Greek Fire: The Flame That Reigned the Sea
The sun set for Antiquity, and twilight loomed over the Roman Empire. Its western half has fallen to the nomadic hordes—the Vandals having sacked the city of Rome itself on 455 AD. The center of the civilized world shifted to the east, where the Greek-speaking Romans (Byzantines) continued to rule the empire in their capital of Constantinople (now modern-day Istanbul).
The city stood stalwart between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean—between Asia and Europe. Yet despite their steadfastness, they were still surrounded by enemies, especially the emerging Islamic Caliphates from Arabia. It seemed like it was inevitable for the empire’s demise.
And truly so, because when the Roman-Byzantine Empire became weak due to its continuous conflicts with the Persian-Sassanid Empire, the Arabs waged war on both of them, annihilating the latter in 651 AD and turning around to finish the former. In 672 AD, they dispatched three great fleets to besiege Constantinople, raiding the coasts en route and harrying the imperial capital itself. The nights seemed dark for the empire.
Possibly by providence and during a pivotal moment of the war in that same year, a Byzantine architect and refugee, Kallinikos, invented a weapon for the empire. It was a weapon that spewed fire—a fire that burned on water. It was Greek fire.
Wielding this weapon, the Byzantine navy launched a counteroffensive and repelled the Arabs in 680 AD, ending their seven-year campaign. Three decades later, the Arabs, under a new Caliph, took a gamble and tried again to take Constantinople, bearing the full force of their military strength. This second siege was more dangerous than the first, but the Romans still prevailed after using Greek fire; the Arabs defeated, never again attacking. The sun shone once more on the empire for seven further centuries. Greek fire fueled its glory.
Understanding Greek Fire and Its Enigma
Used extensively by the Byzantine navy, Greek fire burned on water and, according to some interpretations, was ignited by water. In addition, as numerous writers testify, it could be extinguished only by a few substances: sand (which deprived it of oxygen), strong vinegar, or old urine, presumably by some sort of chemical reaction.
It was a liquid substance, and not some sort of projectile, as verified both by descriptions and the very name liquid fire. The liquid was ejected from a siphon, sending a continuous stream to the screams of sailors.
Earthenware pots filled with it were also used and thrown by hand—possibly the first known use of handheld grenades.
Although labelled as Greek fire by historians, original Byzantine sources called the substance a variety of names: sea fire (pŷr thalássion), Roman fire (pŷr rhōmaïkón), war fire (polemikòn pŷr), liquid fire (hygròn pŷr), sticky fire (pŷr kollētikón), or manufactured fire (pŷr skeuastón).
Regardless of what they called it, the Byzantines kept the formula a state secret—one which was never discovered. Enemies who managed to capture the weapon were unable to replicate the exact formula; instead, their results yielded low-quality, ineffective imitations. During World War II, almost thirteen centuries from the development of Greek fire, American scientists invented napalm—the closest a nation has ever come to in recreating the ancient terror weapon.
Even with that achievement, the exact formula of Greek fire remains lost to time—a secret of Antiquity extinguished.