Greek Fire (673 CS)



Greek Fire (also known as Byzantine Fire) was the ancient precursor to the modern Napalm and was first used in battles in the late seventh century. Greek Firewas largely responsible for numerous Byzantine victories and was a large reason why the Eastern Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.

Toxicological Perspective

Greek Fire was the precursor to the modern Napalm.

History and Use

Greek fire was created in the mid to late seventh century in Constantinople by the Syrian architect Kallinikos. The exact chemical makeup of the weapon is unknown however, the fact that water is unable to extinguish it leads some to speculate 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 actually making the weapon equally dangerous, if not more so, on water as it is on land.

Because of its effectiveness on water, it should come as no surprise that the first use was by the Byzantine Navy. There are a few ways the navy would implement the weapon. First was by firing a ball wrapped with cloth that was doused with the compound and lit on fire onto the other ships probably from a small catapult. Also, some ships were able to pump the compound directly onto the other ship and then ignite it. Greek fire was so effective at sea that it would continue to burn even under water.

Greek Fire became a daunting psychological weapon as well. Other ships were so scared of Greek Fire that many refused to go near enough to truly engage the navy. The Byzantines therefore did not even have to use the weapon very much. This was desirable for the Byzantines because they were afraid that if they used it too often, their enemies would be able to dissect the weapon and duplicate it.

The closest replication of Greek Fire was by the Arabian Armies sometime between the mid-seventh and tenth centuries. Though the weapon proved to be terribly devastating, it was still only a shadow of the original byzantine formula. Observations by thirteenth century French nobleman about the weapon:

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 therefor 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."