Revised Short Research Paper – Greek Fire: A Dangerous Weapon and Mysterious Secret

Ancient technologies rarely avoid complete dissections and explanations by modern historians or scientists; however, Greek fire continues to baffle today’s great minds despite its impacts on Greek warfare. The mystery lives due to the jealous attempt by the Byzantine empire to keep the weapon from opposing militaries (Heydt 46). Historians credit a Byzantine Greek architect and chemist, Kallinikos of Heliopolis, for the greatest utilization of Greek fire sometimes called Byzatine or Kallinikos fire (Warfare History Network, “Greek Fire: The Byzantine Empire’s Secret Weapon the Ancient World Feared”). The Byzantine’s first notable use of the incendiary was to hold off the Arab invasions on Constantinople during the years 617-678 A.D (Partington xxi). The Byzantine reputation, along with the reputation of Greek fire, grew during continual successful battles after its implication until the fall of the empire and the loss of Greek fire.

Because of Arab siege on Heliopolis, Kallinikos offered his services to the Byzantine emperor ruling over Constantinople (Mayor). Because of the threat of invasion, the emperor accepted Kallinikos’ offer which would become a wise decision. Other incendiaries preceded Kallinikos’ Greek fire, but none would prove as deterring or effective during warfare, especially naval warfare (Warfare History Network, “Greek Fire: The Byzantine Empire’s Secret Weapon the Ancient World Feared”). Military security drove the necessity for such a secretive weapon. Under constant attack, the Byzantines needed a technology to place them above their invaders. The invention and the implication of Greek fire derived from this desired advantage and showed its effectiveness by maintaining the Byzantine empire from roughly 600 A.D to 1200 A.D (Roland 655). The mysterious yet effective deterrent died with the Byzantine empire since it stayed such a well-kept secret within the empire. Historians understand the immense advantage given by the technology, but how it worked eludes explanation due to its restricted exposure.

For instance, historians cannot agree on what the chemical composition of Greek fire would have been. The majority suggests a mixture of sulfur, liquid petroleum, an adhesive such as tree sap (Warfare History Network, “Greek Fire: The Byzantine Empire’s Secret Weapon the Ancient World Feared”). The Greeks presumably produced a highly flammable liquid from these ingredients to later be dispersed and lit from pumps or valves located on military vehicles, usually a ship (Mayor). The ability for Greek fire to stay ablaze over water gave the weapon its defining factor. The liquid reacted with surrounding oxygen to produce roaring, immense flames (Popular Science Review 332). These flames struck fear and confusion in Byzantine’s opposition discouraging invasions for hundreds of years. The Byzantine empire stayed impregnable due to the shock factor and the reputation of the potent Greek fire. The introduction of Greek fire changed how their enemies thought about invading. Written accounts describe the potent incendiary “destroy[ing] and burn[ing] up everything it meets” showing the fear and hesitation it produced (Heydt 46).  Historians fail to produce any more context for Greek fire because of the Byzantine secrecy, but some historians believe the Byzantines used saltpeter, the major ingredient in gunpowder, to create Greek fire which would make it a predecessor to gunpowder (Partington xxii). This link would boost the impact and importance on Greek fire substantially due to gunpowder’s influence on later generations.

In conclusion, Greek fire arguably prevented Byzantine from invasion for over 600 years due to its unrivaled destruction and hysteria producing effect, yet it lived and died with the empire preventing the potent incendiary from directly affecting subsequent technologies.

***revised version is 519 words not counting in text citations***

-Joel Scarbro

6 Replies to “Revised Short Research Paper – Greek Fire: A Dangerous Weapon and Mysterious Secret”

  1. I find it interesting that Byzantium was protected by Greek Fire for approximately 600 years, then was overtaken by the Ottoman Turks, who had been in clashes for about 100 years. Do you think that some of the resources used to produce Greek Fire were getting harder to find after 600 years of use? Could that be an explanation for the elusiveness of knowledge?

  2. Reading about Greek fire brings me back to the days of Percy Jackson and the Greek myths. It got me curious how close to napalm the old Greek fire is, and after some research, it seems that the two, though designed to do the same thing, are quite far apart. Napalm is created with refined petroleum, while the Greek fire was probably something flammable with sulfur and naphtha to make it sticky.
    https://www.britannica.com/technology/Greek-fire

  3. Joel, this is a really interesting topic to write about. The mystery surrounding Greek Fire is awesome. You bring some interesting facts, I had no idea Greek Fire was such a valuable defense for the Byzantine Empire. I find it impressive that one, this one weapon system contributed so much to a single empire, and two, that its composition still baffles scientists and historians today. I’m curious though, what were the social impacts for the Byzantine citizens? You mention that many empires knew of Greek Fire and feared the weapon but how did Byzantine feel about their own weapon? Was it of cultural significance, did it symbolize any powerful figures of the time? This is a good read with some good food-for-thought.

    –Jordan Dickey

  4. Greek fire is such a neat topic. I found this site (http://alchemyathol.weebly.com/greek-fire.html) where there were a number of people discussing possible materials in Greek Fire. It’s just so strange that even today we have no idea what it is. Alot of theories suggest an oil based mixture as that would allow the “fire” to burn, even on water. Other suggestions were mixtures that included quicklime — a material that would explode on contact with water. However others claim that quicklime doesn’t act the way the Greek Fire is described. I suppose this will continue to be a mystery.

  5. Who do I contact to test an artifact with a black substance inside I suspect Greek fire ? This hand crafted artifact was brought back found my my great grandfather in a trench WW1, copper with hammer design Celtic ? Viking ? India ? Copper with brass handle, dog or dragon ? Or dragon top hesd with dog as it’s curled tail, black hick residue I could not get out only got some out by burning, smelt like petroleum, it cleaned up out side beautiful, but that black inside couldn’t get out, it’s very old and my penciled holder, it’s a unique item as if it poured milk or wine. Love the design outside. Where can I get help to identifying my ancient artifact ?

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