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.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

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.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum: folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum:
folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

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.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

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.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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12 Responses to “The Byzantine Superweapon”

  1. Slavery is associated with high labor costs for free working men. The key (as George Washington noted) is that freemen work harder. Slavery puts a cap on the labor wages. Both the reintroduction of serfdom in Russia, and the importation of slaves to the Americas are indications of this. The early abandonment of serfdom in England is an example the other way. It is also why slave labor in the 20th century was used in very dangerous operations such as mining, you would have to pay a lot to get someone to be miserable and kill themselves.

    The very low status of mercantile professions, versus landed aristocrats, I would guess would be one of the big stumbling blocks. The very strong attachment between philosophy-religion and the scientific advancement was also a big stumbling block.

    They would also have lacked the ability to work en mass from detailed plans. The English revolution was developed on a lot of already existing machine tool making capabilities. So the Ancients could make expensive one-off devices, or small production batch items which were not too exacting (Greek Fire, porcelain), but couldn’t make lots of them inexpensively. Watts steam engine isn’t such a great thing if they cost a ton of money and you had to struggle to make three of them.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment.

      I realized after I wrote the above that during the period of Nazi dominated Europe during the Second World War the Nazis reintroduced slavery as a key element in their economic organization of occupied Europe. Although this didn’t last very long, it does constitute a second re-introduction of slavery in Western civilization, and the defeat of Nazism represents a third extirpation of slavery.

      I suspect that if civilization continues for long enough, that slavery will be intermittently re-introduced and abolished; i.e., there may be a macroscopic pattern of the role of slavery.

      Slavery also poses legal questions, such as the line between outright slavery and conditions of labor that approximate slavery, though without the legalized institution of slavery, to which you implicitly refer by the use of the term “slave labor,” which has come to signify forced labor under conditions of slavery without formal legal recognition of the institution.

      The industrial revolution in England was indeed built on foundations both broad and deep in English social, economic, and manufacturing institutions, and it is probably this that accounts for the industrial revolution occurring here first, and growing from that initial seed to encompass the world, after a fashion.



      • Note that the Nazi were reacting to a labor shortage. The slave labor wasn’t particularly trustworthy, and the cost of all the guards wasn’t cheap.

        Another good example is the prison-labor racket in the United States in the early to mid-2oth century. It started in the North in the 19th century, but migrated, and became associated with the South. Wall Street Journal had a front page article a few years ago talking about revelations about how some the Sherifs would go and round up “vagrant” labor (disproportionaly black) and accept payments from the mining companies. As the workers were involuntary in place, but room and board (of a sorts) were provided, it is clearly slave labor, rather than a simple prison-cost cutting measure. In this case the death rate was fairly high, so the cost cutting is probably as much in the “dangerous job” catagory as the “high labor” catagory.

        • geopolicraticus said

          The prison labor racket that you cite is a perfect example of de facto slave labor that is allowed to flourish — albeit temporarily — within a socioeconomic system that officially disdains slavery. I expect similar de facto circumventions of anti-slavery laws to appear in the future.

          While the Nazis were, it is true, responding to a need for labor to run their war industries, I think it would also be fair to say that the Nazis were ideologically committed to exploiting the labor of those peoples whom they believed to be beneath them.

          Thanks for your comments,


      • xcalibur said

        I see the Nazis as a diverging branch of Western Civilization, and their reintroduction of slavery is further evidence of this. If the Third Reich had succeeded and continued to develop, I think it would have created a different kind of society, with a significant impact on history.

        • geopolicraticus said

          There is an excellent book about the social implications of Nazism, Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-1939, by David Schoenbaum. Of many of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century the same can be said: had they survived, they would have resulted in a different kind of society and perhaps have branched off as an alternative to western civilization.

          Recently in talking with some friends the possibility that humanity might have to pass through a period of “flawed realization” (one of Nick Bostrom’s classes of existential risk) in order to make it through the Great Filter was suggested. But the instability of regimes that most closely resemble flawed realization (Nazi Germany, Soviet communism) suggest that this would not be a good strategy.

          Best wishes,




      • xcalibur said

        Ideological totalitarianism does seem very unstable. However, the strength of Nazi Germany, its different economic layout, and the fact that it was killed off young in violent upheaval, makes me wonder whether it would’ve fared differently. Maybe not a thousand year reich, but a stable society lasting more than a century. By no means am I being sympathetic to them, this is just speculation. I’ve also wondered whether the world would’ve been better off had Napoleon won, but I digress.
        I’ll be sure to check that out.

        • geopolicraticus said

          I have addressed the instability of totalitarianism in Why tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail and The Imperative of Regime Survival (upon which you have already commented), and the peculiar “credibility” of some totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and Soviet communism) in The Nixon Principle and The Credibility Paradox.

          We could, of course, cite any number of totalitarian or quasi-fascist regimes that have persisted for centuries — although the further we go back in time, the more difficult it is to identify any pre-modern political system with what we today call totalitarian or fascist. Even these two latter terms are becoming dated, and I suspect that political science will begin using other terms to express the novel adaptations that oppressive regimes must make in order to survive in the 21st century.

          In parallel, we might also cite other examples from history of short-lived regimes that came to an end in periods of great upheaval, which, allowing for a counter-factual conditional, might under other circumstances have become a somewhat stable regime.

          Best wishes,


        • geopolicraticus said

          Regarding the counter-factual of if Napoleon had won, certainly the political and military history of Europe subsequent to a Napoleonic triumph would have been profoundly different, but I suspect that the “deep history” of Europe (if you will) would have been largely unchanged. What do I mean by “deep history”? In this context I mean the social histories of the peoples of Europe. The particular details of the imperial organization (or not) of western Europe often have had little impact on the lives of the people. The Balkans remain the Balkans whether they are ruled from the Sublime Porte or by Tito in Belgrade. The Italians remain Italians whether they are being ruled from Paris, from the Vatican, or are allied with Hitler.

          That being said, I do not deny that different imperial regimes might have a substantial effect on social history, especially as regards the frequency and severity of war, which is the primary way in which imperial level political regimes influence the daily lives of their subject peoples.

          I think that we could probably find many historical examples of novel political institutions that came to an early demise because they emerged in an especially violent period of history in which whatever promise its institutions held were never realized for extrinsic reasons. And we can certainly name historical examples of totalitarian and proto-totalitarian societies that have persisted for hundreds of years as stable societies.

          One illustrative example that comes to mind is early modern Spain (in so far as “Spain” could be said to have existed in the early modern period, which is an anachronistic claim, much like calling pre-modern tyrannies “totalitarian”). Once the Reconquista was completed and the last Muslim kingdom in Granada was expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, Ferdinand and Isabella set about consolidating religious uniformity in the territory they ruled. After hundreds of years of a relatively good life in the Arab kingdoms of Iberia, Sephardic Jews were forced to convert or leave. It would be easy to say that it would be incomprehensible for a contemporary nation-state to so gratuitously sabotage itself by persecuting and expelling a highly educated, wealthy, and successful minority, except this is exactly what Nazi Germany did: persecuted or expelled the Jews, and in so doing caused an emigration of top scientific talent out of Germany. Many of these Jewish scientists ended up working on the Manhattan Project.

          But whereas Spain persisted in its self-sabotaging policies well into the twentieth century (for almost five hundred years), it did so at the expense of going from being one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world (under Charles V and Philip II) to being an economic and political backwater. For Nazi Germany, its self-sabotaging policies played out in less than twenty years. Is this due to the changed nature of civilization (Spain’s greatest extent coincided with agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, while Nazi Germany was a product of industrial-technological civilization), or was this due to the more extreme depredation of the Nazis on their own populace, or to some other factor? I don’t have an answer to this question, but it certainly would be something worthwhile researching.

          I appreciate your asking such a searching question, as it has forced me to think about this in new ways.



  2. […] The Byzantine Superweapon ( […]

  3. xcalibur said

    I believe that the Spanish reaped what they had sown. I don’t think that the Nazis were worse than the Spanish, I think that industrial-technological civilization allowed the Nazis to inflict violence at a greater scale and efficiency than any agrarian-ecclesiastical power possibly could.
    (Yes, the Nazis were human. I resist the urge to demonize them. They are us, and we are capable of being them)

    I agree that deep history would continue regardless of dramatic surface changes. But I also think that the scale and ferocity of the world wars may have been reduced or averted by a Napoleonic victory generations before. But of course, that’s pure speculation, like Toynbee imagining an expansionist Edo Japan, and how they might’ve colonized California. What-ifs are fun, but the facts are most important.

  4. […] Greek Fire: the Byzantine superweapon Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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