The Byzantine Superweapon
9 January 2013
In many quarters “Byzantine” and “Byzantium” are ciphers for stagnation, decadence and civilizational decline. Hegel certainly thought so. I have elsewhere quoted Hegel on his opinion of the Byzantine Weltanschauung: “…a disgusting picture of imbecility.” Yet, as many authors have pointed out, the Byzantine portion of the Roman Empire outlasted the Western portion of the Roman Empire by a thousand years, which is no mean accomplishment. Here is a contemporary scholarly perspective on the apparent hostility of Byzantine civilization to innovation:
“The widespread modern evaluation of Byzantium as anti-innovative could be proven wrong by the study of various innovations in Byzantine architecture (one should need no more than studying the pendentives of Hagia Sophia), military techniques and practices (the Greek fire being a very good example, even if not the only), technology (see for example the fifth century mechanical sundial treasured today at the British Museum of Science, or the famous tenth-century hydraulic systems of the imperial palace described by Liutprand of Cremona), painting (the narrative icon), theology (see above, on Iconoclasm and Hesychasm), or music.”
“Was Innovation unwanted in Byzantium?” Apostolos Spanos, University of Agder, working paper, to be published in: Ingela Nilsson & Paul Stephenson (eds.), Byzantium Wanted: The Desire and Rejection of an Empire, Uppsala, 2013, Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, vol. 15
Spanos mentions as an example of Byzantine technological innovation “Greek fire,” said to have been invented by the Syrian military engineer Callinicus of Heliopolis (himself a refugee from conflict), and which was famous throughout late antiquity as a fearsome weapon. I have been listening to Professor Jeffrey Burds’ Modern Scholar lectures, The Second Oldest Profession, Part 1: A World History of Espionage, and in the last part of the second lecture, “Espionage Among the Ancients,” Professor Burds goes into some detail concerning Greek fire. Interested as he is in espionage, Professor Burds focuses on the legendary secrecy which surrounded Greek fire — which secrecy, it should be pointed out, contributed to its aura as a mystery to be feared. So secret was Greek fire that the exact nature of it has not survived into modern times. We have a pretty good idea of the chemical composition and delivery system, but we don’t have the exact ingredients or a surviving Greek fire device (one cannot help but wonder if a Greek fire delivery system will be dug up some day).
The Byzantine use of “Greek Fire” must be understood as a “weapons system” in the modern sense of the term, with several integrated technologies employed together according to an established military doctrine. The Byzantines left several famous military manuals to posterity, but unfortunately there is not surviving manual on the use of Greek fire in combat. Yet I strongly suspect, given its employment over a period of several hundred years, that Byzantine admirals had a Greek fire doctrine.
It should be kept in mind that any technology sufficiently robust to employ as a weapons system in combat operations has reached an impressive level of sophistication, and with this in mind we should grant the sophistication of the Greek fire weapons system in Byzantium, which involved several different components — ships, kettles for heating the chemical mixture, pumps, pipes, the delivery nozzle — which were separately constructed and only later assembled (Professor Burds credits this compartmentalization of the production and operation of Byzantine Greek fire for it being successfully kept secret), trained crews in the operation of the weapons system stationed on the ships, and, last of all, the secret chemical ingredients of the flammable mixture combined and loaded on to the ships by a representative of the Byzantine royal family.
This Byzantine superweapon exploited the technological capabilities of classical antiquity, engineering them into an effective weapons system that served state interests for hundreds of years before the secret was lost to posterity. In a sense, then, Greek fire represented the science, technology, and engineering of an entire civilization. Classical antiquity was capable of producing machinery of a high degree of precision when so desired — I have in particular cited a Roman water pump I saw in a museum in Madrid, and of course there is the famous Antikythera mechanism and the clock in the Tower of the Winds in Athens, inter alia — but given the overwhelmingly agrarian character of ancient civilization there was little motivation to systematically exploit mechanical and industrial technologies.
In classical antiquity, technology was pervasively present, but not systematically exploited for the purpose of improving the human condition. Under the circumstances of immediate military threat, when regime survivability was put into question, we do find the systematic exploitation of science, technology, and engineering — not only the Byzantine superweapon, but also there is the famous story of Archimedes producing war machines for the defense of Syracuse, and there are ancient books on the construction of siege engines, e.g., Siegecraft by Heron of Byzantium, which suggests a level of system brought to this military knowledge. Once the military threat was removed or neutralized, however, the motivation to exploit technology for practical purposes seems to vanish. With an economy based on slave labor, there was little motivation to produce labor-saving devices.
In my post on anonymization I observed that industrial production in classical antiquity rose to the level of routine, and employed economies of scale, but it never rose to the level of anonymous mass production. So too all the high technology of the ancient world was hand crafted. And not only did the production remain unsystematic, but the knowledge itself remained unsystematized for the most part. Since the context of knowledge was not made systematic, knowledge was more easily lost. In contemporary industrial-technological civilization — in which such technological devices are not merely peripheral to the civilization, but which are rather constitutive of the civilization — the context of knowledge is made as systematic as the escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering.
We can see, in retrospect, countless ways in which the ancient world failed to “connect the dots” of technology in terms of fully exploiting innovations, scaling up, and engineering a technology into an industry. Time and again there are missed opportunities to substantially improve the material context of life by even a modest extrapolation of existing techniques and technologies. For example, Hero of Alexandria — the same Alexandria famous for its library, which Carl Sagan characterized as a research institute of classical antiquity — invented a steam turbine, the Aeolipile, among many other devices. But rather than being harnessed for work, Hero’s steam engine was treated as a curiosity. In Historical Disruption I noted how Tamim Ansary mentioned that Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine failed to be more than a novelty in its social context. Exactly the same thing was true of Hero’s steam turbine.
It was clearly within the technological competency of ancient engineering to harness Hero’s steam turbine to do mechanical work — it could have been used to operate a water pump for mining or agricultural irrigation, to power an air pump for bellows, to turn a potter’s wheel or the spindle of a lathe, or to actuate a reciprocating saw. None of these things happened — or, if any of these applications were attempted, none were adopted on a scale that would have made a difference to way people lived.
Throughout his Cosmos television series, Carl Sagan refers back to Greek science and technology, and at one point imagines what the world would be like today if science and technology had progressed steadily from that time to the present day. It is an enjoyable exercise in counter-factual history, but it doesn’t really reflect what was going on in the ancient world. There was no social infrastructure in place to exploit technological innovations. Sagan was closer to the truth when he mentioned in the last episode of Cosmos that ancient scientists never questioned the social institutions of their time, and Sagan particularly singles out slavery.
Slavery almost certainly retards the advancement of civilization, and for this reason if for no other must be considered a retrograde institution. It is all-too-easy for the empowered and privileged classes to sit back and let the slaves to the work, even when everyone’s life could be improved through the most basic technological innovations and their exploitation in labor-saving devices. It was a lack of interest, and not a lack of ability, that nipped an ancient industrial revolution in the bud. Perhaps slavery also retards the moral progress of civilization, and there is a systematic relationship between moral progress and technological progress. This would be a highly controversial thesis to maintain, but one can at least see the glimmer of an argument here.
With this in mind, it is possible, then, that the collapse of the Roman Empire ultimately laid the foundations for the growth of industrial-technological civilization, because the historical discontinuity between antiquity and medievalism assured that ancient institutions were abandoned and new institutions were established in place of them. Slavery went the way of the Homeric gods, sacred prostitution at temples, and — unfortunately — bathing. For all its faults, one of the great achievements of medieval European civilization was its abolition of slavery, even if the condition of peasants was little different from that of slaves. This makes it all the most puzzling how, once Western civilization eliminated slavery once, it made a comeback in the early modern period, only to be eliminated again in the nineteenth century. it would be a worthwhile topic for historical research to attempt to understand why Western civilization had to twice rid itself of slavery.
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