Byzantium fought for its very survival throughout its existence. Often, the empire faced enemies who were superior in military and economic might. Despite these odds, Byzantium always managed to survive. One of the main reasons for its survival was the secret weapon: Greek fire. Used skilfully by its leaders, Byzantium managed to come back repeatedly from the brink of disaster. Read on to learn about Greek fire.
What was Greek Fire?
Greek fire was a sticky liquid flame used in land battles during sieges and naval battles. The soldiers would use a firing tube to spray the liquid that would engulf their target in flames. A loud noise that sounded like a roar and lots of smoke accompanied the discharge of Greek fire. To enhance the effect, the Byzantines installed figureheads of animals like lions on their ships. Thus in naval combat, it would seem as if the animals were spewing fire from their mouths. Unsuspecting and superstitious enemies would greatly fear the fire, as they had never seen such a spectacle before.
Origins of Greek Fire
Historical records first mention Greek fire in 678. A story credits Kallinikos, a military engineer from Syria, as the creator of Greek fire. After he had found the secret, he brought it to Byzantium and shared it with the empire. The secret could not have come at a better time as Constantinople was holding off an Arab siege. The soldiers put the Greek fire to good use when they drove off an Arab naval attack with it.
Alternatively, the leading alchemists and chemists in the capital could have discovered Greek fire. During their research of the classical texts on chemistry and physics, they could have chanced upon the composition of Greek fire. Whatever the case, the Byzantines soon got the formula right. From there, they went on to use Greek fire with lethal effect against their foes.
Composition and Usage
The exact Byzantine formula of Greek fire has been lost. But many historians believed it contained the following ingredients: crude oil, bitumen, naphtha, resin and sulphur. Due to the dangers involved, the soldiers had to heat the mixture with great care first. Then they sprayed it through the firing tube with a siphon and ignited the flames. But this was not the only way to use Greek fire. It could also be stored in ceramic pots and thrown like grenades. The use of Greek fire required caution and technical skill that selected soldiers specially trained in.
This potent weapon gave the Byzantines an edge over their enemies in warfare. It also had a psychological effect on foes that had never seen such a spectacle. As the fire was hard to extinguish, it struck fear in their hearts of the enemies and weakened their resolve. Due to its great importance, Greek fire was a closely guarded secret of the empire. No foreigner could expect to gain this knowledge from the Byzantines. Although many nations sought the secret of Greek fire in diplomatic exchanges, the Byzantines never shared this knowledge. Even so, the Arabs managed to create their own version of Greek fire.
Greek fire was so potent that it could even burn on water. Once Greek fire set its target ablaze, it was very hard to extinguish. Since the fire did not differentiate friend from foe, Byzantine troops took several safety measures to protect themselves. Firstly, the soldiers and marines who handled Greek fire wore fireproof leather armour. Secondly, the ships and equipment used a unique mixture of vinegar, alum and talc to remain fireproof. Thirdly, city defences and buildings also received treatment that protected them from fire attacks.
Reflections of the Vizier
Greek fire was clearly a potent but double-edged weapon. Used correctly, the Byzantines managed to turn the tide of many battles with it. But if they were not careful, they could also end up burning their own troops with the flames. Even so, Greek fire was not a super weapon that made the Byzantines invincible. It had limited range that made it easy for enemies to work around once they got used to it. Other civilizations like the Arabs also created their own form of Greek fire. Although Greek fire was useful, it was merely one reason that the Byzantines managed to endure for a thousand years.
Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. England: Penguin Books, 2008.
Rautman, Marcus. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire (The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series). Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006.