Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Secret of Greek Fire - The Umayyad Sieges of Constantinople

In the second half of the Seventh Century the Byzantine Empire faced an increasing challenge at sea from the Arab invaders who had swept into the Middle East, destroyed the tottering Persian Empire and driven the Romans out of Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

With the possession of these new lands came also the advantage of access to the Mediterranean along with the vital infrastructure of ports, ships and sailors with which to exploit it. Arabs were not natural seafarers and indeed the Caliph Umar had advised against embarking on any nautical adventures but the new governor of Syria Muawiya understood that Byzantine command of the sea made his territory vulnerable and he was determined to challenge the Empire’s naval superiority. He had begun in 649 with a raid on Cyprus, just a short hop across the water from the Syrian coast. Muawiya led the raid in person and inflicted considerable destruction on the port of Constantia which was of great strategic importance to the Byzantine navy. Three years later he dispatched a highly ambitious expedition comprising two hundred ships to attack the coast of Sicily in a hit and run campaign. A second attack on Cyprus was followed up by an attack on Rhodes. Amongst the plunder taken away were the remains of the fallen Colossus, whose great bronze carcass was sold to a Jewish scrap metal dealer.
The Battle of the Masts 655 (from an 1889 engraving)

In 655 the emperor Constans II had received intelligence that Muawiya was planning something bigger; an attack on Constantinople itself. Determined to drive the Muslims from the sea, the emperor took command of the Byzantine fleet in person and set out confidently to bring Muawiya’s fleet to battle. Constans had reason to be confident. His ships outnumbered those of the enemy by at least two to one and the Byzantine crews were far more experienced at fighting at sea than their Muslim enemies. The two fleets encountered each other in coastal waters off Finike, roughly half way between Rhodes and Cyprus. The light was fading and so both fleets anchored for the night, agreeing a truce until the morning. The next day dawned with sea conditions calm which must have been a great relief to the commander of the Arab fleet. The lack of wind had deprived the Byzantines of the opportunity for swift manoeuvre which may have allowed them to overcome their inexperienced opponents and instead the engagement known to posterity as the Battle of the Masts would be fought hand to hand at close quarters. The Arab ships closed with the Byzantine fleet and hurled grappling lines to ensnare the enemy vessels and allow them to be boarded. Fighting with their usual ferocity, the Arab attackers overwhelmed the Byzantine crews and the battle began to swing in their favour as they hacked their way from ship to ship until the imperial flagship itself came under threat. Fearing for his life Constans persuaded one of his men to exchange clothes with him. Having switched his distinctive imperial regalia for the nondescript outfit of an ordinary sailor, Constans escaped to another ship which carried him to safety whilst the defenders of the flagship fought furiously and were cut down protecting the imposter.

It had been a shameful defeat for the Byzantine navy, the remains of which limped back to Constantinople, there to await the inevitable attack on their capital by the victorious Arabs. The expected attack did not come however for the Muslims, who had until now remained united, were about to be plunged into the uncharted waters of civil war, thereby granting a welcome respite to their enemies.

Following the death of Ali the Fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet in 661, Muawiya found himself as ruler of the Muslim world. With his empire secure he focussed his attention once more on the final defeat of Byzantium. In 672 his fleet seized and fortified the peninsula of Cyzicus on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmara, from where Constantinople itself could be directly threatened. His son and heir Yazid was sent to command the attack on the city. Victory seemed assured. The fleets and armies of the Byzantines had been decisively beaten by the Muslims and all the great cities of Persia had fallen to their arms. What Muawiya did not know however, was that the Byzantines had developed a new secret weapon.

Greek Fire as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes
 This was a witch’s brew of all the flammable and sticky substances known to the Byzantines and its constituents most likely included sulphur, pine resin and crude oil sourced from the Caspian Sea region. The concoction was perfected in time to prove crucial to the defence of Constantinople from the attack of Muawiya’s fleet. Its precise make up has remained a matter of much speculation since this was the Byzantine Empire’s most closely guarded state secret which would guarantee centuries of naval supremacy. The man credited with its invention was one Kallinikos of Heliopolis; a Syrian Greek inventor who had rather fortuitously made his way to Constantinople in time to deliver the means for the city’s salvation. Greek fire had several properties which made it particularly effective in naval combat. Once alight, the burning liquid was impossible to extinguish with water and stuck to any surfaces it came into contact with such as ships’ hulls, rigging and the clothing of the unfortunate sailors. Being oil based it also floated upon the surface of the water, surrounding the enemy ship in a lake of fire. The liquid was stored on board ship in canisters which could be catapulted onto the decks of enemy vessels or dropped from cranes which swung out over the side if the ships were in close proximity; smashing on impact and requiring only a hurled ignition source to engulf the enemy in flames. Greek fire was at its most lethal when deployed using a siphon and the Chronicler Theophanes the Confessor tells us that the Byzantine fleet was well equipped with this apparatus. The most convincing modern reconstructions of what this might have comprised feature a pre-heating chamber in which the liquid was heated and pressurised by means of an air pump and a brazier before being forced out through a nozzle mounted in the bow of the ship and ignited by a flame positioned in front of the nozzle. The result was a terrifying eruption of flame against which there was no defence and from which there was no escape as the sea itself turned to fire around the doomed enemy vessel.

The Arab plan to take Constantinople was entirely dependent on a naval assault, which would overcome the Byzantine navy and then move in against the sea walls. Siege artillery had been mounted on the ships to allow them to batter their way into the city. In the event the Arabs simply had no answer to the destructive power of Greek fire and four successive expeditions mounted against Constantinople from 674 to 678 met with utter defeat and eventually the battered remains of the Arab fleet turned for home, only to be wrecked in a storm on the return journey; an event which further convinced the Byzantines that their city enjoyed divine protection. In the following year Muawiya renewed the peace treaty with Constantine IV, who had succeeded his father Constans. The Caliph gave up the recently conquered islands and resumed tribute, accepting for the time being that there was no way to overcome the great bastion city of Christendom, protected by its fire breathing ships.

Greek Fire had played a decisive role in the defence of the city of Constantinople in the face of the greatest threat to its existence that it had ever encountered. It would remain the most valuable weapon in the Byzantine armoury for centuries to come and would repeatedly safeguard the capital from attack. When the Arabs came against the city in force once more, it would again prove decisive.

In 717 the second great siege of Constantinople by the Arabs began. The Caliph Suleiman had amassed a fleet of over a thousand ships which sailed up the Marmara whilst the Caliph’s brother Maslama marched through Anatolia and then ferried his army across the Hellespont to invest the city from the landward side. Emperor Leo III immediately ordered an attack against the Arab fleet in which the power of Greek fire once more took a terrible toll on the Arab shipping and most of the supplies for the army were sunk to the bottom. The Arabs had no better answers to the problems of besieging Constantinople this time around than they had the last. The Theodosian Walls remained impregnable and they had nothing with which to counter the wonder weapon of Greek fire. Short of food, clothing and shelter, the besiegers endured a miserable winter outside the walls. When a second Arab fleet arrived from Egypt bringing much needed new supplies they anchored in a bay further down the coast in the hope of avoiding attack by the Byzantines. A mass desertion of Coptic Christian sailors who made a break for the city in the ships’ boats betrayed the presence of the fleet however and the fire breathing ships of Constantinople set out once more to inflict terror and destruction.

Failure of Second Siege of Constantinople from the Manasses Chronicle

The situation for the besiegers was looking hopeless. Theophanes, exercising his vivid imagination, delights in relating the depths of their privations. Once they had slaughtered every horse, ass and camel, he tells us, they were forced to knead the flesh of dead men and their own faeces together and eat it. Presumably as a result of these desperate culinary measures a terrible plague then swept through the Arab camp and carried off thousands. Still they did not heed the judgement of God and Theophanes has no hesitation in attributing the timely arrival of a Bulgar army which fell upon the wretched and starving Arabs to further divine assistance. This final calamity, Theophanes declares, at last convinced the besiegers of the futility of attacking Constantinople and they understood that the city enjoyed the protection of God. 

The death of Suleiman mercifully brought the expedition to an end as his cousin Umar who had succeeded him recalled the battered remains of the fleet and army. Theophanes rejoices further that many ships were wrecked in a storm on their way home in further evidence of God’s wrath. The city had survived the gravest threat to its existance in a century and would continue to resist all comers for centuries to come. There were to be no further large scale Arab attacks upon the city itself but others would try in their turn. That is a story for another day however.

Fantastic model reconstruction of Greek fire apparatus

First Siege of Constantinople

To continue the story go to

I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book. 

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