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The Astonishing True Story of Ancient Greek Flamethrowers - A Guide for Primary Schools

Updated: Mar 6


An American soldier runs with a portable flamethrower.
An American soldier runs with a portable flamethrower.

Wait, Flamethrowers? In Ancient Greece? You are kidding right?!

No, not at all. Many people think that the first-ever flamethrower was invented in World War 1, but that is not true! Astonishingly, it was waaaaaaaay back in 424 BC that the first flamethrower was devised. That is almost two and a half thousand years ago.


There were many kingdoms and City-States in Ancient Greece, which of ‘em came up with it?

That would be the Boeotians, hailing from the region of Boeotia.


OK, so how did the Boeotians make a flamethrower work? How did it, you know, throw flames?

Without access to nitrogen and gasoline, there was no way the Boeotian’s flamethrower could be small enough to fit into a backpack, like those used by soldiers in the trench warfare of WWI. Instead, the first-ever flamethrower was massive. And I mean MASSIVE with a capital M, A, S, S, I, V, and E.


Mounted on a modified chariot with four wooden wheels, the flamethrower mostly consisted of a hollowed-out tree trunk. On one end of the tree trunk was inserted a humongous pair of bellows. Pumping the bellows would push air up the trunk to pour toward the other end. Once there, the air would be forced through a curled iron tube and into a large cauldron, itself hanging from chains at the far end of the trunk.

A model replica of the Boeotian flamethrower
A model replica of the Boeotian flamethrower from Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum. Images courtesy Gts-tg.

This cauldron was filled with loads of flammable stuff; like pine resin, dried embers, and sulphur. All things that the Ancient Greeks knew really really liked to set on fire. Which, as the air reached them from the bellows, they did. Combustion had occurred! With that, flames poured out of the cauldron to burn whatever was unfortunate enough to be in the way.


But did they actually ever use it? Or was it just an unproven crazy idea?

Oh, the Boeotians used it, and very successfully. In 424 BC. the Boeotians were laying siege to the Athenian-held city of Delium. The city was well protected with thick walls, there was no way the Boeotians were getting in any time soon. At least, that’s what the Athenians thought. What they didn’t count on was a flamethrower. I mean, how could they? Who could imagine at that time that such a thing was even possible?


Sure, during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans had tried to burn down the city of Platea with a terrifying fire bomb. The cunning Spartans stacked logs outside the walls of Platea and covered them with tree resin and lumps of sulphur. They then lit the logs on fire, the resulting conflagration setting Platea’s fortifications alight in seconds.


Despite this, the fire bomb didn’t actually destroy the walls, as the winds changed and a conveniently timed thunderstorm put out all the flames.


You can understand then, after that famous failure, why the Athenians weren’t overly concerned about a fire attack on the walls of Delium.


The Boeotian flamethrower in action! Illustration by J. Nakas
The Boeotian flamethrower in action! Illustration by J. Nakas

But they should have been, right?

Right! The Boeotians rolled up the flamethrower, furiously pumped the bellows, and sent flames cascading over the city walls. In seconds, the walls were incinerated. Burnt to a tiny crisp. It was all over, Delium had fallen.


Whoa!

Whoa indeed! So, now you know a great fact to share with your friends and family... the terrifying flamethrower was not a modern invention, it was an ancient one. The Greeks were using the things over two thousand years ago!




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