Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 20 December 2013

Casting fire upon the darkness...

Today sees the launch of an epic blog hop involving over thirty authors, including Julian Stockwin, Helen Hollick and Manda Scott. The theme is 'Casting Light upon the Darkness' - as you can see by the lovely graphic logo above, designed by Avalon Graphics - and there are lots of great free prizes on offer. Simply browse (or hop) the links posted at the bottom of this page to see the posts by other bloggers and enter competitions.

I am offering a free paperback copy of my medieval saga, Nowhere Was There Peace, set in England during the baronial wars of the 1260s, and published this year by Fireship Press.

If you are interested in winning a copy, just leave a comment under this post and I will select a winner a few days after the 21st!

For the hop I have chosen to write about the age-old mystery of Greek Fire, the terrifying incendiary weapon employed by the Byzantine Empire to quite literally cast light upon their enemies. 

The Empire survived for over a thousand years until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the death in battle of the last Emperor, Constantine XI. Without Greek Fire, the steadily shrinking Byzantine state would probably not have endured for so long, and how this vital weapon was made remains a mystery to this day.

Medieval depiction of Greek Fire in action
Greek Fire was by no means the first incendiary weapon to be used in warfare: for instance, the Assyrians were using flaming arrows and pots packed full of combustible substances as early as the 9th Century BC. However, unlike earlier weapons, something about Greek Fire seems to have captured the imagination of contemporaries. 

One of the earliest possible references to it date from the early sixth century, when the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I used a sulphur-based compound to incinerate a rebel fleet. It was certainly in use by the seventh century, when Constantinople was twice besieged by the combined land and sea forces of the Arab Caliphates. After four years of warfare, the Emperor Constantine IV led out his fleet in a head-on assault. His ships were equipped with Greek Fire, and the naval battle that ensued resulted in the total destruction of the Arab fleet.

These accounts suggest that Greek Fire was used primarily as a naval weapon, and carried into battle by single-deck warships called dromons, converted to house the devices needed to heat and pressurise the mixture. The specially trained crew would then direct it through a nozzle or hose, spraying enemy ships with unquenchable liquid flame. Greek Fire was notorious for burning on water, so a hideous death awaited enemy sailors even if they jumped overboard.

The Byzantine army in battle
The Byzantines were nothing if not inventive, and all sorts of variants were introduced over the centuries. Some manuals describe jars being stuffed with Greek Fire and thrown at the enemy, like early hand grenades, and caltrops smeared with tow and soaked in the substance being hurled from catapults. Cranes were fitted aboard ships and used to drop 'bombs' onto enemy ships, while siphons were fixed to the prows of Byzantine ships, so they could ram the enemy and hose him with fire at the same time.

The siphons were elaborate affairs, made of brass or iron and shaped like the heads of lions or other wild beasts. Their mere aspect was frightening, their jaws wide open to shoot Greek Fire through their mouths, as though they were vomiting over the enemy.

Greek Fire continues to fascinate because of the centuries-old mystery surrounding its composition. Knowledge of the formula was a closely guarded state and military secret. This is unsurprising, since the Byzantines could not afford their secret weapon to fall into the hands of their many enemies. The term 'Byzantine complexity' might have been invented to describe the process of keeping the formula secret: even the engineers and technicians who worked with the stuff were only made aware of certain components, while being kept ignorant of others. This meant that no-one could blab the secrets of Greek Fire to the opposition.

Many generations of scholars have tried to reconstruct the formula for Greek Fire from informed supposition and fragments of surviving sources. Certain clues can be gleaned from Byzantine military textbooks and descriptions of other incendiary weapons, such as the following from the Alexiad, written by Anna Komnene, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I:

"This fire is 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..."

No precise description of the formula for Greek Fire exists. All we know for certain is that it burned on water, could be extinguished only by sand, strong vinegar or urine, and that it was a liquid substance. Strangely, for a pre-gunpowder weapon, the discharge was apparently accompanied by a loud bang and lots of smoke. The demoralising effect on an enemy, who faced being turned into a human torch if he stuck around, can only be imagined.

Greek Fire being expelled through a portable siphon
For all that, it was not a 'perfect' weapon. It had a limited range and could only be deployed in ideal weather conditions, with a fair wind and a calm sea. Muslim navies developed various forms of protection, either staying out or range or covering their ships in flame-retardant felt and hides soaked in vinegar. 

The records indicate that Greek Fire was used often and decisively for many hundreds of years, and was still in use in the 12th century. For some reason - perhaps the secret of making it had been lost - there is no record of it being used against the Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1203. Nor was it deployed in the final battle against the Turks in 1453.

One of the latest and most colourful accounts of this terrible weapon come from the Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville, written during the Seventh Crusade in the mid-13th century. I'll sign off with this epic description from the memoir of Greek Fire in action: 

 “... 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.” 
And below is the list of our lovely bloggers! 

  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
  3. Alison Morton  : Shedding light on the Roman dusk  - Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  4. Anna Belfrage  : Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  13. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  14. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  15. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  16. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  17. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  18. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  19. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  20. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  21. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  22. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
  23. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
  24. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
  25. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  26. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
  27. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  28. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  29. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression


  1. ...and we're still using flamethrowers and napalm. Nothing has changed.

    1. Very true! As well as other, more destructive weapons.

  2. I love that vinegar took a part in protection against it! Don't think it gets a mention in Margaret Briggs's book - VINEGAR, 100 practical uses - though...

    1. Yes, and urine! Warning: before engaging the Byzantine army in battle, soak yourself in vinegar and wee...

  3. Gosh, why had I never heard about Greek fire before? Fascinating, thank you for sharing it with me (as er, friendly fire, in this case!) Is that where we get the phrase "Ready, aim, fire?" (and is there a Greek equivalent, I wonder?)

    1. Good question. Amusingly, archers in movies are usually ordered to 'fire'...but you don't 'fire' non-gunpowder weapons!

  4. Thanks for a fascinating blog,though it’s depressing to be reminded how ingenious humankind is at devising weaponry!

    1. Very true, sadly. It seems to be one of our greatest talents.

  5. Your posts are always a pleasure, David. I saw a special on Greek Fire once on the History Channel, but I think your post may have even more information in it! It's amazing to me that we still don't know what it was made of. Although, I think I'm glad for that! (Even though we have modern equivalents.) I know I wouldn't want to be the one facing it. Thanks for such great information.

    1. No problem, Nicola! Thank you for the nice comments :)

  6. I had no idea the composition of Greek Fire is still a mystery. Sort of a major finger in the face of modern scientists... All in all, it's probably a good thing if the formula remains unknown.

  7. Very interesting post, David. Fascinating.

  8. superb post - I so enjoy learning about new things!

  9. Alison Bahm├╝ller21 December 2013 at 14:22

    Very fascinating article! As a Chemistry teacher, I am very curious about the formula of Greek fire!

  10. Amazing that it was kept secret for so long!

  11. I love the secrets of history. Not knowing keeps me interested!

  12. Thank you all for the comments! :)

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