What Was the Byzantine Fire (Liquid Fire)? | Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire)

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.

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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.

Do you know any other theories? You can leave a comment down below. If you are new here, feel free to subscribe and check the rest of my videos. In the description you will find many helpful links. See you again on Monday!

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The Marble King, The 100 Gates Church and More | Legends from Medieval Greece #1 (Byzantium)

People around the world read and narrate myths from ancient Greece or legends from Medieval Central and Western Europe. But stories from Medieval Greece are lesser known. Here are some legends from Greece’s Byzantine Past (Eastern Roman Empire). Keep in mind, that some of these legends are based on real historical events.

The Dragon Slayer, the Mermaid, and the Secret of Marmara | Legends from Medieval Greece #2 (Byzantium)

Interested in stories from Medieval Greece (Eastern Roman Empire)? Last time we discussed the Marble King, among other Byzantine legends. Today, we will discover the stories of the priest who vanished in Hagia Sophia, the secret of the Sea of Marmara, the giant Mermaid, and the Christian dragon slayer.

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The Priest Who Vanished in Hagia Sophia

One of the greatest architectural wonders of Byzantine history is the Orthodox Christian Basilica of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The Church is located at the Old City of Constantinople and it is surrounded by numerous legends. One of these stories is the legend of the vanishing priest.

When the Ottoman troops attacked the city of Constantinople on the spring of 1453, they entered Hagia Sophia in search of civilians who might have sought refuge there. According to the legend, a priest was holding a liturgy at that time.

Before the troops were able to catch him, he entered a door and vanished. The door closed behind him and couldn’t be opened nor destroyed. Rumor has it that the door will open once Hagia Sophia becomes a Greek Orthodox Church again. The priest will reappear and continue the liturgy.

If you know any additional details regarding this legend, feel free to leave a comment in the comment section.

The Hidden Secret of the Sea of Marmara

The Sea of Marmara, also known as Propontis, connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. It is the area ancient Greeks from Megara explored before they established the colony of Byzantion, as we’ve seen in the first episode. There is reportedly a part of Propontis that is always calm. The passage is safe to cross, no matter the weather conditions. According to a Byzantine legend, this part of the Sea of Marmara has a secret. That is the Hagia Trapeza, the Holly Table of Hagia Sophia.

According to a book by the Greek intellectual Dorotheos Monemvasias, three Venetian ships had reportedly taken the Hagia Trapeza and other relics from Hagia Sophia, intending to bringing them in Venice. The Byzantines wanted to protect the Christian relics from the Ottomans who had invaded Constantinople.

As the Venetians transported the items, the vessel that transported the Hagia Trapeza sunk. The Holly Table is reportedly still at the bottom of the sea for someone to discover and the area seems to be unaffected by the weather conditions.

The Giant Mermaid

When hearing the term “mermaid” a beautiful creature comes to mind. Half woman, half fish, probably looking like Ariel. But there is a mermaid in Greek folklore, that is feared by sailors and islanders all over Greece. This is the Gorgona (Γοργόνα) – a giant mermaid who is supposedly related to Alexander the Great.

Although inspired by historical figures of late antiquity, the myth of the Gorgona probably originates in Byzantium. This was the time period in which the mythical sirens, the half bird – half women creatures turned into the mermaids we know today.

According to this legend, princess Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great, had washed her hair with the water of the “Fountain of Immortality”. That meant it would be impossible to die, even if she tried to.

When her brother, Alexander, died, the princess was shocked. She attempted to end her life by jumping into the sea from a cliff. But, instead of dying, she turned into a mermaid. A giant mermaid to be precise who terrified sea men and islanders.

Thessalonike then migrated to the Black Sea but she would sometimes return to the Northern Aegean in search of her brother. The legend says that she desperately asks the sailors if King Alexander is alive. If they give her a positive reply, she dives into the water, looking happy. If they reply “no”, Gorgona destroys the vessel. After a while, she regrets her action and starts crying, causing a storm.

Do you know any other variation of this story? Comment down below.

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St. George, the Dragon Slayer

George of Lydda was a Roman soldier of Greek origin who is recognized as a Christian Saint. The Saint is associated with a Byzantine legend, the one of the evil Dragon. There are many variations of the story but the most popular one takes place in Libya.

George of Lydda was passing by a Libyan city (Silene), when he saw a beautiful woman crying, while being transported to an unspecified location. Saint George overheard that the woman was selected to be fed to a bloodthirsty Dragon that terrorized the area.

The Dragon looked like a winged giant lizard. It breathed fire and was able to kill humans from a distance. Rumor had it that it had arrived in the area centuries ago, causing chaos. The locals managed to appease the beast by offering it two sheep. And they would do the same every year to make sure that the dragon doesn’t attack their city. But there was a time when there was no more livestock to feed the Dragon. Or, according to another variation, the Dragon couldn’t be appeased by feeding on animals. It demanded human flesh.

For the past few years, a member of the local community, usually a peasant, was selected annually to be fed to the dragon. The selection process was not clarified but we assume that they used a draw. That year, the unlucky human to be sacrificed was no other than the beloved princess of the city. The locals protested but no one was willing to take her place.

Saint George was moved by the story. He wanted to end this custom, just like Theseus did in the myth of the Minotaur. The soldier Saint followed the trail that led to the Dragon and stopped the princess from entering the Dragon’s lair. He volunteered to be the offering. But as the beast laid down, waiting to be fed, Saint George revealed a spear and killed the dragon to everyone’s surprise.

It goes without saying that the local King named the soldier a hero and offered him a fortune. But Saint George distributed the treasures to the locals instead. It is important to note that Saint George is not the only Christian Dragon Slayer. Similar legends and stories have spread all over the world. If you know any of these, feel free to share in the comment section.

Now, if you haven’t watched the previous videos covering various Byzantine legends, don’t forget to do so. In Helinika’s channel but also in helinika.com, you can find plenty of videos and articles on the Greek language, history, and culture. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow Helinika on social media to stay connected.

What Was the Byzantine Fire (Liquid Fire)? | Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire)

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.

The Marble King, The 100 Gates Church and More | Legends from Medieval Greece #1 (Byzantium)

People around the world read and narrate myths from ancient Greece or legends from Medieval Central and Western Europe. But stories from Medieval Greece are lesser known. Here are some legends from Greece’s Byzantine Past (Eastern Roman Empire). Keep in mind, that some of these legends are based on real historical events.

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The Legend of the Last Emperor (Constantine XI Palaeologus or…?)

Constantine Palaeologus is an important historical figure; he was the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. His reign lasted for four years, from 1449 AD until his death in the battle of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. But Constantine is also known as the “Marmaromenos Vasilias” (Μαρμαρωμένος Βασιλιάς) – the “Marble King”.

According to a legend, when the Ottomans started taking over the city of Constantinople, an angel transformed the emperor into marble and hid him beneath the Golden Gate of Constantinople. The legend says that Constantine will be revived one day and return the city to the Greeks.

But is this legend really about emperor Constantine? Some scholars argue that the “Marble King” is Emperor of Byzantine Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes, who died 200 years before the Fall of Constantinople. He is often called the “Father of the Greeks”, since he was one of the most peaceful and just emperors to have ever existed, according to the scholars.

Many people who have heard this story from their grandparents, mention certain signs and omens that will prepare us for the return of the king. For example, a bright star, probably the Star of Bethlehem that shined on the night Jesus Christ was born, will appear in the night sky.

Have you heard any other variations of the story? Feel free to share in the comment section down below.

The Church with 100 Gates

The story of the “Marble King” has inspired other legends across Greece. An example of that is the legend surrounding the historical church “Panagia Ekantotapyliani” (Παναγία Εκατονταπυλιανή) in Paros island.

 The Byzantine church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God and its name “Ekantotapyliani” means “100 gates”. The church reportedly has 99 visible gates and a hidden one that, according to the legend, it will be revealed when the marble king awakens.

In another variation of the legend, the 100th gate will be revealed when another hidden door will be found in Hagia Sophia, which is allegedly under the ground. This will be another omen that the Marble King will be awakened soon.

Kassiani’s Wit and the Emperor’s Ego

Kassiani or Kassia is a historical figure. She was a Byzantine abbess and poet who lived between 810 AD and 865 AD. According to an allegedly true story that has become a legend, Kassiani almost became the empress of Constantinople, but her wit and overall attitude scared away emperor Theofilos.

The mother of Theofilos, Thekla, had organized a “bride-show”, a Byzantine tradition that bears similarities with many other traditions around the world. The most beautiful maidens of the Byzantine Empire had gathered at the palace as soon as Theofilos was old enough to get married. Kassiani was rumored to be the new empress. She was the most beautiful and smartest of all the contestants.

The young woman immediately caught his attention and he approached her saying that the “worst things come through women” (Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω), referring to Eve. But Kassiani replied “the same for the better things” (Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω), referring to the birth of Jesus Christ by Mary.

Theofilos failed to understand Kassiani’s humor and became defensive. As a result, he rejected Kassiani and selected another woman, Theodora, instead. Kassiani ended up following a monastic life which is explained by scholars in two different ways. She either fell into depression after her public rejection or that was her initial plan anyways.

The Devilish Dog

A legend that has survived over the years is the one of a vicious black dog that would target monks and priests at Mount Athos. Some said that the dog was possessed, other that it was a demon residing in hell. But some believed that it was the devil himself.

Saint Parthenios, bishop of Lampsakos, who lived in the 4rth century AD in the Byzantine Empire, was allegedly attacked by this dog but managed to escape by blowing at it and making the sign of the cross. In his book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium”, William Dalrymple briefly narrates this story.

If you liked these stories and you are interested in learning more about Greece’s Byzantine history, don’t forget to subscribe and stay connected. In next week’s episode, we will reveal the hidden secret of the Sea of Marmara, the dragon slayer Saint, and many more Medieval Greek legends.

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Is Byzantium Even Greek? | Introduction to Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)

The term “Byzantium” often creates confusion when brought up in conversations. Was it a city-state or an empire? Was it inhabited by Greeks or Romans? And how did it get its name?

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Disambiguation of Byzantium/ Byzantion

The term itself is the latinized version of “Byzantion” (Βυζάντιον), which can refer to two different but connected things: the ancient Greek colony on the European side of the Bosporus, and the Byzantine Empire, which is another name for the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Ancient Greek Colony Named Byzantion

In 667 BC, a group of Dorian Greeks from the city-state of Megara, sailed in the northeastern Aegean to establish a colony. Their leader was allegedly Byzas, although some scholars are now doubting his existence. According to the legend, Byzas was informed by an oracle that he will establish a city opposite to the “Land of the Blind”, without providing more information. But now, let’s focus on the historical events that we know from the ancient historians Herodotus and Pausanias.

After some exploration, the Dorian Greeks of Megara found a perfect location for creating a port-city. The new Greek colony was located where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus – where two continents, Europe and Asia, connect. The area allegedly took the name of Byzas and it was called “Byzantion”.

Along with the Chalcedonians, who were settled on the opposite side of the Bosporus, the Byzantines controlled the entrance to the Black sea. In fact, the Greeks of Megara were surprised to see that the Chalcedonians hadn’t sieged the opportunity to take full control of the area before they arrived there. They reportedly called Chalcedon “Land of the Blind” for this exact reason, fulfilling the prophecy.

Byzantion was a successful trading city, which comes as no surprise considering its location. It soon conquered Chalcedon and expanded. But in 513 BC, Byzantion was conquered by the Persians under the leadership of King Darius I. In 411 BC, it was taken over once more by the Greeks. First, at the hands of the Spartans, later at the hands of the Athenians. But Byzantion’s destiny forever changed in 196 AD.

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The Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire)

Outside of Europe, many scholars tend to focus on the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods of Greece’s history. Some even imply that Greeks vanished with the Roman conquest in 146 AD, after the battle of Corinth. But Greek populations continued living and thriving in the areas in which they resided in ancient antiquity.

The lyric poet Horatius (Horace) is quoted saying “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” (Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror). Indeed, the Greeks influenced the Romans culturally more than the Romans influenced Greeks. Many Roman Emperors were fond of Greeks, including Nero and Hadrian. During the Pax Romana, the Greek language became the lingua franca in the eastern part of the empire and Roman intellectuals would often produce their work in Greek.

As time passed by, the differences between the East and the West became more prominent. It was obvious that the areas that were inhabited by Greek populations before the Roman conquest, were under Greek rather than Latin influence.  Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, the Roman Empire’s structure changed, and two different administrations were established.

The Eastern Roman Empire included the Greek-speaking areas, and the grand majority of the population were of Greek origin. Byzantion (Byzantium in latin) was the most important city, due to its key location. The city was later named Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine the Great. The latter had moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantion.

When it comes to religion, the Hellenistic polytheistic traditions had declined, and most people were now converting to Christianity. In 1054, the Great Christian Schism occurred, which resulted in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The differences between the Latin West and the Greek East were becoming more and more prominent. It is important to note that the Eastern part of the empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, changing the course of history.

Conclusion: Is Byzantium Greek?

Today, modern scholars refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the “Byzantine Empire”. Modern Greeks study the history of the Byzantine Empire along with the history of Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece. It is the Medieval history of Greece and equally important to our ancient history.

From time to time, the Greek origins of Byzantium are disputed, mostly for geopolitical reasons. After the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, the Greek populations were able to create an independent state. But not all Greek-populated regions were freed, including Constantinople. One of the arguments was that Byzantion was never Greek but Roman.

But not everyone who disputes that the Byzantine Empire is Medieval Greece is doing it for geopolitical reasons. The term “Eastern Roman Empire” implies that the people residing there were Romans. But the term “Roman” is used both for the people who belonged on the cultural and ethnic group of ancient Rome and those who lived under Roman rule. The Greeks living under Roman rule were also called Romans, although they did maintain their linguistic, religious, and cultural differences.

After this short introduction, more videos will be posted in the future on Greece’s Byzantine history. If you are interested in the Greek language, history, and culture, don’t forget to subscribe to stay tuned. Also, feel free to check the description for some helpful links and discounts.

St Basil the Great: The Greek Santa Claus

In most Western Christian cultures, children await for the arrival of the Santa Claus on the night of Christmas Eve. Depicted usually with a red outfit originating from a coke advertisement, Santa or Saint Nicholas is not the only person bringing gifts on Christmas. In Austria, Switzerland, and other neighboring countries, the gifts are brought by Christkind. In Italy, there is Babbo Natale and the Befana. In other countries there is the Christmas gnome and the Christmas goat… but what about Greece? Who brings the presents in Greece?

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Saint Basil of Caesarea is the Greek Father Christmas

In Greece, the most influential religion is Greek Orthodoxy, which is part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Greek Orthodoxy has its roots in Early Christianity in the Near East and the Byzantine Empire – which is described as the medieval history of Greece. The traditional gift-bringer in Greece could only be an influential figure from Byzantine history.

Basil of Caesarea, known also as Saint Basil the Great, was the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia – which is located in modern-day Turkey. He was an important theologian and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers. He had a huge influence on monasticism and the opposition against Arianism and other heresies. One of the most unique looking churches is the world, the Orthodox Cathedral on the Red Square of Moscow, Russia, is dedicated to St Basil.

He is usually depictedwith a medium complexion and dark brown eyes and hair, bearing few similarities to Santa Claus. Since he followed an ascetic lifestyle, he always looks very thin with protruding cheekbones. It is believed that he came from a wealthy family, but he always took care of those in need. This is why he is the holiday gift-bringer in Greece, although it is not clear when this tradition started.

It is important to note that gifts in Greece are exchanged on New Year’s Day, also known as “Saint Basil’s Day”, since St Basil was born on January 1st (330 AD). However, Hollywood has greatly influenced our perception of certain traditions, with many Greek families exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, instead of January 1st. Not only that, but Saint Basil, called «Άγιος Βασίλειος» in Greek, has been represented in a historically inaccurate way, when it comes to his clothes, silhouette, complexion, and general appearance.

When it comes to the exchange of gifts, the tradition varies. Children are sometimes told that St Basil enters the house through the chimney, however, fireplaces are not common in Greece nowadays. That is why parents usually say that St Basil leaves the presents at the doorstep of its house and leaves. Parents can be very creative with the stories they share and, sometimes, they tell their children that the Byzantine gift-bringer comes through the… radiators.

Children in Greece are rarely asked to leave a treat for St Basil, as in other cultures, and it is not clear how the gift-bringer travels around the world. An interesting fact here is that the story of the western Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, arriving on a flying sleigh probably originates in ancient Greece and the myth of the flying chariot god, Helios (the Sun). However, in the Greek Orthodox tradition, it is prophet Elias, not St Basil, who chose this method of transportation.

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Santa’s Companions

Now, before we end this video it is important to acknowledge the presence of the malevolent companions of Father Christmas, who are present in almost every Christian culture. In central Europe, for example, there is Krampus, a horned monster that could be described as the anti-Santa. He and his minions punish naughty children by giving them coal instead of presents. In the Greek tradition, there are several such malevolent creatures, with the difference that, instead of punishing the kids who misbehave, they try to sabotage Christmas preparations.

These creatures are no other than the “kallikantzaroi”, who are notorious in Greece and some neighboring countries for misplacing items, stealing or spoiling food, and playing tricks on people. They can be compared to the “goblins” of other European cultures. As you might remember from another video by Helinika, these tricksters live under the surface of the Earth and resurface only between the 25th of December and the 7th of January, when the “Blessing of the Waters” takes place. “Kallikantzaroi” also aim at cutting down the “Tree of Earth”, which supposedly holds the planet together.

I hope you found the video helpful. If you did, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe for more videos like this. Now, I am really curious to hear about similar stories from your culture, if you do celebrate Christmas. Who brings presents in your country and are there any myths about tricksters roaming around? Leave a comment down below!