Monday, 25 June 2012

Greek Fire: A napalm-like weapon

Byzantium fought for its very survival throughout its existence. Often, the empire faced enemies who were superior in military and economic might. Despite these odds, Byzantium always managed to survive. One of the main reasons for its survival was the secret weapon: Greek fire. Used skilfully by its leaders, Byzantium managed to come back repeatedly from the brink of disaster.

Greek fire was a sticky liquid flame used in land battles during sieges and naval battles. The soldiers would use a firing tube to spray the liquid that would engulf their target in flames. A loud noise that sounded like a roar and lots of smoke accompanied the discharge of Greek fire. To enhance the effect, the Byzantines installed figureheads of animals like lions on their ships. Thus in naval combat, it would seem as if the animals were spewing fire from their mouths. Unsuspecting and superstitious enemies would greatly fear the fire, as they had never seen such a spectacle before.

It is said to have been invented by a Syrian Engineer, one Callinicus, a refugee from Maalbek, in the seventh century (673 AD). The "liquid fire" was hurled on to the ships of their enemies from siphons and burst into flames on contact. As it was reputed to be inextinguishable and burned even on water, it caused panic and dread. Its introducation into warfare of its time was comparable in its demoralizing influence to the introducation of nuclear weapons in our time. Both Arab and Greek sources agree that it surpassed all incendiary weapons in destruction. The secret behind the Greek fire was handed down from one emperor to the next for centuries. Rumors about its composition include such chemicals as liquid petroleum, naphtha, burning pitch, sulphur, resin, quicklimeand bitumen, along with some other "secret ingredient". The exact composition, however, remains unknown.

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