The characters, storylines, and even geography in the hit series Game of Thrones are entirely fictional, based on novels by George R.R. Martin. Yet the stories contain many elements that ring true to history geeks such as myself.
While the stories could take place in the future in another galaxy, they give the impression of being set in Europe in the middle ages, if Earth of the middle ages had been created by J.K. Rowling’s violent older brother and women were endowed with radiant heat devices to allow them to prance around comfortably in G-strings while all the men in the room are wrapped in 47 layers of fur.
But I digress. I want to explore some of the elements of the series that are either based on actual history or bear such a remarkable similarity that they must owe their creation to divine inspiration. My first topic is wildfire.
In the TV version, at least, wildfire is introduced as a mysterious substance almost magical in nature. Held as a secret weapon against invasion, it is supposed to spread fire with explosive force, even across water. And it the substance does work as advertised. When King’s Landing is under attack, city defenders launch a ship filled with the substance which leaks across the water to surround ships of the invaders. Then a single flaming arrow sets off explosions of green fire that appear to destroy most of the invading fleet.
It looks about as realistic as a car chase in a ‘70s police show. But the devastating effects of wildfire might actually resemble some of the results military forces achieved as early as 672 C.E. with a substance known as Greek fire.
The formula remains a secret to this day. Contemporary chroniclers attributed Greek fire to a Greek engineer named Kallinkos, who had been living in Syria and fled to Constantinople in 668 CE after the Muslims took over. It is possible that he did not invent the substance but merely brought it from Syria. However, military forces used Greek fire to repulse attacks from the middle eastern Muslims for centuries, so if they knew the secret formula, it would be odd for them not to use it right back against the forces of Constantinople.
Greek fire, also referred to as sea fire or Roman fire, was somewhat similar to napalm. It spread quickly and easily and could not be quenched by water. In fact, some witnesses say that water intensified or even set off the incendiary effects.
Some analysts have compared it to the atomic bomb based on the effect it had on period warfare.
This wet fire was often shot from tubes on ships like a flamethrower. It was also sometimes poured directly onto the decks of attacking ships. Military manuals depict grenades made by filling pots with Greek fire and shooting them with catapults.
One witness described a Greek fire attack in such dramatic terms that it is easy to visualize the naval attack in Game of Thrones. “[T]he tail of fire that trailed behind it was as big as a great spear; and it made such a noise as it came, that it sounded like the thunder of heaven. It looked like a dragon flying through the air. Such a bright light did it cast, that one could see all over the camp as though it were day, by reason of the great mass of fire, and the brilliance of the light that it shed.”
While military manuals describe the process of delivering Greek fire, none describe the making of the substance, which was a closely guarded secret. Military historians in later centuries made several guesses, but no one really knows for sure what the naval forces of Constantinople used to such good effect.
Eventually, however, the attackers learned how to avoid wet fire by staying out of range or protecting themselves with animal hides soaked in vinegar, which doused the flames. Projectiles propelled by gunpowder, which used some of the same elements likely part of the composition of Greek fire, eventually proved much more useful, in part because they did not backfire as badly on windy days.
But it took centuries after the development of Greek fire for militaries to learn to use weapons with gunpowder. In the meantime, those who controlled the secret of Greek fire were most definitely a force to be reckoned with.
And incidentally, they weren’t Greek. Although the people that used Greek fire spoke the Greek language, they traced their lineage to the Romans, they lived in a city that is now part of Turkey, and they were part of a culture now referred to as Byzantine.
That mixture makes them sound like they could have stepped off the set of Game of Thrones
While I love reading about the middle ages, I have only rough outlines for stories with a setting where a character might realistically use Greek Fire. But I have written about some tactics for naval battles and general bad behavior at sea in my books Avery’s Treasure and Langley’s Choice.
You can learn more about Greek fire, including the possible composition of the substance, on the following websites:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire – I do not often attribute information directly to Wikipedia, but usually use footnotes in articles to find other sources. However, this detailed article is well-written and backed by reference to numerous sources, so it deserves attention.