Greek Fire

by Daniel Russ on August 21, 2010

Greek Fire

Greek Fire was an incendiary weapon invented by the Byzantine military and used by Byzantine navies against opponents to good effect. Pumped with bellows through a hose at the prow of a ship, this napalm like chemical burned extremely hot, stuck to everything, floated on the surface of the water and burned while floating. Scientists think it could have been composed of quicklime and calcium phosphate and naptha.

It wasn’t just used as flamethrower. Greek Fire would be soaked into materials and thrown with a catapult against castles. Or it was put on a pivoting crane and poured onto enemy ships or castle walls and ignited. The recipe was a tightly held secret, so today these ingredients are just guesses.

Princess Anna Kommena comments on her father  Emperor Alexius’s fear of going to war with the Pisans in the 11th century.

As the Emperor knew that the Pisans were skilled in sea warfare, and apprehensive about having a battle with them, on the prow of each ship that he had built he had a head fixed of a lion, or other land animal, open mouthed, made in bronze or iron and gilded all over, so that just the sight of them was terrifying. And the fire that was to be directed against the enemy through the mouths of the beasts, it looked as if they were vomiting fire.

There is another account of a naval battle from the first century in China between the Sung dynastic navy General Chu Ling-Pen leading an insurgency. Here, the flamethrower backfired. Literally

Chu Ling-Pin as Admiral was attacked by the Sung emperor’s forces in strength. Chu was in command of a large warship more than ten decks high, with flags flying and drums beating. The imperial ships were smaller but they came down the river attacking fiercely, and the arrows flew so fast that the ships under Admiral Chu were like porcupines. Chu hardly knew what to do. So he quickly projected petrol from flame-throwers to destroy the enemy. The Sung forces could not have withstood this, but all of a sudden a north wind sprang up and swept the smoke and flames over the sky towards his own ships and men. As many as – 150,000 soldiers and sailors were caught in this and overwhelmed, whereupon Chu, being overcome with grief, flung himself into the flames and died.

Source: Peter James and Nick Thorpe: Ancient Inventions Ballantine Books 1994; Wikipedia

Artists Depiction Of Greek Fire In Use


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