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Tom's Time Traveling Tales #1: Mysterious Greek Fire

Updated: May 16, 2020

(Ignis Graecus, Giitsidis Efstathios)

Greek Fire remains a mysterious weapon till this day. Historians know that it was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire, but they do not know how the Byzantines crafted it. It was primarily used in naval warfare to burn enemy ships. Greek Fire was able to burn on contact with water, which made for a blazing force of a weapon (quite literally). In it's earliest form, Greek Fire was akin to a Molotov cocktail. Byzantines would catapult 6-9kg (13-20 pound) balls wrapped in burning cloths at ships. The later stage Greek Fire used a pressurized nozzle that spewed fires, which made Greek Fire essentially an ancient flamethrower. The Byzantines kept Greek Fire a state secret, in order to prevent enemies from copying their deadly weapon.

The name Greek Fire is somewhat of a mistranslation. The term was used mainly by the English Crusaders, but contemporary sources suggest it had a few other names. Sea Fire (Greek: pŷr thalássion), Roman Fire (Greek: pŷr rhōmaïkón), War Fire (Greek: polemikòn pŷr), Liquid Fire (Greek: hygròn pŷr), Sticky Fire (Greek: pŷr kollētikón), and Manufactured Fire (pŷr skeuastón) were all used to describe Greek Fire. The confusion over the name makes sense, because Byzantines spoke Greek, but referred to themselves as Romans (although they were mainly made up by Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, and a few other groups). To the English, Greek speaking people of Anatolia would be considered "Greek," but to the Greek and Arab world, the inhabitants of Constantinople were Roman.

Greek civilization has used fire in warfare well before the invention of this Greek Fire. Thucydides recorded the use of fire in Greek warfare as far back as 424 BC. It isn't until 672 AD (1096 years after 424 BC) that we have a recorded use of Greek Fire. Due to its destructive natural, Greek Fire was seen as a divine intervention by enemies, it was viewed as a flame from heaven wiping out the enemies of Byzantium. Due to Greek Fire's dominance, and inability to replicate, the Byzantines resulted to using the weapons for centuries. Greek Fire played a large role in stoping the rebellion of Thomas the Slav (821-823 AD), defeating the Rus when they raided the Bosporus (941 and 1043 AD), and blockading the Danube during the Bulgarian War (970-971 AD). Byzantium was sacked during the Fourth. Crusade, which led to disarmament of the empire, but the use of Greek Fire is seen again during the Seventh Crusade. The Lord of Joinville during the Seventh Crusader recorded Greek Fire as making "such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven" and claimed "It looked like a dragon flying through the air." The recorded history of Greek Fire virtually disappears after the Fall of Constantinople(1453 AD), but there is one interesting occurrence in the 19th century. An Armenian man by the name Kavafian reached out to the government of the Ottoman Empire and claimed to have concocted a new form of Greek Fire. He insisted that he that he have the right to command his weapon during naval battles. Oddly enough, he was poisoned by the Ottoman Empire and his secret to Greek Fire was never discovered.

The deployment of Greek Fire evolved over time, so it's best to look at first hand accounts to see the description of how it was used. It does appear that it was used from a tubular projector, which the Greeks referred to as a siphōn. Anne Komnene gives a contemporary account describing a siphōn in the shape of a lion's head. "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 gilded 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 the other similar monsters were vomiting the fire." Not every ship had a lion shaped siphon, but the function of a brass or bronze to project fire is common amongst contemporary sources.

Due to the military advantage the weapon gave the Byzantines, the creators of the weapons knew that it must be kept a secret. I like to think of it as a Byzantine Manhattan Project, the weapon was so powerful that it's creation must be kept secret to prevent others from learning how to construct it. Historians and scientists today still lack certainty in its creation. It has been proposed that the fire was created as an amalgamation of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium, phosphate, sulfur and niter. Titus Livy, a Roman historian described a priestess dipping fire into water that did not extinguish. His explnaiton was that the fire was a combonation of "sulphur mixed with lime." The technology today certainly exist to recreate a Greek Fire like substance, for example Napalm could be considered a modern day Greek Fire, but historians are perplexed as to how the Byzantines were able to create such a weapon and deploy it, given the technological and scientitfic understandings of the time period.

(Johnathan Blessin)

Thanks for checking out my first post in my blog series Tom's Time Traveling Tales, if you like this type of content check out my instagram @historyuniversity :)

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