Greek Fire and its contribution to Byzantine might by Konstantinos Karatolios – A Review

Greek fire

Greek fire

I happened upon this short book on Amazon in my ongoing search for knowledge on the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire. The author is Greek and holds a post-graduate degree in Byzantine studies from the University of Crete. Originally published in Greek,  most of the footnotes are in Greek. Many references are to Greek authors, with a number of others (Haldon, Treadgold, Kazhdan, Magdalino and Ostrogorsky) who will be familiar to English speakers interested in the Byzantines.

The Origins of Greek Fire

The historical record says that a Syrian named Kallinikos developed the substance known as Greek fire in the 7th century. Prior to that time, liquid incendiaries were known to Persians and other civilizations in the Middle East. But it was Kallinikos who developed this mixture into a lethally effective weapon that protected the empire from invasions and rebels for centuries.

Many historians have suggestions about the chemical recipe used to create Greek fire. It seems likely that the concoction included naphtha, lime and oil. Other possible ingredients were sulphur and resin. The book implies, but never states specifically, that the particular mixture may have changed, depending on the available ingredients.

Recreating Greek Fire

The author describes two instances when the historian John Haldon worked with scientists to come up with a formula that mimicked the reported effects of Greek fire. His efforts were at least partially effective but appear not to have fully satisfied his curiosity.

Sea Battles and Greek Fire

The author goes into some depth in his descriptions how the Byzantines used Greek fire in sea battles – its most common usage. He also mentions that it was infrequently used in land battles and gives a few examples. Despite references to John Skylitzes, he neglected to include in his listing the siege at Nicaea in 976 when Manuel Comnenus fought off the rebel Bardas Skleros with the use of Greek fire. (See my book, Tales of Byzantium, for a story of that siege.)

The Mystery of the Lost Formula

How long did the Byzantines use this substance? Karatolios refered to the Alexiad of Anna Comnena where she describes its use against the Normans in 1081. There are historical references of its use against the Turks in the final siege in 1453. However, by that time its usefulness had diminished, superseded by the discovery of gunpowder. I suspect the men with the best knowledge of the formula may have died in the mid-to-late 1040s, during an episode of plague. The Byzantines definitely used Greek fire against a Rus invasion in 1043, and a plague followed a few years later, while references to its use drop off after that. 

Anyone looking for more information on Greek fire would find this 70-page book useful. Despite its numerous academic references, it is written so that the casual historian and non-Greek speaker can enjoy it.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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