Greek fire

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Greek fire
Also called:Byzantine fire
liquid fire
Greek:Υγρό Πυρ igró pyr

Greek fire was a burning-liquid weapon used by the Byzantine Empire, typically in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning even on water. "Byzantine fire" was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Eastern Roman Empire surviving as long as it did. The formula was a secret and remains a mystery to this day. As one contemporary victim of Greek fire advised his comrades, "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."


[edit] Origin

Theophanes records that Greek fire was invented c. 670 in Constantinople by Kallinikos (Callinicus), an architect from Heliopolis in Syria; Partington thinks it likely that "Greek fire was really invented by the chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school[.]"<ref>Partington 1999:12-13</ref> Many accounts note that the fires it caused could not be put out by pouring water on the flames—on the contrary, the water served to spread them, suggesting that 'Greek fire' was a flammable liquid that can float on water—it may have been naphtha or another low-density liquid hydrocarbon as oil was known to eastern chemists long before its use became widespread in the 1800's.

[edit] Use

In its earliest uses it was applied onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a sea-borne variant of the Roman light catapult or onager. These were capable of hurling light loads (c. six to nine kilograms— up to twenty pounds) four to five hundred yards (approx. 350-450 m) Later technological improvements in machining technology enabled the devising of a pump mechanism discharging a stream of burning fluid (flame thrower) at close ranges, and was devastating to wooden ships in naval warfare and also very effective on land as a counter-force suppression weapon used on besieging forces. There are many accounts of the Byzantine Empire driving off attacks on the walls using this devastatingly frightful secret formula.

However, it was used primarily at sea. It is rumored that the key to Greek fire's effectiveness was that it could continue burning under almost any conditions, even under water. It was known to the Byzantines' enemies as a "wet, dark, sticky fire" because it stuck to the unfortunate object it hit and was impossible to extinguish. Enemy ships were often afraid to come too near to the Byzantine fleet, because, once within range, the fire gave the Byzantines a strong military advantage. The last testimony of Greek Fire usage was in the Siege of Constantinople, where the secret itself was destroyed in the flames of the Ottoman torches.

[edit] Link to Byzantine victories

Byzantine fire was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason the Eastern Roman Empire survived as long as it did. It was particularly helpful near the end of the empire's life when there were not enough inhabitants to effectively defend its territories. It was first used to repel the Muslim Arab siege of Constantinople in 674-677 (Battle of Syllaeum), and in 717-718. The Byzantines also used this powerful weapon against the Rus in 941 and against the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. It quickly became one of the most fearsome weapons of the medieval world. The mere sight of any sort of siphon, whether it was used for Greek fire or not, was often enough to defeat an enemy. However, Greek fire was very hard to control, and it would often accidentally set Byzantine ships ablaze.

Although similar substances have been invented in the modern age, the exact composition of the original Greek fire is unknown.

The effectiveness of Greek fire was indisputable; however, it was mainly effective under certain circumstances. For instance, it was less effective in the open sea than in narrow sea passages. Greek fire should not be considered an invention that solved all the maritime problems of the Byzantine Empire. Naval war continued to be based on the traditional art of maritime strategy, to which Greek fire added an effective new weapon for the Byzantines. [citation needed]

[edit] Manufacture

The ingredients, process of manufacture, and usage were a very carefully guarded military secret -- so secret it remains a source of speculation to this day. Speculations include:

It is not clear if it was ignited by a flame as the mixture emerged from the syringe, or if it ignited spontaneously when it came into contact with water. 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 (known as a siphonarios) mounted on the bow of the ship. Such ship was herself called siphonophoros. It 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.

[edit] Testimony

The Memoirs of Jean de Joinville, a thirteenth century French nobleman, include these observations of Greek fire during the Seventh Crusade:[1]

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 cross-bow.

[edit] In the arts

  • In 2003 Richard Donner directed the film Timeline, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. In the story, an archaeologist from the present journeys to the fourteenth century and in an effort to save his life from his captors, offers to give them the secret of Greek Fire. Although the plot is not based on historical fact, the movie demonstrates the effectiveness of Greek Fire. Nevertheless, the greek fire in the film also is given explosive properties, which does not seem to be backed by historical evidence.
  • In an episode of the 2006 BBC Television series of "Robin Hood", a fantasy based very loosely on some of the Robin Hood legends, the term Greek Fire is used to describe explosive black powder. [2]

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes


[edit] References

cs:Řecký oheň da:Græsk ild de:Griechisches Feuer el:Υγρό πυρ es:Fuego griego eo:Greka fajro eu:Su greko fr:Feu grégeois gl:Lume grego id:Api Yunani he:אש יוונית nl:Grieks vuur ja:ギリシア火薬 no:Gresk ild pl:Ogień grecki pt:Fogo grego ru:Греческий огонь sl:Grški ogenj sr:Грчка ватра fi:Kreikkalainen tuli sv:Grekisk eld zh:希腊火

Greek fire

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