Fire has fascinated man since the beginning. Ever since the fire was first invented we have tried to control it, find ways to make it bigger, last longer, and more deadly. Since as early as 9th BCE, people have been adding chemicals to fire to make incendiary and flaming weapons (Wikipedia). Greek Fire was the deadliest weapon known to man in the ancient world. James Partington compared the horror of the ancient world to the response of modern times towards the Atomic Bomb deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945. Greek Fire was used primarily to obliterate the enemies naval vassals. The Byzantines would fill little clay grenades with Greek Fire and throw them onto enemy ships. Adrienne Mayor also describes entire ships alit with the fire and deployed towards enemy ships to destroy an entire fleet. So just what exactly is Greek Fire and where did it come from?
Greek Fire is reported to have been invented Kallinikos, an artificer from Heliopolis (Theophanes) who fled from captivity by the Muslims to Constantinople. Kallinikos taught the Byzantines his recipe for destruction. Greek Fire was first used to end the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim empire. Many historians such as James Partington and Adrienne Mayor dispute the chronicler Theophanes claims that Kallinikos invented Greek Fire and instead attribute it to the “many centuries of observations, discoveries and experiments with combustible sulphur, quicklime, and naphtha – in formulas known by various names such as liquid fire,…, sea fire, sticky fire…, and so on.” (Mayor) Mayor also notes that similar incendiary weapons were found to have been used in Indian and Chinese warfare.
A lot of secrecy surrounds the manufacture of Greek Fire. All the recipes of Greek Fire have been lost or destroyed so that enemies could not obtain the destructive mixture. Greek fire is speculated to have either a base of saltpeter which would make it a precursor to gunpowder (Roland) or Quicklime, which was well known to be used by the Byzantines and Arabs at the time. Both theories have been refuted by literary and empirical evidence as saltpeter was not known to the western world until much later (Partington) and quicklime would have had to come in contact with water to ignite (Roland).
Many historians now agree that that the main ingredient of Greek Fire had a petroleum base. Greek Fire is compared to Napalm which was invented in 1942 at Harvard University by Louis Fieser and his team of chemists. The two compositions have many similarities as historians speculate that Greek Fire had a petroleum base. They are both liquid and sticky and when described its effect in battle “it clings to the clothes and skin and cannot be extinguished by water (Mayor).
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Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: The Overlook Press, 2003.
Partington, James. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Roland, Alex. “Secrecy, Technology, and War: Greek Fire and the Defense of Byzantium.” Technology and Culture 33 (1992): 655-679.
Theophanes. The Chronicle of Theophanes; an English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813). Trans. Harry Turtledove. Uniersity of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
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Wikipedia. “Greek Fire .” n.d. en.wikipedia.org. 2012.