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What was Greek fire?

It burns on water and is famously linked to the Byzantine empire, but what actually is Greek fire?

The Byzantines and a flamethrower
Published: August 17, 2021 at 9:16 am
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Napalm was an invention of 20th-century warfare, but the deadly incendiary substance had an ancient and mysterious ancestor – Greek fire.

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Developed in the Byzantine empire of the seventh century, Greek fire was a devastating weapon capable of being fired through tubes like a flamethrower, or hurled grenade-style in pots. It stuck to and burned everything, and couldn’t be doused by water, making it especially useful in naval battles.

In the AD 670s, the Byzantines repelled an Arab fleet attacking Constantinople with siphons mounted to their ships – the beginning of its dominance in its arsenal, which helped the empire survive until the 15th century. But then Greek fire disappeared.

What is the recipe for Greek fire?

After being created, supposedly by a Jewish refugee called Callinicus of Heliopolis, its ingredients became a state secret. The recipe was eventually lost. While petroleum, naphtha, quicklime and sulphur are educated guesses, the exact composition of Greek fire remains unknown. That’s probably for the best.

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This content first appeared in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.

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