The Real History of Game of Thrones: Wildfire

We examine the apocalyptic medieval weapon that inspired Cersei Lannister's last ace in the hole before Game of Thrones Season 8.

There are many sights and stories to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Egyptian temples commissioned in the time of Augustus; a portrait of Alexander Hamilton which outlasted his final shot; even a million George Seurat dots that combine into a single, lovely stroll through the park. Yet there are bloodier deeds and memories hidden in these antiquated beauties, and we were reminded of many during a guided, unofficial Game of Thrones tour provided by Museum Hack.

As a local event designed to highlight the type of art and artifice that built the ancient worlds George R.R. Martin pulls from while constructing his own in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” there were amusing anecdotes about the similarities between Daenerys Targaryen and Margaret of Antioch, a Catholic saint who is alleged to have walked through fire and been swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon and lived (for a time) to tell the tale, as well as the connection between Bartholomew, the apostle skinned alive and crucified upside down, and the Flayed Man on House Bolton’s sigil. But perhaps the most unshakable allusion we were reminded of during our museum hack is the history of Greek Fire, and how it most clearly and unequivocally inspired Martin’s green wildfire inferno in A Clash of Kings (the inspiration for the second season of Game of Thrones).

In both “A Song of Ice and Fire” and Game of Thrones, wildfire is an inescapable substance of combustible death, like an emerald shaded Grim Reaper who harvests by the thousands. It appears fantastical now, but other than its hue, the grisly substance which pyromancers oversaw the production of for first Mad King Aerys II and now Queen Cersei Lannister is based on a real-life weapon that for almost a millennium defended the Byzantine Empire from all invaders, much to the latter’s charred horror.

The importance of Greek Fire in Eastern Christendom in many ways mirrors why Aerys II became so attracted to wildfire’s hypnotic blaze. In history, Constantinople, founded atop the Greek colony of Byzantium, was the last remnant of the classical Roman Empire of antiquity. Rome itself fell in the year 476, yet the Byzantines carried on throughout the Middle Ages, even as Persian and then Muslim conquests grew, the latter turning lands previously part of Byzantium, such as Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, into Muslim territory within a generation. By the late seventh century, Constantinople stood as a bulwark between the east and west, a role it would play until it finally fell before the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

However, it was in 672 that Constantinople invented—or at least perfected—the substance of legend that would live on all the way to Game of Thrones. In at least one account, this was the year that Callinicus created our popular understanding of Greek Fire. An architect born of the Roman province of Phoenice (modern day Lebanon), Callinicus had lived to see his homeland fall before fleeing to Constantinople and inventing, or more likely perfecting, the chemical fires that already had been used to keep the Bosporus safe. Many historians will contend an Athenian philosopher named Proclus developed rudimentary Greek Fire more than a century earlier to burn the Byzantines’ enemy ships.

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read more: The Real History of the Red Wedding

In either case, after the late 7th century, word spread of Greek Fire, which was first used to repel not one but two great naval sieges attempted by Arab fleets. And its effect was catastrophic since it could travel across water, meaning Greek Fire would not be put out until it had burned its last ember. Up to that moment, it would stick to anything, including the wood of a ship, the steel of a sword, or even the leather of your armor. Once making contact, a relieving water would merely feed the flames. It was a terrifying weapon that the Byzantines would toss in firepots or even deliver via ship-mounted tubes, making them akin to medieval flamethrowers.

Greek Fire proved such a successful weapon that it would eventually be re-appropriated for use on land when the Byzantines sought to increase their territory in the High Middle Ages, as well as against each other via internal civil wars. Crusaders were so awed by its menace that they mischaracterized every incendiary weapon they encountered against Saracen forces to be “Greek Fire.” Yet the formula remained distinctly Byzantine, and a secret so closely guarded that it was eventually lost to history. Over the centuries, the royal family of Byzantium even revised their own traditions to make it a macabre family recipe, as proven when Emperor Constantine VII warned his son in the 10th century that the ingredients were “shown and revealed by an angel to the great and holy first Christian Emperor Constantine.” The angel also apparently said only Christians of this imperial city were allowed to use the flames.

Obviously after Constantinople finally fell at the end of the Middle Ages, that became a bit of a problem. With the formula fully lost a handful of generations later once that displaced royal line ended, scientists and historians have ever since speculated on what could make a flame so indestructible that apparently the only thing discovered to thwart its thirst was vinegar, a flavorful acid that invaders learned to soak their leather garments in lest they too wanted to burn.

read more: The Real History of The Sparrows

The influence of Greek Fire on Game of Thrones’ wildfire is self-evident. While it is the pyromancers instead of the kings that safely guard its secreted elements, with one mancer named Hallyne telling Tyrion Lannister, “The substance flows through my veins and lives in the heart of every pyromancer,” it nevertheless becomes the crutch and beguilement of King’s Landing’s monarchs. After losing the power of dragonfire that helped build King’s Landing, much as how Constantinople lost the original Roman Empire from which it sprung, Aerys II became obsessed with its substitute in wildfire as a weapon of amusement and torture—even killing Lord Rickard Stark with it, who burned in his armor before the cackles of an occupied Iron Throne. Tyrion found more practical uses, however, by setting the Blackwater afire and burning Stannis Baratheon’s sizable fleet to kindling. In A Clash of Kings, Tyrion even takes it a step further when he mimics alleged Byzantine strategy by blocking the besieging fleet in the river with a metal chain so they could do nothing but roast.

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And now Cersei Lannister has become enthralled by its power, using it rather incredulously to blow up the Great Sept and kill her enemies while not somehow burning a third of her city down in the process (because once wildfire or Greek Fire starts, it cannot be stopped). Logic aside, it was a striking power move, and one that makes Cersei a force to be reckoned with by any more popular foe. Daenerys might have dragonfire, but Cersei has a weapon that could burn Dany’s fleet to ash, should the Silver Queen approach by sea, and if she should approach by land, Cersei might complete Aerys II’s dying hope of unleashing the substance on the city: “Burn them all.”

Game of Thrones Season 8 returns on April 14. You can read our own predictions for it right here.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.