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Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning even on water. It provided a technological advantage, and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinoplemarker from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival. The impression made by Greek fire on the European Crusaders was such that the name was applied to any sort of incendiary weapon, including those used by Arabs, the Chinesemarker, and the Mongols. These, however, were different mixtures and not the Byzantine formula, which was a closely guarded state secret, whose composition has now been lost. As a result, its ingredients are a much debated topic, with proposals including naphtha, quicklime, sulphur, and niter. What set the Byzantine usage of incendiary mixtures apart was their use of pressurized siphons to project the liquid onto the enemy.

Although the term "Greek fire" is general in English and most other languages since the Crusades, in the original Byzantine sources it is called by a variety of names, such as "sea fire" ( ), "Roman fire" ( ), "war fire" ( ), "liquid fire" ( ), or "processed fire" ( ).

History

Origins

Incendiary and flaming weapons had been used in warfare for centuries prior to the invention of Greek fire, including a number of sulphur-, petroleum- and bitumen-based mixtures. Incendiary arrows and pots containing combustible substances were used as early as the 9th century BC by the Assyrians, and were extensively used in the Greco-Roman world as well. Furthermore, Thucydides mentions the use of tubed flamethrowers in the siege of Delium in 424 BC. In naval warfare, the fleet of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I is recorded by the chronicler John Malalas as having utilized a sulphur-based mixture to defeat a revolt in AD 513, following the advice of a philosopher from Athensmarker called Proclus.

Greek fire proper however was invented in ca. 672, and is ascribed by the chronicler Theophanes to Kallinikos, an architect from Heliopolismarker in the former province of Phoenice, by then overrun by the Muslim conquests. The historicity and exact chronology of this account is open to question: Theophanes reports the use of fire-carrying and siphon-equipped ships by the Byzantines a couple of years before the supposed arrival of Kallinikos at Constantinople. If this is not due to chronological confusion of the events of the siege, it may suggest that Kallinikos merely introduced an improved version of an established weapon. The historian James Partington further thinks it likely that Greek fire was not in fact the discovery of any single person, but "invented by chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrianmarker chemical school". Indeed, the 11th-century chronicler George Kedrenos records that Kallinikos came from Heliopolismarker in Egyptmarker, but most scholars reject this as an error. Kedrenos also records the implausible story that Kallinikos' descendants, a family called "Lampros" ("Brilliant"), kept the secret of the fire's manufacture, and continued doing so to this day.

The importance placed on Greek fire during the Empire's struggle against the Arabs would lead to its discovery being ascribed to divine intervention. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos (r. 945–959), in his book De Administrando Imperio, admonishes his son and heir, Romanos II, to never reveal the secrets of its construction, as it was "shown and revealed by an angel to the great and holy first Christian emperor Constantine" and that the angel bound him "not to prepare this fire but for Christians, and only in the imperial city". As a warning, he adds that one official, who was bribed into revealing its secrets, was struck down by a "flame from heaven" as he was about to enter the Hagia Sophiamarker cathedral.

Use by the Byzantines

The invention of Greek fire came at a critical moment in the Byzantine Empire's history: weakened by its long wars with Sassanid Persia, the Byzantines had been unable to effectively resist the onslaught of the Muslim conquests. Within a generation, Syria, Palestine and Egypt had fallen to the Arabs, who in ca. 672 set out to conquer the imperial capital of Constantinoplemarker. The Greek fire was utilized to great effect against the Muslim fleets, helping to repel the Muslims at the first and second Arab sieges of the imperial capital, Constantinoplemarker. Records of its use in battles against the Saracens are more sporadic, but it did secure a number of victories, especially in the phase of Byzantine expansion in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Utilisation of the substance was prominent in Byzantine civil wars, chiefly the revolt of the thematic fleets in 727 and the large-scale rebellion led by Thomas the Slav in 821-823. In both cases, the rebel fleets were defeated by the Constantinopolitan Imperial Fleet through the use of Greek fire. The Byzantines also used the weapon to devastating effect against the various Rus' raids to the Bosporusmarker, especially those of 941 and 1043, as well as during the war of 941, when the fire-carrying Byzantine ships blockaded the Danube. Greek fire continued to be mentioned during the 12th century, and Anna Komnene gives a vivid description of its use in a possibly fictional naval battle against the Pisansmarker in 1099. However, although the use of hastily improvized fireships is mentioned during the 1203 siege of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, no report confirms the use of the actual Greek fire, which had apparently fallen out of use, either because its secrets were forgotten, or because the Byzantines had lost access to the areas (the Caucasus and the eastern coast of the Black Sea) where the primary ingredients were to be found.

Manufacture and deployment

As Constantine Porphyrogennetos' warnings show, the ingredients and the processes of manufacture and deployment of Greek fire were very carefully guarded military secrets. So strict was the secrecy that the composition of Greek fire was lost, and remains a source of speculation to this day. Consequently, the "mystery" of the formula has long dominated the research into Greek fire. Despite this almost exclusive focus, however, Greek fire is best understood as a complete weapon system of many components, all of which were needed to operate together to render it effective. This comprised not only the formula of its composition, but also the specialized dromons, the device used to prepare the substance by heating and pressurizing it, the siphon projecting it, and the special training of the siphōnarioi who used it. Knowledge of the whole system was highly compartmentalised, with operators and technicians aware of the secrets of only one component, ensuring that no enemy could gain knowledge of it in its entirety. It is characteristic that when the Bulgarians took Mesembriamarker and Debeltosmarker in 814, they captured 36 siphons and even quantities of the substance itself, but were unable to make any use of them.

The information available on Greek fire is exclusively indirect, based on the Byzantine military manuals and a number of secondary historical sources such as Anna Komnene and European chroniclers, which are often inaccurate. In her Alexiad, Anna Komnene provides a description of an incendiary weapon, which is often mistaken as a "recipe" for Greek fire:
"This fire is made by the following arts.
From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected.
This is rubbed with sulphur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath.
Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies."
At the same time, the reports by European chroniclers of the famed ignis graecus are largely unreliable, since they apply the name to any and all sorts of incendiary substance.

In attempting to reconstruct the Greek fire system, the concrete evidence, as it emerges from the contemporary literary references, provides the following characteristics:
  • It burned on water, and, according to some interpretations, was ignited by water. In addition, as numerous writers testify, it could be extinguished only by a few substances, such as sand, which deprived it of oxygen, strong vinegar, or old urine, presumably by some sort of chemical reaction.
  • It was a liquid substance, and not some sort of projectile, as verified both by descriptions and the very name "liquid fire".
  • At sea, it was usually ejected from siphons, although earthenware pots or grenades filled with it or similar substances were also used.
  • The discharge of Greek fire was accompanied by "thunder" and "much smoke".


Composition

The first and, for a long time, most popular theory regarding the composition of Greek fire held that its chief ingredient was saltpeter, making it an early form of gunpowder. This argument was based on the "thunder and smoke" description, as well as on the distance the flame could be projected from a siphon, which suggested an explosive discharge. From the times of Isaac Vossius, several scholars adhered to this position, most notably the so-called "French school" during the 19th century, which included the famed chemist Marcellin Berthelot. This view has been rejected since, as saltpeter does not appear to have been used in warfare before the 13th century, and is totally absent from the accounts of the Arabs, the foremost chemists of the Mediterranean world, before the same period. In addition, the nature of the proposed mixture would have been radically different from the siphon-projected substance described by Byzantine sources.

A second view based on the fact that Greek fire was inextinguishable by water – rather, some sources suggest that pouring water on it intensified the flames – considered that the destructive power of Greek fire was the result of the explosive reaction between water and quicklime. Although quicklime was certainly known and used by the Byzantines and the Arabs in warfare, the theory is refuted by literary and empirical evidence. A quicklime-based substance would have to come in contact with water to ignite, while Emperor Leo's Tactica indicate that Greek fire was often poured directly on the decks of enemy ships. Likewise, Leo prescribes the use of grenades, which further reinforces the view that contact with water was not necessary for the substance's ignition. Furthermore, C. Zenghelis pointed out that, based on experiments, the actual result of the water-quicklime reaction would be negligible in the open sea. Another similar proposition suggested that Kallinikos had in fact discovered calcium phosphide. On contact with water, calcium phosphide releases phosphine, which ignites spontaneously. However, extensive experiments with it also failed to reproduce the described intensity of Greek fire.

Although the presence of either quicklime or saltpeter in the mixture cannot be excluded, they were consequently not the primary ingredient. Most modern scholars agree that the actual Greek fire was based on petroleum, whether crude or refined. The Byzantines had easy access to crude oil from the naturally occurring wells around the Black Seamarker (e.g., the wells around Tmutorakan noted by Constantine Porphyrogennetos) or in various locations throughout the Middle East. Indeed, an alternate name for Greek fire was , "Median fire", and the 6th-century historian Procopius, records that crude oil, which was called naphtha (νάφθα, from naft) by the Persians, was known to the Greeks as "Median oil" ( ). This seems to corroborate the use of naphtha as a basic ingredient of Greek fire. There is also a surviving 9th-century Latin text, preserved at Wolfenbüttelmarker in Germany, which mentions the ingredients of what appears to be Greek fire and the operation of the siphons used to project it. Although the text contains some inaccuracies, it clearly identifies the main component as naphtha. Resins were probably added as a thickener (the Praecepta Militaria refer to the substance as , "sticky fire"), and to increase the duration and intensity of the flame.

A 12th-century treatise prepared by Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi for Saladin records an Arab version of Greek fire, called naft, which also had a petroleum base, with sulphur and various resins added. Any direct relation however with the Byzantine formula is very unlikely.

Methods of deployment

The chief method of deployment of Greek fire, which sets it apart from similar substances, was its projection through a tube (siphōn), for use aboard ships or in sieges. Portable projectors (cheirosiphōnes) were also invented, reputedly by Emperor Leo VI. The Byzantine military manuals also mention that jars (kytrai or tzykalia) filled with Greek fire and caltrops wrapped with tow and soaked in the substance were thrown by catapults, while pivoting crane (gerania) were employed to pour it upon enemy ships. The cheirosiphōnes especially were prescribed for use at land and in sieges, both against siege machines and against defenders on the walls, by several 10th-century military authors, and their use is depicted in the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium. The Byzantine dromons usually had one installed on their prow under the forecastle, but additional devices could also on occasion be placed elsewhere on the ship. Thus in 941, when the Byzantines were facing the vastly more numerous Rus' fleet, siphons were placed also amidships and even astern.

Siphon projectors



The use of siphons is amply attested in the contemporary sources, and information is provided on the composition and function of the whole mechanism. The Wolfenbüttel manuscript provides the following description:
"...having built a furnace right at the front of the ship, they set on it a copper vessel full of these things, having put fire underneath.
And one of them, having made a bronze tube similar to that which the rustics call a squitiatoria, "squirt", with which boys play, they spray [it] at the enemy."


Another, possibly first-hand, account of the use of Greek fire comes from the 11th-century Yngvars saga víðförla, where the Viking Ingvar the Far-Travelled faces ships equipped with Greek fire siphons:
"[They] began blowing with smiths’ bellows at a furnace in which there was fire and there came from it a great din.
There stood there also a brass [or bronze] tube and from it flew much fire against one ship, and it burned up in a short time so that all of it became white ashes..."
The account, albeit embellished, corresponds with many of the characteristics of Greek fire known from other sources, such as a loud roar that accompanied its discharge. These two texts are also the only two sources that explicitly mention that the substance was heated over a furnace before being discharged; although the validity of this information is open to question, modern reconstructions have relied upon them.

Based on these descriptions and the Byzantine sources, John Haldon and Maurice Byrne reconstructed the entire apparatus as consisting of three main components: a bronze pump (the σίφων, siphōn proper), which was used to pressurize the oil; a brazier, used to heat the oil (πρόπυρον, propyron, "pre-heater"); and the nozzle, which was covered in bronze and mounted on a swivel (στρεπτόν, strepton). The brazier, burning a match of linen or flax that produced intense heat and the characteristic thick smoke, was used to heat oil and the other ingredients in an airtight tank above it, a process that also helped to dissolve the resins into a fluid mixture. The substance was pressurized by the heat and the usage of a force pump. After it had reached the proper pressure, a valve connecting the tank with the swivel was opened and the mixture was discharged from its end, being ignited at its mouth by some source of flame. The presence of heat shields made of iron (βουκόλια, boukolia) is attested in the fleet inventories, made necessary due to the intense heat of the flame.

The whole process had a number of inherent dangers, as the mounting pressure could easily make the heated oil explode, although there are no recorded circumstances of such accidents. Indeed, in the experiments conducted by Haldon in 2002 for the episode Fireship of the television series Machines Time Forgot, even modern welding techniques failed to secure adequate insulation of the bronze tank under pressure. This led to the relocation of the pressure pump between the tank and the nozzle. The full-scale device built on this basis established the effectiveness of the mechanism's design, even with the simple materials and techniques available to the Byzantines. The experiment used crude oil mixed with wood resins, and achieved a flame of over and an effective range of up to . An interesting characteristic displayed during these tests was that, contrary to expectations due to the flame's heat, the stream of fire projected through the tube did not curve upwards, but downwards. This was because the fuel was not completely vaporized as it left the nozzle, therefore arcing downwards. This fact is important, because mediaeval galleys had a low profile, meaning that a high-arcing flame would miss them entirely.

Hand-held siphons

Detail of hand-siphon.
The portable cheirosiphōn ("hand-siphon"), the earliest analogue to a modern flamethrower, is extensively attested in the military documents of the 10th century, and recommended for use in both sea and land. They first appear in the Tactica of emperor Leo VI the Wise, who claims to have invented them. Subsequent authors continued to refer to the cheirosiphōnes, especially for use against siege towers, although Nikephoros II Phokas also advises their use in field armies, with the aim of disrupting the enemy formation. Although both Leo VI and Nikephoros Phokas claim that the substance used in the cheirosiphōnes was the same as in the static devices used on ships, they were manifestly different devices than their larger cousins. This led Haldon and Byrne to theorize that the device was fundamentally different, "a simple syringe [that] squirted both liquid fire (presumably unignited) and noxious juices to repel enemy troops." Nevertheless, as the illustrations of Hero's Poliorcetica show, the hand-siphons too threw the ignited substance.

Grenades

In its earliest form, Greek fire was hurled onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth-wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a seaborne variant of the Roman light catapult or onager. These were capable of hurling light loads—around —a distance of . Later technological improvements in machining technology enabled the devising of a pump mechanism discharging a stream of burning fluid (flame thrower) at close ranges, devastating wooden ships in naval warfare and also very effective on land as a counter-force suppression weapon used on besieging forces.

Effectiveness

Although the destructiveness of Greek fire is indisputable, it should not be seen as some sort of "wonder weapon", nor did it make the Byzantine navy invincible: in its siphon-deployed version, it had a limited range, and it could be used safely only in a calm sea and with favourable wind conditions.

Testimony

The mediaeval text The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur contains one of the earliest European references to the processing and projection of Greek fire. The unusual description mixes magic and folklore into the process of creating the substance, but would have created a working compound similar to napalm.

The Memoirs of Jean de Joinville, a 13th-century French nobleman, include these observations of a weapon similar to Greek fire during the Seventh Crusade:

It happened one night, whilst we were keeping night-watch over the tortoise-towers, that they brought up against us an engine called a perronel, (which they had not done before) and filled the sling of the engine with Greek fire.

When that good knight, Lord Walter of Cureil, who was with me, saw this, he spoke to us as follows: "Sirs, we are in the greatest peril that we have ever yet been in.

For, if they set fire to our turrets and shelters, we are lost and burnt; and if, again, we desert our defences which have been entrusted to us, we are disgraced; so none can deliver us from this peril save God alone.

My opinion and advice therefore is: that every time they hurl the fire at us, we go down on our elbows and knees, and beseech Our Lord to save us from this danger."



So soon as they flung the first shot, we went down on our elbows and knees, as he had instructed us; and their first shot passed between the two turrets, and lodged just in front of us, where they had been raising the dam.

Our firemen were all ready to put out the fire; and the Saracens, not being able to aim straight at them, on account of the two pent-house wings which the King had made, shot straight up into the clouds, so that the fire-darts fell right on top of them.



This was the fashion of the Greek fire: it came on as broad in front as a vinegar cask, and the tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven.

It looked like a dragon flying through the air.

Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.



Thrice that night they hurled the Greek fire at us, and four times shot it from the tourniquet crossbow.



See also



Notes

Sources

  • Spears, W.H., Jr. (1969). Greek Fire: The Fabulous Secret Weapon That Saved Europe. ISBN 0-9600106-3-7
  • Wilhelm, James J. (1994). The Romance of Arthur. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-1511-2


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