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Greek Fire, The Most Powerful Weapon Of Byzantine Army

4606 words - 19 pages

"War is the father of all things."1 Volkman begins his book, Science Goes to War, with this quote from Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher. Volkman uses the quote to suggest that many, if not all, scientific advancements owe their birth to the desire for or the fear of war. Fire is undoubtedly a part of this advancement as Bert Hall points out, "Fire is one of the primordial forces of nature, and incendiary weapons have had a place in armies' toolkits for almost as long as civilized states have made war."2 Of all the tools at the disposal of the Byzantine Empire's military, the 'so called' Greek fire was the most important.3

Greek fire was a weapon system that allowed Byzantine ships, as early as the seventh century, to spew fire at its enemies. On the ship's prow was the head of a lion or some other monstrosity, cast in brass or iron. In it's mouth was a bronze siphon that could swivel back and forth.4 The flaming liquid that spewed from this siphon came with the roaring sound and a black cloud of smoke. What makes it worse is that it even burns while in water.5 The fear it instilled in enemies sometimes egged men in full plate armor to leap in the water, knowing they will be dragged down to the bottom simply because drowning was preferable to being burned alive.6

Such an awe-inspiring beast of a weapon was already predisposed to legend and rumor. However, even as cinematic as Greek fire was, its cloud of ambiguity is, frankly, ridiculous. Put as accurately and elegantly as possible, Greek fire was "a misnomer wrapped in a misconception, confused in translation, veiled in secrecy, and embellished with apocrypha."7 At one point, one of the Byzantine emperors wrote in a letter to his son that Greek fire "was revealed and taught by God through an angel to the great and holy Constantine, the first Christian emperor."8 Say what you will about religion, but not even contemporary historians agree with that account, as will be addressed below.

It's impossible to move forward with any discussion of Greek fire without first discussing what the words even mean. As Alex Roland notes, "The Arabs, Bulgars, Russians, and others who were reported to have experienced the real Greek fire would never have called it that, for they looked upon the Byzantines not as Greeks, but as Romans. "Roman fire" is in fact one of the original names of the weapon."9 The Byzantines themselves called their pride and joy "variously "marine fire," "liquid fire," "prepared fire," "artificial fire." For the major part, the term, Greek fire, seems to have been a western term. Even still, for the West, it was a catch all term for any Eastern incendiary weapon.10 When the Crusaders came East and saw all this fire on the battlefield, how were they to tell the difference between what the Arabs used, what the Turks used, and what the Byzantines used? Especially when there was supposedly a lighter, hand-pumped version, and another that worked like a blowpipe. 11 However, while...

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