Review of Greek Fire and its Contribution to Byzantine Might by Eileen Stephenson

2016-09-28 20:08

Eileen Stephenson, member of the Historical Novel Society and author of Tales of Byzantium wrote a review for Greek Fire and its Contribution to Byzantine Might for her blog Remembering the Byzantines. You can read the review below or you can visit her blog to find out other interesting stories from the Byzantine Empires and to learn more about her very interesting book.

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. The book was also published in Greek and 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 historical record says that the substance known as Greek fire ws developed by a Syrian named Kallinikos in the 7th century. However, 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 theories have been suggested 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 seems to imply, but never states specifically, that it was possible that the particular mixture may have changed, depending on the available ingredients.

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.

The author goes into some depth in his descriptions how Greek fire was used 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 neglects 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 also my book, Tales of Byzantium, for a story of that siege).

I was curious about how long this substance was used. Karatolios refers to the Alexiad of Anna Comnena where she describes its use against the Normans in 1081, and to 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.

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."