“GREEK FIRE”

The original Greek fire was an invention used as a weapon of the Eastern Roman Emperors. It is also said to have been invented by a Syrian engineer, one Callinicus, a refugee from Maalbek, in the seventh century. The Byzantines of Constantinople originally used it. But they never used the term Greek fire because they claimed to be Romans, and never called themselves Greeks. It was like an insult to them because in their times to be Greek was to have a bad reputation.

The Greek fire was first time used in the war of seven years. In which the Arabs established a naval base on the peninsula of Kyzikos. This was on the second attack of a battle started by Theophanes. On the third attack of the same battle, Greek fire was used again against the Arabs.

The “liquid fire” was hurled on the ships of their enemies from siphons and burst into flames on contact. As it was reputed to be inextinguishable and burned even on water, it caused panic and dread. Its introduction into warfare of its time was comparable in its demoralizing to the introduction of nuclear weapons in our time. Both Arab and Greek sources agree that it surpassed all incendiary weapons in destruction.

It is also possible that Greek fire was really invented by the chemist in Constantinople who had acquired the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school. An Emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, said that the recipe for Greek fire had been revealed by an angel to Constantine the Great, and that the earliest chemists called their science “the divine art.” Constantine Porphyrogenitus (tenth century) in his instruction to his son had commanded him emphatically to keep the composition secret: “The secret had in the past been given by an angel to Constantine the Great, those imparting it were anathema, and one about to communicate it had been struck by lightning.

Anna Komnena (b.1083), the gifted but vain daughter of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, gives the composition of an incendiary material: “This fire made by the following arts. From the pines and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blowing by men using it with violent and continuos 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.” She also says it was used in the siege of Durazzo in 1108, when the Normans under Bohemond had mined under the walls, and the Byzantines had countermined until they reached the sap, when the appearance produced by these pyrotechnics would be terrifying but not very dangerous. The Normans, she said, had their beards signed but were not much injured.

Kedrenos reported that in his time (eleventh century) the secret of the fire was possessed by Lampros, a descendant of Kallinikos. The state chemist who had the recipe, a secret not to put into writing, no doubt took an oath not to divulge it. And the Emperor, who lent troops and engines to his allies, reserved for himself the secret of Greek fire, and sent it already made as a sort of ancient hydrogen bomb to his worthy but not wholly reliable dependants.

It was thought that the secret of Greek fire had been lost; a Dupre, born in Dauphine, claimed to have rediscovered it, and sold the recipe to Louis XV in 1756. The secret was in reality never lost, and Greek fire only slowly made way to artillery and gunpowder; in the earlier stages both Greek fire and cannon were sometimes used together.

Greek fire, like hydrogen bomb, was not prerogative of angels or emperors; a chemist, and further east, in Saracen lands had discovered it. There were other chemists no less inventive. The secret behind the Greek fire was handed down from one emperor to the next for the centuries. Rumors about its composition include such chemicals as liquid petroleum, naphtha, burning pitch, sulfur, resin quicklimeand bitumen, along with some other secret ingredient. The exact composition, however, remains unknown.

Bibliography

the history of Greek fire and Gunpowder

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