One of the most mysterious and fascinating aspects of Greece’s Byzantine history, is the so-called “Greek Fire” or “Liquid Fire” (Ύγρόν Πυρ). Western Romans called it “ignis graecus” and it was no other than the powerful weapon that saved Constantinople multiple times from Arab and Rus invaders. The weapon was the most well-hidden secret of the Byzantine Empire.
What Was the “Greek Fire”?
As the name suggests, “Greek Fire” was an incendiary weapon – a highly flammable liquid consisting of secret ingredients. It was used to start fires and destroy the enemies’ vessels and equipment and for inflicting serious injuries; either by throwing it from above or by spraying it with a device that resembled a flamethrower. The latter was called “cheirosiphon” and, as the name suggests, could be held as a gun. It is also estimated that “Liquid Fire” was used in ceramic grenades as well.
What makes this weapon exceptional is that it was used in naval battles, since the liquid was reportedly water resistant. The ships that carried it were usually the “dromon” type. Other empires also used weapons that produced fire, but the Greek patent was considered the most powerful in Medieval times. It was especially feared by European Crusaders. At the same time, the weapon had its own shortcomings; it was hard pointing it to a specific target, especially when it was windy.
“Ignis graecus”, as it was called by the westerns, was mostly used for defense purposes. Due to its destructive powers, people feared it similarly to how people fear nuclear weapons today. Emperor Romanos II had insisted that the weapon should never fall “at the wrong hands”. It should be protected similarly to how Byzantine princesses and the imperial regalia are protected.
When Was “Greek Fire” Invented?
It is estimated that “Liquid Fire” was created around 672 AD by a Christian Greek architect and chemist named Kallinikos. Kallinikos had sought refuge in Constantinople, after escaping Syria some years earlier. Assyrians were reportedly using incendiary arrows since the 9th century BC but it is not clear whether he got the inspiration for the “Liquid Fire” from them.
Ancient Greeks were also reportedly using flammable substances to attack their enemies. Thucydides mentions that a long tube on wheels, which blew flames, was used in the siege of Delium in 424 BC. Other civilizations had also come up with their own flamethrowers.
Kallinikos, however, came up with a substance that was allegedly more powerful and destructive than anything they had seen before. It is worth mentioning though that the British chemist and historian JR Partington has a different theory for the invention of “Greek Fire”. According to him, several Byzantine chemists who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian Chemical School, contributed to the weapon’s creation.
“Greek Fire’s” Secret Formula | Byzantine Secrets
The formula behind “Liquid Fire” was a guarded military secret. The secrecy surrounding the weapon hasn’t help historians discover its ingredients. Any formula you might have heard is based on speculations.
One theory says that the main ingredient was saltpeter. Other theories suggest that the fire resulted by the combination of water and quicklime. Modern historians suspect sulfur, alcohol, resins, naphtha, coal from a willow tree, animal fat, and other ingredients.
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