The mystery of Greek Fire: The deadliest weapon of Byzantine Empire
Constantinople was the seat of the Byzantine empire and the subject of many attacks from their enemies. The city was protected by a huge defensive wall and other fortifications, but one of the greatest threats to the attacking forces was a devastating weapon called Greek Fire.
It was a flammable liquid, hurled or spurted into enemies. It stuck on the surface of any substance and, once ignited, could not be extinguished by fire. The only defence against it was vinegar, sand and, interestingly, urine.
The origin of Greek Fire is still debated. Byzantine emperor Porphyrogennetos (945-959 AB) attributed the discovery to Roman Emperor Constantine, claiming this as a divine gift to the Christian emperor.
However, historian Theophantes identified a Greek, Kallinikos of Heliopolis as the inventor. When the Muslim Arab armies conquered Syria in the 7th century, he fled to Constantinople and brought this technology with him.
However, similar incendiary tactics were used by the Kingdom of Pontus against the Roman incursion during the 1st century. It is believed that Kallinikos improved the same technique rather than discovering it outright.
Another account suggests that the Byzantines actually made it with help from chemists from the Alexandrian school.
Regardless of the source, Byzantines closely guarded the secret of Greek Fire. The recipe was compartmentalised, and people only knew part of the recipe.
When all the parts were combined, the Greek Fire was produced. The full process was never written and passed down orally through the generations. Modern scientists failed to ascertain the exact ingredients.
At the start of the twentieth century, Greek Fire was believed to be a composite of combustible liquid and oxidising substance (e.g. saltpetre). British Chemist J. R. Partington argued that the distillation process prepared Greek Fire from natural petroleum. However, it is more likely that undistilled petroleum was used since such a process was probably unknown to the Byzantines.
The Byzantines needed a mechanism to deliver fire on the enemies. They developed tubes called siphon to do that. In the early days, only the ships were fitted with it.
Later they employed those tubes on the siege engines and the defensive walls. An earlier form of the grenade was also made, putting the Greek fire inside pottery balls for throwing onto the enemies. Later, the portable siphon, a primitive version of a modern flamethrower, was developed and fielded.
Greek Fire was probably the most dangerous weapon the Byzantines had for a long time. The failure of the first and second sieges of Constantinople by Arabs could largely be attributed to the effective use of Greek Fire.
During the second siege, 15000 Byzantine soldiers resisted an Umayyad army of almost a hundred thousand by using this. The Greek Fire annihilated the Umayyad navy during the siege. When Russians attacked Constantinople in 941 AD, Greek Fire again came to the rescue.
Incendiary devices like Greek Fire were not very uncommon during those times. Persian and Arab armies had flammable mixtures as well. But when it comes to effectiveness, Greek Fire was undoubtedly superior as water could not be used against it.
With the decline of the Byzantine empire, the composition of Greek Fire was lost.
The last time it was seen on the battlefield was during the fourth crusade, in the 13th century, when Christian armies attacked Constantinople. Since then, there has been little or no mention of Greek Fire in historical records.