Mortal Gods: Thrakians

Oi! Yeah, it’s Phatis, and what of it?

Oof, sorry I’m in a bit of a mood. I’ve just been trying to get myself into a mindset of the Thrakians for this blog. You know they were a bit of a rough and tumble peoples. They were feared by every civilization to come into contact with them. They were both highly prized as mercenaries and also highly distrusted by their allies–and foes–alike. But not all Thrakians were the same in either their savagery or disloyalty. And this is why they have been such an interesting faction to enter into the game of Mortal Gods!

Of course, like the Persians, most of our primary source information comes from contemporary Athenians. Some of the sources even fought alongside the Thrakians, which is quite useful for our purposes as it helps illuminate their tactics and personalities. But for the most part, the Thrakians are often stereotyped for the reader as barbarians and bloodthirsty, stone-cold killers. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thukydides goes so far as to use the word φονικός (‘phonikos’–literally meaning ‘inclined to murder’) to describe them (Pelopon. 7.29.4). That’s unfortunate as the Thrakians were people living on the very brink of the wilderness and civilization; they typically lived a very hard and cruel life, fighting off invading armies and trying to salvage their homeland from raiders and thieves–not always successfully.

Herodotos gives a good accounting of the Thrakian’s appearance:

“The Thracians in the army wore fox-skin caps on their heads, and tunics on their bodies; over these they wore embroidered mantles; they had shoes of fawnskin on their feet and legs; they also had javelins and little shields and daggers.” (Histories 7.75.1)

Xenophon (who also gives a similar description to Herodotos in his words) also provides some unique insight into the Thrakian culture in a much more nuanced way. He recounts a banquet to honor ambassadors from Paphlagonia on the journey of the Ten Thousand of a war dance performed by Thrakian cavalrymen:

“After they had made libations and sung the paian, two Thrakians rose up first and began a dance in full armor to the music of a flute, leaping high and lightly and using their sabers; finally, one struck the other, as everybody thought, and the second man fell, in a rather skillful way. And the Paphlagonians set up a cry. Then the first man despoiled the other of his arms and marched out singing the Sitalkas, while other Thrakians carried off the fallen dancer, as though he were dead; in fact, he had not been hurt at all.” (Anabasis 6.1.5-6)

The Thrakians remain intriguing to modern historians today, though of course in my day we Athenians used them to lethal affect against the Spartans. But let’s get into their history a bit and then we can talk about their involvement in the Peloponnesian Wars.

1. Background

Thrake was a land situated in the land north of the Aegean Sea and diagonally north and east of Makedonia. It was made up of a series of tribes–those from the mountains and those from the plains–which were often at war with each other or fighting against the Celts (or helping their Getai neighbors) to the north, the Skythians to the west, or the Makedonians to the south.  For most of their early history, Thrake was a ruthless, wild land.

When the Persians under Xerxes I invaded Greece in 480, Thrake became a vassal state and satrap of Persia, but many of the Thrakians would not submit to Persian rule. While a few did participate as both mercenaries and satrap troops under Mardonius’ command at the Battle of Plataia, they remained vigilant and often attacked Persian troops and outposts. When Xerxes’ army was in retreat from the Greco-Persian War, it was nearly annihilated by the Thrakians as it passed through.

The population of Thrake at the time of the Peloponnesian Wars is suggested to have been around a million people. As was true with the Greek poleis of the day, the region was dominated by a series of warring, antagonistic tribes. As Herodotos put it, if the whole could be unified, they would make for a terrible plight upon the world. Bringing Thrake under one leader was a difficult task indeed, much to the gratitude of the Greeks living to the south.

But it wouldn’t remain that way forever. Of the main tribes spoken of in our earliest accounts, the most famous were the Odrysians. In the mid-5th Century BCE, an Odrysian tribal leader named Teres I was the first to successfully organize and unite the majority of Thrakian tribes under one banner and claim the title of king. This was the start of the Odrysian Kingdom. They established a capital, Seuthopolis, in the heart of the Kingdom’s borders. Teres son, Sitalkes (the Great), would eventually take the kingdom to even greater heights when he joined the Delian League.

2. Thrakians in the Peloponnesian War

Though serving as mercenaries in the Athenian army, the Thrakians were used often in battles against the Peloponnesians; it would not be until 429 BCE when the Thrakians would gather a massive army, aided by the Getai on horseback, consisting of 150,000 men, to march into Makedonia and depose Perdikkas II at the behest of the Athenians. This was actually what Sitalkes wanted as well, as Perdikkas had betrayed both Athens and the Odrysians on several occasions and even switching sides at a whim. Sitalkes, along with the Athenian general Hagnon, would march to the Chalkidian peninsula to meetup with the Athenian navy and army in order to crush the Makedonians and replace Perdikkas with Amyntas, Perdikkas’ nephew.

Thukydides describes the event:

“His army, as he marched, diminished not any way, except by sickness, but increased by the accession of many free nations of Thrace that came in uncalled in hope of booty. Insomuch as the whole number is said to have amounted to no less than a hundred and fifty thousand men, whereof the most were foot, the horse being a third part or thereabouts. And of the horse, the greatest part were the Odrysians themselves and the next most, the Getes. And of the foot, those swordsmen, a free nation that came down to him out of the mountain Rhodope, were the most warlike. The rest of the promiscuous multitude were formidable only for their number.”

Sitalkes on horseback with Thrakian bodyguard.

Unfortunately when arriving at the peninsula, the Athenian forces did not arrive. It’s unclear whether it was a matter of trust (Aristophanes did not seem to think that Thrace could fulfill their duties despite the fact that they did, indeed, show up) or if it was a miscommunication at the hands of Athens’ general, Hagnon. Whatever the reason, Sitalkes made true on his word and marched against Perdikkas. For more than a month they waged a raiding campaign against the Makedonians and drove them behind their walls and fortifications. Unfortunately the weather was starting to turn on Sitalkes, who found that his large army was not only unwieldy but difficult to feed in foreign lands. Perdikkas, sensing an opportunity, bribed his Seuthes (the nephew of Sitalkes) into forcing Sitalkes to retire. This was successful and the large host of Thrakians and Getai would depart.

Sitalkes would die fighting a war against the independent Thrakian tribe, the Triballi, and he was succeeded by Seuthes. Seuthes played both sides of the war, as Thrakian mercenaries played a role in both Spartan and Athenian armies. But his reign would only last 14 years–and the Peloponnesian Wars outlasted him (as it would many rulers). Amadokos would renew the Odrysian alliance with Athens and split his reign with Seuthes II, who would rule the southern part of his kingdom.

During this period in 412 BCE, particularly during the recruitment for Athens’ failed Sicilian Expedition, a large force of Thrakians from the Dii tribe would arrive at Athens. The Dii were truely ruthless and aggressive, maybe moreso than other Thrakian tribes. Unfortunately the expedition had already sailed off. But they were instructed to wage a raiding war against the enemies of the Delian League upon their return by land. They first went against Tanagra and then Mykalessos.

At Mykalessos they killed everyone; man, woman, child–it did not matter to these Thrakians. It was widely considered to be an atrocity; Thukydides describes the event:

“The Thrakians, therefore, that came too late to go with Demosthenes, they presently sent back, as being unwilling to lay out money in such a scarcity, and gave the charge of carrying them back to Diitrephes, with command as he went along those coasts (for his way was through the Euripos), if occasion served, to do somewhat against the enemy.  He accordingly landed them by Tanagra and hastily fetched in some small booty. Then going over the Euripos from Chalkis in Euboia, he disbarked again in Boeotia and led his soldiers towards Mykalessus, and lay all night at the temple of Mercury undiscovered, which is distant from Mykalessus about sixteen furlongs.  The next day he came to the city, being a very great one, and took it; for they kept no watch nor expected that any man would have come in and assaulted them so far from the sea. Their walls also were but weak, in some places fallen down, and in others low-built, and their gates open through security. The Thrakians, entering into Mykalessus, spoiled both houses and temples, slew the people without mercy on old or young, but killed all they could light on, both women and children, yea, and the labouring cattle, and whatsoever other living thing they saw. For the nation of the Thrakians, where they dare, are extreme bloody, equal to any of the barbarians. Insomuch as there was put in practice at this time, besides other disorder, all forms of slaughter that could be imagined; they likewise fell upon the schoolhouse, which was in the city a great one, and the children newly entered into it; and killed them every one. And the calamity of the whole city, as it was as great as ever befell any, so also was it more unexpected and more bitter.”

These men were not attached to the Odrysian Kingdom, but nevertheless it did not help improve the reputation of the Thrakians as brutal killers and wildmen.

3. The Thrakian Panoply

The Thrakian warrior would not typically be burdened by bronze armor in this period unless they knew they were going to be specifically used to fight in close combat or they were cavalry (who were typically better equipped with at least a cuirass and helmet). Often wearing a Thrakian leather or foxskin cap (not to be confused with the Phrygian cap or the Thrakian helmet) called an alopekis. Besides the standard tunic (chiton) and boots known as embades (lit. ‘felt-shoes’), they also wore a zeira (a cape) that was worn long (to the ankles, though Xenophon says that horsemen wore longer ones that reached their feet). However Thrakian cavalry, chieftains and, subsequently, kings of the Odrysian dynasty, were often found wearing ornate bronze breastplates and helmets, and occasionally greaves as well.

While bladed weapons were not often the primary weapon of the Thrakian, they were well-known for their unique styles of swords and daggers. One such weapon from the 5th Century BCE was probably an earlier form of the sica, a curved-bladed short sword or dagger. Thrakians also used the Skythian sword known as an akinakes and perhaps an earlier version of the romphaia (came into use in the mid-late 4th Century), as there are records indicating Thrakians had a long sword with a curve in the blade as far back as the great poet Homer. That said, the Thrakians also used the standard swords found in any Greek panoply at the time, including the xiphos, kopis, and makhaira.

Obviously Thrakians were known as some of the best peltasts of the time. The pelte was their primary means of defense and provided decent protection against other light troops while making them nimble enough that they could outpace hoplites with ease.  The javelin was the tool of their trade. And they were able to launch them with deadly results.



About the Author

Hi there! I'm Phatis. So there I was, minding my own business in Hades, when the Footsore blokes summoned me by some ritual or another and bound me to this thankless Fate--writing about Mortal Gods. But fear not, mortals! I do enjoy my profession, even if I am only compensated by way of caffeinated drinks.

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