Greek fire

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Byzantine ship using Greek fire in the late 11th century. Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.
Engraving showing 13th-century trebuchet for throwing Greek fire, from Harper's Magazine, 1869

Greek fire was a primitive incendiary 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 provided a technological advantage, and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival. The impression made by Greek fire on the Western Crusaders was such that the name was applied to any sort of incendiary weapon,[1] including those used by Arabs, the Chinese, and the Mongols. These however were different mixtures and not the Byzantine formula, which was a closely guarded state secret, whose composition has now been lost. As a result, its ingredients are a much debated topic, with proposals including naphtha, quicklime, sulfur, and niter. In addition, the Byzantines were the only ones to consistently use pressurized siphons to project their incendiary weapons.

Although the term "Greek fire" is general in English and most other languages, in the original Byzantine sources it is called by a variety of names, such as "sea fire" (Greek: πῦρ θαλάσσιον), "Roman fire" (Greek: πῦρ ῤωμαϊκὸν), "war fire" (Greek: πολεμικὸν πῦρ), "liquid fire" (Greek: ὑγρόν πῦρ), or "processed fire" (Greek: πῦρ σκευαστὸν).[2][3]


[edit] History

[edit] Origins

Incendiary and flaming weapons had been used in warfare for centuries prior to the invention of Greek fire, including a number of sulphur-, petroleum- and bitumen-based mixtures.[4][5] Incendiary arrows and pots containing combustible substances were used as early as the 9th century BC by the Assyrians, and were extensively used in the Greco-Roman world. Furthermore, Thucydides mentions the use of tubed flame-throwers in the siege of Delium in 424 BC.[6][7] In naval warfare, the fleet of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I is recorded by the chronicler John Malalas as having used a sulphur-based mixture to defeat a revolt in AD 513, following the advice of a philosopher from Athens called Proclus.[8] In contrast to these and later incendiary mixtures however, Greek fire was difficult to extinguish and could burn on water.[9]

"At that time Kallinikos, an artificer from Heliopolis, fled to the Romans. He 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."
Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, Annus Mundi 6165.[10]

Greek fire proper however was invented in ca. 670, and is ascribed by the chronicler Theophanes to Kallinikos, an architect from Heliopolis in the former province of Phoenice.[11] The historicity and exact chronology of this account is open to question, however; 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".[12] However, although the 11th-century chronicler George Kedrenos records that Kallinikos came from Heliopolis in Egypt, this is most probably an error. Kedrenos also records the implausible story that Kallinikos' descendants, a family called "Lampros" ("Brilliant"), kept the secret of the fire's manufacture, and continued doing so to his day.[13] The importance placed on Greek fire during the Empire's struggle against the Arabs would lead to its discovery being ascribed to divine intervention. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos (r. 945–959) in his book De Administrando Imperio, advises his son and heir, Romanos II, to never reveal the secrets of its construction, as it was "shown and revealed by an angel to the great and holy first Christian emperor Constantine" and that the angel bound him "not to prepare this fire but for Christians, and only in the imperial city".[14]

[edit] Use by the Byzantines

The invention of Greek fire came at a critical moment in the Byzantine Empire's history: weakened by its long wars with Persia, the Byzantines had been unable to effectively resist the onslaught of the Muslim conquests. Within a generation, Syria, Palestine and Egypt had fallen to the Arabs, who in ca. 672 set out to conquer the imperial capital of Constantinople. The Greek fire was used to great effect against the Muslim fleets, helping to repel the Muslims at the first and second Arab sieges of the imperial capital, Constantinople. The Byzantines also used the weapon to devastating effect against the various Rus' raids to the Bosporus and especially during the war of 941, as well as against the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). It quickly became one of the most feared weapons of the medieval world. 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.[15]

Although the destructiveness of Greek fire is indisputable, it should not be seen as some sort of "wonder weapon", nor did it make the Byzantine navy invincible:[16] in its siphon-deployed version, it had a limited range, and it could only be used safely only in a calm sea and with favorable wind conditions.[17]

[edit] Manufacture and deployment

As Constantine Porphyrogennetos' admonitions display, the ingredients and the processes of manufacture and deployment of Greek fire were very carefully guarded military secrets. 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 Komnene, who provides a description of an incendiary weapon, which however is not the Greek fire:[18]

"This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown 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."

As attested in numerous sources, the only means to extinguish it were sand, which deprived it of oxygen, while several authors also mention strong vinegar and old urine as being able to extinguish it, presumably by some sort of chemical reaction. Felt or hides soaked in vinegar were thus used to provide protection against it.[19]

Based on Emperor Leo VI's account that the substance was discharged "with thunder" and much smoke,[20] several scholars, from the times of Isaac Vossius to the great 19th-century French chemist Marcellin Berthelot, considered the Greek fire to have been an explosive weapon; its secret was to be found in the use of saltpeter, producing in effect an early form of gunpowder.[21][3][22][23] This view has been rejected since, as saltpeter does not appear to have been used in warfare before the 13th century, and no Arab account before that time even mentions it.[24] In addition, the nature of the proposed mixture would have been radically different from the siphon-projected substance that Byzantine sources describe.[25] A second view, based on the fact that Greek fire was inextinguishable by water–rather, pouring water on it intensified the flames–considered that the destructive power of Greek fire was the result of the explosive reaction between water and quicklime. Although quicklime was certainly known and used by the Byzantines and the Arabs in warfare,[26] C. Zenghelis pointed out that in the open sea, the actual result would be negligible.[27]

Most modern scholars agree that the actual Greek fire was based on petroleum or naphtha, whether crude or refined, to which the Byzantines had easy access from the naturally occurring wells around the Black Sea (e.g. the wells around Tmutorakan noted by Constantine Porphyrogennetos) or in various locations throughout the Middle East.[21][28][29]

A 12th-century treatise prepared by Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi for Saladin records an Arab version of Greek fire, called "naft" (from naphtha), which had a petroleum base, with sulfur and various resins added.[30]

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.

Clay grenades that were filled with Greek fire, 10th-12th centuries, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece

In its earliest form, Greek fire was hurled onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth-wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a seaborne variant of the Roman light catapult or onager.[citation needed] These were capable of hurling light loads—around 6 to 9 kg (13 to 20 lb)—a distance of 350–450 m (383–492 yd). 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. Pivoting cranes (gerania) are also mentioned as a method of pouring combustibles onto enemy ships.[31]

[edit] Testimony

The medieval text The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur contains one of the earliest European references to the processing and projection of Greek fire. The unusual description mixes magic and folklore into the process of creating the substance, but would have created a working compound similar to napalm.[32]

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: [33][34]

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 crossbow.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Haldon & Byrne 1977, p. 97
  2. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, pp. 608–609
  3. ^ a b Forbes 1959, p. 83
  4. ^ Leicester 1971, p. 75
  5. ^ Crosby 2002, pp. 88–89
  6. ^ Partington 1999, pp. 1–5
  7. ^ Forbes 1959, pp. 70–74
  8. ^ Partington 1999, p. 5
  9. ^ Nicolle 1996, p. 45
  10. ^ Theophanes & Turtledove 1982, p. 53
  11. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, pp. 607–609
  12. ^ Partington 1999, pp. 12-13
  13. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, p. 608
  14. ^ Forbes 1959, p. 82
  15. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 78–79.
  16. ^ Pryor 2003, p. 97
  17. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, p. 384
  18. ^ Partington 1999, p. 19
  19. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, p. 617
  20. ^ Leo VI, Tactica, XIX.59, transl. in Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, p. 507
  21. ^ a b Haldon & Byrne 1977, p. 92
  22. ^ Davidson 1973, pp. 69–70
  23. ^ Partington 1999, pp. 14, 21
  24. ^ Partington 1999, pp. 21–22
  25. ^ Forbes 1959, pp. 83–84
  26. ^ Partington 1999, pp. 6–10, 14
  27. ^ Zenghelis 1932, p. 270
  28. ^ Partington 1999, p. 4
  29. ^ Forbes 1959, pp. 82–83
  30. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, pp. 610–611
  31. ^ Pryor & Jeffreys 2006, pp. 378–379
  32. ^ Day, Mildred Leake (1994), "The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur", in Wilhelm, James J., The Romance of Arthur, New York: Garland, pp. 365–366 
  33. ^ The History of Greek Fire. Accessed on July 11, 2007.
  34. ^ Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville English version, by Ethel Wedgwood. Retrieved on May 17, 2008

[edit] Sources

  • Christides, Vassilios (1991), "Fireproofing of War Machines, Ships and Garments", Proc. TROPIS VI - 6th International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity, Lamia 1996, Athens, pp. 135-141, ISSN 1105-7947 
  • Crosby, Alfred W. (2002), Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521791588 
  • Davidson, H.R. Ellis (1973), "The Secret Weapon of Byzantium", Byzantinische Zeitschrift 66: 61-74 
  • Forbes, R. J. (1959), "Naphtha Goes To War", More Studies in Early Petroleum History 1860-1880, Leiden: E.J. BRILL, pp. 70-90 
  • Haldon, John; Byrne, M. (1977), "A Possible Solution to the Problem of Greek Fire", Byzantinische Zeitschrift 70: 91-99 
  • Leicester, Henry Marshall (1971), The historical background of chemistry, Courier Dover Publications, ISBN 9780486610535 
  • 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 
  • Partington, James Riddick (1999), A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-5954-9, 
  • Spears, W.H., Jr. (1969). Greek Fire: The Fabulous Secret Weapon That Saved Europe. ISBN 0-9600106-3-7
  • Toutain, J. (1953), "Le feu grégeois" (in French), Journal des Savants (Paris): 77-80 
  • Pryor, John H. (2003), "Byzantium and the Sea: Byzantine Fleets and the History of the Empire in the Age of the Macedonian Emperors, c. 900–1025 CE", in Hattendorf, John B.; Unger, Richard W., War at Sea in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Boydell Press, pp. 83–104, ISBN 0851159036 
  • Pryor, John H.; Jeffreys, Elizabeth M. (2006), The Age of the ΔΡΟΜΩΝ: The Byzantine Navy ca. 500–1204, Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-9004151970 
  • Roland, Alex (1992). Secrecy, Technology, and War: Greek Fire and the Defense of Byzantium, Technology and Culture 33(4), 678-1204.
  • Theophanes; Turtledove, Harry (Transl.) (1982), The chronicle of Theophanes: an English translation of anni mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813), University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 978-0812211283, 
  • Wilhelm, James J. (1994). The Romance of Arthur. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-1511-2
  • Zenghelis, C. (1932), "Le feu grégeois et les armes à feu des Byzantins", Byzantion (Brussels) VI: 265-286 

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