Greek fire

Greek fire

Greek fire was a burning-liquid 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 was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Byzantine Empire surviving as long as it did. Medieval sources mention weapons sometimes referred to as "Greek fire" as being also used by Arabs, Chinese, and Mongols; however, these were most likely another incendiary weapon of a different composition and not Greek fire based on the original formula, which was a highly protected secret of the Byzantine Empire and not even discovered by the Latin Empire or the Ottoman Empire. Whilst the real formula is not known, some of the ingredients may have included naphtha, quicklime, sulfur, and niter. [ "Greek Fire"] . "1911 Encyclopædia Britannica"] [ "JSTOR: Notes on Cannon"] . JSTOR: Notes on Cannon-Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries".]

Although the phrase "Greek fire" is general in English and most other languages (Greek being a notable exception), early sources used terms whose literal translation would be otherwise, such as "Byzantine fire", "Roman fire", [cite web|url=|title=Incendiary Weapons - History||accessdate=2008-06-01] "sea fire" ( _el. Polytonic|πῦρ θαλάσσιον, "pyr thalàssion"), "liquid fire" ( _el. Polytonic|ὑγρόν πῦρ), or "artificial fire" ( _el. Polytonic|πῦρ σκευαστόν, "pyr skevastòn", a term used in the Byzantine military manuals).


Incendiary and flaming weapons had been used in warfare for centuries prior to the invention of Greek fire, including a number of petroleum- and bitumen-based mixtures; however, Greek fire was difficult to extinguish and could burn on water, making it a devastating invention. [Nicolle (1996), p 45] The first use of an incendiary chemical substance at sea by the Byzantines dates from the suppression of a revolt against the Emperor Anastasius I in AD 513. According to the chronicler John Malalas, the Emperor called on a philosopher from Athens called Proclus, who invented a powder that ignited when exposed to the heat of the sun's rays.

However, Theophanes records that the concoction that would become known as Greek fire was invented "c." 670 in Constantinople by Callinicus, an architect from Heliopolis in the former province of Phoenice."The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor", Oxford University Press, 1997.] The historian James Partington thinks it likely that "Greek fire was really invented by chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school". [Partington 1999:12-13] Many accounts note that the fires it caused could not be put out by pouring water on the flames—on the contrary, the water served to intensify or spread them—suggesting that Greek fire may have been a thermite-like reaction, possibly involving a quicklime or similar compound. Others have posited a flammable liquid that floated on water, possibly a form of naphtha or another low-density liquid hydrocarbon, as petroleum was known to Eastern chemists long before its use became widespread in the 1800s.


In its earliest uses, it was applied onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth-wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a sea-borne variant of the Roman light catapult or onager. These were capable of hurling light loads (around convert|6|kg|lb|0|abbr=on to convert|9|kg|lb|0|abbr=on) a distance of convert|350|m|yd|0|abbr=on – convert|450|m|yd|0|abbr=on. 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. There are many accounts of the Byzantine Empire driving off attacks on the walls using the secret formula.

Link to Byzantine victories

Greek fire was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories and partly the reason the Eastern Roman Empire survived as long as it did. It was particularly helpful near the end of the empire's life when there were not enough inhabitants to defend its territories effectively. It was first used to repel the Muslim Arabs at the first Siege of Constantinople (674), the Battle of Syllaeum (677), and the second Siege of Constantinople (718). The Byzantines also used the weapon against the Rus in the Rus'-Byzantine War of 941 and against the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). It quickly became one of the most feared weapons of the medieval world. The sight of any sort of siphon, whether it was used for Greek fire or not, was often enough to demoralize an enemy. However, Greek fire was very hard to control, and it would often accidentally set Byzantine ships ablaze. The early 20th-century historian C.W.C. Oman paraphrases an account by the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene (1083–1153)—daughter of Alexios I Komnenos—about a sea battle between the Pisans and Byzantines near Rhodes in the year 1103:

[Alexios] had fixed to the bows of each of his galleys a tube ending in the head of a lion or other beast wrought in brass or iron, 'so that the animals might seem to vomit flames'. The fleet came up with the Pisans between Rhodes and Patara, but as its vessels were pursuing them with too great zeal it could not attack as a single body. The first to reach the enemy was the Byzantine admiral Landulph, who shot off his fire too hastily, missed his mark and accomplished nothing. But Count Eleemon, who was the next to close, had better fortune; he rammed the stern of a Pisan vessel, so that the bows of his ship got stuck in its steering-oar tackle. Then, shooting forth the fire, he set it ablaze, after which he pushed off and successfully discharged his tube into three other vessels, all of which were soon in flames. The Pisans then fled in disorder, 'having had no previous knowledge of the device, and wondering that fire, which usually burns upwards, could be directed downwards or to either hand, at the will of the engineer who discharged it'.

That the Greek fire was a liquid, and not merely an inflammable substance attached to ordinary missiles after the manner of fire-arrows, is quite clear from the fact that Leo [VI the Wise] proposes to cast it on the enemy in fragile earthen vessels which may break and allow the material to run about—as also from the name "pyr enygron" ("πύρ ένυγρον") or "liquid fire" which Anna uses for it. [Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 78–79.]

The effectiveness of Greek fire was indisputable; however, it was mainly effective under certain circumstances. For instance, it was less effective in the open sea than in narrow sea passages. Greek fire should not be considered an invention that solved all the maritime problems of the Byzantine Empire. Naval war continued to be based on the traditional art of maritime strategy, to which Greek fire added an effective weapon for the Byzantines.


The ingredients, process of manufacture, and usage were very carefully guarded military secrets. Indeed, the 10th-century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus cautions his son in his book "De administrando imperio" never to give away three things to a foreigner: a crown, the hand of a purple-born princess, and the secret of "liquid fire". So strict was the secrecy that it remains a source of speculation to this day. The only information we have is indirect, or through secondary sources like Anna Comnena:

"This fire is made by the following arts. From the pines and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blowing 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."
Speculations as to its composition include:

*petroleum, niter, sulfur;
*naphtha, quicklime, sulfur;
*phosphorus and saltpeter. [ "Roman Seapower"] . "Encyclopedia Britannica Online".]

It is not clear if the operator ignited the mixture with a flame as it emerged from the syringe or if it ignited spontaneously on contact with water or air. If the latter is the case, it is possible that the active ingredient was calcium phosphide, made by heating lime, bones, and charcoal. On contact with water, calcium phosphide releases phosphine, which ignites spontaneously. The reaction of quicklime with water also creates enough heat to ignite hydrocarbons, especially if an oxidizer such as saltpeter is present. However, Greek fire was also used on land.

These ingredients were apparently heated in a cauldron and then pumped out through a siphon or large syringe (handled by a specialist known as "siphōnarios" or "siphōnatōr") mounted on the bow of the ship. Such a ship was herself called a "siphōnophoros dromōn". Larger vessels could also have two more siphons, one on each side. Greek fire could also be used in hand grenades made of earthenware vessels. If a pyrophoric reaction was involved, perhaps these grenades contained chambers for the fluids, which mixed and ignited when the vessel broke on impact with the target.


The medieval text "The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur" contains one of the earliest European sources for the processing and projection of Greek fire.cite book | last = Wilhelm | first = James J.| title =The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation: XV Forward Mildred Leake Day| publisher = Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group |Chapter =XV by Mildred Leake Day ]

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: [ [ The History of Greek Fire.] Accessed on July 11, 2007.] [ [ Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville] English version, by Ethel Wedgwood. Retrieved on May 17, 2008]

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 cross-bow.

ee also

*Byzantine navy
*Early thermal weapons



*Needham, Joseph (1986). "Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology; the Gunpowder Epic". Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
*Nicolle, David (1996). "Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and its Neighbours". Brockhampton Press, ISBN 1860198619
*cite book | author= James Riddick Partington | title=A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder | publisher=The Johns Hopkins University Press| year=1960, reprinted 1999 | id=ISBN 0-8018-5954-9
*Spears, W.H., Jr. (1969). "Greek Fire: The Fabulous Secret Weapon That Saved Europe". ISBN 0-9600106-3-7
*Watts, John M. (1993). "Greek Fire", Editorial, "Fire Technology", Volume 29, Number 3 / DOI10.1007/BF01152106
*Corp, Ernest L. (1994). Letter to the Editor, "Fire Technology", Volume 30, Number 3 / DOI10.1007/BF01038076
*Roland, Alex (1992). "Secrecy, Technology, and War: Greek Fire and the Defense of Byzantium, Technology and Culture" 33(4), 678-1204.

External links

* [ Greek Fire] at LoveToKnow 1911
* [ "Technoporn: Greek Fire"] . "Wired Blog". December 29, 2006.
* [ Greek Fire - The Best Kept Secret of the Ancient World] . By Richard Groller.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Greek fire — Fire Fire (f[imac]r), n. [OE. fir, fyr, fur AS. f[=y]r; akin to D. vuur, OS. & OHG. fiur, G. feuer, Icel. f[=y]ri, f[=u]rr, Gr. py^r, and perh. to L. purus pure, E. pure Cf. {Empyrean}, {Pyre}.] 1. The evolution of light and heat in the… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Greek fire — Greek Greek, a. [AS. grec, L. Graecus, Gr. ?: cf. F. grec. Cf. {Grecian}.] Of or pertaining to Greece or the Greeks; Grecian. [1913 Webster] {Greek calends}. See under {Greek calends} in the vocabulary. {Greek Church} (Eccl. Hist.), the Eastern… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Greek fire — Greek′ fire′ n. anh an incendiary mixture of unknown composition, used in warfare in medieval times by Byzantine Greeks • Etymology: 1820–30 …   From formal English to slang

  • Greek fire — n. [from its first use by Greeks of Byzantium] an incendiary material used in medieval warfare, described as able to burn in water …   English World dictionary

  • Greek fire — 1. an incendiary mixture of unknown composition, used in warfare in medieval times by Byzantine Greeks. 2. any of a group of inflammable mixtures; wildfire. [1820 30] * * * Any of several flammable mixtures used in ancient and medieval warfare,… …   Universalium

  • Greek fire — noun a mixture used by Byzantine Greeks that was often shot at adversaries; catches fire when wetted • Hypernyms: ↑mixture, ↑weapon, ↑arm, ↑weapon system * * * noun Usage: usually capitalized G 1. : an incendiary composition used in warfare by… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Greek fire — noun A flammable substance first used by the Greeks of to set fire to enemy ships, buildings etc. “There is yet spirit in him,” said Malvoisin apart to Mont–Fitchet, “were it well directed but, like the Greek fire, it burns whatever approaches it …   Wiktionary

  • Greek Fire —    Napalm like substance that could be squirted under pressure from specially designed ships, used for the first time with devastating effect on the Arab fleet besieging Constantinople (q.v.) in 678. Tradition attributes its invention to a Greek… …   Historical dictionary of Byzantium

  • Greek fire — /grik ˈfaɪə/ (say greek fuyuh) noun a flammable mixture used by the Byzantine Greeks to set fire to enemy ships, etc …   Australian English dictionary

  • Greek fire — noun historical a combustible composition first used by the Greeks besieged in Constantinople (673–8), used to set fire to enemy ships …   English new terms dictionary