Greek fire was a potent weapon of war that helped the Byzantines to triumph over their enemies. Byzantium usually faced foes who had greater numbers and occasionally, greater wealth than them. There were many times in the empire’s history where the enemies threatened the Byzantine capital itself. But at such crucial moments, the skilful use of Greek fire helped the Byzantines to turn the battle and win. Read on to learn of some of the crucial battles where Greek fire made a difference.
1st Arab Siege of Constantinople (674-678)
The Arabs lay siege to Constantinople, the capital and heart of the Byzantine Empire, in 674. Thus far, they had swept away the Byzantine troops, forcing them back to the capital to make their last stand. But things did not go as planned. The Arabs could not breach the famous land walls, so they focused their attacks on the sea walls with their navy. The Arab blockade cut off supplies to the capital and slowly starved the defenders.
For five years, the empire fought for its life. Thankfully, Kallinikos, a military engineer, arrived in the empire just before the siege. He had discovered the secret of Greek fire and he shared it with the Byzantines. This secret gave the Byzantine navy the edge they needed to defeat the Arab navy repeatedly. In 678, the Arabs finally accepted defeat and lifted the siege. But as they made their way home, the Arab navy ran into a severe storm, suffering further loss and damage as a result.
2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople (717-718)
In 717, Arab forces once again pushed the Byzantines right back to Constantinople and lay siege to it. This time the Arabs attacked by land and sea. This pincer attack forced the defenders to divide themselves to man both the land and sea walls. Despite the dire circumstances, their Emperor Leo III led the defence with a sure hand.
The wily monarch used Greek fire to wreck havoc on the Arab fleet while making sure the Arab army could not breach the land walls. In the meantime, he negotiated with the Bulgarians and got them to smash the Arab army from the rear. The Bulgarians scattered the surprised Arab troops who fled homewards. Meanwhile, the Arab navy, crippled by Greek fire, also lifted the siege and returned home. Déjà vu occurred when the Arab navy ran into a storm that destroyed most of the fleet.
Civil War between Michael II and Thomas the Slav (821-824)
Michael II and Thomas the Slav fought one of the most severe civil wars in the history of the empire. At the start, Thomas controlled most of the empire and its forces. Meanwhile, Michael held control over the capital and a few outlying regions. To reign as emperor, Thomas had to control Constantinople. Once again, the capital came under siege from superior numbers by land and sea in 821.
While holding on to his capital, Michael got his navy to whittle down the navy of Thomas with Greek fire. This helped to relieve the pressure placed on the sea walls and allow supplies to reach the city. Taking a page from the book of Leo III, Michael sought and received Bulgarian aid. The Bulgarians forced Thomas to lift the siege and inflicted heavy losses on him. This allowed Michael to defeat and mop up the remains of Thomas’ forces, uniting the empire once more.
Rus-Byzantine War (941)
Greek fire saw action against the sea-faring Rus in 941. Igor, the Prince of Rus, led 1,000 ships southwards to raid the Byzantine Empire. But as luck would have it, the Byzantine army and navy were not at Constantinople. Due to the grave danger, the Emperor Romanus gave orders for both the army and navy to return at once. In the meantime, he salvaged fifteen old ships from the scrap yard and loaded them with Greek fire. Placing this fleet under the command of Theophanes, the emperor ordered him to buy time and hold off the Rus.
Theophanes set off at once to prevent the Rus from sailing through the Bosphorus. By positioning his fleet at the northern opening of the Bosphorus, he clashed with the Rus on June 11. As the Greek fire ravaged the front of his fleet, Igor ordered the rest of his ships to disembark at Bithynia where they plundered the land. Soon, the Byzantine army arrived to drive them back to their ships. As the Rus tried to flee for home, they ran straight into the Byzantine navy. This time, the Byzantines set ablaze the Rus fleet and destroyed it. Only a handful of survivors managed to escape.
Reflections of the Vizier
Greek fire did not win battles for the empire by itself. It was a potent but not an all-powerful weapon. This meant that it played its part in the overall strategy to defeat the enemy. This could mean buying time for reinforcements or whittling down enemy forces for the final blow. Used skilfully at the right moments by wise leaders, Greek fire was able to turn the tide of battle for the Byzantines. The examples above are ample proof of how Greek fire made a difference.
Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. England: Penguin Books, 2008.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium (II): The Apogee. England: Penguin Books, 1993.