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Encyclopedia > Greek fire
Depiction of Greek fire in the late 11th century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.
Depiction of Greek fire in the late 11th century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.
Greek fire
Also called: Byzantine fire
liquid fire
Greek: Υγρόν Πυρ igró pyr

Greek fire was a burning-liquid weapon used by the Byzantine Greeks, typically in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning even on water. "Byzantine fire" was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason for the Byzantine Empire surviving as long as it did. The formula was a secret and remains a mystery to this day. As one contemporary victim of Greek fire advised his comrades, "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." Greek fire in use, from http://www. ... Greek fire in use, from http://www. ... John/Ioannes Skylitzes/Scylitzes (Ιωάννης Σκυλίτζης, 1081) was a Byzantine historian of the late 11th century. ... Liquid Fire play a new form of New Metal combining new metal with classical music and modern samples. ... hey hey you no i rock at soccer cuz no i made the school team!! yay me aka katelyn ♥ Incendiary devices or incendiary bombs are bombs designed to start fires or destroy sensitive equipment using materials such as napalm, thermite, chlorine trifluoride, or white phosphorus. ... Byzantine Greeks or Byzantines, is a conventional term used by modern historians to refer to the medieval Greek or Hellenized citizens of the Byzantine Empire, centered mainly in Constantinople, southern Balkans, the Greek islands, the coasts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the large urban centres of Near East and... A naval battle is a battle fought using ships or other waterborne vessels. ... Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent c. ...



Theophanes records that Greek fire was invented c. 670 in Constantinople by Kallinikos (Callinicus), an architect from Heliopolis the Byzantine province of Syria.[1] Historian James Partington thinks it likely that "Greek fire was really invented by the chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school".[2] Many accounts note that the fires it caused could not be put out by pouring water on the flames—on the contrary, the water served to spread them, suggesting that 'Greek fire' was a flammable liquid that can float on water—it may have been a form of naphtha or another low-density liquid hydrocarbon as petroleum was known to eastern chemists long before its use became widespread in the 1800s. Saint Theophanes the Confessor (about 758/760, Constantinople - March 17, 817 or 818, Samothrace) was an aristocratic but ascetic Byzantine monk and chronicler. ... Events On the death of his brother Clotaire, Childeric II becomes king of all of the Frankish kingdoms -- Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy. ... Overview of Baalbek in the late 19th century Baalbek (Arabic: ‎) is a town in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, altitude 3,850 ft (1,170 m), situated east of the Litani River. ... James Riddick Partington (June 20, 1886 - 1965) was a British chemist and historian of chemistry. ... Naphtha is a group of various volatile flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixtures used primarily as feedstocks in refineries for the reforming process and in the petrochemical industry for the production of olefins in steam crackers. ...


In its earliest uses it was applied onto enemy forces by firing a burning cloth-wrapped ball, perhaps containing a flask, using a form of light catapult, most probably a sea-borne variant of the Roman light catapult or onager. These were capable of hurling light loads (c. six to nine kilograms—up to twenty pounds) 350-450 meters (approx. four to five hundred yards). Later technological improvements in machining technology enabled the devising of a pump mechanism discharging a stream of burning fluid (flame thrower) at close ranges, devastating wooden ships in naval warfare and also very effective on land as a counter-force suppression weapon used on besieging forces. There are many accounts of the Byzantine Empire driving off attacks on the walls using this devastatingly frightful secret formula. Replica catapult at Château des Baux, France For the handheld Y-shaped weapon, see slingshot. ... Sketch of an Onager, from Antique technology by Diels. ... The pound (abbreviations: lb or, sometimes in the United States, #) is a unit of mass in a number of different systems, including various systems of units of mass that formed part of English units, Imperial units, and United States customary units. ... A yard (abbreviation: yd) is the name of a unit of length in a number of different systems, including English units, Imperial units, and United States customary units. ... A lathe is a common tool used in machining. ... A fluid is defined as a substance that continually deforms (flows) under an applied shear stress regardless of the magnitude of the applied stress. ... German troops use a flamethrower on the Eastern Front during the Second World War A flamethrower is a mechanical device designed to throw flames or, more correctly, project an ignited stream of liquid. ... Naval warfare is combat in and on seas and oceans. ... Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent c. ...

However, it was used primarily at sea. It is rumored that the key to Greek fire's effectiveness was that it could continue burning under almost any conditions, even under water. It was known to the Byzantines' enemies as a "wet, dark, sticky fire" because it stuck to the unfortunate object it hit and was impossible to extinguish. Enemy ships were often afraid to come too near to the Byzantine fleet, because, once within range, the fire gave the Byzantines a strong military advantage. The last testimony of Greek Fire usage was in the fall of Constantinople in 1453, where the secret itself was destroyed in the flames of the Ottoman torches. The Byzantine Dromon, the heaviest ship in the Byzantine fleet, capable of carrying up to 300 men. ... ... Motto: دولت ابد مدت Devlet-i Ebed-müddet (The Eternal State) Anthem: Ottoman imperial anthem Borders in 1680, see: list of territories Capital Söğüt (1299-1326) Bursa (1326-1365) Edirne (1365-1453) Constantinople (Istanbul) (1453-1922) Language(s) Ottoman Turkish Government Monarchy Sultans  - 1281–1326 Osman I  - 1918–1922 Mehmed VI...

Spread to China

The earliest reference to Greek Fire in China was made in 917 AD, written by the author Wu Ren-chen in his Shi Guo Chun Qiu.[3] In 919 AD, the siphon projector-pump was used to spread the 'fierce fire oil' that could not be doused with water, as recorded by Lin Yu in his Wu Yue Bei Shi, hence the first credible Chinese reference to the flamethrower employing the chemical solution of Greek fire (see also Pen Huo Qi).[4] Lin Yu mentioned also that the 'fierce fire oil' derived ultimately from one of China's maritime contacts in the 'southern seas', Arabia (Da-Shi Guo).[5] In a battle of 932 AD, at the Battle of Lang-shan Jiang (Wolf Mountain River), the naval fleet of the Wen-Mu King was defeated by Qian Yuan-guan because he had used 'fire oil' ('huo you') to burn his fleet, signifying the first Chinese use of gunpowder in a battle (see also blackpowder).[5] The Chinese applied the use of double-piston bellows (this double-set used since the Han Dynasty for smelting cast iron) to pump petrol out of a single cylinder (with an upstroke and downstroke). This fluid was lit at the end by a slow-burning gunpowder match to fire a continuous stream of flame, as referred to in the Wu Jing Zong Yao manusrcipt of 1044 AD.[5] In the suppression of the Southern Tang state by 976 AD, early Song Dynasty naval forces confronted them on the Yangtze River in 975 AD. Southern Tang forces attempted to use flamethrowers against the Song navy, but were accidentally consumed by their own fire when violent winds swept in their direction.[6] The Song Dynasty continued use of the flamethrower, while the Chinese of this era also innovated the early grenade, firearm, and cannon. The Pen Huo Qi is a piston based naphtha flamethrower used in 919 in China. ... The Arabian Peninsula The Arabian Peninsula is a mainly desert peninsula in Southwest Asia at the junction of Africa and Asia and an important part of the greater Middle East. ... Smokeless powder Gunpowder, whether black powder or smokeless powder, is a substance that burns very rapidly, releasing gases that act as a propellant in firearms. ... Black powder is a type of gunpowder invented in the 9th Century and practically the only propellant and explosive known until the middle of the 19th Century. ... piston + connecting rod Components of a typical, four stroke cycle, DOHC piston engine. ... Hand bellows The bellows is a device for delivering pressured air in a controlled quantity to a controlled location. ... Later Han redirects here. ... Cast iron usually refers to grey cast iron, but can mean any of a group of iron-based alloys containing more than 2% carbon (alloys with less carbon are carbon steel by definition). ... Northern Song in 1111 AD Capital Kaifeng (960–1127) Linan (1127–1279) Language(s) Middle Chinese Religion Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism Government Monarchy History  - Zhao Kuangyin taking over the throne of the Later Zhou Dynasty 960  - Battle of Yamen; the end of Song rule 1279 Population  - Peak est. ... Grenade may refer to: The well-known hand grenade commonly used by soldiers. ... This article does not adequately cite its references or sources. ... A small cannon on a carriage, Bucharest. ...

For more see Technology of Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was a period of Chinese history and human history in general that provided some of the most prolific advancements in early science and technology, much of it through talented statsemen drafted by the government (see Imperial examinations). ...

Link to Byzantine victories

Byzantine fire was largely responsible for many Byzantine military victories, and partly the reason the Eastern Roman Empire survived as long as it did. It was particularly helpful near the end of the empire's life when there were not enough inhabitants to effectively defend its territories. It was first used to repel the Muslim Arab siege of Constantinople in 674-677 (Battle of Syllaeum), and in 717-718. The Byzantines also used this powerful weapon against the Rus in the Rus'-Byzantine War of 941 and against the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. It quickly became one of the most fearsome weapons of the medieval world. The mere sight of any sort of siphon, whether it was used for Greek fire or not, was often enough to defeat an enemy. However, Greek fire was very hard to control, and it would often accidentally set Byzantine ships ablaze. Map of Constantinople. ... Events Dagobert II and Theuderic I succeed Childeric II as king(s) of the Franks First glass windows placed in English Churches Arabic siege of Constantinople begins Cenfus and then Aescwine succeed to the throne of Wessex Births Deaths Wulfhere, king of Mercia Seaxburh, queen of Japan - Temmu Emperor of... // Events Battle of Syllaeum: Arab fleet destroyed by Byzantines Tang China declares the deposed King Bojang of Goguryeo King of Joseon, placing him in charge of the Liaodong area under the Protectorate General to Pacify the East. ... The Battle of Syllaeum was a naval battle between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire in 677, in coordination with a series of land battles in Anatolia and Syria. ... March 21 - Battle of Vincy between Charles Martel and Ragenfrid. ... Events Pelayo established the Kingdom of Asturias in the Iberian peninsula (modern day Portugal and Spain). ... Rus’ (Русь, ) was a medieval East Slavic nation, which, according to the most popular but by no means the only theory, took its name from its ruling warrior class with Scandinavian roots. ... Combatants Byzantine Empire Kievan Rus Commanders Romanus I Lecapenus Igor I of Kiev The Rus-Byzantine War of 941 took place during the reign of Igor of Kiev. ... Events Oda the Severe becomes Archbishop of Canterbury Births Charles dOutremer son of Louis IV of France Deaths Categories: 941 ... The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (Eugène Delacroix, 1840). ...

Although similar substances have been invented in the modern age, the exact composition of the original Greek fire is unknown.

The effectiveness of Greek fire was indisputable; however, it was mainly effective under certain circumstances. For instance, it was less effective in the open sea than in narrow sea passages. Greek fire should not be considered an invention that solved all the maritime problems of the Byzantine Empire. Naval war continued to be based on the traditional art of maritime strategy, to which Greek fire added an effective new weapon for the Byzantines.[citation needed]


The ingredients, process of manufacture, and usage were a very carefully guarded military secret — so secretive that it remains a source of speculation to this day. Speculations include:

It is not clear if it was ignited by a flame as the mixture emerged from the syringe, or if it ignited spontaneously when it came into contact with water, or even air. If the former is the case, it is possible 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. The reaction of quicklime with water also creates enough heat to ignite hydrocarbons, especially if an oxidizer such as saltpeter is present. However, Greek fire was also used on land. Naphtha is a group of various volatile flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixtures used primarily as feedstocks in refineries for the reforming process and in the petrochemical industry for the production of olefins in steam crackers. ... Niter or nitre is the mineral form of potassium nitrate, KNO3, also known as saltpeter. ... For the chemical element see: sulfur. ... Pumpjack pumping an oil well near Lubbock, Texas Ignacy Łukasiewicz - inventor of the refining of kerosene from crude oil. ... Calcium oxide (CaO), commonly known as lime or quicklime, is a widely used chemical compound. ... For the chemical element see: sulfur. ... General Name, Symbol, Number phosphorus, P, 15 Chemical series nonmetals Group, Period, Block 15, 3, p Appearance waxy white/ red/ black/ colorless Standard atomic weight 30. ... R-phrases   S-phrases   Supplementary data page Structure and properties n, εr, etc. ... Calcium phosphide is a chemical that has uses in incendiary bombs. ... Phosphine is the common name for phosphorus hydride (PH3), also known by the IUPAC name phosphane and, occasionally, phosphamine. ... Calcium oxide (CaO), commonly known as lime or quicklime, is a widely used chemical compound. ...

These ingredients were apparently heated in a cauldron, and then pumped out through a siphon or large syringe (known as a siphonarios) mounted on the bow of the ship. Such ship was herself called siphonophoros. It could also be used in hand grenades, made of earthenware vessels. If a pyrophoric reaction was involved, perhaps these grenades contained chambers for the fluids, which mixed and ignited when the vessel broke on impact with the target. Three-legged iron pots being used to cater for a school-leavers party in Botswana. ... siphon principle A siphon (also spelled syphon) is a continuous tube that allows liquid to drain from a reservoir through an intermediate point that is higher than the reservoir, the up-slope flow being driven only by hydrostatic pressure without any need for pumping. ... A syringe consists of a plunger fitted to a tube, called the barrel, which has a small opening on one end. ... A hand grenade is a hand-held bomb, made to be thrown by a soldier. ... A pyrophoric substance is a substance that ignites spontaneously, that is, its autoignition temperature is below room temperature. ...


This possibly anachronistic lithograph from a 1869 Harper's Magazine depicts a 13th century engine for throwing Greek fire in a barrel.

The Memoirs of Jean de Joinville, a thirteenth century French nobleman, include these observations of Greek fire during the Seventh Crusade:[1] Image File history File links Download high-resolution version (2615x1992, 4245 KB) File links The following pages on the English Wikipedia link to this file (pages on other projects are not listed): Greek fire ... Image File history File links Download high-resolution version (2615x1992, 4245 KB) File links The following pages on the English Wikipedia link to this file (pages on other projects are not listed): Greek fire ... Look up Anachronism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Jean de Joinville (1224 - December 24, 1317) was one of the great chroniclers of medieval France. ... The Seventh Crusade was a crusade led by Louis IX of France from 1248 to 1254. ...

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 therefore 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.

Home-made sling. ... For the rugby club Saracens see Saracens (rugby club) The term Saracen comes from Greek sarakenoi. ...

In the arts

  • In 2003 Richard Donner directed the film Timeline, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. In the story, an archaeologist from the present journeys to the fourteenth century and in an effort to save his life from his captors, offers to give them the secret of Greek Fire. Although the plot is not based on historical fact, the movie demonstrates the effectiveness of Greek Fire. Nevertheless, the Greek fire in the film also is given explosive properties, which does not seem to be backed by historical evidence. In the novel, however, a mixture of resin and gunpowder is used instead of Greek fire.
  • C. J. Sansom's 2004 novel, Dark Fire, describes a chase to locate a cache of Greek fire in Reformation England.

Richard Donner (born Richard Donald Schwartzberg on April 24, 1930) is an American film director and also producer through the production company, The Donners Company, he and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, own. ... Timeline is a 2003 film directed by Richard Donner. ... Timeline is a science fiction novel by Michael Crichton that was published in November 1999. ... John Michael Crichton (born October 23, 1942, pronounced [1]) is an American author, film producer, film director, and television producer. ... A Thing Or Two About Loyalty is the ninth episode of the 2006 Robin Hood television series, made by Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC One. ... The British Broadcasting Corporation, usually known as the BBC (and also informally known as the Beeb or Auntie) is the largest broadcasting corporation in the world in terms of audience numbers, employing 26,000 staff in the United Kingdom alone and with a budget of more than GB£4 billion... Robin Hood is a British television programme, produced by independent production company Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC One, with co-funding from the BBC America cable television channel in the United States. ... Black powder was the original gunpowder and practically the only known propellant and explosive until the middle of the 19th century. ... C. J. Sansom is an English writer of crime novels. ...

See also

Riverboat of the U.S. Brownwater Navy shooting ignited napalm from its mounted flamethrower during the Vietnam war. ... A simulated Napalm explosion during a 2003 air show. ... The Byzantine Dromon, the heaviest ship in the Byzantine fleet, capable of carrying up to 300 men. ...


  1. ^ The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. ^ Partington 1999:12-13
  3. ^ Needham, Volume 5, 80.
  4. ^ Needham, Volume 5, 81.
  5. ^ a b c Needham, Volume 5, 82.
  6. ^ Needham, Volume 5, 89.

Saint Theophanes the Confessor (about 758/760, Constantinople - March 17, 817 or 818, Samothrace) was an aristocratic but ascetic Byzantine monk and chronicler. ... The University of Oxford, located in the city of Oxford in England, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. ...


  • Spears, W.H., Jr. (1969). Greek Fire: The Fabulous Secret Weapon That Saved Europe. ISBN 0-9600106-3-7
  • James Riddick Partington (1998). A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9. 

External links

  • "Technoporn: Greek Fire", Wired Blog, December 29 2006.

  Results from FactBites:
Greek Fire - LoveToKnow 1911 (456 words)
GREEK FIRE, the name applied to inflammable and destructive compositions used in warfare during the middle ages and particularly by the Byzantine Greeks at the sieges of Constantinople.
Greek fire, properly so-called, was, however, of a somewhat different character.
Lieut.-Colonel H. Hime, after a close examination of the available evidence, concludes that what distinguished Greek fire from the other incendiaries of the period was the presence of quicklime, which was well known to give rise to a large development of heat when brought into contact with water.
Fire kills you can prevent it | Homepage (641 words)
Many Fire and Rescue Services offer a free home fire safety visit to people living within their fire station boundaries to help identify potential fire risks and provide advice on what to do to reduce or prevent them.
The home fire safety visits are carried out by operational crews, they are completely free and you may be eligible for a free smoke alarm.
The overwhelming majority of people who are killed in a house fire perish as a result of smoke and toxic fume inhalation as opposed to burn injuries.
  More results at FactBites »



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