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?

  • 7
    Wikipedia: Greek fire.
    – Dori
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 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
    Commented Oct 15, 2011 at 2:55
  • @Dori ok. got it.
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 16, 2011 at 17:10
  • In Hellenic, it's called "liquid fire".
    – user36222
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 13:06

5 Answers 5


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

  • 4
    cool! that would be impressive to see.
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 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
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 16:25
  • 1
    @Noldorin:Yeah, if only there was a stack exchange site for those questions... ^_~ Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 16:28
  • 2
    @Sardathrion: Heh yeah. "Things I just can't quite remember SE."
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 23:45
  • 1
    @Noldorin: MythBusters did do something on this, as well as on Archimedes Death Ray, but they did little more than prove Greek Fire worked. Been awhile since I even saw it, and I am not sure I remember all of what they did or talked about.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 16:17

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.


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.


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!


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.

  • 3
    Can you show your sources?
    – Luke_0
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 22:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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