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Greek Fire: The Secret Weapon of the Byzantines

Updated: May 16, 2023

All hands on deck! Get ready for this blazing, red-hot edition of our Greeks and Galleys series, where we’re exploring the histories and adventures of Greek ships and their crews from ancient times to today. This month, we’ll be looking at how the Byzantine Greeks terrorised their enemies and set the ocean alight with their most gruesome and destructive weapon to date, Greek fire!


Greek fire

"The Roman fleet burn the opposite fleet down" – 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes. Image source: Creative Commons.


The weaponry of Byzantine Greece

Since the days of ancient Greece, warfare and weaponry had changed significantly during the centuries of the Byzantine Empire. New enemies, new siege tactics, and new technologies meant that the whole nature of warfare had to change.

Byzantine Greece: This GIF illustrates the changing shape of the Byzantine Empire over time. The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire from 330-1453 CE. Although Byzantines called themselves “Romans,” Greek culture dominated their daily lives.


To find out about the Byzantine infantry (foot soldiers), check out this article. You can also read all about infantry tactics through this link. But for now, we’re going to turn our attention to the Byzantine navy!


Byzantines at Sea: the Siege of Constantinople

Instead of the ancient style of trireme (which you can read about in our last newsletter, here), the Byzantine Greeks preferred a simpler design of ship called the dromon: “the runner.”


Ranging from 45 to 50 metres in length, a dromon held between 100 and 300 men (made up of soldiers and rowers). The ships were equipped with a central tower near the main mast, called a xylocastron (“wooden castle”), used as a nest from which archers and spear-throwers could target their enemies.


Illustration of a dromon typical of the Byzantine navy. Image source: https://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/the-dromon/


Dromon ships were used quite extensively during the second siege of Constantinople in 717-718 CE. Arab forces, led by Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, had come by land and sea to capture Constantinople, the centre of the Byzantine World.


The Arab armies had partially blockaded the city and waited for their navy to arrive and surround the city by sea. 400 ships from Egypt, and 300 from Algeria, were on their way. Their aim was to block food and supplies from entering Constantinople. This, they hoped, would cause the Greeks to starve, and give up the city.


However, the Byzantine king Leo III soon sent his ships out to attack the Arab fleet. During the sea battle, an Arabian soldier on that day might have glimpsed a bright light flashing in the distance, where two enemy ships had met. Then another flash, this time a little closer. He feels hot air on his cheek, carried over by the wind, along with the smell of burning timber.


Byzantine gold coin (solidus) depicting king

Leo III. Source: Creative Commons.



He looks toward the Greek ship right in front of him. The soldiers on it have all rushed to the back, shouting commands to each other, covering their faces. Then — WOOSH!!! A river of flame springs from the Greek ship, and his own Egyptian galley is on fire! The oarsmen are trying to row the burning boat away, or at least run it into the Greek ship so that it catches fire too. But it’s no use: the oars are burnt to a crisp!


Before jumping into the water to save himself, he thinks, “A fire-breathing dragon! Now where did the Greeks get that!?”


After the destruction of the Arabian fleet, no more ships were sent to attack Constantinople by sea. Greek fishermen could freely use the waters, and merchants could come in with supplies. The Greeks would not starve during the war.


Illustration of Greek fire in action. Image source: https://greekcitytimes.com/2022/05/06/greek-fire-byzantine-empire/


The Secret Weapon of the Byzantine Navy

So, how did Greek fire work? The first problem to solve is: how do you set something on fire, and keep it burning, when you’re surrounded by water? Some historians believe it might even have been ignited by contact with water!


The fact is that we simply don’t know how Greek fire was made. The ingredients were top secret, but historians believe it may have contained a mix of quicklime, petroleum, sulphur, or naphtha. This mixture was then launched through a tube, either mounted on the dromon or held by soldiers, so that the flames flowed out like a river, or a flamethrower!


Other civilisations, including China, Mongolia, and even Arabia, later experimented with their own flame-throwers for naval battles, but Greek fire seems to have fallen out of use during the 1200s. The massive efforts involved in trying to keep it secret meant that it was rarely used until eventually, no one knew how it was made!

 

CREATE

Ancient-style oil lamp. Image source: http://web.archive.org/web/20170929204744/http:/timetravellerkids.co.uk:80/uncategorized/make-roman-oil-lamp/


For this month’s activity, we’ll show you how to make some Greek fire for yourselves.... Just kidding! Not only would it be illegal, but the manufacture of Greek fire in itself is highly dangerous, and the fabricators of Greek fire were themselves often gravely injured!


Instead, harness the power of fire to make your own oil lamp, just like our Object of the Month! Oil lamps were the main source of household lighting in the ancient world, and this ancient craft comes in quite handy today whenever there’s a blackout.


Materials:

  1. Vegetable oil. Olive oil will produce little smoke compared to sunflower oil or canola oil, but the latter two are also viable and safe options.

  2. Braided wick. Wool or cotton yarn are the best materials.

  3. Container for the lamp body. Any non-flammable container can act as the body of the lamp. We recommend using a glass jar, and illustrating the outside with Greek motifs or a special message!

  4. Wick holder. This structure keeps the burning end of the wick outside of the oil so that it isn't extinguished. We recommend that you use foil or a jar lid with a hole cut into it, thick enough to allow the wick to pass through and rest upright with some stability.

  5. Matches.

  6. Darkness!


Steps:

Follow the instructions in this video for visual guidance in making your oil lamp!

  1. Fill the container with oil.

  2. Place the wick in your wick holder.

  3. Place the wick holder so that the bottom of the wick is in the oil, and the top is outside.

  4. Leave the wick to soak in the oil for 15 minutes. IMPORTANT: During this step, the oil travels up to the top of the wick, as it continues to while the wick burns. Oil cannot travel up the wick for more than a few centimetres, so don't leave too much space between the top of your wick and the surface of the oil. For this reason, lamps typically have wide containers, so that the oil level takes longer to descend as the lamp burns.

  5. Light the top of your wick, and you're ready to go!


CAUTION: Because the lamp needs fire to operate, you must always use it with the supervision of a parent or adult guardian.


If you make a successful lamp, let us know! We'd like to see how you did, and whether you gave it any decoration! Your parent or guardian can email us a photograph at education@hellenic.org.au.


Until next time, λεῖος πλόος!

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