The Fire That Water Couldn't Put Out

If you have read any articles on The History Lover website (, then you know that one of the over arching themes is:


Maybe you didn't enjoy history in school. And who can blame you? History isn't supposed to be all about dates and spelling. History should be about telling stories. Simply learning dates and correct spelling isn't all that interesting. On the other hand, learning about how one civilization came up with a top secret formula for fire that water couldn't extinguish... now that is interesting.

If you have never heard of it before, let me introduce you to Greek Fire.

Despite its name, Greek Fire was not invented by the Greek civilization. It was invented in the 7th century by a Greek speaking Jewish refugee named Callinicus. Callinicus fled Syria to Constantinople (the capital city of the Byzantine Empire) when Arabs took over Syria. Greek Fire was a combustible compound that made a fire that was almost impossible to extinguish. Like even with water. It would literally just float on top of water and keep burning. It was so top secret that scholars believe that even the military didn't know the ingredients and how it was made. Only the Byzantine Emperor and Callinicus' family knew the formula (because they were the ones who kept making it for the empire.)

The Byzantine Empire a.k.a. the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, used Greek Fire a lot during their Naval battles with the Ottoman Turks. This especially lethal technology is considered one of the prime reasons that the Byzantine Empire lasted so long.

Image from an illuminated 12 century manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing Greek fire in use. Translated, the caption above the left ship reads, "the fleet of the Romans setting ablaze the fleet of the enemies".

So how was Greek Fire created?

Well… we don't actually know. Like I said, it was super top secret and literally only a handful of people at the time knew how to make it. As time went on, the Greek Fire formula was lost. Historians and scientists alike have tried to replicate it, but no one is quite sure exactly what it consisted of and how it was made... Which isn't all that surprising considering that the Byzantines' enemies at the time couldn't even reproduce it.

Here's what we do know about Greek Fire.

  • The Byzantines had several names for it. While the term "Greek Fire" is common today, back then it was sometimes referred to as Roman Fire, War Fire, Liquid Fire, Sea Fire, or Sticky Fire.

  • While there are many theories of what the Greek Fire formula was, no one today is sure of what it was made of and how it was made. The general consensus of today though is that it was petroleum based. Think of Greek Fire as the ancient world version of napalm.

  • The Byzantines would use pressurized nozzles to shoot this compound onto other ships. Ever wondered where the idea of flame throwers came from? This is like the early version of a flame thrower.

  • Greek Fire was not only capable of floating on top of water, but many historians believe that water actually activated whatever this mysterious liquid fire mixture was. Obviously, this would be extremely lethal in sea battles.

  • Water couldn't put it out. So what could? It is not entirely clear, but the general hypothesis is sand, vinegar, or urine.

  • The Byzantines and their Greek Fire weren't the first to come up with the idea of shooting fire at their enemies. Greek Fire was distinctly different in that this fire couldn't be put out with water. It was a new technology.

So... let's sum it up:

A Greek speaking Jewish refugee fled to the capital of the Byzantine Empire and invented a super crazy fire that couldn't be put out with water. This fire was shot through pressurized nozzles onto enemy ships and we think that water actually made the fire bigger. This fire technology became a top secret classified weapon of the Byzantine Empire and ultimately was one of the prime reasons the empire lasted for like a 1,000 years. And finally,...somewhere along the way, this formula was lost and nobody knows how this crazy fire was made. But now we have flame throwers and I guess that's close enough.



Stay tuned for more articles on warfare in the ancient world!

Next up: Greeks and Archery


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Greek Fire and Its Contribution to Byzantine Might - Konstantinos Karatolios

Secrecy, Technology, and War: Greek Fire and the Defense of Byzantium - JSTOR

Greek Fire - Britannica Encyclopaedia

#history #GreekFire #Byzantines #ancientworld #weapons

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