Greek Fire – The Atomic Bomb of Antiquity
There are many reports of terrible weapons in the history of the art of war which has made the balance at some point in history tilted to one side or another. Some of the stories about these weapons turned out to be just legends. For others, the mystery was scattered either by archaeological discoveries or by identifying documents that speak of them. Among the weapons that existed but are still unknown, there is one whose appearance can be equated for that time with a nuclear bomb: Greek fire or Byzantine fire.
The use of fire for military purposes is as old as the art of war. Homer, the father of history, reminds that the inhabitants of Troy have destroyed the battle ships of Ahaia with fire. The ancient Greek-Roman world was familiar with these tactics and widely used various chemical compounds based on sulfur, petroleum, or bitumen. Moreover, the ancient historian Tucidide mentions that in the siege of Delium, at 424 BC, flamethrowers were used. Even before the terrible Greek (Byzantine) fire was discovered, Emperor Athanasius I (491-518) used a chemical compound based on sulfur and lime in the 515 naval battle against Vitalian’s revolts.
It seems that the one who advised the emperor to use the mixture for this reason would have been an Athenian philosopher called Proclus. The first written references to the liquid fire – as was called the Greek / Byzantine fire – were made by the chronicler Teofan the Confessor. It speaks of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Fourth Pogonatul (665-685 d.Hr.). The one who successfully used this technology in the clashes he had with the Arabs in their first attempt to conquer Constantinople (674-678 AD). According to the chronicler, the liquid fire was invented by a certain Kallinikos (Callinicus), a craftsman and architect from the city of Heliopolis. He had to flee the Arab invaders and found his refuge in the great city of Constantinople. He would have put the liquid fire at the disposal of the Byzantines, and they would have reputed a brilliant victory against the Muslim atrocities.
Some researchers are of the opinion that it is not possible for one man to invent such a compound, and the so-called invention of Kallinikos would actually be one of the secrets of the Chemistry School in Alexandria. It is certain that the devastating effects of the Greek fire have been described by many chroniclers, the liquid fire had the property of burning even in the water.
Testimonies related to the use of liquid fire by the Byzantines reach the end of the 12th century. His last use was probably during the Fourth Crusade, which was hijacked and ended with the conquest of Constantinople by the armies coming from the West.It seems that in 1203 the Byzantines filled 18 old battle ships with flammable materials, probably with liquid fire, and tried unsuccessfully to fire the armies of soldiers sailing on the sea to Galata.
The mixture, deposited in clay amphorae and projected through some siphons, caused smoke and thunder “like thunder”
Although this fighting technique was very common, the composition of liquid fire remained a secret even for the inhabitants of the empire until its fall. Before actually presenting the theories about the composition of the flammable liquid, it must be said that Byzantine fire has two components: the mixture and its spraying system.