GREEK FIRE, the name applied to inflammable and destructive compositions used in warfare during the middle ages and particularly by the Byzantine Greeks at the sieges of Constantinople. The employment of liquid fire is represented on Assyrian bas-reliefs. At the siege of Plataea (429 B.C.) the Spartans attempted to burn the town by piling up against the walls wood saturated with pitch and sulphur and setting it on fire (Thuc. ii. 77), and at the siege of Delium (424 B.C.) a cauldron containing pitch, sulphur and burning charcoal, was placed against the walls and urged into flame by the aid of a bellows, the blast from which was conveyed through a hollow tree-trunk (Thuc. iv. 100). Aeneas Tacticus in the following century mentions a mixture of sulphur, pitch, charcoal, incense and tow, which was packed in wooden vessels and thrown lighted upon the decks of the enemy’s ships. Later, as in receipts given by Vegetius (c. A.D. 350), naphtha or petroleum is added, and some nine centuries afterwards the same substances are found forming part of mixtures described in the later receipts (which probably date from the beginning of the 13th century) of the collection known as the Liber ignium of Marcus Graecus. In subsequent receipts saltpetre and turpentine make their appearance, and the modern “carcass composition,” containing sulphur, tallow, rosin, turpentine, saltpetre and crude antimony, is a representative of the same class of mixtures, which became known to the Crusaders as Greek fire but were more usually called wildfire. Greek fire, properly so-called, was, however, of a somewhat different character. It is said that in the reign of Constantine Pogonatus (648–685) an architect named Callinicus, who had fled from Heliopolis in Syria to Constantinople, prepared a wet fire which was thrown out from siphons (τὸ διὰ τῶν σιφώνων ἐκφερόμενον πῦρ ὑγρόν), and that by its aid the ships of the Saracens were set on fire at Cyzicus and their defeat assured. The art of compounding this mixture, which is also referred to as πῦρ θαλάσσιον, or sea fire, was jealously guarded at Constantinople, and the possession of the secret on several occasions proved of great advantage to the city. The nature of the compound is somewhat obscure. It has been supposed that the novelty introduced by Callinicus was saltpetre, but this view involves the difficulty that that substance was apparently not known till the 13th century, even if it were capable of accounting for the properties attributed to the wet fire. Lieut.-Colonel H. W. L. Hime, after a close examination of the available evidence, concludes that what distinguished Greek fire from the other incendiaries of the period was the presence of quicklime, which was well known to give rise to a large development of heat when brought into contact with water. The mixture, then, was composed of such materials as sulphur and naphtha with quicklime, and took fire spontaneously when wetted—whence the name of wet fire or sea fire; and portions of it were “projected and at the same time ignited by applying the hose of a water engine to the breech” of the siphon, which was a wooden tube, cased with bronze.
See Lieut.-Col. H. W. L. Hime, Gunpowder and Ammunition, their Origin and Progress (London, 1904).