When Alchemy and ancient technology merge: “Greek Fire” an ancient weapon that “couldn’t” be put out
Meet “Greek Fire,” an ancient weapon that couldn’t be extinguished, and whose composition remains a profound mystery for experts even to this date. Many refer to it as the best-kept secret of the Ancient World. Oh and… Greek Fire was accompanied by “thunder” and “much smoke.”
An illustration of Greek Fire. A screenshot from the game “Assassin’s Creed Revelations.”
It was one of the most fearful ancient weapons of ancient times. Its composition remains a profound mystery for scientists, it cannot be replicated, and it goes by a variety of names, such as “sea fire,” “Roman fire,” “war fire,” “liquid fire,” “sticky fire,” or “manufactured fire.”
This mysterious ancient weapon burned on water, and according to many accounts, was IGNITED by water. The fire could only be extinguished by a few SPECIFIC substances, most notoriously sand (as it deprives oxygen of the fire) a strong vinegar and urine, as these two create a chemical reaction which reduces the flames.
Greek fire was not a projective; it was a liquid substance unlike many authors state. While at sea, it was ejected through a siphon although later on it was adapted to be used in pots or as grenades.
Curiously, and what captures my attention most is the fact that all of those who have described witnessing Greek Fire indicate how Greek Fire was accompanied by “thunder” and “much smoke.”
Throughout history, ancient mankind has created an infinity of weapons of enormous destructive capacity, from the earliest uses of gunpowder to today’s nuclear bombs. But in the range of horrors, very few weapons have astonished historians and awakened the imagination of many as much as the legendary Greek Fire.
And while the recipe of Greek fire is lost, this was found in an illuminated manuscript and is considered as one of few surviving ancient depictions of Greek fire
It is believed that a Jewish refugee in the Byzantine Empire, was the one who “invented the art of projecting liquid fire” during the reign of Constantine IV (668-685).
Its composition is, to this day, a mystery.
Writers of antiquity spoke about how it was made, but it remained a matter of speculation. There are some who say that “Greek Fire” was created by a mixture of oil ether, sulfur, coal, saltpeter, turpentine, and even pine resin.
The Greek Fire was feared by the ancient world because it clung to the skin or the clothes, it burned longer and at a higher temperature, and unlike any other fire: it burned on water.
Supposedly, the flames could only be extinguished with a mixture of urine, sand, and vinegar.
The art of its composition was such a well-kept secret that those who knew it took it to the grave, meaning that—most likely—there aren’t any written records that mention its composition or how it was produced. According to historians, the ingredients and the processes of manufacture and deployment of Greek fire were carefully guarded military secrets.
This fearful ancient weapon was launched with air pumps, giving the effect of a modern flamethrower. It was with this weapon that the Greek ships destroyed the Arab fleet that attacked Constantinople in 673. For many historians, the Greek Fire was a key weapon for the Byzantine Empire.
Greek fire was ascribed by the chronicler Theophanes to Kallinikos, who was an architect from Heliopolis in the ancient province of Phoenice, by then occupied by the Muslim conquests:
At that time Kallinikos, an artificer from Heliopolis, fled to the Romans. He had devised a sea fire which ignited the Arab ships and burned them with all hands. Thus it was that the Romans returned with victory and discovered the sea fire.
The only known “recipe” of Greek fire comes from Anna Comnena—a Byzantine princess—who provided a description of the weapon after it was used by the Byzantine garrison of Dyrrhachium in 1108 against the Normans:
This fire was made by the following arts. From the pine and the certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes of reed, and is blown by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.
However, historians agree this is but a mere speculation.