Modern armies may have drones and heat-seeking missiles at their disposal, but the true shock and awe masters were dead long before America even existed.
Way back in the 7th century BCE, the Byzantines—not the Greeks—created a weapon known as “Greek fire” to protect Constantinople during the Arab siege. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking Eastern wing of the Roman Empire so successful in its own right that it outlived the fall of the Western Roman Empire by a thousand years.
The Byzantines had a few different names for Greek fire, like sea fire and liquid fire, and while it wasn’t the first incendiary weapon, it was an incredibly successful one. We’re still talking about it today in part because nobody knows what ingredients went into the mixture. In fact, armies that captured the liquid along with the machine that delivered it were unable to replicate either of them. The Greek fire mystery has captivated historians and scientists for centuries and may have been an inspiration for the invention of napalm and modern flamethrowers.
Though often used as an umbrella term to describe a variety of lesser formulas, true Greek fire was a specific liquid incendiary concoction which was heated and pressurized, then delivered via siphon.
Characteristics that made it singular include its ability to burn on water and stick onto surfaces, only extinguishable with sand, vinegar, or–bizarrely–old urine. Some historians believe it could be ignited using water. Copies were created by other peoples over the centuries, but none had all these qualities. The true Byzantine formula died with the empire, but petroleum, quicklime, sulphur, and niter are just a few of the chemicals that have been suggested by modern historians as possible ingredients.
This clip from the show “Ancient Discoveries” gives a dramatic demonstration of a machine that would spew liquid fire. Installed onboard ancient ships, these flamethrowers were used to vanquish enemy craft that had come alongside. The demonstration mimics this by aiming the flamethrower across water at a broad wooden panel, a stand-in for a ship’s hull. Note that the flames continue to burn ON THE WATER.
The clip below, from that same episode, shows a Byzantine handheld flamethrower in action. Like the machine, it is filled with liquid fire. Neither of them are using true Greek fire because that recipe is unknown, but it’s obvious that even this lesser copy is frighteningly powerful.
To show that the handheld siphon was actually a thing, not something imagined by that show’s producers, here’s an ancient depiction of its use.
Hand grenades were also used in ancient times. They were filled with Greek fire and sealed so that all a soldier needed to do was throw the grenade toward the enemy to eliminate him. The hand grenades we have now are a direct descendent of these contraptions; we’ve just updated the concept by using explosives instead.
As with grenades, the modern world has also found a way to make its own copy of Greek fire: napalm. The word itself comes from the Greek and Latin, naphtha, and from the English, palmitic acid. Demonstrated below is the M9 flamethrower, which uses napalm-thickened gasoline as its fuel source.
Later appearing in video games like “Assassin’s Creed” and fantasy literature à la Harry Potter, Greek fire proves that no matter how high tech our world becomes, some of the best, most interesting ideas out there are also the oldest.
To learn how the actual Ancient Greeks put their military technology to use, discover the most important battles of the Greek Wars.