Was the ancient napalm, Greek Fire, a Jewish invention?

Greek fire was the deadliest weapon of the Middle Ages and its recipe is still a great mystery to this day.

 Use of a hand-siphon, a portable flame-thrower, from a siege tower. Detail from the medieval manuscript Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1605. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Use of a hand-siphon, a portable flame-thrower, from a siege tower. Detail from the medieval manuscript Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1605.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"Greek Fire" was a real-life version of the deadly wildfire depicted in Game of Thrones, but was it Greek? Who used it first and why, to this day, don't we know what it was and how they made it?

In the ancient Greek world, it was widely believed that everything was composed of four elements: Earth, air, fire, and water. Not only did these elements have the ability to describe almost anything in the known universe, but they were also remarkably symmetrical. Air, being hot and wet, was the opposite of the cold, dry earth—while the cold, wet water was a perfect contrast to the hot, dry fire.

"Greek Fire", as it was known in the ancient world, was a deadly and terrifying weapon that confused those it was used against - partly because being waterproof, it would appear to be fire that defies the laws of physics. It was the perfect example of an imbalance between the four elements.

But what was Greek Fire? Where did it come from and even more mysteriously - where did it go?

The first thing to know about Greek Fire is that it wasn't Greek at all

"The Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, and other peoples who are reported to have experienced the real Greek Fire did not call it that at all," noted Alex Roland, a professor of history at Duke University and an expert on world military history, in a 1992 article about the weapon.

 Ceramic grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ceramic grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a very good reason for this: The material - or materials - that we know today as "Greek Fire" were actually used by the Byzantine Empire, beginning in the seventh century CE. As we know, the Byzantines were not Greek - they were Roman.

"'Roman fire' is actually one of the original names of the weapon," Roland explains, as well as "Byzantine fire" or "liquid fire."

So where did the Greek name for the technology come from?

"The name of the material from which the fire is made is confusing," Roland admitted. In fact, only hundreds of years after it had already disappeared can the term "Greek Fire" be seen in use - and it did not even refer to the original mixture.

"The term 'Greek Fire' was given to the weapon of the Crusaders from the West, but by then its source had already disappeared for many years," he explained.

Greek Fire is a Jewish invention

The second thing to know about Greek Fire is that it was probably invented as revenge.

Although we don't really have much actual evidence, the accepted origin story of the Greek Fire gives credit for its invention to Callinicus of Heliopolis (today's Baalbek on the Lebanon-Syria border). 

Callinicus was a Greek-speaking Jewish refugee who fled Byzantine Syria when it was invaded by the Muslim armies of Umar bin al-Khattab. He arrived in Byzantium - the capital city of the empire, which would later change its name to Constantinople and then to Istanbul - and immediately began to produce weapons capable of defending his new home from the same armies that forced him to flee from Heliopolis.

He didn't have to wait long. According to contemporary Arab sources, the first use of Greek Fire against them occurred during the years 674-680 CE in the Seven-Year War. And it was remarkably successful.

"Relying on the weapon, the Byzantines were able to drive out the Arab fleet and lift the siege of Constantinople," Roland wrote.

It was a victory that some modern scholars present as one of the most critical in history. In the eyes of the British researcher and archaeologist Romilley Jenkins, it marked nothing less than "a turning point in the history of mankind."

Russian historian George Ostrogorsky claimed in 1969 that "the Byzantine capital was the last dam left standing against the rising Muslim tide. Saving it and continuing to hold it saved not only the Byzantine Empire but the entire European civilization."

What actually was Greek Fire?

It is already clear that the Greek Fire was something important, revered by the Byzantines who possessed it, and deterred the enemies of the empire who felt its effects. There are reports of the weapon's effects from observers who have come from Sweden to Piza to Iraq.

Yet, to this day, scholars are unsure of the exact composition of Greek Fire. 

The contemporary sources are quite clear about the description of the weapon.

"The characteristics of Greek Fire, as it is represented in literature in the period between 678 and 1204, are reduced to four," Roland says. "First - it burned in water, and some even reported that it was ignited by water, but this is not a report that is accepted by the researchers.

"Secondly, Greek Fire was always presented as a liquid," he continues. "The third known element is that at least when used at sea" - which was always how it was used - "it was always fired from pipes or special gas decks placed in the bows of fire ships specially designed for this purpose."

"Finally, many accounts of the use of Greek Fire report the appearance of smoke and a loud, thunderous discharge noise as the burning liquid exited the pipe or deck," he writes. "This characteristic was to be particularly important in the historical controversy over the Greek Fire compound."

But beyond these descriptions of how the fire behaved and how it was managed, Rowland writes, "There is no indisputable basic evidence for us to determine exactly what Greek Fire was."

So what's the best guess? Most modern scholars suspect that Greek Fire was based on a crude or refined type of petroleum—perhaps naphtha, which could easily be found in natural wells around the Black Sea. When mixed with some unknown combination of other ingredients, it makes Greek Fire nothing less than the medieval equivalent of napalm bombs.

Suggestions made over the years regarding the additions to the secret recipe for making the green fire included resin, pine tar, animal fat, tar, sulfur, lime, bitumen, and more. According to some researchers, it can be assumed that it was composed of petroleum, tar, and sulfur, mixed with quicklime and other substances. According to another source, it was a mixture of sulfur, tar, potassium nitrate (salt), petroleum, and probably also quicklime.

However, even with today's technology, we still haven't been able to recreate the features of this centuries-old weapon well enough to say for sure how it was made.

Greek Fire was a closely guarded state secret

The last thing to know about Greek Fire is why exactly we lost this knowledge - and ironically, it happened because it was so important. The Greek Fire is one of the things that made the existence of the Byzantine Empire possible, many years after its soldiers dwindled and its strength was relatively poor in the typical battlefield of the period.

This weapon was so significant to the Byzantine Empire that it quickly became a closely guarded secret.

"According to legend," Roland explains, "only two families knew the formula for making fire - the Emperor's family and a family named Lampros."

But the scientific website iflscience.com offers an even more intriguing possibility and that is that in our drive to understand the exact chemical composition of Greek Fire, we are focusing on the wrong thing.

"Greek Fire was not just a weapon designed to set fire. It was a weapon system, consisting of a dromon [the standard warship model in Byzantine warships], a pipe, a giant cauldron, and liquid."

In other words - even knowing the formula for making Greek Fire will not be enough for us to reproduce its destructive effects - because we will have to know how to activate it, how to build the equipment to pump it, how to store it safely, and many other unknown secrets.

And the key to the Byzantine monopoly on Greek Fire? No man knew all this.

"In order to steal the secret to making the fire, it was necessary to steal all the components," Roland explains. "But men with knowledge of all the components were never in the same place at the same time... The Byzantines compartmentalized the knowledge of their system so that there would be no one who might fall into the hands of the enemy who knew more than a fraction of the secret."

But as crucial as this secret tactic was to maintaining a military advantage, it ultimately led to the downfall of the Byzantine system—because the knowledge of how to make Greek Fire was so fragmented, it was only a matter of time before all the technology was lost.

"For Greek Fire to survive as a weapon - someone had to know all the secrets," Roland explains.

"The secret to preparing the Greek Fire was relatively safe from leaking to the enemy, but at the same time vulnerable to loss," he explains. "The Byzantines put all their eggs in one basket - it may make it easier to keep the eggs, but it makes it harder to guarantee that one egg will survive."

In any case, even after the fall of the Romans and Byzantines, the Greek Fire remained in the military memory as one of the most brutal weapons of the Middle Ages.