Back in those very ancient days when Amen Ra, the sun-god, was worshiped in Egypt, when the great African empire contained all of the world's learning, and, under a benevolent autocracy, gave to its people a general welfare never surpassed - in that dawn of history the Greeks were savages to whom culture was a thing unknown.
Then, in the course of ages, the glory of Egypt passed, while, little by little, Greece developed until it reached supremacy in war, in the arts and in letters. Avid for knowledge, the wise men of Greece took to themselves the old secret learning of the Egyptians, assimilated it and made it their own, expanded it and fashioned it in new forms, according to their own lively intelligence. Thus, we may trace in the metaphysics of Socrates and Plato the influences of Egyptian philosophy. And, too, alchemical lore was likewise studied, and adapted and improved by Grecian investigators.
One such student of alchemy was Gallinicus, of Heliopolis, a town in Syria. But Gallinicus was not merely a student, he was also a warrior in command of a body of native troops stationed in the city. It occurred to him to avail himself of that secret knowledge which he had obtained concerning combustible materials, to employ it for the purpose of constructing a powerful offensive weapon against the enemy. Th result of his effort in this direction was the invention of Greek fire. He himself demonstrated the value of his device, for, according to reports that have come down to us, he succeeded in destroying 30,000 men of a hostile fleet by this agency alone.
It is certain that there were a number of different preparations, each of which was known historically as Greek fire. From the time of the discovery by Gallinicus in the seventh century, other workers produced many varieties that were effective. These were prepared and used extensively in both solid and liquid forms. The fire was frequently employed in warfare on land, especially in repelling the assaults of besiegers, when it could be poured down upon them from the walls. But it was esteemed also as a weapon in maritime engagements. In such use, it was thrown from large engines, stationed on the deck, against the vessel of the enemy. Sometimes, the fire was contained in jars, or other vessels, which were hurled against the foe by various forms of projective machinery. The principle of the force pump was known in the East ages ago, and the records show that soldiers often carried hand pumps, from which the fire might be squirted against their adversaries. By means of a bellows device the liquid was also blown through pipes. The importance of the fire was made evident by the elaboration of instruments constructed for its discharge. On shipboard, the machines, which were stationed usually in the forepart of the vessel, were constructed of copper or iron, or a combination of the two. The extremity of the engine was shaped in imitation of a lion's head with wide-open jaws. In addition, the contrivance was richly painted and gilded.
For a full 400 years, the Greeks jealously guarded their methods of preparing this combustible, and no other nation was able to penetrate the secret of its manufacture. Its exclusive possession by the Greeks was of almost inestimable value to them in the successive wars waged against their neighbors. The Emperor Leo, in his treatise on the art of war, is enthusiastic in recommending the installation of the fire against an enemy.
Greek fire was so highly combustible that it could not be extinguished by water. Some, indeed, claimed that it had the property of decomposing water itself. At least, it contained such a supply of oxygen as to continue its violent burning unchecked by contact with water. The composition was of sulphur, resin; camphor, and other combustible substances, which were melted along with niter. Woolen cords were soaked in the resulting mass. These were afterward rolled into balls, ready for use. Once lighted, they would burn furiously for a long time. Thrown into the ships of the enemy, or against their tents, they were practically inextinguishable.
In modern times, an old Latin manuscript has been found in the library of the Elector of Bavaria, wherein are contained precise directions for making Greek fire. Moreover, information is given as to the possible extinguishers, for which purpose wine, vinegar, urine, sand, and various other substances are recommended. One form of the fire, which was composed of naptha, sulphur, bitumen, gum, and pitch, was best combatted by a mixture of wine and vinegar with sand.
By the beginning of the tenth century, the fire was no longer the peculiar possession of the Greeks. Thus, there is an account of a siege by Saracens in the year 901, during the course of which they attacked the wooden defenses of the city with liquid fire, blown from pipes mounted on the decks of their fleet. Fire was also used with disastrous effect against the French in 1249, at the siege of Damietta. The history of conquest by the Moore is filled with evidences as to the efficacy of this weapon. The Crusaders encountered it in their battles with the Saracens, and suffered disastrously from such flaming assaults. The most striking example of the fire's potency is, however, that afforded by the attack on Constantinople, when Leo, the Emperor, by its use consumed nearly 2,000 ships of the enemy's fleet.
Greek fire continued to play an important part in warfare until well into the fourteenth century. Then it was met and overcome by the use of gunpowder. The shorter range of Greek fire rendered it powerless against the new far-flung projectiles. Very quickly the ancient fiery weapon vanished from the conflict - to return only after a lapse of centuries, in new guise, as a final horror of the World War.