Thracians: Tacitus on their uncivilized and wild nature (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thracians: Tacitus on their uncivilized and wild nature (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 21, 2022,

Ancient author: Tacitus, Annals 4.46 (link).

Comments: In several cases (including the Judean war [link]), Tacitus provides an ethnographic overview before describing particular Roman military actions against specific peoples. In this case, he briefly sketches out the supposed wild, uncivilized, and impulsive character of Thracian peoples and there are hints that this character arises from the rough environments (cliffs and mountains) where these peoples live.

Source of the translation: C.H. Moore and J. Jackson, Tacitus: Histories, Annals, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925-37), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


46 In the consulate of Lentulus Gaetulicus and Gaius Calvisius [26 CE], triumphal decorations were voted to Poppaeus Sabinus, for crushing the Thracian descent groups (gentes) who lived in an uncivilized (incultus) and wild (ferocius) manner on their mountain peaks. Apart from the natural disposition (ingenium) of the insurgents, the cause of the insurrection was that they refused to tolerate military recruitment and to devote all of their able-bodied men to our military service. In fact, even their obedience to their own kings was usually unpredictable, and the occasional contingents they sent were led by their own chiefs and acted only against neighbours. As well, in this case a rumour was current that the peoples were to be broken up and mixed with others, then dragged into distant lands. Still, before taking up arms they sent a deputation to insist on their former friendship and loyalty. They said: “Both would be continued if they were not tried by fresh impositions. But if they were sentenced to slavery as a subjugated people, they had steel and young men, and spirits that were resolute for freedom or for death.” At the same time, they pointed to their strongholds perched on cliffs, and to the parents and wives placed in them for refuge, and threatened an intricate, difficult, and bloody war. . . [description of specific Roman military engagements with the Thracians follows].

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