Military Review

Greek fire. Napalm of the Middle Ages


People have always attached great importance to fire. On a person, a burning flame, like flowing water, still produces an almost hypnotic effect. Which is reflected in numerous sayings and anecdotes.

At the same time, man has always tried to tame the elements, wishing to use the power of fire for military purposes. One example of the use of fire in hostilities is the famous Greek fire, which was one of the military trump cards of the Byzantine Empire.

It so happened that today we know how and where gunpowder was invented, as well as fireworks - in China. A lot is known about sparklers and sparklers from India. Which were originally an important signaling element. And only in the recent past have they become a standard attribute of Christmas or New Year. But at the same time, we know very little about Greek fire, the formula and composition of which are still a mystery to chemists and historians.

Today, only the estimated composition of the mixture and the technology of using this fire for military purposes are known. At the same time, the available knowledge allows us to say that Greek fire was the obvious predecessor of modern napalm. And the tactics and methods of its use were the prototype of modern flamethrowers.

First appearance of Greek fire

It is believed that for the first time flammable compounds that could not be extinguished with water were used by the ancient Greeks.

Perhaps the first use of Greek fire was the land battle of Delia, which took place in 424 BC. The combustible mixture was used in battle between the Athenians and the Boeotians. More precisely, during the assault by the Boeotians of the ancient city of Delium, in which the garrison of the Athenians took refuge.

The Boeotians could use special devices in the storming of the city, which were pipes made of hollow logs. The mixture was fed from pipes with sufficient force to ensure a successful assault on the fortress by the Boeotians.

The use of Greek fire. Miniature of the Madrid Skylitz

Historians believe that the ancient Greeks actually used in some battles special incendiary mixtures, which could include crude oil, sulfur and various oils. It was also the Greeks who were most likely the first to use the prototypes of flamethrowers in combat conditions. At the same time, flamethrowers of those years did not throw a combustible mixture. They, like fabulous dragons, spewed flames along with sparks and burning coals.

The devices were fairly simple mechanisms with a brazier, which was supposedly filled with charcoal. With the help of bellows air was forced into the brazier. After that, an open flame burst out of the mouth of the fire pipe with a terrible roar.

It is believed that the range of such devices did not exceed 5-15 meters. But for the capture of wooden fortifications or use in a naval battle, when the ships converged closely for boarding battles, such a range was enough.

The use of a special flammable mixture at sea was described in his work "On the Art of the Commander" in 350 BC by the Greek author Aeneas the Tactician. Who, most likely, was a politician or military leader, one of the first to write about combat tactics and the art of war.

In his writings, a mixture that could not be extinguished using traditional methods was described as follows:

To burn enemy ships, a special mixture is used, consisting of lighted resin, sulfur, sawdust of resinous wood, incense and tow. "

With the decline of the ancient Greek civilization and the decline of the entire ancient world, the secret weapons was lost for a while. He retreated into the shadows to reappear in the early Middle Ages.

Secret weapon of Byzantium

At the end of the XNUMXth century AD, the Byzantine Empire was still a magnificent state. But it gradually lost its territory, being surrounded by enemies. The Arabs posed a great danger to the empire.

From 673 to 678, they besieged the capital - Constantinople - from land and sea for five years, trying to take the city. But they were forced to retreat.

The use of a manual cheirosyphon from the upper navigation bridge during the siege of the fortress.

The empire was largely saved by the secret of the Greek fire, which it acquired around the same years. The new wonder weapon provided the Byzantine the fleet advantage at sea, forcing the Muslim squadrons to retreat. At the same time, the Arabs suffered sensitive defeats. On land, the troops of the Arab Caliphate were defeated in Asia.

As a result of the wars with the Arabs, the empire lost many lands, but came out of the conflict more monolithic and cohesive. The same applied to its national composition, which became more homogeneous. And most importantly, religious differences disappeared in the empire.

The engineer and architect Kallinikos is called the inventor of the Greek fire, which helped to prolong the existence of the Byzantine Empire. Or Kallinikos, who lived in the Syrian Heliopolis conquered by the Arabs (today the city of Baalbek in Lebanon).

The creator of the combustible mixture was either Greek or a Hellenized Jew by nationality. In about 668 Kallinikos managed to escape to Byzantium. Where he showed a new invention, offering his services to Emperor Constantine IV. In addition to the incendiary mixture itself, Kallinik presented there a device for throwing it. Such devices were later installed on large Byzantine sailing and rowing ships - dromons.

The device for throwing fire was called siphon or siphonophore. The product consisted of copper pipes that could be decorated with dragon heads or shaped like such heads. Siphons were placed on the high decks of the dromons.

They spit out the mixture of fire under the action of compressed air or bellows, like blacksmiths. The range of such Byzantine flamethrowers could reach 25-30 meters. This was enough for use in the navy. Since the combustible mixture, which could not be extinguished with water, posed a huge danger to the slow, clumsy wooden ships of that time.

The mixture continued to burn even on the surface of the water, which only frightened the opponents of the Byzantines even more. The psychological effect of the use of unusual weapons sometimes turned out to be more important than its real destructive abilities.

Hand grenades with Greek fire from the Chania arsenal. X and XII centuries.

Over time, even portable hand-held devices for throwing combustible mixtures, called cheirosyphon, appeared in Byzantium. Images of such devices in engravings have survived to this day. After a while, they began to equip hand grenades with Greek fire, as well as special vessels, which were thrown by catapults into besieged cities and fortresses.

It should be noted that the Greek fire had many different names in those years. Bulgarians, Russians and Arabs (as well as other opponents of the Romans) called this mixture differently. For example, "liquid fire", "artificial fire", "cooked fire". The combination "Roman fire" was also used.

In the same way, the possible composition of such a combustible mixture was different in different sources. The secret was carefully guarded in the Byzantine Empire.

In many ways, it also hinders the complete unraveling of the composition of Greek fire by the fact that in the surviving historical documents on the ancient names of substances are often impossible to identify their exact modern counterparts.

For example, the word "sulfur" in Russian translated materials could mean almost any combustible substance, including fat. In any case, experts agree that the most likely components of the Byzantine miracle weapon were crude oil or asphalt, quicklime and sulfur. Additionally, the composition could include calcium phosphide, which releases phosphine gas upon contact with a liquid, which spontaneously ignites in air.

Greek fire made the Byzantine fleet invincible

The possession of Greek fire and the technologies of its use for several centuries made the fleet of the Byzantine Empire the most formidable force in the Mediterranean.

In 673-678, thanks to this invention, the first significant losses were inflicted on the Arab fleet. In 717, Greek fire again came to the aid of the Byzantines, who defeated the Arab fleet that was besieging Constantinople. Later, the Byzantines used ships carrying siphons against the Bulgarians and the Rus.

Among other things, Greek fire allowed Byzantium to successfully repel Prince Igor's raid on Constantinople in 941. Then the boats of the numerous fleet of the Kiev prince were burned by fiery dromons and triremes. The unsuccessful first campaign in 943 was followed by a second. Already overland and with the support of the Pechenegs. This time did not come to military clashes. And the parties made peace in 944.

The Byzantine dromon attacks the battle boats of the Slavs.

In the future, the use of Greek fire continued. But the use of mixtures gradually decreased. It is believed that the last time fire was used in 1453 during the siege of Constantinople by the troops of the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II Fatih.

The version seems to be quite logical that along with the wide distribution of gunpowder and firearms created on its basis in Europe and Asia, Greek fire simply lost its military significance. And the secret of its manufacture was again safely forgotten for some time. To return to the battlefields in a new and much more terrible guise already in the XX century.

Regardless of how effective Greek fire was, it undoubtedly became the prototype of all modern flamethrower mixtures and napalm.

In addition, flammable combustible mixtures first migrated into fairy tales. And then into the literary genre of fantasy.

The prototype of the "wild fire" in the well-known fantasy saga "A Song of Ice and Fire", which was filmed by the HBO channel in the form of the most popular television series "Game of Thrones", was apparently Greek fire.
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  1. Crowe
    Crowe 20 December 2020 05: 34
    Greek fire was also used in the siege of Durazzo in 1108, when the Normans, led by Bohemund, attempted to mine the walls and the Byzantines burned them down as countermeasures when they reached the walls. Anna Komnina, daughter of Emperor Alexei I Komnenos, described the battle between the Greeks and the inhabitants of the city of Pisa near the island of Rhodes in 1103.
    “An enemy ship rammed ours at the stern, but fire was directed at it. Sensing the impact, the Pisans fled, having no experience in opposing this device. It is interesting that a fire that burns on the fly, as a rule, can be directed upward, can be directed downward or, as necessary, in any direction in accordance with the will of the engineer who controls it "

    Anna describes the composition of the incendiary mixture and its use as follows:
    "They made this fire in the following skillful way. From pine and some evergreen trees, flammable resins were extracted. They were dried and ground with sulfur, after which they filled the cavities of the reed with this composition. The soldiers used these pipes in a special way. In a special way they launched these pipes, setting fire to them on one side. The tubes emitted a lot of light and fell like a whirlwind of fire on the faces of the enemies. "
    And Greek fire was also an excellent psychological weapon: in fear of it, enemy ships tried to stay at a great distance from the Byzantine ships. At that time, a breakthrough technology, akin to hypersonic missiles today.
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    2. Bar1
      Bar1 20 December 2020 16: 22
      those times, and what was demolished, what is the reason, admins?
  2. riwas
    riwas 20 December 2020 05: 59
    ... The Roman navy was armed with: a hand-held flamethrower for "Greek fire" and a "siphon", as well as hand-held incendiary weapons - a pipe loaded with oil.

    hand flamethrower

    manual flamethrower siphon
  3. evgen1221
    evgen1221 20 December 2020 07: 35
    On account of the invention of gunpowder in China, I have certain doubts. They are called reverse translation - when the Chinese text is translated into European and vice versa, the meaning is greatly lost. There are many examples in history. For example, one Czech (it seems) found an ancient document in Chinese and translated it, it turned out that he discovered a previously unknown dynasty of China, the struggle of its ruler for power was described in the document. Naturally sold out houses and awards, as well as compulsory study in schools and universities of this document followed. But as it turned out much later, the document describes the retelling of the war of the scarlet and white roses in Europe by an unknown Chinese historian. But translated from Chinese, it grew into a new ancient dynasty. Something like that with gunpowder could easily be.
    1. Nikolaevich I
      Nikolaevich I 20 December 2020 09: 47
      Quote: evgen1221
      On account of the invention of gunpowder in China, I have certain doubts.

      I agree with you! Something is attributed a lot to the "ancient" Chinese! And go and check now ...! request The Chinese could have accidentally received the "proto-powder", but it still differed in composition from the "classic" black powder, which became widespread in Europe. And even the Chinese used rockets .... and the Bonbs were made for the first time ... and even "engineering mines" with fuses! By the way, the Chinese also used flamethrowers using a different "fire mixture" than the "Greek fire"! (they took a boiler filled with oil and representing a semblance of an autoclave ... put it on fire ... when enough gasoline vapors were collected in the boiler (yes, it turns out that the Chinese invented gasoline too!), they used the fur ... "barrel" also available! Such a Chinese "teapot" is described in the Chinese "chronicles"!)
  4. Operator
    Operator 20 December 2020 10: 30
    The composition of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine fire mixtures was different - olive oil, fish oil, charcoal powder, resin and oil were used as a base, sulfur, saltpeter, etc. were mixed with them.

    As for black powder: it is now believed that it was simultaneously and independently invented in Europe and China, and in Europe - as a propellant, and in China - in the form of rocket fuel.
    1. astepanov
      astepanov 20 December 2020 21: 47
      Quote: Operator
      it is now believed to have been invented simultaneously and independently in Europe and China, in Europe as a propellant and in China as propellant.
      Hard to believe. First, there are three components in gunpowder: saltpeter, sulfur, coal. Saltpeter was not produced in ancient times and was exotic - until a military need arose for it. Next, there are two more components: sulfur and coal. So, there are two fuels and one oxidizer. If we vary the composition for all components with a step of 10% (i.e. very roughly), we get 100 variants of the mixture. But coal is also not suitable for gunpowder, and saltpeter must be cleared of calcium and sodium, and besides coal and sulfur there is also a darkness of combustible substances (vegetable and natural resins, polysaccharides in the form of sawdust and starch, waxes, ozokerites, dry blood, tartar, gums, etc.) But no, the light converged like a wedge on coal and sulfur. And it seems to me that this happened because gunpowder was invented once, and not in China. In China, unlike Europe, there are no surface sulfur deposits. (True, sulfur is not required in rocket powder). But who would invest crazy efforts in the creation of militarily useless powder rockets that fly to nowhere, do not explode and are terribly expensive?
      Additionally, the composition could include calcium phosphide, which releases phosphine gas upon contact with liquid
      No, I couldn't. The synthesis of calcium phosphide was hardly ancient.
      Thanks to the author for a very interesting publication and good presentation style. It was pleasant to read.
    2. alexey alexeyev_2
      alexey alexeyev_2 21 December 2020 18: 44
      And how could gunpowder be invented in China if saltpeter deposits were discovered there only in the 18th century?
      1. 89268170588
        89268170588 31 January 2021 16: 32
        I don't remember what the tribe is called in China, they use bat droppings in their gunpowder. With their rockets, they seriously battered the Japanese, who were retreating through their territory. In ancient times, gunpowder was not produced on an industrial scale, so there were enough components. By the way, the Mongols during the time of Kublai used hand powder grenades when landing in Japan. Berthold Schwartz, who is credited with the invention of gunpowder, just exploded according to legend, not knowing what he had invented. Remember the invention of mercury fulminate. 3 grams of this substance tore apart guns, and they thought that they had invented a new gunpowder.
  5. Avior
    Avior 20 December 2020 10: 48
    The Byzantine dromon attacks the battle boats of the Slavs.

    Judging by the plot in the picture, everything happens exactly the opposite.
    flammable combustible mixtures first migrated to fairy tales. And then into the literary genre of fantasy.

    Somewhere I heard it ...
    Of course, they quickly forgot about everything. The ring, respectively, was lost ...
    History has become a legend. The legend has turned into a farce. And, then, they made up all sorts of anecdotes.
    ... smile
    And if, in fact, on a wooden ship of that time, a stock of hot coals was a danger not only for enemies, but also for your own ship.
    A Molotov cocktail is technically not that complicated, the design is even simpler, you can throw from a catapult, set fire to the fuse just before the catapult is triggered, and store it relatively safely. The main thing is that the amphora is strong and does not fall apart during the operation of the catapult.
    1. Kote Pan Kokhanka
      Kote Pan Kokhanka 20 December 2020 16: 37
      Among other things, Greek fire allowed Byzantium to successfully repel Prince Igor's raid on Constantinople in 941. Then the boats of the numerous fleet of the Kiev prince were burned by fiery dromons and triremes.

      Sergey mentioning trire from what source? Something I vaguely doubt about the presence of these combat units in the fleet of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time in question.
      1. Avior
        Avior 20 December 2020 17: 10
        “On the eleventh of June of the fourteenth indicta (941), on ten thousand ships, the dews sailed to Constantinople, which are also called Dromites, and they come from the Franks. The patrician [Theophanes] was sent against them with all the dromons and triremes that had just appeared in the city. He equipped and put in order the fleet, strengthened himself with fasting and tears, and prepared to fight the dew. "

        Successor of TheophanesПродолжатель_Феофана
        Perhaps the subtleties of translation.
      2. Avior
        Avior 20 December 2020 17: 31
        it looks like there were dromons with three rows of oars. I got a phrase on the Internet from somewhere.
        Three-tiered ("trireme") dromones are described in the XNUMXth century in a work dedicated to the parakimomenus Vasily Lekapen.

        this is about those times.
        apparently, that is why it was brought in the translation.
        1. Kote Pan Kokhanka
          Kote Pan Kokhanka 20 December 2020 18: 04
          Images of dromons on which, something could be talked about is missing.
          Although apparently three rows of oars, and not three tiers. Though I lean towards three rows of rowers. As in the early galleys, but in this case, the story keeps its secrets.
          1. Sergey Sfiedu
            Sergey Sfiedu 20 December 2020 19: 14
            Here we must also bear in mind such a moment - the Byzantine chroniclers considered it good form to insert into their chronicles all sorts of beautiful words from the works of ancient historians. Therefore, you need to be careful with trimers.
            1. zenion
              zenion 4 February 2021 15: 25
              An inexperienced person's Trier may bite. It is contagious and three feathers can be infected.
  6. BAI
    BAI 20 December 2020 14: 49
    his work "On the art of the commander" in 350 BC and the Greek author Aeneas Tactician.

    As I understand it, the word "tactics" came from this name. If so, then honestly, I didn't know.
    1. Sergey Sfiedu
      Sergey Sfiedu 20 December 2020 19: 31
      And not vice versa? The author in the literature could be nicknamed the Tactician for his work on military leadership (Αινείας ο Τακτικός). By the way, "tacticos" in Greek means ordinary, regular, as well as "order of battle", "order" ..
    2. alexey alexeyev_2
      alexey alexeyev_2 20 December 2020 22: 48
      Hmm .. Actually, the word tactics was first mentioned in the English Webster dictionary only in the 16th century.
  7. Denimax
    Denimax 20 December 2020 15: 25
    Their recipes are strange, as if they deliberately wanted to mislead the enemy. Most likely it was a liquid obtained after oil distillation. The flamethrowers themselves are easier to make in the form of large syringes that can be inserted in place of the arrow into a large crossbow, the Greeks had such. IMHO
    1. Sergey Sfiedu
      Sergey Sfiedu 20 December 2020 19: 35
      And from what to make these "syringes", so that they do not break in the arcballista? The Greeks were quite conservative - both Kallinikos invented and applied.
  8. alexey alexeyev_2
    alexey alexeyev_2 20 December 2020 21: 25
    Wonderful are your deeds, Lord ... How many rubbish do not write. I am tormented by the question. What pressure was created by the furs, which allegedly spat with this mixture. And the Byzantine dromon with two tiers of oars. Well, really. Perhaps the laws of physics did not work at that time. article: bold minus
    1. The comment was deleted.
    2. Ua3qhp
      Ua3qhp 21 December 2020 21: 06
      Maybe instead of gunpowder, a nitrate rag was used. They did not shoot with cannonballs, but it is quite possible to spit out a bucket of oil from a bronze pipe by 40-50 meters, and a nitrated rag would be enough.
      Saltpeter deposits are optional. There is such a thing - a napkin, the device is simple, the production volumes are small, but there is a lot here and it is not necessary.
  9. Pushkowed
    Pushkowed 22 December 2020 09: 46
    There are several theories about "Greek fire", incl. and quite radical.

    There is a theory that oil was not part of itas there are no oil fields in Greece that would be available for industrial development with medieval technologies. Such deposits were then only in the Arab lands, and oil would have to be imported from there. It is unlikely that the Arabs (the main opponents of the Greeks in those days) would not have paid attention to a.

    There is also a more radical theory: supposedly "Greek fire" is an artistic fiction. After all, the Greeks with their "wunderwaffe" did not always win. From time to time they had to suffer defeat. The adherents of this theory believe that the victories attributed to the "Greek fire" occurred only in those battles in which the balance of power ensured victory without it. And when the Greeks got it for nuts, it was then that for some reason they did not have the "Greek fire".

    The version is controversial, but interesting. Indeed, you can find many descriptions of the successful use of "Greek fire", but with descriptions of its unsuccessful applications are somehow sparse. A sort of ultimate weapon with 100% effectiveness. Somehow this does not fit with the modern military theory, according to which the stake on the "wunderwaffe" is obviously a losing one, because each weapon has a limit of applicability and a limit of effectiveness.

    In addition, the degree of secrecy is striking. During several centuries (!) to keep secret the device of the weapon, which has already been massively introduced in the troops and is regularly used in hostilities. How many specialists should have been involved here: raw material miners, production personnel, transporters (remember D.I. Really, over the long centuries, none of them spilled out and was not captured? (Remember the recent study on the impossibility of the long existence of large-scale conspiracies, with many participants).

    History shows that the secret of any new weapon quickly becomes known to a potential adversary (nuclear weapons are an example). Even faster - if the enemy not potential, i.e. when this weapon is actually used against it. Have none of the enemies ever captured a trophy sample? Is there a lot of Arab evidence of how they (the Arabs) were powerless against the Greek superweapon? After all, Arabs are not savages. In that era, in cultural and technical terms, they were not inferior to the Europeans (and even superior in many ways).

    It is also unclear why the intensity of the use of "Greek fire" decreased over time. Who will voluntarily give up effective weapons that give absolute military superiority and cannot be reproduced by anyone? But this fits well into the version about its applicability only in "victorious" battles (ie, those that could have been won without him). As the Byzantine Empire declined, such battles became less and less.

    This does not mean that there was no "Greek fire". There is no smoke without fire (involuntary pun). Incendiary weapons have always existed, which means the Greeks should have had them. Perhaps with its own national specifics ("school", if you like). There is nothing unusual in the existence of such different "schools": modern chemists who tried to recreate the recipe for "Greek fire" received several dozen recipes (including oil-free ones) that actually worked and gave similar results. But there is no need to make this weapon absolute. Most likely, the lion's share of the success of the "Greek fire" is the merit of Byzantine state propaganda.
    1. alatanas
      alatanas 17 January 2021 14: 57
      It is also unclear why the intensity of the use of "Greek fire" decreased over time.

      Very simple. When the Byzantine Empire began to decrease from the east, then the intensity of consumption decreased due to a lack of raw materials, i.e. oil.
      The secret of the weapon was not in the siphon, but in the very combustible mixture.
    2. alex-cn
      alex-cn 25 January 2021 09: 27
      One might even think about the long-term preservation of secrecy ... Perhaps only small groups of manufacturers knew the recipe, the soldier does not need to know this, only the application process, who needs the exact recipe for napalm and whether smokeless powder ...
  10. Simon
    Simon 27 January 2021 19: 19
    Interesting article, thanks to the author. I learned a lot about Greek fire. good