Scythian and Thracian diasporas: Inscriptional evidence

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythian and Thracian diasporas: Inscriptional evidence,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 2, 2022,

Comments: Most of our evidence for peoples from Scythia (north and east of the Black Sea) and Thracia (west of the Black Sea) settled elsewhere consists of individuals here and there whose names give away the fact that they were among those forcibly removed from Scythia or Thracia to be enslaved and sold elsewhere. It is important to recognize at the outset that the categories of “Thracians” and “Scythians” themselves were larger umbrella categories used by outsiders (Greeks) to encompass a variety of peoples who would often self-identify more specifically.

As early as 415 BCE, for instance, we find at Athens and its port at the Peiraieus (also transliterated Piraeus) several enslaved persons mentioned in inscriptions that list properties confiscated from those considered guilty of impiety (IG I³ 421–430). One of these inscriptions (IG I³ 421, lines 34–49) refers to sixteen slaves that were confiscated from Kephisodoros, a resident alien (metoikos) living in the Peiraieus. The geographical origins or ethnic backgrounds here involve: four from Asia Minor (a Carian man, two Carian children, and a Lydian woman), one from Syria, one man from Malta, and two other men from Illyria (northwest of Thrace). Yet a substantial number – six out of the fourteen (about 43%) – are identified as coming from the Pontic region including Thrace: three Thracian women, one Thracian man, one Scythian man, and one Kolchian. Another one of these lists of confiscated properties (IG I³ 422) refers to a Thracian man (column 1, line 70) alongside house-bred slaves, and also lists four slaves confiscated from Axiochos son of Alkibiades, including a Thracian woman named Arete, a Thracian man named Grylion, a Thracian woman named Habrosyne, and a Scythian coppersmith named Dionysios (column 2, lines 195–206). One more such list of confiscated slaves identifies descent groups of origin, including Carians (Strongylion and Carion), a Lydian (Phanes), a Scythian (Simos), and two Thracians with Greek names (Antigenes and Apollonides; IG I³ 427, lines 2–13). If this group of late fifth century inscriptions is reflective of general trends (which is hard to know for sure), then a significant portion of the household slave population in the area of Athens (in this situation just less than half) would derive from the Pontic region, with “Thracians” being more numerous than “Scythians.”

Further signs of the Pontic presence in Attica come from a list of slaves serving as naval crew members on eight sea vessels (triremes) around 400 BCE, where some (12.42%) of the 169 slaves are identifiable by personal names that indicate their perceived origins (IG I³ 1032 = IG II² 1951). The personal names are: Assyrios for Assyrian origin (line 109), Syros for Syrian (120, 256, 399, 449, 469, 475), Phoinix for Phoenician (107, 274), Lakon for Lakonian (232), Carion for Carian (119, 140, 366, 403), Thraix for Thracian (248, 383, 390, 391, 395, 406), and Skythes for Scythian (128). Once again those from the Black Sea are prominent (ca. 38%), with Thracians in six of the twenty-one slave names (ca. 29%) alongside one Getian and one Scythian named Skythes. Grave inscriptions from Athens and surrounding area confirm this picture, with deceased people identified more specifically as Maiotians, Sarmatians, and Sindians (identifications that would usually be encompassed under the rubric of “Scythians” by a Greek; see Harland’s article linked below for details).

As with many other issues concerning social history of the non-elites, we know far less about the situation outside Athens in other periods. Yet there are hints. For instance, a single collective grave on the island of Rheneia (dating to100 BCE) involves a man named Protarchos burying twenty-two enslaved persons, who likely died together in an accident (SEG 23:381 = IG IX,1²,4 1778). All but one of these people possess Greek names and are identified by geographic or ethnic origin: four male slaves are from Maiotis (to the north) and three male slaves are from Thracian coastal sites (Istros and Odessos), so one-third are from the area north and west of the Black Sea. The other deceased slaves include eight from Syria, Israel, or Nabataia (Apamea, Rhosos, Marathos, Joppa, Marisa, Nabataia), three from Asia Minor (Myndos in Caria, Mazaka in Cappadocia, and Side in Pamphylia), and two from Cyrene (a mother and her daughter). So there was some variety in the ethnic makeup of the enslaved populations, but those from the Pontic region were common.

While statistics often elude us, there are signs that slaves north, west, and east of the Black Sea constituted a significant portion of the entire slave population in Greece and the Aegean, particularly if the Delphic manumission inscriptions are somewhat representative of situations elsewhere (these number over 1000 monuments and date from 200 BCE to 100 CE). At Delphi, 60 manumitted slaves (33.5%) are identified as coming from parts of Greece; 38 (21.2%) from parts of Asia Minor; 16 (8.9%) from Macedonia and the Balkans (excluding Thrace); 60 (33.5%) from the Near East, including Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Arabia; 6 (3.3%) from Libya or Egypt; and 6 (3.3%) from Italy. Most important for us here are the numbers from the Pontic region, where 34 (19%) are identified as Thracians and 15 (8.4%) as Maiotians, Bastarnians (sometimes considered a Germanic people, as in Tacitus, Germania 46 [link]), Kolchians, or Sarmatians (see the article by David Lewis cited in Harland’s article linked below). So about one-third of slaves manumitted at Delphi that state their ethnicity came from areas bordering on the west, north and east shores of the Black Sea.

Since people who were enslaved were frequently subjected to mistreatment regardless of ethnic origins, one can imagine that negative stereotypes about Thracians and, especially, Scythians that we witness in ethnographic discourses would intensify prejudice and negative treatment in at least some if not most cases.

On top of these enslaved dispersions, there are for Thracians in particular some signs that free  persons would migrate and also join associations, as you will see in some of the three inscriptional examples below. Particularly notable are the associations of “sacrificing associates” (orgeōnes) of Thracians devoted to the goddess Bendis that formed quite early in the area of Athens. One important inscription which you can read by clicking through below (IG II² 1283) dates to 240/239 BCE but refers to earlier events. It suggests that around 429 BCE or, less likely, 413 BCE, Thracians were involved in a procession and festival for the goddess Bendis at Athens alongside Athenians. After consulting Zeus at the oracle at Dodona, the Thracians at the Peiraieus followed the god’s advice in gaining permission from the Athenian authorities to purchase property on which to build a sanctuary to engage in their ancestral rites for Bendis (some time between 429 BCE and 333 BCE). The Thracians who engaged in this diplomacy with the civic institutions were likely freeborn or freed, since the right to own land in Athenian territory was restricted to freeborn citizens and to immigrants with the status of registered resident aliens or metics. By 239 BCE a second association of Thracians consisting in part of resident aliens in Athens itself built their own sanctuary.

These are some examples of neglected Thracian and Scythian diasporas which you can read far more details about in Harland’s article on “Pontic Diasporas in the Classical and Hellenistic Eras” (link). It is also worthwhile juxtaposing the literary evidence concerning ethnic prejudice with the epigraphic evidence for Pontic diasporas, on which see: “‘The most ignorant peoples of all’: Ancient Ethnic Hierarchies and Pontic Peoples (link).

These are the inscriptions involving Thracian immigrants participating within associations:

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