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What was “Greek Fire” and why was it so deadly?

One of the few surviving depictions of Greek fire being used at sea against Thomas the Slav, a 9th-century rebel Byzantine general.

PortandTerminal.com, November 28, 2019

Greek Fire was a sophisticated incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire to defend against their enemies. Think of it as an ancestor to napalm and modern flamethrowers that was used to burn enemy ships and break sieges. Not only was it effective at burning, but the psychological impact it must have had on the enemy would also have been devastating as well. When used, it reportedly produced a loud roaring noise and large amounts of smoke, similar in ancient minds to the breath of a dragon.

(Greek Fire) “caused enemies to shiver in terror”

Byzantine historian Theophanes (6th century CE)

True Greek Fire was a mixture that could be thrown in pots or discharged from tubes as shown in the ancient drawings above and below. It apparently caught fire spontaneously and could not be extinguished with water.

The hand siphon, a hand-held Greek fire flamethrower depicted in a Byzantine military manual as a way to attack a besieged city.

The exact design of the firing device used to project Greek Fire is not known except that it was made from bronze tubes and included a syphon pump and swivelling nozzle.

Detail of the image above showing the device used to shoot Greek Fire

While much about Greek Fire is a mystery, we do know that it was invented during the reign of Constantine IV Pogonatus (668–685) by Callinicus of Heliopolis, a Greek-speaking Jewish refugee who had fled the Arab conquest of Syria. 

The ingredients of Greek fire were kept a state secret, known only by the Byzantine emperor and Callinicus’ family, which manufactured it. The precise composition is still unknown, but it is generally accepted that it was a mixture of naphtha, pitch, sulfur, possibly saltpetre, and some unknown ingredients.

Emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963 CE) shown here on his deathbed

One leader, Emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963 CE), was so impressed by Greek Fire that he declared three things must absolutely never reach foreign hands: the Byzantine imperial regalia, any royal princess, and Greek Fire.

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