Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What was Greek fire?

I read in my history book that it was a flamethrower. But in certain fantasy movies it's been portrayed as something similar to dynamite. What was it dynamite or what? Did it even exist?

share|improve this question
4  
Wikipedia: Greek fire. –  Dori Oct 12 '11 at 20:53
    
You can refer to "the Greek fire system" or "the Greek fire mechanism," but by itself, it's just "Greek fire" — no "the" is required. –  Dori Oct 15 '11 at 2:55
    
@Dori ok. got it. –  Dan the Man Oct 16 '11 at 17:10

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

It did exist but no one is sure what it was. The making of such was split between different orders and each only knew how to make the next step in the chain. It was delivered via tubes and could be "thrown" towards the enemy. Some of those were man-portable, other were ship bound. Sometimes, you could find it in jars.

The best guess is that it was a petroleum compound but the exact formula is lost.

Source: John Julius Norwich's history of Byzantium in three volumes.

The below images comes from the 11th century Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

Ship using Greek fire

share|improve this answer
4  
cool! that would be impressive to see. –  Dan the Man Oct 12 '11 at 14:38
2  
@Sardarthrion: Yeah, I vaguely remember seeing that show too. Wouldn't have been Time Team... Mythbusters perhaps? Or a one off similar show? –  Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 16:25
1  
@Noldorin:Yeah, if only there was a stack exchange site for those questions... ^_~ –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '11 at 16:28
2  
@Sardathrion: Heh yeah. "Things I just can't quite remember SE." –  Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 23:45
1  
+1 for excellent book reference. –  Alain Pannetier Oct 16 '11 at 15:58

I am Greek, so I know something about such things. Greek Fire was an early form of napalm that was used as a naval weapon because it could burn on and in water.

share|improve this answer
1  
Can you show your sources? –  American Luke May 8 '13 at 22:10

It was pitch/tar and oil that was ignited and sprayed if my memory serves me correctly. It may have had other ingredients (saltpetre, sulphur?) to the mix but it was essentially pitch/tar.

If dynamite existed at that time I doubt they'd have bothered with such a messy and dangerous substance as pitch/tar!

share|improve this answer

The greek fire certainly did exist, there is a sufficient number of evidences supporting that, including drawings like this one:

greek fire

It was apparently some flammable substance that would be hurled towards enemy boats to ignite them, definitely not an explosive however. The exact formula is lost so you will only find some guesses as to what it might have been.

share|improve this answer

Greek fire was used by the Byzantines, often on their war boats, as an incendiary to enemy vessels. The formula likely consisted of some mixture of naptha, sulfur, and niter among other compounds. This was basically a Byzantine napalm and was effective at sea because the fire could continue to burn (due to the underlying subtances being highly flammable and not strictly water soluble) even with some water hitting it.

The byzantine war boats fired the ignited substance under pressure allowing some distance to be reached.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.