Thracians, Getians, Paionians, and others: Herodotos (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Thracians, Getians, Paionians, and others: Herodotos (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 12, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest historical account of the Thracians (in what is now northern Greece and southern Bulgaria). When Herodotos does mention sources, they are Greek. The Greeks were the southern neighbours of the Thracians and both peoples fell within the same geo-political sphere between the Aegean and Black sea regions; that is, both the Greeks and Thracians were affected by the same major regional events, whether it be the Trojan War, if we are to believe Homer’s incorporation of Thracians into the Iliad (e.g. Homer, Iliad, 4.519; link), and the Persian invasion. Our earliest concrete Greek references to the Thracians and Paionians are recorded in the eighth century works of Homer and Hesiod (e.g. Homer, Iliad, 2.844; link; Hesiod, Works and Days, 504; link).

Herodotos’ excursus on the Thracians and other Balkan peoples is framed geographically; that is, he tends to measure Thracian and Balkan peoples’ level of civilization by their proximity to the Greek world. He speaks most positively of Thracian peoples who had early contacts with Greeks, including Dolonkians and Apsinthians (6.34-40; below), while he tends to speak negatively of those peoples living beyond Greek influence (e.g. 5.6; below). Herodotos, like later Greco-Roman historians, pictures Thracian and other Balkan peoples living on the threshold of civilization, with only one foot in the civilized world.

Herodotos’ account of Thracians and other Balkan peoples covers a variety of topics including various sub-groups of Thracians, their customs, clothing (4.74), geography and history, including the Persian conquest of Thrace (7.110-115). In general, Herodotos’ assessment of the Thracians  is coloured by negative stereotypes associated with nomadic, semi-nomadic, and non-urban “barbarians,” and so Herodotos reports cases of supposed human sacrifice, for instance. The one positive attribute that Herodotos (followed by some later Greek authors) credit to the Thracians is their military prowess (e.g. 4.93; 6.45).

Follow these links for Herodotos’ discussions of other peoples: Lydians (link), Scythians (link), Medes and Persians (link).

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


Book 1

[Greek settlement in Thrace during the Persian invasion of Asia Minor / Turkey]

168 The Teians (citizens of Teos in Asia Minor) did the same things as the Phokaians (citizens of Phokaia in Asia Minor): when Harpagos [a Mede commander of the Persian army] had taken their walled city by building an earthwork, they all embarked aboard ship and sailed away to Thrace. There they founded a city, Abdera, which before this had been founded by Timesios of Klazomenai, who enjoyed no profit from it for himself, but was driven out by the Thracians. This Timesios is now honoured as a hero by the Teians of Abdera.


Book 2

[Supposed Thracian perspectives on the low status of artisans]

167 Now whether the Greeks have learned this also from the Egyptians, I cannot confidently judge. I know that in Thrace, Scythia, Persia, Lydia and nearly all foreign countries, those who learn trades are held in less esteem than the rest of the people. Those who have least to do with artisans’ work, especially men who are free to practise the art of war, are highly honoured. (2) This much is certain: that this opinion, which is held by all Greeks and particularly by the Spartans, is of foreign origin.


Book 4

[Mention of Thracian worship of the goddess Bendis / “Royal Artemis”]

33 . . . (3) In this way, they say, these offerings come to Delos [a Greek island in the Kyklades]. But on the first journey [i.e. along the trade route between the Baltic and Mediterranean seas], the Hyperboreans [mythical peoples of northern Europe] sent two maidens bearing the offerings, to whom the Delians give the names Hyperoche and Laodike, and five men of their people. . . as escort for safe conduct. . . . (4) But when those whom they sent [on the first journey] never returned, the Hyperboreans took it as not fair that they should be continuously condemned to send people out and not get them back, and so they now carry the offerings, wrapped in straw, to their borders, and they tell their neighbours to send them on from their own country to the next. (5) The offerings, it is said, come by this means to the island of Delos. I can say of my own knowledge that there is a custom like these offerings; namely, that when the Thracian and Paionian women sacrifice to the Royal Artemis [i.e. Bendis, a Thracian goddess], they have straw with them while they sacrifice.

[Thracian clothing made from hemp]

74 They have hemp (kannabis) growing in their land, very much like flax, except that the hemp is much thicker and taller. This grows both of itself and also by their cultivation, and the Thracians even make garments of it which are very much like linen. No one, unless he were an expert in hemp, could determine whether the clothes were made of hemp or linen. Whoever has never seen hemp before will think the garment is linen.

[Getians among Thracians]

[Getian resistance to Persia]

93 But before Darius [king of the Persians] came to the Ister [Danube] river, he first took the Getians (Getai), who pretend to be immortal. For the Thracians who inhabit Salmydessos as well as the land above the towns of Apollonia and Mesambria, who are called Kyrmianians (Kyrmianai) and Nipsaians (Nipsaioi), surrendered to Darius without a fight. But the Getians resisted stubbornly and were enslaved at once, the bravest and most just Thracians of all.

[Customs related to death and the god Salmoxis, including supposed human sacrifice]

94 Their belief in their immortality is as follows: They believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleizis, as some of them call him. (2) Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a “messenger” to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs. This is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men, while others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and then swing and toss him up on to the spear-points. (3) If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favour; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message. (4) Furthermore, when there is thunder and lightning, these same Thracians shoot arrows towards the sky as a threat to the god, believing in no other god but their own.

[Greek theories regarding Salmoxis]

95 I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontos [Black Sea] that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave on the island of Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchos. (2) Then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own land. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people. However, this Salmoxis knew Ionian Greek habits and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian way of life because he had consorted with Greeks and, mainly, with one of the greatest Greek teachers: Pythagoras. (3) Therefore he built a feasting-hall where he entertained and fed the leaders among his fellow-inhabitants, and taught them that neither he, his guests, nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. (4) While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years. (5) Meanwhile the Thracians wished he was back and mourned him as though he was dead. Then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and this is the way they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him. 96 Now I neither disbelieve nor entirely believe the tale about Salmoxis and his underground chamber. However, I do think that he lived many years before Pythagoras. (2) Regarding the question of whether there was a man called Salmoxis or this is some deity native to the Getians, let the question be dismissed.


Book 5 [Thracian account proper]

[Paionians and the Greek Perinthians settle disputes with duels]

1 Those Persians whom [king] Darius [reigning ca. 522-486 BCE] had left in Europe under the command of Megabazos [a Persian general], finding the Perinthians (Perinthioi) [Perinthos was a Greek city in southern Thrace on the Propontis, near modern Marmara Ereğlisi, Turkey], unwilling to be Darius’ subjects, subdued them before any others of the people of the Hellespont. These Perinthians had already been roughly handled by the Paionians (Paiones) [Paionians were a people in southeastern Thrace]. (2) For the oracle of the god Apollo ordered the Paionians from the Strymon [Struma] river to march against Perinthos, and if the Perinthians, who were encamped opposite them, they should call to them, crying out their name, then to attack them. If, however, there were no such call, they were not to attack. The Paionians acted accordingly. When the Perinthians set up camp in front of their city, the armies then challenged each other to a threefold duel, in which man was matched against man, horse against horse, and dog against dog. (3) The Perinthians were victorious in two of the combats and raised the chant of “Paian” in their joy. The Paionians reasoned that this was what the oracle had spoken about and must have said to each other, “This is surely the fulfillment of the prophecy; now it is time for us to act.” Accordingly, the Paionians attacked the Perinthians and won a great victory, leaving few of their enemies alive. 2 This, then, is what the Perinthians had previously suffered at the hands of the Paionians. Now they fought like brave men for their freedom, but Megabazos and the Persians overcame them in terms of numbers. (2) When Perinthos had been taken, Megabazos marched his army through Thrace, subduing every city and every people of that region in keeping with the Persian king’s will. For the conquest of Thrace was the task given to him by Darius.

[Size of the Thracian population]

3 The Thracians are the largest people (ethnos) in the world, next to the Indians. If they were under one ruler or united they would be invincible and the most powerful of all peoples on earth, in my view. Since, however, there is no way or means to bring this about, they are weak. (2) The Thracians have many names based on regions, but they are very similar in all their customs, except the Getians, the Trausians (Trausoi), and those who live above the Krestoniaians.

[Trausians and their customs]

4 As for the Getians, who claim to be immortal, I have already given an account of their practices [see 4.94]. The Trausians, who in everything else conform to the customs of other Thracians, do as I will show at the times of birth and death. (2) When a child is born, the kinsmen sit around it and lament all the ills that it must endure from its birth onward, recounting all the sorrows of men. The dead, however, they bury with celebration and gladness, asserting that he is rid of so many hardships and has achieved a state of complete happiness.

[Customs of Thracians living to the north of Greece]

5 Those who dwell above the Krestoniaians have yet other practices [above Krestonia, located on the Chalkidiki peninsula in Greece]. Each man has many wives, and at his death there is both great rivalry among his wives and eager contention on their friends’ part to prove which wife was best loved by her husband. She to whom the honour is given is praised by men and women alike and then killed over the tomb by her nearest of kin. After the killing she is buried with the husband. The rest of the wives are greatly displeased by this, believing themselves to be deeply dishonoured.

[Customs of other Thracians in the eastern Balkan Peninsula]

6 Among the rest of the Thracians, it is the custom to sell their children for export and to not pay attention to their young women, allowing them to have intercourse with any man they want. Their wives, however, they strictly guard, and buy them for a price from the parents. (2) To be tattooed is a sign of noble birth, while to bear no such marks is a sign of low birth. The man who does no work is most honoured, while the man who farms is the most scorned. The man who is held in highest honour lives by war and banditry. 7 These are their most notable customs: they worship no gods but Ares, Dionysos, and Artemis. Their princes, however, unlike the rest of their people, worship Hermes above all gods and swear only by him, claiming him for their ancestor.

[Funerary customs]

8 The wealthy have the following funeral practices. First they lay out the dead for three days, and after killing all kinds of animal victims and making lamentation, they feast. After that they do away with the body either by fire or else by burial in the earth, and when they have built a barrow, they initiate all kinds of contests, in which the greatest prizes are offered for the hardest type of single combat. Such are the Thracian funeral rites.

[Thracian perspectives on geography: the lands north of the Danube river]

10 According to the Thracians, all the land beyond [north of] the Ister [Danube] river is full of bees, and that none can travel there by reason of these bees. This, to my mind, is not a credible tale, for those creatures are not capable of bearing the cold. It appears to me rather that it is by reason of the cold that the northern lands are not inhabited. Such then are the stories about this region. Whatever the truth may be, Megabazos [the Persian general] made its coastal area subject to the Persians.

[Paionians’ forced migration under the Persians]

12 . . . Now Darius, as it happened, saw a sight which put it in his mind to order Megabazos [general in the Persian army] to subdue Paionians and transplant them from their homes in Europe to Asia. There were two Paionians, Pigres and Mantyas, who themselves desired to be rulers of their people. When Darius had crossed into Asia, they came to Sardis [the capital city of Lydia], bringing with them their sister, a tall and beautiful woman. (2) There, waiting till Darius should be sitting in state in the suburb of the Lydian city, they put on their sister the best adornment they had, and sent her to draw water, bearing a vessel on her head, leading a horse by the bridle and spinning flax at the same time. (3) Darius took note of the woman as she passed by him, for what she did was not in the manner of the Persians or Lydians or any of the peoples of Asia. Having taken note of this, he sent some of his guards, bidding them watch what the woman would do with the horse. (4) They accordingly followed behind her, and she, coming to the river, watered the horse. When she had done this and had filled her vessel with water, she passed back again by the same way, bearing the water on her head, leading the horse on her arm, and plying her distaff [i.e. spindling]. 13 Marvelling at what he heard from his watchers and what he saw for himself, Darius ordered the woman be brought before him. When she had been brought, her brothers, who watched all this from a place nearby, came too. Darius asked of what people she was, and the young man told him that they were Paionians and that she was their sister. (2) “But who,” he answered, “are the Paionians, and where do they dwell, and with what intent have you come to Sardis?” They told him, that they had come to be his men, that the towns of Paionia lay on the Strymon [Stuma in southern Bulgaria], a river not far from the Hellespont, and that they were colonists from the Teukrians (Teukroi) of Troy. (3) So they told him all this, and the king asked them if all the women of their country were so industrious. They readily answered that this was in fact the case, because they had come for this purpose.

14 Then Darius wrote a letter to Megabazos, whom he had left as his general in Thrace, bidding him take the Paionians from their houses and bring them to him – men, women, and children. (2) Immediately a horseman sped with this message to the Hellespont, and upon crossing it, gave the letter to Megabazos. After reading it, Megabazos took guides from Thrace and led his army to Paionia. 15 When the Paionians learned that the Persians were coming against them, they gathered together and marched away to the sea, thinking that the Persians would attempt to attack them by that way. (2) So the Paionians were ready to withstand the onset of Megabazos’ army, but the Persians, learning that the Paionians had gathered their forces and were guarding the coastal route into their country, got guides and marched instead by the highland road. They accordingly took the Paionians unaware and won entrance into their cities, which were left without men. Finding these cities empty at their attack, they easily gained them. (3) The Paionians, learning that their towns had been taken, immediately disbanded, each going his own way, and surrendered themselves to the Persians. So among the Paionians, the Siriopaionians (Siriopaiones), Paioplaians (Paioplai), and all peoples who lived as far as the Prasiad lake [modern Lake Prasia, Macedonia] were taken away from their homes and led into Asia.

[Peoples around Pangion mountain and Prusias lake]

16 But those near the Pangion mountain [i.e. east of Struma river, in Bulgaria] and the land of the Doberians (Doberes), the Agrianians (Agrianes), the Odomantians (Odomantoi) and  the Prusias [Dojran in northern Macedonia] lake itself were never subdued at all by Megabazos. He did in fact try to take the lake-dwellers and did so in the following way. There is set in the midst of the lake a platform made fast on tall piles, to which one bridge gives a narrow passage from the land. (2) In the old days all the people working together set the piles which support the platform there, but they later developed another method of setting them. The men bring the piles from a mountain called Orbelos [Slavjanka in southwestern Bulgaria], and every man plants three piles for each of the three women that he marries. (3) Each man has both a hut on the platform and a trap-door in the platform leading down into the lake. They fasten a cord to the feet of their little children out of fear that they will fall into the water. (4) They give fish as fodder to their horses and beasts of burden, and there is such an abundance of fish that a man can open his trap-door, let down an empty basket by a line into the lake and draw it up after a short time full of fish. There are two kinds of fish, which they call “paprakes” and “tilones.”


Book 6

[Dolonkians and Apsinthians of Thracian Chersonese / modern Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey]

34 The Phoenicians subdued all the cities in the Chersonese [modern Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey] except Kardia. Miltiades son of Kimon, son of Stesagoras, was tyrant there [i.e. Miltiades the Younger]. Miltiades son of Kypselos [i.e. Miltiades the Elder, ca. 590-525 BCE] had gained the rule earlier in the following manner: the Thracian Dolonkians (Dolonkoi) held possession of this Chersonese. They were crushed in war by the Apsinthians (Apsinthioi), so they sent their kings to Delphi to inquire about the war. (2) The Pythia [i.e. the priestess of Apollo at Delphi] answered that they should bring to their land as founder the first man who offered them hospitality after they left the sacred precinct. Then the Dolonkians traveled through the lands of Phokis and Boiotia along the Sacred Way, and since nobody was inviting them in, they redirected themselves toward Athens. 35 At that time in Athens, Peisistratos held complete power [i.e. as a “tyrant”], but Miltiades son of Kypselos also had great influence. His household was rich enough to maintain a four-horse chariot [i.e. for entry into the Olympic games], and he traced his earliest descent to Aiakos and Aigina, though his later ancestry was Athenian. Philaios son of Ajax was the first of that house to be an Athenian. (2) Miltiades was sitting on his porch when he saw the Dolonkians go by with their foreign clothing and spears, so he called out to them, and when they came over, he invited them in for lodging and hospitality. They accepted, and after he entertained them, they revealed the whole story of the oracle to him and asked him to obey the god. (3) He was persuaded as soon as he heard their speech, for he was tired of Peisistratos’ rule and wanted to be away from it. He immediately set out for Delphi to ask for an oracular response [from the Pythia] on whether he should do what the Dolonkians asked of him. 36 The Pythia likewise commanded him to do it. Then Miltiades son of Kypselos, previously an Olympic victor in the four-horse chariot [as an owner of the horses and chariot], recruited any Athenian who wanted to take part in the expedition, sailed off with the Dolonkians and took possession of their land. Those who brought him appointed him tyrant. (2) His first act was to wall off the isthmus of the Chersonese from the city of Kardia across to Paktye [i.e across the isthmus of the peninsula of Gallipoli, near Bulair; a distance of about four and a half miles], so that the Apsinthians would not be able to harm them by invading their land. The isthmus is thirty-six stadium-lengths across, and to the south of the isthmus the Chersonese is four hundred and twenty stadium-lengths in length. 40 So then, this Miltiades son of Kimon [i.e. Miltiades the Younger, ca. 550-489 BCE] had just recently come back to the Chersonese, when greater difficulties than the present afflictions overtook him. He had been driven from the land three years before this by the Scythians. The nomadic Scythians, provoked by Darius, gathered themselves together and rode as far as the Chersonese. (2) Miltiades did not await their attack and fled from the Chersonese, until the Scythians departed and the Dolonkians brought him back again. All this had happened three years before the matters that now engaged him. . . . [sections omitted].

[Brygians repulse the Persians]

. . . 45 That is what happened with the Persian fleet. Meanwhile, as Mardonios [Persian general] and his land army were encamped in Macedonia, the Brygians (Brygoi) of Thrace attacked them by night and killed many of them, wounding Mardonios himself. But not even these could escape being enslaved by the Persians. Mardonios did not depart from those lands before he had subjugated them. (2) After conquering them, he led his army away homewards, since the Brygians had dealt a heavy blow to his army and Athos an even heavier blow to his fleet [i.e. in reference to the poor maritime weather around the Athos peninsula, part of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula]. This expedition after an inglorious adventure returned back to Asia.


Book 7

[Thracians in Xerxes’ Persian army]

75 The Thracians in the army wore fox-skin caps on their heads and tunics on their bodies. Over these they wore embroidered mantles, and they had shoes of fawn-skin on their feet and legs. They also had javelins, little shields and daggers. (2) They took the name of Bithynians after they crossed over to Asia; before that they were called (as they themselves say) Strymonians, since they lived by the Strymon [Struma] river. They say that they were driven from their homes by Teukrians and Mysians [see 7.20]. The commander of the Thracians of Asia was Bassakes son of Artapanos (Artabanos). . . [sections omitted].

[Peoples encountered in Xerxes’ march through Thrace]

[Satraians and the subgroup of Bessians]

110 Xerxes made his way through the lands of the following Thracian peoples (ethnē): Paitians (Paitoi), Kikonians (Kikones), Bistonians (Bistones), Sapaians (Sapaioi), Dersaians (Dersaioi), Edonians (Edonoi), and Satraians (Satrai) [i.e. tribes living between the Nestos and Strymon river valleys]. Of these peoples, the ones who lived by the sea followed his army on ship, while the ones living inland, whose names I have recorded, were forced to join with his land army – except for the Satraians. 111 The Satraians, as far as we know, have never yet been subject to any man. They alone of the Thracians have continued living in freedom to this day. They live on high mountains covered with forests of all kinds and covered with snow. They are excellent warriors. (2) They are the ones who possess the place of divination sacred to Dionysos. This place is in their highest mountains. The Bessians (Bessoi) among the Satraians are the prophets of the shrine. There is a priestess who utters the oracle, as at Delphi; it is no more complicated here than there.

[Pierians, Odomantians, and Satraians: the mining of Mount Pangion]

112 After passing through the land mentioned above, Xerxes next passed the fortresses of the Pierians (Pieres), one called Phagres and the other Pergamos. By going this way he marched right under their walls, keeping on his right the great and high Pangaion mountain, where the Pierians, the Odomantians (Odomantoi) and especially the Satraians have gold and silver mines.


Book 9

[Apsinthians and human sacrifice in war]

119 As Oiobazos [a Persian commander] was making his escape into Thrace [following the Persian expulsion from Greece], the Apsinthians of that country caught and sacrificed him in their customary manner to Pleistoros, the god of their land. As for Oionazos’ companions, the Apsinthians did away with them by other means.

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