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Greek Fire: the secret weapon of the ancient world

Goran Blazeski

In the seventh century around 673 AD, the Byzantines created a weapon known as “Greek fire” to protect Constantinople during the Arab siege. Greek Fire was the secret weapon of the Eastern Roman Emperors. The exact recipe was such a closely guarded secret that it disappeared forever with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

This mysterious weapon could not be extinguished with water and was able to engulf a ship and its crew in minutes.

The Byzantine empire managed to survive over a thousand years because of its powerful military. Part of their power and probably the most fearsome of all of the empire’s armaments was Greek Fire. The Byzantines had a few different names for Greek fire, such as “sea fire” and “liquid fire.”

Greek fire in use against another ship

Greek fire in use against another ship

Greek Fire was invented by a group of people with great knowledge of chemistry, working for years to get the right formula. It’s well-known that the weapon caused panic and death. The demoralizing influence that this weapon had can be compared with the nuclear weapons of our time.

The exact recipe remained a secret. Historians are still not entirely sure about its composition. It was handed down from one emperor to the next for centuries. Rumors about its composition include naphtha, pine resin, sulfur, calcium phosphide, quicklime, along with some other “secret ingredient”.

Use of a cheirosiphōn ("hand-siphōn"), a portable flamethrower, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.

Use of a cheirosiphōn (“hand-siphōn”), a portable flamethrower, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.

No doubt it was a top secret. Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos claimed that the Greek Fire was revealed and taught by God through angels. The Byzantines used it sparingly because they were afraid that the secret might fall into enemy hands.

Using this weapon in 678 they destroyed an Arab fleet and killed around 30,000 men. And again in 717-718, when Constantinople was attacked by Caliph Suleiman, they destroyed most of the Muslim fleet using Greek Fire.

Clash between Byzantines and Arabs at the Battle of Lalakaon (863) and defeat of Amer, the emir of Malatya

Clash between Byzantines and Arabs at the Battle of Lalakaon (863) and defeat of Amer, the emir of Malatya

Many other ancient powers had chemical weapons along the same lines. But the Byzantine version was the most fearsome of all and that’s why the secret was guarded that well. It’s possibly one of the best-kept secrets of all time.

Fire as a weapon is as old as war itself. Egyptians used it, ancient Greeks used it, as well as the Romans, but there is nothing similar to the Greek Fire and its destructive power. The Greek fire was the atomic bomb of the ancient world.

Clay grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece

Clay grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo Credit

The exact details of the Greek fire will remain a mystery. The secret “recipe,” was a jealously guarded state secret and it was hand down from generation to generation.

The city of Constantinople continued to endure until 1453 when the Turks finally captured the city. This was because of another “wonder weapon” – gunpowder.