a thousand years, and since then has been lost in the sands of history.
Further, the entire system of the weapon was thoroughly compartmentalized, with operators aware of the secrets of just a particular aspect of one component. This explains why the Bulgarians had laid their hands on over 36 projectors and could not use the Greek fire projectors.
Partial recipes, however, were found by historians. One particular account of a historian, Anna Komnene’s Alexiad and De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, noted that the Greek fire was made of pine and evergreen trees, as well as inflammable resins.
The resin is rubbed with sulfur, put into tubes, and violently thrown at the enemies by the men. This aggressive force allows it to catch fire on the tip, letting it catch the light and fall on the enemies.
The War Against Byzantine Enemies
The Greek fire was first used against the Arabs during the first Arab siege of Constantinople. Due to their new weapon, the fleet of the Byzantines was augmented with tubes that were mounted on their prows.
Under the leadership of Constantine IV, the Byzantines destroyed the Arabs, thanks to the new weapon they had deployed. The Arab fleets, unable to adequately respond to the power of the Greek fire, broke the siege and retreated.
Leo III The Isaurian, another Byzantine emperor, later used the Greek fire. The emperor countered the attack of another Arab siege in 717 AD and was further used by Romanus I Lecapenus against a Kievan Rus fleet in the 10th century.
Finally, John I Tzimisces, in 972 AD, used Greek fire to liberate the city of Preslav from the siege. of the Russians.
As mentioned earlier, the primary means of deploying the Greek fire was through a tube or siphon. This was used aboard ships during the wars with enemy ships.
This also allegedly led to the invention of portable projectors by Emperor Leo VI. Military manuals stemming from the Byzantine military also noted that jars filled with the Greek fire and caltrops wrapped in tow and doused in the liquid fire were thrown by catapults. Also, the Byzantines used pivoting cranes to pour liquid fire upon enemy ships.
During warfare on the ground, the Byzantines used Cheirosiphōnes —a hand siphon— prescribed by 10th-century military authors.
During naval wars, the Greeks also used tubular projects to deploy Greek fire. Anna Komnene’s account describes the fire projectors that were mounted on the bow of the Greek warships:
“As he [the Emperor Alexios I] knew that the Pisans were skilled in sea warfare and dreaded a battle with them, on the prow of each ship, he had a head fixed of a lion or other land animal, made in brass or iron with the mouth open and then glided over so that their mere aspect was terrifying. And the fire which was to be directed against the enemy through tubes he made to pass through the mouths of the beasts so that it seemed as if the lions and other similar monsters were vomiting the fire….”
Other accounts, like the Wolfenbüttel manuscript, have more detailed descriptions regarding the function and composition of the entire mechanism:
“… having built a furnace right at the front of the ship, they set on it a copper vessel full of these things, having our fire underneath. And one of them, having made a bronze rub similar to that which the rustics call a squitiatoria, ‘squirt,’ with which boys play, they spray [it] at the enemy.”
These descriptions led enthusiasts of historical weapons and instruments, John Haldon and Maurice Byrne, to design a hypothetical device consisting of the three essential components of the weapon: a bronze pump that pressurizes the oil, a brazier that heated the oil and the nozzle, covered in bronze and hoisted on a swivel.
However, his design had several faults that posed a danger to the operators, as the pressure that mounted in the weapon could easily make the heated oil explode—a flaw that was never recorded in historical accounts of the Greek’s use of the weapon.
With a modern analog being the modern flamethrower, the Hand-siphōn was extensively documented in the military documents of the 10th century and was recommended by military strategists to be used on both land and sea.
These hand projectors first appeared during the reign of Emperor Leo VI, the wise, who purportedly invented these projectors.
Military authors had prescribed these projectors for field armies intending to destroy enemy formations. Both Emperors Leo VI and Nikephoros Phokas claimed that these hand projectors contained the same substances as those mounted on the ships.
However, Haldon and Byrne contradicted these stances, claiming that the hand projectors differed fundamentally from those used on the ships.
Greek fire was thrown at enemies in its earliest form via a burning ball wrapped in clothes. These clothes also contained a flask and were fired with a catapult that launched them over 350-450 meters.
Undoubtedly the Byzantine army once possessed one of the world’s scariest weapons that defied nature and man. It was so famous that it had its own legend and folklore fashioned after its disappearance, further causing a stir amongst modern historians as to how it “sliced through the sea” and eventually became the liquid fire.