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What is Greek Fire?

Greek Fire was a formidable Byzantine weapon, its composition a closely guarded secret, enabling ships to unleash flames that water couldn't extinguish. This incendiary marvel of medieval warfare turned tides in naval battles, its recipe lost to time. Imagine a fire that water fuels rather than fights—what other secrets might the ancients have held? Dive deeper to uncover the mysteries.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Greek fire is an incendiary weapon which appears to have been developed around the seventh century. It is named after the Byzantine Greeks, who were especially fond of using it in battle, although it was also employed by the Arabs, Chinese, and Mongols, among others. This weapon was extremely devastating, striking fear into the hearts of the enemy and effectively mowing down troops, ships, and other weapons of war. Numerous testimonials from the period speak to the power of this weapon.

Intriguingly, the formula for Greek fire was kept so secret that it quickly became lost, and today no one is exactly sure what it was. It appears to behave somewhat like napalm and other modern incendiaries, in the sense that it was extremely difficult to put out. It appeared to ignite in water, and pouring water on it caused the fire to grow even larger, leading some people to believe that it may be related to thermite.

Though its exact composition is unknown, Greek fire may have been used in the same manner as a modern flamethrower.
Though its exact composition is unknown, Greek fire may have been used in the same manner as a modern flamethrower.

Some theories for the composition of Greek fire include ingredients like petroleum, which was known to people during this period, along with naptha, quicklime, sulfur, niter, and saltpeter. Many of these ingredients are used in contemporary explosives, testifying to their power, and they would have been available and known to at least a limited section of humanity during this period in history. The development of Greek fire is probably closely related to alchemy, the ancient precursor to chemistry.

As you might imagine, Greek fire was an extremely effective and scary weapon. The Greeks used it to create fire ships, setting empty ships on fire and putting them on course for the enemy, and it was also used to make incendiary bombs which could be hurled with catapults onto other ships. The fire was also apparently held in large cauldrons and directed with a hose, preventing unwanted boarding of ships and scaling of walls.

Many people wrote about Greek fire with large amounts of fear and respect. This incendiary weapon certainly greatly contributed to a number of Byzantine military victories, and some people have likened it to the atom bomb, suggesting that just as the atom bomb was the most devastating weapon of the second millennium, Greek fire was the most effective and terrifying of the first. Several attempts have been made to replicate this weapon, using ingredients which would have been accessible to its inventors, but no satisfactory formula has been created.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Greek Fire and how was it used historically?

Greek Fire was a formidable incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire, primarily at sea, to great effect against enemy ships. Its exact composition remains a mystery, but it was known for its ability to continue burning even on water. According to historical accounts, it played a crucial role in naval battles, helping the Byzantines repel sieges, such as the Arab sieges of Constantinople in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Why was Greek Fire such a feared weapon in ancient warfare?

Greek Fire was feared because it could not be extinguished with water, a property that made it devastating against wooden ships and in sea battles. Its psychological impact was also significant, as the sight of water failing to douse the flames could cause panic among enemy forces. The Byzantines' strategic use of Greek Fire contributed to its fearsome reputation, as it often turned the tide in naval engagements.

What were the main components of Greek Fire?

The precise formula for Greek Fire has been lost to history, but historians and scientists speculate that it likely contained a combination of substances such as petroleum, quicklime, sulfur, and naphtha. According to the "Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology," some sources suggest that it may have also included other combustible materials, but without concrete evidence, the exact recipe remains unknown.

How was Greek Fire deployed during battles?

Greek Fire was deployed using specialized siphoning devices mounted on Byzantine ships, which sprayed the substance onto enemy vessels. Additionally, it could be thrown in pots or discharged from tubes called "cheirosiphōn." The Byzantines also used handheld projectors for land assaults. The deployment methods were closely guarded state secrets, contributing to the weapon's effectiveness and mystique.

Has Greek Fire been replicated in modern times?

Despite numerous attempts to replicate Greek Fire, the exact formula and method of deployment have never been successfully recreated in modern times. The secrecy maintained by the Byzantines and the possible loss of key ingredients or techniques mean that the specific characteristics of Greek Fire remain a topic of speculation and experimentation among historians and chemists.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon145886

A very thrilling detective novel is "Black Fire" by C.J. Sansom, in which detective Mathew Shardlake the hunchback under the rule of Henry VIII, is on a mission for Thomas Cromwell to retrieve the formula for "Greek Fire" or "Black Fire", as it was also named. --Niels H.

anon124098

Greek fire was well presented in this article. It's really hard to find info on this.

anon107678

Niter is in the Ganges Delta and was the primary cause of the British occupation. Early sea trade BC could have encompassed this mineral. As the Egyptians used salts for embalming, I wonder what the Greeks used?

Their land was hardly sufficient for extensive graves so they began cremation and mausoleum use. How did they attain the heat necessary for cremation? Wood would hardly suffice in the sparsely wooded countryside.

Since the knowledge was lost, it would seems it belonged to another commercial interest, perhaps the Minoans? Like the Antikythera device?

With the break down in early sea trading, the source, possibly Ganges delta phosphorus, was lost. With this loss, they returned to temporary ground burial with subsequent exhumation and storage in an ossuary.

anon32938

You explained in the third paragraph of the use of a petroleum product, and also naptha: for your info, naptha is the Greek word for petroleum. Good article.

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    • Though its exact composition is unknown, Greek fire may have been used in the same manner as a modern flamethrower.
      Though its exact composition is unknown, Greek fire may have been used in the same manner as a modern flamethrower.