What was Greek Fire?

In 672 AD, Theophanes the Confessor reported that “Kallinikos, an artificer from Heliopolis…had devised a sea fire which ignited the Arab ships and burned them with all hands. Thus it was that the Romans returned with victory and discovered the sea fire.” What was this strange Greek fire?

Greek Fire

The Roman fleet uses Greek fire against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav
Attribution: Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Bibliteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f 34 v. b. (taken from Pászthory, p. 31)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What was Greek Fire?

Greek fire was an ancient incendiary weapon of mass destruction. In the hands of the Byzantine Empire, it was a terrifying force. Greek fire differed from other similar weapons in history in four curious ways. First, it burned continuously, even underwater. Second, it consisted of a liquid substance. Third, it was propelled through the air via pressurized siphons (see picture above). And fourth, when used in battle, it was accompanied by “thunder” and “smoke.”

The exact formula for this strange weapon was a closely guarded secret and has since been lost to time. One 11th century scholar, George Kedrenos, speculated that the family of Kallinikos kept the formula a secret for centuries, even up until his time. Regardless, modern researchers speculate that possible ingredients might’ve included sulphur, naphtha, petroleum, quicklime, or phosphorous. In his article, Greek Fire: The Best Kept Secret of the Ancient World, 1LT Richard Groller makes an interesting case for petroleum.

“It is very probable then, that the basis of the earliest Greek fire was liquid rectified petroleum or volatile petrol. Petrol itself would not be very effective in flame-projectors since the projected jet dissipates too rapidly. But thickened almost to a jelly by dissolving in it resinous substances and/or sulphur the particular admixture, coupled with the mechanical means of projecting it, together constituted a great achievement of chemical engineering.” ~ 1LT Richard Groller

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Like all weapons, Greek fire had its limitations. It exhibited limited range and enemy vessels soon learned to keep their distance from it. Also, heavy winds and other conditions limited its effectiveness while causing serious safety problems for its users. Still, for a short period of time, Greek fire was the most terrifying and devastating weapon known to man.

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