Iconic Weapons: Greek Fire

Greek Fire – also referred to as “Roman Fire,” “Liquid Fire,” and “Byzantine Fire” – was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire in the 7th Century. It was a flammable compound made from of unknown mixture of materials which is still not verified to this day and perhaps never will be. The recipe for Greek Fire was a closely guarded secret, which was both part of the key to its success, as well as the reason for its eventual loss from historical record.

Greek Fire was invented by Callinicus Of Heliopolis sometime after he fled to Constantinople to escape the Muslim conquest of Syria. As a Jew, Callinicus knew he would be killed under Arab rule and that the Byzantine capital he fled to would eventually fall if he did not act. So, he invented the Greek Fire to help defend against future invasions, and to that end, he was highly successful.

Greek Fire gun
This mechanism was most commonly used to spray Greek Fire during ship-to-ship naval combat.
Mysterious Composition

Greek Fire is theorized to have been a mixture of petroleum or naphtha, as well as potentially quicklime, sulphur, resin, and/or potassium nitrate. The Greek Fire was either launched from a bronze, syringe-like device known as a “siphon” which propelled the liquid under pressure – a form of ancient flame thrower – or was filled into a clay grenade and thrown or catapulted. The liquid would spontaneously combust and could not be extinguished with water. It is said a mixture of sand and aged urine was needed to extinguish the Greek Fire. This made it incredibly effective against ships in naval warfare and on land against invaders or defenders when was from or against fortifications.

The protection of the secret formula to create and extinguish Greek Fire made it incredibly effective in battle. None who encountered it had any idea how to defend against it. Many attempts were made to counter Greek Fire, such as covering ships in water-soaked hides. However, as mentioned, water did not extinguish Greek Fire, much to the confusion of all those unfortunate to encounter it. Also, the syringe-like mechanisms were also reportedly difficult to operate, as even when Greek Fire armaments were captured in a usable state, no forces without the training to operate them were ever able to understand how to turn the Greek Fire against the Byzantines.

Greek Fire grenades
Greek Fire could also be thrown or launched in the form of a grenade using clay pots.

Greek Fire was also an effective psychological weapon due not only to its incredible lethality and ability to override all attempted defenses, but also due to the loud noise and large blooms of smoke it is said to have generated. The sound and sight of Greek Fire was said to evoke the presence of a dragon. It also destroyed anything it touched due to the presence formula needed to create a counter-mixture which could douse the flames. Any ship, fortress, or person caught in Greek Fire could not be saved. Death and total destruction were a certainty.

A Secret Weapon

The legendary Greek Fire was used to great effect in many battles. During the First and Second Arab Sieges of Constantinople in the years 674 and 717, respectively, the Greek Fire allowed the Byzantines to withstand overwhelming odds and push back the Muslim fleet time and time again. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greek Fire was a game-changer while the Byzantines possessed it. It was terrifyingly effective and psychologically intimidating. Some historians credit Greek Fire with inflicting such heavy casualties on the Muslim invaders that it was the single-most important factor which prevented a larger invasion of Europe.

Greek Fire Instructional Diagram
Greek Fire was originally used only in naval combat, but was later adapted for land warfare.

However, Greek Fire was such a closely-guarded secret that eventually the Byzantines seem to have forgotten how to use it. What some may consider to have been the greatest strength of Greek Fire – how secretive its creation process was – eventually became its downfall. In ancient times, before the age of the printing press and Internet archives, choosing not to proliferate the creation process of the mixture eventually meant that everyone who knew how to create it was dead and they did not pass on the knowledge in any form.

Divine Intervention

Constantinople would fall, but the sacrifice the city’s defenders who fought so valiantly to protect it would not be in vein. Due to the massive casualties inflicted by the Byzantines with their neigh-unstoppable and nightmare-inducing Greek Fire, a greater darkness which threatened to consume the world was staved off and pushed back. Greek Fire was pivotal in Constantinople becoming known as “God’s protected city” before its eventual fall, and the casualties inflicted taking it ensured the rest of Christendom was spared oblivion. Greek Fire might just as well be known as Angel Fire, coming into the hands of the people who needed it most at the time and place where it could do the most good.

And then, due to the highly destructive nature of the weapon, after it had served its purpose on Earth, the mythical weapon was lost to history.

Significance and Legacy

Greek Fire is an interesting piece of history with many lessons derived from its story. Callinicus was an architect rather than an alchemist, yet used his knowledge of mixing materials to create a weapon unlike any the world had ever seen. This invention was so powerful, it was instrumental in exhausting the dark forces assailed against the Earth to the point where the spread of wickedness was abated and peace restored. The story also speaks to the importance of sacrifice, for even though Constantinople eventually fell, the efforts of its people were not in vein. The novelty of Greek Fire also speaks to the importance of keeping our greatest boons protected from the hands of our enemies, and its loss serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of too much secrecy and the importance of passing knowledge on before it is lost.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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