Greek Wildfire: 7th-Century Napalm

The Roman fleet burn the opposite fleet down– A Byzantine ship using Greek fire against a ship belonging to the rebel Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes. - Copy
The Roman fleet burns the opposite fleet down– A Byzantine ship using Roman fire against a ship belonging to the rebel Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th-century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes. – Copy

Intro

In literary fiction, Wildfire is a type of flammable liquid based on arcane knowledge that keeps on spreading and simply cannot be extinguished by conventional means.

But as it happens, that is exactly what Greek Fire, also known as Byzantine Fire, Roman Fire, Liquid Fire or Sea Fire was exactly all about.

Greek Fire

Greek fire, a mysterious incendiary weapon, was invented and used by the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century. It was the ancient precursor to modern Napalm

Also known as Byzantine Fire, could be shot grenade-style in pots or fired through tubes like a flamethrower. It was helpful in naval warfare because it adhered to everything, burned everything, and was impervious to water.

Sea fire played a significant role in many Byzantine victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from the first and second Arab invasions. Thus, Greek Fire contributed significantly to the longevity of the Eastern Roman Empire

The composition of Roman fire is still a subject of discussion and speculation, with several suggestions including mixtures of pine resin, pine, quicklime naphtha, sulfur, calcium phosphide, or nitre.

Greek Fire: A powerful Ancient Weapon

The Byzantine Empire, the remaining Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman Empire, developed Greek fire, a liquid weapon.

The Byzantines also called it “sea fire” and “liquid fire,” which was heated, compressed, and then delivered through a set of nozzles known as a siphōn. This Liquid fire was mainly used to set enemy ships on fire from a safe distance.

Because it could keep blazing in water, the weapon was particularly potent and prevented enemy troops from smothering the flames during naval battles. It’s possible that coming into contact with water caused the flames to burn even more ferociously.

Use of a cheirosiphōn ("hand-siphōn"), a portable flamethrower, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.
Use of a cheirosiphōn (“hand-siphōn”), a portable flamethrower, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.

Greek fire was a liquid mixture that adhered to anything it touched, including human flesh and ships, which worsened the situation. Greek fire could only be put out with one peculiar concoction: vinegar mixed with sand and urine.

The invention of The Greek Wildfire

Greek fire was also known as “liquid fire,” “sea fire,” or “Roman fire,” according to the Crusaders. Greek fire was not the first destructive weapon to be used in combat. But because of its power, it has historical significance.

The invention of Greek fire is attributed to Kallinikos of Heliopolis in the seventh century. Kallinikos, a Jewish architect, escaped from Syria to Constantinople because of fear that the Arabs would take his city. He developed Greek fire at a time when wars with the Sassanid of Persia destroyed the Byzantine Empire.

According to the legend, Kallinikos tested various materials before finding the perfect mixture for an incendiary weapon. He then provided the secret formula to the Byzantine emperor.

Once officials had access to all the components, they created a siphon that functioned much like a syringe and launched the destructive weapon onto an enemy ship.

Proposed reconstruction of the Greek fire mechanism by Haldon and Byrne
Proposed reconstruction of the Sea fire mechanism by Haldon and Byrne

The accuracy of the chronology is highly debated given that fire-carrying ships were reported a few years before Kallinikos arrived at Constantinople. It is likely that he introduced and improved on earlier versions of an established weapon.

Greek fire was not just terrifying but also highly effective. It allegedly made a loud roaring sound and a lot of smoke, much like a dragon’s breath.

The weapon’s creation process was closely guarded because of its destructive potential. This process was passed down from one generation to the next and was only known to the Byzantine rulers and the Kallinikos family.

Even when enemies could obtain Greek fire, they could not recreate the formula for themselves, demonstrating the effectiveness of this tactic.

The Byzantine Savior

The only purpose of the invention of Greek fire (by Kallinikos) was to keep the Arabs out of his newly acquired territory, Constantinople.

The Byzantines used siphons put on their ships to resist an Arab fleet that was approaching Constantinople in the 670s A.D. This marked the beginning of the Byzantines’ dominance in their arsenal. Hence, it enabled the empire to survive until the 15th century.

Byzantines initially used Greek fire to accomplish this goal by defending Constantinople from Arab naval assaults in the First Arab Battle of Constantinople in 678 A.D.

Greek fire was also potent during the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople (717–718), which resulted in severe losses for the Arab navy.

Ceramic grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece
Ceramic grenades that were filled with Byzantine fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece

The Byzantine Empire continued to employ the Greek fire for hundreds of years, both in civil battles and wars with outsiders.

Greek fire played a key role in the Byzantine Empire’s ongoing survival against several opponents as time passed on.

Some historians even contend that Greek fire played a crucial role in sparing the whole Western culture from a catastrophic invasion by protecting the Byzantine Empire for decades.

An Ancient Flamethrower

The Byzantines used Greek fire in a variety of inventive ways. However, its use at sea is still its most well-known application.  

In the 10th century, Leo VI, a Byzantine Emperor, mentioned the hand-held version—the Cheirosiphōnes, essentially an ancient flamethrower described in his military treatise Tactica, where he claimed to have invented them.

Detail of a cheirosiphōn - Ancient Flamethrower
Detail of a cheirosiphōn – Ancient Flamethrower

According to reports, Greek fire was employed defensively and offensively during sieges, including the burning of siege towers and self-defence against intruders. Some authors of the present day even advocated utilizing Greek fire on land to disperse armies.

In order to make clay jars work like grenades, the Byzantines also filled them with Greek fire.     

The Secret Formula

What was the Greek Fire Made from?
Soon after its invention, its composition became a deeply-guarded government secret.

Many theories have been proposed over the years regarding the composition of Greek wildfires. According to them, the weapon’s base was saltpetre or potassium nitrate, making it an early kind of gunpowder.

The majority of contemporary researchers have concluded that Greek fire was probably made of a kind of crude oil mixed with other materials, including pine resin, to boost the intensity and duration of the flames.

Another theory claimed that the Greek wildfires’ destructive force came from the explosive interaction between quicklime and water. This theory was supported by the fact that Greek fire was inextinguishable from water, with some claims stating that water only made the flames more intense.

A 700-year-old hand grenade (pictured) made from clay has been found in the sea off the coast of northern Israel. It is thought to date from around the time of the Crusades and would have been filled with a
A 700-year-old hand grenade (pictured) made from clay has been found in the sea off the coast of northern Israel. It is thought to date from around the time of the Crusades and would have been filled with a

According to Emperor Leo’s Tactica, Greek fire was frequently poured directly onto the decks of invading ships, but admittedly, decks were kept damp due to a shortage of sealants. Leo also described the use of the grenade, which supported the idea that the chemical did not need to come into touch with water in order to ignite.

Additionally, Zenghelis (1932) noted that the water-quicklime reaction’s actual outcome in the open sea would be insignificant based on experiments.

A related theory claimed that Kallinikos had actually found calcium phosphide, which is produced by heating bones in urine in a sealed container. It emits phosphine, which spontaneously ignites when it comes in contact with water. However, comprehensive calcium phosphide experiments also failed to match the intensity of Greek fire as described.

Some scholars believed that naphtha or petroleum served as the main component, with the addition of sulfur or pitching and other ingredients. It’s unclear how Greek fire was ignited, although quicklime was likely added to the mixture of major ingredients just before usage. Once lighted, the substance was exceedingly challenging to put out, requiring either sand or vinegar. Then the substance was packed in siphons erected in the galleys’ bows.

Greek fire was formed from a specific mixture of substances, which is still a mystery.

Effectiveness and Countermeasures

The byzantine fire was undeniably destructive, but it did not render the Byzantine naval unbeatable. According to John Pryor, a naval historian, it was not a “ship-killer” like the naval ram, which was no longer in use at the time.  

Greek fire was still a deadly weapon, but it had some important drawbacks compared to more conventional types of artillery. It had a short range when siphon-deployed and could only be used safely in a calm sea and under favourable wind conditions.

The Muslim navies finally learned to deal with Greek fire by staying out of its effective area and coming up with defence strategies like hides or felts soaked in vinegar.

But in many conflicts, Byzantine fire was nevertheless an effective weapon. According to John Julius Norwich, it is impossible to overstate its significance in Byzantine history. 

Adaptation and Decline

Greek Wildfire was eventually used for land warfare, realizing its full potential. Flames could be fired from or against fortifications due to the invention of portable pumps. 

Another innovation involved soaking cloth bales in the liquid and catapulting them into the enemy ranks or filling clay grenades with them. 

However, its most devastating application remained in naval warfare, where Greek fire was also used in unpiloted fire ships sent into the very core of an enemy fleet with prevailing winds. This tactic was confirmed in the siege of Constantinople in 1204 CE.

It is still unclear exactly when and how Greek fire usage ended. Still, it seems to have done so after the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204 AD), leaving the Greek fire formula a mystery that many scientists have attempted to recreate throughout the ages.

The mystery of Greek fire attracts historians and researchers who are still trying to understand the secret formula of its composition. George R.R. Martin most certainly took inspiration from Greek fire for the wildfire in the books and television series such as Game of Thrones because it is such an intriguing riddle.

Greek fire was undoubtedly one of the most important military discoveries in human history, regardless of how it was created.

3 thoughts on “Greek Wildfire: 7th-Century Napalm

  1. Amazing how powerful the ingredients causing the fire was! As a Greek myself i did not have heard of it before, however the mystery behind the formula will get me into deeper search to find more information and share it!

  2. Greek fire was a very powerful weapon in it’s time. I have heard about it every now again from video games, however I didn’t much about this was truly fascinating to learn more about it.

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