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Greek fire before Byzantines.




Attacked by a terrible stream of consuming fire, her flesh fell from her bones, like resin from a pine-torch, a sight dreadful to behold.

—EURIPIDES, Medea, 431 BC

THE PRINCESS DONNED the gown, a gift from the sorceress Medea, and twirled before the looking glass. Suddenly the gown burst into flames. Like Hercules in his envenomed tunic, the princess tried to tear off the flaming dress, but the material stuck to her skin, creating a fire so hot that it melted the flesh from her bones. Engulfed by “clinging streams of unnatural, devouring fire,” she dashed outside and threw herself into a fountain. But water only made the fire burn more intensely. Her father, King Creon, tried to smother the flames, but he too caught fire. Both perished, burned alive. The blaze spread, destroying the entire palace and everyone inside.

This scene from Euripides’ Medea, based on ancient Greek myth, was performed in Athens in 431 BC. It describes a terrible fire weapon concocted by Medea of Colchis, who had helped her lover Jason, and his Argonauts, find the Golden Fleece. When Jason abandoned Medea, she took revenge on his new love, the Corinthian princess Glauke. She treated a beautiful gown with secret substances that “stored up the powers of fire,” sealed the gift in an airtight casket, and delivered it to the unsuspecting princess.

How did Medea create such an extraordinary conflagration? The graphic details—and the popularity of the story in Greek and Roman literature and art—suggest that some real but unusual fire phenomenon inspired the legend. The notion that materials could be made to suddenly combust in the presence of water or heat must have been plausible to audiences as early as the fifth century BC.

Some, like Diodorus of Sicily, speculated that Medea knew of a magical “little root” that, once set afire, was impossible to extinguish. But, according to Euripides, Medea combined special volatile substances which had to be sealed from air, light, moisture, and heat. The violent combustion resulted in flames that were clinging, corrosive, extremely hot, and unquenchable by water—much like modern napalm in its ghastly effects. The myth points to knowledge of chemical weapons more than one thousand years before the invention of Greek Fire in the seventh century AD.1

Fire itself has been a weapon “from the first time an angry hominid snatched a burning brand from a campfire and threw it at the cause of his wrath,” writes historian Alfred Crosby in Throwing Fire. More than two millennia before Crosby, the Roman philosopher Lucretius had written that fire became a weapon as soon as men learned to kindle sparks. In Greek myth, the hero Hercules used burning arrows and torches to destroy the Hydra monster, and blazing arrows were shot by heroes of the great Indian epics, the “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana.”

Fire arrows were a very early invention in human history and Assyrian reliefs from the ninth century BC show attackers and defenders exchanging volleys of burning arrows and firepots, apparently filled with local oil, over fortified walls. In ancient India, fire weapons were common enough to be forbidden in the Laws of Manu, which proscribed kings from using “weapons made red-hot with fire or tipped with burning materials,” although Kautilya’s Arthashasta and several other Indian treatises of the same era give many recipes for creating chemical fire projectiles and smoke weapons. Meanwhile, in China, during the Warring States period of feudal conflicts (403-221 BC), Sun Tzu’s Art of War and other military treatises advocated ways to deploy fire and smoke to terrify foes.2 The inventory of fire armaments devised in antiquity is impressive in its variety, beginning with burning arrows and progressing to chemical additives and sophisticated incendiary technologies.


The first incendiary missiles were arrows wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw, often referred to as tow) and set afire. Burning arrows of these materials could be very effective in destroying wooden walls from a safe distance. Indeed, Athens was captured by flaming hemp arrows in 480 BC, when the Persians invaded Greece. Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities with fire and, as the grand Persian army approached Athens, the populace was evacuated to the countryside. A few priests and poor and infirm citizens were left behind to defend the Acropolis. These defenders put up barricades of planks and timber around the Temple of Athena and managed to hold off the Persians for a time by rolling boulders down the slopes of the Acropolis. But, in the first recorded use of fire projectiles on Greek soil, the Persians shot fiery arrows to burn down the wooden barricades. The Persians then swarmed over the Acropolis, slaughtering all the Athenians in the temple and burning everything to the ground.


FIGURE 35 Greek warrior assaulting a city wall with a burning pine-resin torch. Campanian neck-amphora, about 375 BC.

(The J. Paul Getty Museum)

But simple flaming missiles of straw were “insufficiently destructive and murderous” to satisfy ancient strategists for long, notes Alfred Crosby. They were not much use against stone walls, and ordinary fires could be doused with water. “What was wanted was something that would burn fiercely, adhere stubbornly, and resist being put out by water.” What kinds of chemical additives would produce fires strong enough to burn walls and machines, capture cities, and destroy enemies?

The first additive was a plant chemical, pitch, the flammable resin tapped from pine trees. Later, distillations of pitch into crude turpentine were available. Resinous fires burned hotly and the sticky sap resisted water. Arrows could be dipped in pitch and ignited, or one could set fires fueled with pitch to burn the enemy’s equipment. Other mineral accelerants for making hotter and more combustible weapons were discovered, too.3

The earliest evidence that flaming arrows were used by a Greek army appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans besieged the city of Plataia, an ally of Athens, and used a full panoply of siege techniques against the stubborn Plataians. We know the Spartans used fire arrows, because the Plataians protected their wooden palisades with what would later become the standard defense against flaming projectiles—they hung curtains of untanned animal skins over the walls. Then, the Plataians lassoed the Spartans’ siege engines, winching them into the air and letting them crash to the ground. With their machines smashed and with their archers unable to ignite the rawhide-covered walls, the Spartans advanced beyond mere flaming arrows, into the as-yet-unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event occurred just two years after Euripides’ play about Medea’s mysterious recipe for “unnatural fire.”

The Spartans heaped up a massive mound of firewood right next to the city wall. Then they added liberal quantities of pine-tree sap and, in a bold innovation, sulphur. Sulphur is the chemical element found in acrid-smelling, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic areas, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. Sulphur was also called brimstone, which means “burning stone.” Volcanic eruptions were observed to create flowing rivers and lakes of burning sulphur, scenes that corresponded to ancient visions of Hell with its lakes of fire. In antiquity, clods and liquid forms of sulphur had many uses, from medicine and pesticides to bleaching togas. Sulphur’s highly flammable nature also made it a very attractive incendiary in war. “No other substance is more easily ignited,” wrote Pliny, “which shows that sulphur contains a powerful abundance of fire.”

When the Spartans ignited the great woodpile at Plataia, the combination of pitch and sulphur “produced such a conflagration as had never been seen before, greater than any fire produced by human agency,” declared Thucydides. Indeed, the blue sulphur flames and the acrid stench must have been sensational, and the fumes also would have been quite destructive, since the combustion of sulphur creates toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which can kill if inhaled in large enough quantities. The Plataians abandoned their posts on the burning palisades. Much of the wall was destroyed, but then the wind reversed and the great fire eventually subsided after a severe thunderstorm. Plataia was saved by what must have seemed to be divine intervention against the Spartans’ technological innovation. Notably, this also happens to be the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poison gas, although it is not clear that the Spartans were aware of that deadly side effect when they threw sulphur on the flames.

Defenders quickly learned to use chemically fed fires against besiegers. Writing in about 360 BC, Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy soldiers or onto their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulphur, which would stick to the coating of pitch. Then, one used ropes to immediately let down burning bundles of kindling to ignite the pitch and sulphur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked wooden “bomb” filled with blazing material that could be dropped onto siege engines. The iron spikes would embed the device into the wooden frame of the machine and both would be consumed by flames. Another defense strategy was to simply “fill bags with pitch, sulphur, tow, powdered frankincense gum, pine shavings, and sawdust.” Set afire, these sacks could be hurled from the walls to burn the men below.

During the grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”) in 304 BC, both sides hurled resinous missiles—firepots and flaming arrows. On moonless nights during the siege, wrote Diodorus of Sicily, “the fire-missiles burned bright as they hurtled violently through the air.” The morning after a particularly spectacular night attack, Demetrius Poliorcetes had his men collect and count the fire missiles. He was startled by the vast resources of the city. In a single night, the Rhodians had fired more than eight hundred fiery projectiles of various sizes, and fifteen hundred catapult bolts. Rhodes’ resistance was successful, and Poliorcetes withdrew with his reputation tarnished, abandoning his valuable siege equipment. From the sale of his machines, the Rhodians financed the building of the Colossus of Rhodes astride their harbor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Technological advances in fire arrows were reported by the Roman historians Silius Italicus and Tacitus, who describe the large fire-bolt (the falarica), a machine-fired spear with a long iron tip that had been dipped in burning pitch and sulphur. (The opening scene of the 2000 Hollywood film “Gladiator” showed the Roman falarica in action in a night battle in Germany). The burning spears were “like thunderbolts, cleaving the air like meteors,” wrote Silius Italicus. The carnage was appalling. The battlefield was strewn with “severed, smoking limbs” carried through the air by the bolts, and “men and their weapons were buried under the blazing ruins of the siege towers.”

Machine-fired fire-bolts and catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when that city managed to hold off the long siege by the hated emperor Maximinus in AD 236 (his own demoralized soldiers slew him in his tent outside the city walls). Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden shafts of the bolts. Vegetius, a military engineer of AD 390, gives one recipe for the ammunition: sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil.

Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century AD) described fire-darts shot from bows. Hollow cane shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron and punctured with many small holes on the underside (to provide oxygen for combustion). The cavity was filled with bituminous materials. (In antiquity,bitumen was a catchall term for petroleum products such as asphalt, tar, naphtha, and natural gas.) These fire-darts had to be shot with a weak bow, however, since high velocity could extinguish the fire in the shaft. Once they hit their target, the fire was ferocious. They flared up upon contact with water, marveled Ammianus, and the flames could only be put out by depriving the blaze of oxygen, by smothering it with sand.4

The fire-dart sounds similar to the Chinese fire-lance, invented in about AD 900. This was a bamboo (later, metal) tube with one opening, packed with sulphur, charcoal, and small amounts of the “fire chemical” (explosive saltpeter or nitrate salts, a key ingredient of gunpowder). The tube was affixed to a lance with a kind of pump, which Crosby describes as “a sort of five-minute flame thrower.” At first, they “spewed nothing but flame,” but soon the Chinese added sand and other irritants like sharp shards of pottery and metal shrapnel, and many different kinds of poisons, such as toxic plants, arsenic, and excrement, to the saltpeter mixture. As Robert Temple, historian of ancient Chinese science, remarked, “Bizarre and terrible poisons were mixed together” to make bombs and grenades. “Practically every animal, plant, and mineral poison imaginable was combined,” for “there hardly seemed to be a deadly substance unknown to them.”

In India, a military manual by Shukra, the Nitishastra (dated to the beginning of the Christian era) describes tubular projectiles thrown by devices used by the infantry and cavalry. The tube, about three feet long, contained saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, with other optional ingredients, such as iron filings, lead, and realgar (arsenic). The tubes shot iron or lead balls by “the touch of fire” ignited “by the pressure of flint.” Shukra remarked that “war with [these] mechanical instruments leads to great destruction.”5


“In practice,” speculates one modern historian of incendiaries, the earliest fire weapons were probably used “against large, inflammable targets at close range,” such as wooden walls and ships. Indeed, the Spartans’ great sulphur and pitch conflagration at Plataia was piled next to the walls of the fort. In a navel battle during the Hannibalic War, the Roman general Gnaeus Scipio fashioned early Molotov cocktails, by lighting jars filled with pitch and resin and hurling them onto the wooden decks of Carthaginian ships.

Lucan (a Roman writer of the first century AD) writes of casting burning torches dipped in oil and sulphur onto ships’ decks and shooting arrows smeared with burning pitch or wax to ignite the flaxen sails. To make the arrows “burn even more vehemently,” the archers soon learned to melt a mixture of varnish, oil and petroleum, colophon (dense black residue of turpentine boiled down with “sharp” vinegar), and sulphur. Lucan’s description of one firefight at sea is harrowing. Fire, fed by chemicals and the extremely flammable wax caulking of the ships, coursed swiftly through the riggings. It consumed the rowers’ wooden benches and spread everywhere, even over the water itself. Houses near the shore also caught fire, as wind fanned the conflagration. Such fire weapons were clearly intended to destroy the ship and the crew, and the victims faced the choice of burning or drowning. Some sailors clung to blazing planks in the waves, terrified of drowning, while others grappled with the enemy amid the burning wreckage, thinking it best to go down fighting.

Wooden ships were not just good targets, their flammability also made them attractive delivery systems for fire. During the ill-fated Athenian attack on Sicily in 413 BC, for example, the Syracusans came up with a creative deployment of resinated fire in a naval battle. They loaded an old merchant ship with faggots of torch-pine, set it alight, and simply let the wind blow the ship of fire toward the Athenians’ fleet of wooden triremes. Frontinus, the Roman strategist, reported that in 48 BC, the commander Cassius, also fighting in Sicily, copied the Syracusans and filled several decrepit transport vessels with burning wood, and “set them with a fair wind” to destroy the enemy fleet. Fire-ship tactics required favorable winds, of course, or else the boomerang effect could be disastrous.

The most stupendous fire ship of all was manufactured in 332 BC, by the Phoenicians, during Alexander the Great’s famous siege of Tyre (an island city on the coast of Lebanon). The historians Arrian and Quintus Curtius described the ship as a floating chemical firebomb. The Phoenician engineers fitted a very large transport ship (originally used for carrying cavalry horses) with two masts and yardarms. From these they suspended four cauldrons brimming with sulphur, bitumen, and “every sort of material apt to kindle and nourish flame.” The foredeck of the ship was packed with cedar torches, pitch, and other flammables, and the hold was filled with dry brush liberally laced with more chemical combustibles.

Waiting until the wind was favorable, Phoenician rowers towed the great fire ship right up to the offensive mole (a pier extending from the shore to the fortified island) erected by Alexander’s men. The mole had two movable towers and many ballistic engines behind its palisades, all protected with curtains of raw hides in case of flaming arrows. But the Macedonians were unprepared for the unstoppable ship of flames. The Phoenicians ignited the transport and then rowed like mad to crash the burning mass into the mole. They escaped by jumping overboard and swimming to skiffs that returned them to safety. On impact with the mole, the cauldrons on the burning ship spilled their flammable contents, further accelerating the flames. Propelled by the wind, the raging chemical fire incinerated Alexander’s palisades and his siege engines. The Macedonians on the mole were either consumed by flames or leaped into the sea. The Phoenicians chopped at the desperate swimmers’ hands with stakes and rocks until the men drowned or were taken prisoner.6

The casualties and destruction of the mole did not end Alexander’s siege, nor was the fire ship the last of the fiendish incendiary devices thought up by the Phoenician engineers of Tyre. The Phoenicians, noted Diodorus of Sicily, realized that the Macedonians possessed superior hand-to-hand fighting qualities. They needed an antipersonnel weapon to “offset such a courageous enemy.” There is a clear sense of disapproval in Diodorus’s account, deploring the cowardice of those who turn to chemical weapons to defeat honorable warriors.

The Phoenician engineers “devised an ingenious and horrible torment which even the bravest could not deflect,” wrote Diodorus. They filled enormous shallow bowls of iron and bronze with fine sand and tiny bits of metal. These pans they roasted over a great fire until the sand glowed red-hot. “By means of an unknown apparatus” (a catapult of some sort), the Phoenicians cast the burning sand “over those Macedonians who were fighting most boldly and brought them utter misery.” There was no escape for anyone within range of the sand. The molten grains and red-hot shrapnel “sifted down under the soldiers’ breastplates and seared their skin with the intense heat, inflicting unavoidable pain.” Alexander’s men writhed, trying to pull off their armor and shake out the burning sand. “Shrieking like those under torture, in excruciating agony, Alexander’s men went mad and died.” The scene at Tyre brings to life in astonishing detail the mythic image of Hercules struggling to escape from his burning tunic.

The rain of burning sand at Tyre, created more than two millennia ago, also has an uncanny resemblance to the effects of modern metal incendiaries, such as magnesium and thermite. Burning particles of magnesium and molten iron are dispersed by the combustion of intensely hot metal bombs and splatter on victims, making myriad small but extremely deep burns. The high-temperature metallic embers, just like the red-hot sand, penetrate far into the skin and keep on burning, causing deep tissue injury and death.7


A century after Alexander’s tribulations with burning weapons at Tyre, the Syracusans invented a long-range thermal weapon of amazing effectiveness. During the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, Archimedes, the brilliant philosopher-mathematician, was commissioned by King Hiero to develop ingenious ways of defending Syracuse. The elderly engineer developed an array of formidable weapons that were used against the Romans, from catapults that hurled burning fireballs to gargantuan grappling cranes that lifted warships completely out of the water and smashed them down with such force that they sank.

But the most celebrated weapon invented by Archimedes was essentially a heat ray used against the Roman navy commanded by Claudius Marcellus. According to ancient accounts, Archimedes had soldiers polish the concave surfaces of their bronze shields to a mirror finish. Then he assembled them to stand in a parabola shape and tip their shields to create a huge reflective surface to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships’ riggings. Like burning ants or matchsticks with a magnifying glass, the intense heat of the concentrated rays caused the sails and wooden masts to catch fire instantaneously. Marcellus’s fleet was reduced to ashes. He gave up the naval blockade and finally captured Syracuse “by thirst.”

Marcellus ordered his men to capture Archimedes alive, thinking that the Romans could learn from him (this appears to be the first recorded instance of the practice of capturing or giving immunity to enemy biochemical weapons scientists). But the old man was killed during the brutal sack of the city. Marcellus buried the scientist with honor, decorating his tomb with a geometric cylinder and sphere. The grave was long forgotten, until it was discovered in a bramble patch outside the gates of Syracuse by the Roman orator Cicero, more than a century later. About seven hundred years after Syracuse, in AD 515, the philosopher Proklos was said to have used Archimedes’ mirror technique to burn the ships sent by Vitalianus against the Emperor Anastasios.

Since the Enlightenment, many scientists have undertaken complex calculations and experiments to learn whether Archimedes’ method could have worked. The first series of experiments, by Count Buffon of the Paris Museum of Natural History in 1747, used mirrors to instantly ignite a pine plank 150 feet away. The most recent test was carried out in 1975 by a Greek scientist, Dr. I. Sakkas. He lined up sixty Greek sailors each holding a mirror shaped like an oblong shield. In concert, they tilted the mirrors to direct the sun’s rays at a wooden ship 160 feet away. It caught fire immediately.8

According to the Latin sources, Marcellus’s Roman sailors were sent into deepening panic at each new weapon deployment, with many believing that the Syracusans were being aided by the gods or by magic. The burning ray that caused their ships to suddenly burst into flame must have seemed like a bolt from the heavens. Indeed, the impressive effects of long-range thermal-ray weapons continue to be sought by weapons designers today. A burning ray in the form of a laser gun that incinerated victims was apparently one of many sophisticated secret weapons tested by the United States during its invasion of Panama, in 1989, according to interviews with medical personnel and eyewitnesses. And a burning ray is the feature of another secret weapon recently developed by the U.S. military: in 2001, the Pentagon unveiled an antipersonnel weapon that fires a beam of intense heat more than a third of a mile. The painful burning sensation, caused by the same microwave energy used to heat food is, however, supposed to disperse crowds without actually cooking or killing anyone. The idea is to mount the microwave ray gun on a military vehicle and point it at individuals or groups. “It’s safe, completely safe,” said Colonel George Fenton, the director of the U.S. Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, in 2001. “You walk out of the beam [and] there’s no long term effect, none, zero, zip.” Critics point out, however, that severe burns could result if the beam is focused on someone long enough, say someone already incapacitated by other “nonlethal” weaponry such as tear gas or calmative mists—or immobilized in a crowd. That person might be as unable to escape as a Macedonian trapped in the range of the burning sand at Tyre, or a Roman sailor who happened to be in the riggings when Archimedes aimed his heat ray.9


Bows and arrows, Archimedes’ mirrors, and burning ships proved to be good systems for delivering fire. Torsion catapult technology (based on the spring-tension of ropes made of elastic materials such as sinew or hair), invented in about 350 BC, greatly expanded the horizons for hurling fire-pots and fiery projectiles over the walls of cities, and onto vessels. An even earlier invention for propelling fire, a remarkable flame-blowing contraption, was created at a very early date, in 424 BC, by Sparta’s allies during the Peloponnesian War, the Boeotians.

This device was built just four years after the Spartans had created the super-conflagration at Plataia, which had ultimately failed due to shifting wind. The design of the primitive Boeotian flamethrower got around the problems encountered by the Spartans at Plataia by creating man-made wind. The device had a large capacity but a short range, like modern flamethrowers. Thucydides described how the flamethrower destroyed the wooden fortifications at Delium, held by the Athenians. The Boeotians hollowed out a huge wooden log and plated it with iron. They suspended a large cauldron from the log by a chain attached to one end of the hollow beam, and an iron tube was inserted through the length of the hollow beam, curving down into the cauldron, which was filled with lighted coals, sulphur, and pitch. The apparatus was mounted on a cart and wheeled right up to the wall. At that point the Boeotians attached a very large blacksmith’s bellows to their end of the beam and pumped great blasts of air through the tube to direct the chemical fire and gases in the cauldron at the wall. The walls and many defenders were incinerated as they attempted to flee their posts, and Delium was captured.10

A similar flamethrowing device—with the surprising addition of vinegar to the combustibles—was devised by Apollodorus of Damascus, the military engineer for Roman emperors in the second century AD. The addition of vinegar reputedly allowed the flamethrower to destroy stone fortification walls. Historians such as Dio Cassius and Vitruvius also reported that vinegar and fire in combination could shatter rock, but modern scholars have puzzled over how vinegar could accomplish this. The use of vinegar and fire for breaking up stone was first described by the historians Livy and Pliny, in their accounts of how Hannibal’s engineers solved a logistics problem while crossing the Alps in 218 BC. To clear a landslide obstructing Hannibal’s route in the mountains, the Carthaginians felled large trees into a pile on top of the rock slide, then set them on fire. When the huge bonfire had caused the rocks fall to glow red, they poured vinegar on the rocks, which instantly disintegrated.

The ancient claims that vinegar and fire could somehow destroy walls and the story of Hannibal’s feat were long ridiculed as legends, until scientific experiments in 1992 proved that rocks heated to high temperatures will indeed fracture if a considerable quantity of acidic vinegar is splashed on the hot stone. Further experiments with sour red wine (the source of vinegar in antiquity) produced even more violent results, as the hot rocks sizzled and cracked apart. The scientists found that the chemical reaction worked best on limestone and marble, which happened to be the favorite building stone for ancient fortification walls.11


With the multitude of types of fire weapons proliferating through the ages, methods of defense against them were sought. Aeneas the Tactician advised that those fighting flaming weapons should shield their faces if possible. He also recommended covering wooden parapets or walls with felt or raw animal hides, the practice carried out by the Plataians defending against Spartan fire arrows, and by the Macedonians besieging Tyre.

Alum (double sulphate of aluminum and potassium) was known as a fire retardant that could prevent wood combustion: it was mined in Egypt and Pontus. After the temple of Delphi burned down in 548 BC, for example, King Amasis of Egypt sent a large quantity (one thousand talents) of alum to fireproof the timber used for rebuilding. King Mithridates of Pontus fireproofed the wooden towers of his fortresses with alum in 87 BC, and in AD 296 the emperor Constantine fireproofed his siege engines with alum against Persian incendiaries.

Incendiaries containing sulphur, resins, tar, or petroleum would stick tenaciously to any surface and could only be put out with difficulty, using sand or dirt, wrote Aeneas. To protect siege machines from chemical fires or melted lead poured from above, he suggested that the housings should be covered with clay mixed with hair, or wet mud. Advice on protecting men from chemical burns is notably nonexistent in Aeneas and other ancient Greek and Roman military manuals. In India, however, it was believed that certain ointments rubbed on the skin could protect a soldier from burns and Kautilya’s military treatise of the fourth century BC told how to make fire-resistant salves from sticky plant juices and frog skin. Muslim military books gave recipes for fire retardants that called for a paste of talc, eggwhites, gum, and “salamander-skin” (an early name for the fire-resistant mineral asbestos).

Another well-known fire retardant in antiquity was vinegar, despite its ability to shatter stone when heated. “If the enemy attempts to set fires with highly combustible materials” such as pitch and sulphur, water cannot soak into or wet the fire, wrote Aeneas. Only “vinegar will put it out and also makes it difficult to restart the fire.” In 74 BC, the city of Cyzicus on the Black Sea successfully beat back Mithridates’ siege and managed to extinguish his fire missiles with vinegar, just as Aeneas advised.

Defenders using vinegar to put out flames directed at their stone walls would have to take care lest they cause their own heated walls to crack, however, and the besiegers could also use vinegar to resist burning materials thrown on them by defenders. To protect siege equipment, Polyaenus recommended that vinegar, “particularly good at extinguishing every kind of fire,” should be poured or sponged periodically onto wooden siege machines. Vinegar could also help neutralize choking fumes from fires: Pliny noted its beneficial effects on sneezing and other respiratory problems. Interestingly, in skirmishes between political dissidents and riot police today, the sharp odor of vinegar often hangs in the air; protestors routinely soak handkerchiefs in vinegar and hold them over their faces to counteract the pepper and tear gas sprayed by the police.12


Burning materials often produce toxic, asphyxiating smoke and this potentially useful aspect of incendiaries was not overlooked in antiquity. Aeneas, for example, advised defenders to build smoky fires and channel the smoke toward besiegers who were attempting to tunnel under walls. This “will be injurious to the men inside and may even kill many of them.” A Chinese historical text, Mo Zi, written around the same time, told how to lower burning bundles of kindling, hemp, and reeds, by chains into tunnels to smoke out diggers: “The enemy will immediately die.”

Smoke could be used by attackers, too, as the Spartans proved when they created the sulphur and resin fire at Plataia in 429 BC. To overtake Cromium in Sicily in about 397 BC, the Carthaginian general Himilco created a fire with thick black smoke that blew into the eyes of his enemies. Smoke from ordinary fires can be very harmful, even deadly, but sulphurous fumes from chemically activated fires, like at Plataia, would be even more toxic and lethal.

One could create choking, irritating gases by burning particularly noxious substances. The Chinese had created poisonous smoke clouds by burning sulphur and arsenic to fumigate insects as early as the seventh century BC, a practice that may have led to their interest in developing toxic gases for military use. Ancient Chinese writings contain hundreds of recipes for producing irritating fogs and fumes, and incendiary-weapons manuals also give directions for making poisonous smoke balls. One extremely effective smoke ball compound called for powdered aconite root and wolfbane (species of lethal monkshood), croton beans (a drastic purgative that also causes blisters and pustules), the poisonous mineral arsenic, hallucinogenic hemp, blister beetles, toxic sulphur, plus charcoal and resin



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crude fishing boats? It is documented that Byzantine fisherman most often used the tried and tested method of net fishing, but there is also evidence that suggests that they used pole-fishing boats and practiced for instance an ancient form of fire fishing. A fire basket was mounted onto the end of the boat at night. The light would attract the fish closer to the surface of the water allowing the fisherman to see their catch more easily. It is believed that a 7th century shipwreck off the coast of For near Israel provides us with evidence of this practice. Amongst its fishing gear was a fire basket.


And so If you could stomach the effects of sea sickness, a blistering sun and you were not worried about the fact that you could drown or couldn’t swim, you just might make it as an able fishermen. Life as a fishermen or merchant was a tough life. Early morning or late evening fishing was a way of life. Winds, strong currents, storms and general bad weather were elements these Byzantine fishermen worried about too. Many a livelihoods of fishermen have been ruined, evidence of this is strewed along the bottom of the floor of the Mediterranean sea and around Constantinople. But the rewards of the sea it seems were far too great to simply ignore. Sure wages were regulated and likely poor in comparison to other guilds but at least you got to earn some money, pay your fishing taxes and feed your family. Selling fresh fish directly off the boat was not allowed. The eparch of the city tightly regulated this practice to stamp out underselling. Though fishermen were allowed to set up stalls on piers and ‘points of sale’ for cooked fish. Fishermen of antiquity, especially the Byzantines were also known to have developed various ways of drying and salting fish to give them a longer shelf 

Amongst the fisherman’s catch were always large amounts of tuna, mackerel, mullet and anchovies and other seafood like lobsters, shrimp, oysters and scallops of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. Seasonally, of course, other different fish were also catch like shoals of bonito that descended down the Bosphorus once a year.

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Hi all,


I have noticed that nobody mentioned about that building and I'd like to share some information. It's called "Milion" and it was the Byzantine zero-mile marker. It was the center of the world at that time. Traders measure the distance from that point. Here are some links:




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  • Stan` pinned this topic

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