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What is Greek Fire?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon145886 — On Jan 25, 2011

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.

By anon124098 — On Nov 04, 2010

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

By anon107678 — On Aug 31, 2010

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.

By anon32938 — On May 29, 2009

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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