If you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or watched the immensely popular television adaptation Game of Thrones, then you’re probably familiar with a weapon used during the Battle of Blackwater Bay during the frenetic defense of King’s Landing. The recipe for wildfire is super secret, it’s green, it melts anything it touches, and it’s oh-so-beautiful on the big 4K television screens. Did you know it was most likely inspired by “Greek fire,” a powerful weapon used by the Byzantine Empire from around 672 AD?
Much like the Battle of Blackwater Bay, Greek fire was often used in naval warfare.
According to historical texts, Greek fire was discovered and first unleashed on unsuspecting Byzantine enemies when the Greeks were under siege in Constantinople. The fun part? Historians have no idea at all what Greek fire actually was or why it was so potent. It was described as an enduring stream of fire that could stay lit even on water (much like wildfire).
Some scientists even believe Greek fire was ignited on contact with water, which would mean its active ingredients were likely naphtha and quicklime. Historians credit this oddball super weapon for many crucial Byzantine victories that would change the course of history (one of them being the survival of Constantinople during a couple of Arab sieges, which means the Byzantine Empire wouldn’t even have survived without Greek fire).
Greek fire is the most popular nickname for the weapon in the modern era, but it has also gone by a number of others: Roman fire, sea fire, war fire, liquid fire, sticky fire, and manufactured fire (to name a few). Fire, fire, fire. They liked their new weapon, we’re sure.
There were a number of methods for the delivery of Greek fire over a given battlefield. On the ocean or during sieges, it might be funneled into and projected through a strong tube. Eventually a portable projector was invented as well. Can you imagine individual soldiers running around with ancient flamethrowers when all you had was a sword, shield, and heavy armor to defend yourself? Scary! Much like in Game of Thrones, Greek fire was also delivered using jars via catapult. Out on the ocean, cranes might drop Greek fire on the enemy from afar.
According to several (maybe reputable?) first-hand accounts, there was often a rushing and roaring sound whenever the fire was shot. Some sources also suggest that the Greek fire was heated using a furnace before it could be discharged at the enemy.
Though Greek Fire was a super weapon of sorts, that didn’t mean the Byzantines were invulnerable. The weapon’s range on the water was very limited, and it couldn’t be used effectively if the winds were blowing in the wrong direction or when the waves were choppy. A good tactician could goad the Byzantines toward defeat.