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An extract from Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066
by Ian Heath

[Based on 'Greek fire in use against the fleet of the rebel, Thomas the Slav'
in Scylitzes Chronicle (Codex Græcus Matritensis).
Bibliteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2
[Greek-Fire Projector in 'Parangelmata Poliorcetica'
by Heron of Byzantium, 11th century.
Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1605.

142.      GREEK FIRE

Although incendiary mixtures had been used in warfare at least as early as the 5th century BC, the particular mixture commonly referred to as Greek Fire is usually taken to have been invented c. 673 by Kallinikos, a Syrian architect in Byzantine service. Its first use was against the-Arab fleet besieging Constantinople in 674-676, and throughout its history it was used almost exclusively in naval and siege warfare.

Its actual chemical make-up is uncertain and probably the original 7th century mixture was adapted and developed as time went on. Contemporary sources such as the Liber Ignium, a 12th or 13th century compilation of earlier material, record a large number of mixtures of which the main ingredients include naptha, pitch, resins, sulphur, quicklime, bitumen, oil, charcoal, turpentine and even saltpetre.

Several of these elements have distinct merits. Those containing quicklime would ignite on contact with water and obviously could not have been extinguished easily. This produced the variant names Wet Fire, Wild Fire and Sea Fire (Pyr Thalassion), the latter being the name by which it was known to the Byzantines, ‘Greek Fire’ being a later appellation applied indiscriminately by Europeans to any kind of Eastern incendiary. Mixtures containing saltpetre, which are unlikely during this period (though not impossible), would have been at least semi-explosive, while those with sulphur would produce poisonous gasses. However, the principal characteristic of Greek Fire was that it was liquid, implying a large naptha content. Other names included Prepared or Artificial Fire, Median Fire, and Volatile or Molten Fire.

The list of ingredients was traditionally a closely-guarded secret, being restricted to Kallinikos’ descendants, the Lampros family, but the Arabs were using a liquid incendiary at least as early as 835 in the Tyrrhene Sea or 844 when the Amir of Cordoba equipped his newly-built fleet with mangonels and naptha. According to one source Caliph Mu’awiya (660-680) already had ships fitted with fire-spouting engines, perhaps siphons (see below), while another says a variety of Greek Fire was in use by the Moslems as early as c. 600!

The best-known method of use is shown in 142a, from the Scylitzes ms. of c. 1200. The Fire is sprayed from twin tubes or siphons in the prow of the ship, undoubtedly by hydraulic pumps; a Scandinavian source, Yngvars Saga Vidforla, says that the Fire was projected by means of bellows, while an Arab source of c. 1013 records siphons operated by a piston as in a syringe, and the Byzantine word for siphon (klysteros) could also mean syringe. The siphons themselves were of (‘covered with’) copper, bronze or iron. Leo’s description indicates that they were fixed to a higher false deck so as to be above the prow-level of any attacking vessel, and swivel-mounted to enable them to fire in any direction. Alexius I mounted gilt lion-heads on the prows of his ships so that the Fire issued from their mouths. We are told that it was best if the sea was becalmed when Greek Fire was in use.

As early as c. 560 one source mentions fire propelled by siphons (klysteroi), and Theophanes too records that siphon-fitted ships predated Kallinikos’ Greek Fire, which suggests that they were possibly used to discharge the earlier mixtures such as that of sulphur, naptha and bitumen used by the Sassanids at the siege of Petra in 551, and the similar mixture invented by the Athenian Proclus during the reign of Anastasius I (491-518).

Alternatively petraries, mangonels and other engines could be used to hurl earthenware pots of incendiaries, sealed and with fuses set in place. Other pots contained already burning mixtures. A 13th century source records the pots themselves to be glass, paper, metal and leather as well as earthenware. Small pots were often thrown by hand by the Arabs, as at the siege of Salonika in 904, while later western mss. sometimes show small jars being thrown by staff-slings. However, the incendiaries used in this way were not the same as the liquid Fire used by the Byzantine navy.

Leo mentions ‘hand-tubes’ for Fire that were invented during his reign (886-912), to be fired from behind iron shields. 142b shows what is apparently such a hand-siphon, from an 11th century ms. There was also some kind of portable small calibre siphon, mentioned in use at the siege of Dvin in 928. This may have been a strepton, a term used by both Leo and Constantine Porphyrogenitus meaning ‘flexible device’ — probably a pump and hose.

Anyone interested in further details on Greek Fire and other incendiaries can do no better than read ‘A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder’ by J. R. Partington, unfortunately now out of print.

Next: 143. BYZANTINE CAVALRY HORSE in Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066 by Ian Heath