Was the recipe for Greek Fire ever stolen?

Feb 13 2012

Juan asks if the Byzantines were the only ones to use Greek Fire.  Greek- or ‘Roman’ Fire as it was known by those who were on the receiving end- was the closest guarded state secret of Byzantium.  It’s effect was almost more devastating psychologically than physically.  To watch a brother-in-arms burn alive with flames that couldn’t be put out (even under water) must have been a terrifying ordeal.  Seeing pots of it come flying through the air (“like a dragon in flight” according to a French nobleman who had the misfortune to experience it first hand) shattered the morale of more than one army.  Not surprisingly there were many attempts by foreign powers to get their hands on its secret.  Diplomats scurried back and forth from several surrounding nations trying to deal for the recipe- but all in vain.

The emperors of Constantinople were fully aware of the value of their secret weapon.  In fact, they were reluctant to use it too frequently for fear that it could be reverse-engineered  or lose its psychological potency by overuse.  They were right to be worried.  Sometime before the eleventh century the Arabs managed to develop their own version, though it was far less effective.

It seems to have fallen out of favor with the Byzantines themselves by the 12th century- perhaps because they had lost control of the areas (around the eastern edge of the Black Sea) where they obtained the ingredients.  There is a mention of its use during the 4th Crusade, but whether it was actual Greek Fire or simply ships set on fire is not clear.  In any event, it’s day was done.  The spread of gunpowder made Greek Fire obsolete and it disappears from history.

3 responses so far

  1. I believe to have read somewhere (possibly The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Steven Runciman) that Greek Fire was used during the siege of Constantinople in 1453. (It is also mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the siege: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Constantinople .) Is this incorrect?

  2. This is an interesting premise, and one that is the basis for the book I am currently writing. A secret like how to make Greek Fire, was one closely guarded. It makes for an intensely interesting plot, much like something from the DaVinci Code with a tenth century flavor!

  3. I’d like to post a question regarding Greek Fire, its substance and names. Now, we all know that the Byzantines themselves didn’t actually call it “Greek Fire” and instead we see many other names in the sources – Medean Fire, Liquid Fire, Naval Fire, Battle Fire etc. We also know it was being used through siphon-flamethrowers, usually on special ships, but occasionally also on land and even hand-held flamethrowers. However, we also have reports of it being used in grenades (spherical cones). Not only that, but we also have reports of such grenades of Medean Fire being used by the Arabs, Bulgarians and others. In regards to the Bulgarians, we also have one occasion when Khan Krum is reported to have captured “36 copper siphons and not a little of the liquid fire used with them” after the siege of Mesembria in 812. There are reports of various kinds of liquid fire, unburned sulphur etc., being used even centuries before Callinicus by the Persians, and centuries later even by nomadic peoples like the Cumans.
    So I wonder – if “Greek Fire” really remained such an undisclosed secret, would that mean that “Greek Fire” was simply the best recipe (or the best mechanism for its exploitation – namely, the flamethrower) among a number of other recipes for inferior liquid fire, used by the other nations?
    I’ve also read a suggestion that there were two types of “Greek/Medean Fire” – one was the Naval or Liquid Fire, which was obviously liquid and used in flamethrowers, while the other would have been the Battle Fire, which would have been of a powder substance and used in the fore-mentioned grenades. If that is so, would the “true” Greek Fire rather be the liquid form or would that term encompass both the liquid and the eventual powder?

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