Not Just the Spanish Armada – Some Uses of Fire Ships in the Ancient World

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At midnight on 28 July 1588, a squadron of eight warships were filled them with pitch, brimstone, tar and some gunpowder, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Spanish Armada. They failed to do their job in setting any Spanish ships on fire, but sowed enough confusion to break the Spanish formation and enable the English to complete the frustrating of the Armada’s plans at the subsequent Battle of Gravelines.

While this might be the first time that many a history student was introduced to the concept of fireships, it was by no means the first time that such a weapon had been used in naval warfare. It was not even the first time that the Spanish had been confronted with them in the 1580s. Just three years earlier, in 1585, Dutch rebels had used not just conventional fireships but also a series of larger ships packed with gunpowder, essentially floating bombs called ‘hellburners’, to destroy a bridge of ships at the Siege of Antwerp.


However, fireships long pre-date the invention of gunpowder, although they were a relatively rare occurrence. This was for rather logical and practical reasons – it was setting fire to your own ships and fire itself is not a particularly controllable phenomenon. Indeed, these two issues could combine very easily – your fireships making fired ships out of the rest of your fleet…

Possibly the oldest account of the military use of a fireship comes in Thucydides’ depiction of the prelude to the final climactic Battle of the Great Harbour in 413BC during the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily.


“The rest the enemy tried to burn by means of an old merchantman which they filled with faggots and pine-wood, set on fire, and let drift down the wind which blew full on the Athenians. The Athenians, however, alarmed for their ships, contrived means for stopping it and putting it out, and checking the flames and the nearer approach of the merchantman, thus escaped the danger.” (Thucydides VII.53.4)

Despite being successfully preventing the burning of the remainder of their fleet, the Athenians lost up to eighteen ships and their crews in the engagement and the prominent general Eurymedon. Their victory also encouraged the Syracusans to make the decisive decision to blockade the Great Harbour, sealing the fate of the entire Athenian expedition and quite possibly the Athenian Empire itself.

It was not just against other ships that fireships could be deployed in the ancient world. During the momentous, landscape-altering siege of the Phoenician island city of Tyre in 332BC by Alexander the Great, the Macedonians constructed a causeway to connect the city to the shore.


To counteract this, the Tyrians…”filled a vessel… with dry twigs and other combustible wood… as much chaff and as many torches as possible… pitch, brimstone, and whatever else was calculated to foment a great flame. They also stretched out a double yard-arm upon each mast; and from these they hung caldrons into which they had poured or cast materials likely to kindle flame which would extend to a great distance.” Arrian, Anabasis II.19

Through oars, sail and towing, the Tyrians sent their contraption crashing straight into the causeway and when set alight, it “began to spread flames far and wide, which, before they could be prevented, seized upon the towers and other works that had been placed at the head of the causeway” (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.3-4). With the causeway greatly weakened by the conflagration and attacks from the city, a storm arose and battered the causeway to pieces with wind and wave (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.6-7).

The Rhodians of Eudamus/Eudorus, alongside their Roman allies under Aemilius/Regillus, made good use of fire and perhaps fireships at the battle of Myonessus 190BC. The Seleucid fleet of Antiochus III under Polyxenidas looked to be about to outflank the Romano-Rhodian force, only for the Rhodian admiral to bring “his fire-ships against Polyxenidas first, scattering flames everywhere” (Appian, The Syrian Wars V.27). The Romans may also have used fire-laden ships to escape being surrounded at Panormus (cf. Livy XXXVII.30)

However, it must be said that in the accounts of Myonessus from Livy and Appian the exact meaning of ‘fire-ships’ can appear to be confused at times – it is not particularly clear whether each other is speaking of a ship set on fire to be directed an enemy position or fleet or a ship laden with men throwing or firing missiles which are on fire. My suspicion is that Livy is speaking of the latter and Appian is erroneously speaking of the former.

During the Third Punic War, in 149BC, the Carthaginians under Hasdrubal the Boeotarch and Himilco Phameas took advantage of the poor decision of the Roman consul Lucius Marcius Censorinus to anchor his fleet in a position which exposed it to the wind.

Subsequently they “attached ropes to some small boats and hauled them behind the walls, so that they should not be observed by the enemy, and filled them with dry twigs and tow. Then they pushed them back, and as they turned the corner and came in sight of the enemy, they poured brimstone and pitch over the contents, spread the sails, and, as the wind filled them, set fire to the boats. These, driven by the wind and the fury of the flames against the Roman ships, set fire to them and came a little short of destroying the whole fleet” (Appian, The Punic Wars 99)

Several years before he became the driving force behind the conspiracy which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar, Gaius Cassius Longinus had already proven a thorn in the side of the dictator in 48BC when he made significant use of fireships against Caesar’s navy.

“Cassius hurried with his ships to Messana before Pomponius could learn of his approach, and finding him in a state of disorganization, with no surveillance and no fixed order of battle, with the aid of a strong and favourable wind he sent against the fleet of Pomponius some merchant-ships loaded with pine, pitch, tow, and other combustibles and burnt all thirty-five ships, of which twenty were decked…Cassius departed thence to Vibo to the fleet of Sulpicius, and our ships having been moored to the shore in the same way as before, Cassius, with the advantage of a favourable wind, sent down some merchant-vessels prepared for burning, and the fleet having caught fire on each wing, five ships were consumed.” (Caesar, Civil War III.101)


It may also be that Agrippa and Octavian used some form of fireships to break the stalemate at Actium. They are certainly recorded using a variety of fire missiles and discharging pots full of combustibles against Antony’s ships (Cassius Dio L.34). With or without fireships, Octavian and Agrippa’s victory at Actium helped usher in a period of Roman domination of the Mediterranean which was to last for the next five centuries and saw the opportunities for the deployment of fireships decline greatly.


However, fireships were not the preserve of the Ancient Mediterranean. They were deployed during the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209, fought along the Yangtze River between the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan against the attempted reunification of Han China by the Han warlord, Cao Cao.

Seeing that Cao Cao had chained his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness, an opposing captain, Huang Gai had a squadron of large ships filled with kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. He also contacted Cao Cao to inform him that he and his ships were will to defect. This probably explains why the Han warlord allowed the enemy ships to get so close – Huang Gai’s men, who were setting the fireships on course, repeatedly shouted “We surrender!” as they approached. Carried by a south-easterly wind, Huang Gai’s fireships wrought havoc in Cao Cao’s fleet and even spread to his landward camp.


The destruction and confusion caused by the fire allowed allied forces to win a major victory, which proved a decisive blow to the Han dynasty’s attempt to recover territory south of the Yangtze. Just over a decade after the fireships at Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was abolished by Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi, while the victorious leaders along the Yangtze, Sun Quan and Liu Bei had founded imperial dynasties of their own, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history (220-280).


The Chinese continued to use fireships, or at least think that they were still of military use for centuries to come. They appeared in the military compendium called Wujing Zongyao (sometimes translated as Complete Essentials for the Military Classics) written in the early 1040s under the Northern Song dynasty. It must be said though that this compendium also includes recipes for gunpowder and various ways of using it as a fire-starter or explosive and instructions in how to build a Chinese version of the Greek Fire flamethrower (Needham (1987), 83).


Back in the western world, the collapse of Roman domination of the Mediterranean in the fifth century saw the opportunity for fireships to return, particular when one of the new players in naval warfare were faced by the still potent and potentially overwhelming extent of forces that Rome and Constantinople could bring together.


A significant case came in 468 during the expedition against Vandal Africa launched by the eastern Roman emperor Leo I and supported by his western counterpart Anthemius and the western magister militum Ricimer. Under the command of Leo’s brother-in-law, Basiliscus, a vast Roman fleet arrived off Mercurium, modern Cape Bon in Tunisia. The Vandal king Geiseric managed to extract a five day truce from Basiliscus (an action which saw significant ridicule and suspicion fall on the Roman general), although that was hardly enough to form an army and fleet capable of standing up to the expedition on land or prepare Carthage for a prolonged siege.

What Geiseric did do was prepare his fleet for when the wind changed, because Basiliscus had anchored his ships fleet in a position vulnerable to onshore winds. The Vandal king had a number of empty ships towed with his main fleet to Mercurium. When the onshore winds came, these empty ships were set alight, hinting that there were some combustible materials aboard, and directed into the huddled mass that was the Roman fleet now pinned to the coast.


With the Romans caught unprepared and anchored close together, the fire ships wrought havoc in their ranks, the flames jumping quickly from ship to ship. “And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder” (Procopius, BV I.6.20-21).

Many of those which survived the fire and the confusion found that the Vandal fleet was waiting to ram them. This saw significant numbers of ships either sunk or fixed in place for Vandal boarding parties to swarm all over them, taking the ships and their crews as booty. Geiseric’s fireships had successfully broached the gap in naval numerical strength between the Vandal kingdom and the Roman Empire, and in doing so quite possibly saved the former and played a role in dooming the western half of the latter.


The naval application of Greek Fire in the late seventh century increased the use of fire in naval battles, becoming a vital part of the Roman imperial navy. Ship-mounted flamethrowers played particularly prominent roles in saving Constantinople from a series of sieges – the two Arab sieges of 674–678 and 717–718, the rebellion of Thomas the Slav against Michael II the Amorian in 821-822 and the defence by Romanos I Lekapenos against the Rus’ forces of Igor of Kiev in 941.

The naval deployment of Greek Fire was certainly not the end of the use of more traditional fireships until the invention of gunpowder. During their siege of Frankish Paris in 885-886, the Vikings filled three warships with combustible material and pulled them upriver in a failed attempt to destroy the Franks’ fortified bridges across the Seine to the Île de la Cité.


Retold in De bellis Parisiacæ urbis by Abbo Cernuus, a Neustrian Benedictine monk and poet of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who witnessed the siege first hand, these Viking fireships fell prey to one of the potential flaws with setting wooden ships on fire – they sank before they could set the Frankish bridge alight. While the fireships did weaken the bridge, it was not enough to present the Vikings with an opportunity to capture the city. That said, the internal politics of Francia did see the Vikings allowed to bypass Paris and raid Burgundy, which was in rebellion against the Carolingian emperor, Charles III the Fat.(Logan (1991), 131; Davis (2001), 54; Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice (2005), 222).

Know of any other examples of fireships being used in the ancient world?


Adams, Anthony; Rigg, A.G. (2004). “A Verse Translation of Abbo of St. Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis”. Journal of Medieval Latin. 14: 1–68

Bennet, Matthew; Bradbury, Jim; DeVries, Kelly; Dickie, Iain; Jestice, Phyllis G. (2005). Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: AD 500-AD 1500. London

Davis, Paul K. (2001). Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. New York:

Logan, F. Donald (1991). The Vikings in History. London

Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. New York

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