Thracians and Odrysians: Thucydides on Thracians, power, and violence (late fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thracians and Odrysians: Thucydides on Thracians, power, and violence (late fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 30, 2023,

Ancient author: Thucydides, History of the Peloponessian War 2.29, 2.95-101, and 7.29-31(link).

Comments: The intramural Greek conflicts that were the focus of Thucydides’ narrative (History of the Peloponnesian War) were not as suited to frequent discussions of more far-flung peoples (compared to Herodotos’ focus on Persians and peoples conquered by them). However, that does not by any means suggest that ethnographic interests are absent altogether from Thucydides’ narrative (produced in this form around 404 BCE). We have already seen that this entire account begins with a discussion of numerous peoples in order to propose a theory about the move from banditry to civilization and the origins of a shared sense of Greekness (link). We have also noticed Thucydides thinking about the problem of “Medizing” or acculturating to eastern ways (link). Furthermore, there are times when he describes and evaluates Greek peoples that many Athenians were interested in marginalizing, such as the “semi-barbarous” Aitolians (link). But full-on ethnographic digressions are generally not his way, with the exception of our present passage on Odrysians within the context of Thracian and other peoples and on Macedonians.

There are some tensions in Thucydides’ evaluation of Thracians. On the one hand, he is relatively positive about the Odrysian kingdom itself and somewhat neutral in his discussion of most peoples that associated with that kingdom. The Odrysians are portrayed as one of the greatest powers in the north (second only to Scythians). Here he generally refrains from moral evaluations or negative statements. It is important to remember that Thucydides himself seems to have had some connections to Thrace, if not Thracian relatives: he owned or at least had the right to work gold mines in Thrace and his father’s name, Oloros, is Thracian (see 4.104-105 – link). These are among the reasons Thucydides was sent as a general to the Athenian colony of Amphipolis (Amfipoli, Greece).

On the other hand, later on in his narrative, Thucydides pinpoints a particularly violent incident promulgated by the mountain-dwelling Dian Thracians (who at the time were mercenaries hired by Athens) in order to make very broad, negative characterizations of Thracians generally. There is a sense in which Thucydides’ ambivalence may reflect broader tendencies among Athenians in the fifth century BCE, who, at one moment, might negatively stereotype Thracians in mythological scenes on vase paintings (link coming soon) and, at another, join Thracians in Athens and suburbs in worshipping Bendis, a Thracian deity (link).

Source of the translation: C.F. Smith, Thucydides, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Introduction of Sitalkes and the Odrysians]

(2.29) Also during this summer [ca. 431 BCE], the Athenians made Nymphodoros son of Pythes – a man of Abdera [Greek colony in southern Thrace] whose sister Sitalkes [ca. 450-424 BCE] had married and who possessed great influence with Sitalkes – their official representative (proxenos) with that king, even though they had up to this point considered Sitalkes an enemy. They also summoned Nymphodoros to Athens, wishing to gain Sitalkes, son of Teres [ca. 490-450 BCE] and king of the Thracians, as their ally. Now this Teres, the father of Sitalkes, was the first to found the great kingdom of the Odrysians (Odrysai), which extended over the larger part of Thrace, because a considerable portion of the Thracians are independent. This Teres is not in any way connected with Tereus [omitted explanation of that other mythical Tereus in Phokis when Thracians were supposedly settled there]. Teres, however, whose name was not the same as the other’s, was the first king to attain great power among the Odrysians. And it was his son, Sitalkes, whom the Athenians wanted to make their ally, wishing him to help in subduing the places on the coast of Thrace and subduing Perdikkas [II, king of the Macedonians, ca. 454-412 BCE].

So Nymphodoros came to Athens, brought about the alliance with Sitalkes, and got Sadokos son of Sitalkes made an Athenian citizen. He also promised to bring the war in Thrace to an end, saying that he would persuade Sitalkes to send the Athenians a Thracian force of horsemen and targeteers. Moreover, he brought about a reconciliation between Perdikkas and the Athenians, whom he persuaded to restore Therme to him. Perdikkas immediately joined forces with the Athenians under Phormio and took the field against the Chalkidians. It was in this way that Sitalkes son of Teres, king of the Thracians, became an ally of the Athenians, and also Perdikkas son of Alexander, king of the Macedonians. . . [omitted sections].


[Ethnographic digression on Odrysians and peoples under their control]

(2.95) About the same time, at the beginning of this winter [429/428 BCE], Sitalkes the Odrysian, a son of Teres, king of the Thracians, made an expedition against Perdikkas son of Alexander, king of Macedonia, and against the Chalkidians of Thrace. He wanted to exact fulfilment of one promise and to make good another. For when Perdikkas was being hard pressed at the beginning of the war he had made Sitalkes a promise on condition that he should reconcile him to the Athenians and should not bring back his brother Philip, who was hostile, to make him king. However, Perdikkas would not fulfil his promise. On the other hand, Sitalkes had made an agreement with the Athenians, at the time he entered into the alliance with them, to bring to an end their war with the Chalkidians in Thrace. For both these reasons, then, Sitalkes now began the invasion against the Macedonians, and he took with him Philip’s son, Amyntas, with a view to making him king of the Macedonians, as well as some Athenian envoys who had come to see him on this business, as well as Hagnon as commander. The Athenians were to furnish a fleet and as large an army as possible for the war against the Chalkidians.

[Getians, Dians, and other Thracians]

(2.96) Beginning with the Odrysians, Sitalkes summoned under his military standard first of all the Thracians under his control between the Haimos and Rhodope mountains and the sea (as far as the shores of the Euxine [Black Sea] and the Hellespont). Then he summoned the Getians (Getai) beyond Haimos mountain and all the other groups that are settled south of the river Ister [Danube] in the general direction of the seaboard of the Euxine sea. The Getians and the people of that region are not only neighbours of the Scythians but are also equipped like them, all of them being mounted archers. Sitalkes also summoned many of the mountain Thracians who are independent and wear short swords, who are called Dians (Dioi), most of them inhabiting mount Rhodope. Some of these were brought into his service by pay, while others came along as volunteers.

[Paionians: Agrianians and Laiaians]

Furthermore, he called out the Agrianians and Laiaians, and all the other Paionian peoples (ethnē) which were under his control. These peoples were at the outer limits of his kingdom, for the bounderies of his kingdom extended, on the side towards the Paionians, who are independent, as far as the Laiaian Paionians and the Strymon [Struma] river (which flows from mount Skombros through the country of the Agrianians and the Laiaians). On the side toward the Triballians, who also are independent, the boundary is formed by the Trerians and Tilataians. These peoples live to the north of mount Skombros and extend toward the west as far as the Oskios [Iskar] river. This river has its source in the same mountains as the Nestus [Masta] and the Hebros [Maritza], an uninhabited and very large mountain range adjacent to the Rhodope mountain.

[Territory and customs of the kingdom of the Odrysians]

(2.97) With regard to the size of the kingdom of the Odrysians, it extended along the sea-coast from the city of Abdera [in the south] to the Euxine sea as far as the river Ister [Danube, in the north]. This stretch of coast constitutes a voyage for a merchant-vessel, if the shortest course is taken and the wind keeps steady from behind, it takes four days and four nights. But the journey by land from Abdera to the Ister river can be accomplished by an active man, taking the shortest route, in eleven days. Such was its extent on its seaboard. However, inland the distance from Byzantion [now Istanbul] to the Lakaians and the river Strymon (for this was its inland point farthest distant from the sea), it is possible for an active man to cover in thirteen days.

As for the tribute which came in from all the barbarian territory and from all the Greek cities over which the Odrysians acquired control in the time of Seuthes [ca. 424-405 BCE] – who succeeded Sitalkes on the throne and brought the revenues to their maximum – its value was about four hundred talents in coin paid in gold and silver. Gifts equal in value to the tribute, not only of gold and silver, but besides these all types of goods – both embroidered and plain, and other articles for household use – were brought as offerings to the king. These were brought not only for him, but also for the subordinate princes and nobles of the Odrysians. For these kings had established a custom which was just the opposite of that prevailing in the kingdom of the Persians: in particular they took rather than gave. In fact, it was more disgraceful for a man not to give when asked than to ask and be refused. This custom was observed among the other Thracians as well. However, the Odrysian kings, as they were more powerful, followed it more extensively. In fact, it was not possible to accomplish anything without giving gifts. Consequently, the kingdom attained to a great degree of power.

[Comparison with Scythians’ power]

For of all the kingdoms in Europe between the Ionian gulf and the Euxine sea, it was the greatest in revenue of money and in general prosperity. Yet with regard to the strength and size of its army, it was distinctly inferior to the Scythian kingdom. With that not only are the peoples of Europe unable to compete. Even in comparing peoples of Asia, there is no people which can make a stand against the Scythians if they all act in unison. However, with reference to wise counsel and intelligence about the things that belong to the enrichment of life, the Scythians are not to be compared with other peoples.

[Campaign against the Macedonians]

(2.98) Such then was the extent of the country over which Sitalkes ruled at the time when he was preparing his army. But when everything was ready, he set out for Macedonia, proceeding first through his own territory, then through the desolate mountain range of Kerkine [Belasica], which lies between the Sintians and Paionians. And he passed over this mountain by the road which he himself had constructed before, when he made an expedition against the Paionians, cutting a path through the forest. As his army crossed the mountain, leaving the country of the Odrysians, they had the Paionians on the right and on the left the Sintians and Maidians. When they came out on the other side they arrived at Doberos in Paionia. On the march his army suffered no loss, except from sickness. Rather, his army was augmented because many of the independent Thracians joined the expedition – without being called to do so – in the hope of plunder. As a result the complete size of the army is said to have been not less than a hundred and fifty thousand, the greater part being foot-soldiers and about one third horsemen. The Odrysians themselves furnished the largest contingent of horsemen, and next to them the Getians. While of the foot-soldiers, the “sword-wearers” (machairophoroi) – those independent populations that came down from mount Rhodope – were the best fighters. The rest ot the army that followed was a miscellaneous group which was strong mainly because of its size.

[Digression on various Macedonian peoples and the southern Macedonians’ territory]

(2.99) So Sitalkes’ army was gathering at Doberos and preparing to pass over the mountain crest and descend upon lower Macedonia, of which Perdikkas was ruler. For the Macedonians also include the Lynkestians, Elimiotians, and other peoples (ethnē) of the upper country. Even though these peoples have alliance with the closer [i.e. southern] Macedonians and are subject to them, they have kings of their own. However, the country by the sea which is now called Macedonia, was first acquired and made their kingdom by Alexander, the father of Perdikkas, and his forefathers, who were originally Temenidians from Argos. They defeated and expelled from Pieria the Pierians, who afterwards settled in Phagres and other places at the foot of mount Pangaios beyond the Strymon – and even to this day the district at the foot of mount Pangaios toward the sea is called the “Pierian valley.” They also expelled those from the country called Bottia, the Bottiaians, who now live on the borders of the Chalkidians. Furthermore, the closer Macedonians acquired a narrow strip of Paionia extending along the Axios [Vardar] river from the interior to Pella and the sea. Beyond the Axios, they possess the district as far as the Strymon which is called Mygdonia, having driven out the Edonians. Moreover, they expelled from the district now called Eordia the Eordians, most of whom were destroyed, but a small portion is settled in the neighbourhood of Physka. They also expelled from Almopia the Almopians.

These Macedonians also made themselves masters of, and still control, certain places belonging to other peoples, namely, Anthemos, Grestonia, Bisaltia, as well as of a large part of Macedonia proper. But the entire area is now called “Macedonia,” and Perdikkas son of Alexander was king when Sitalkes made his invasion.

[Odrysian invasion and Macedonians’ response]

(2.100) The Macedonians of this region, unable to defend themselves against so great an invading army, went to the strong places and fortresses that were in the country, which were few. However, subsequently Archelaos son of Perdikkas, when he became king [reigned ca. 413-399 BCE], built the fortifications that are now in the country and he cut straight roads. In general, Archelaos organized his country for war by providing horsemen, weapons and other equipment beyond anything achieved by all the eight kings who preceded him.

Now the Thracian army, advancing from Doberos, invaded first the province which before had belonged to Philip, and took Idomene by storm. However, Gortynia, Atalanta, and some other places capitulated voluntarily out of friendship for Amyntas son of Philip, who accompanied Sitalkes. Moreover, they laid siege to Europos [now Evropos, Greece], but were unable to take it. Next they advanced into the other part of Macedonia, which is to the west of Pella and Kyrrhos. However, they did not reach beyond these places into Bottiaia and Pieria, but they did ravage Mygdonia, Grestonia, and Anthemos.

The Macedonians, on the other hand, did not even think of defending themselves with foot-soldiers. Instead, calling upon their allies in the interior for additional horsemen, though few against many, they rushed in among the Thracian army wherever they chose. And wherever they charged no one could withstand them, for they were good horsemen and protected by breastplates. Since they were being constantly closed in by superior numbers and found themselves endangered by the army that was many times their own number, they finally desisted, thinking that they were not strong enough to fight with the larger force.

(2.101) Sitalkes now began to hold negotiations with Perdikkas about the matters for which he had undertaken the expedition. Since the Athenians (who did not believe that Sitalkes would come, though they sent gifts and envoys to him) had not arrived with their promised fleet, he dispatched part of his army into the territory of the Chalkidians and Bottiaians and, closing them up within their walls, ravaged their lands. But while he was staying in the neighbourhood of these places, the peoples which live to the south – the Thessalians, the Magnesians and other subjects of the Thessalians, and the Greeks as far south as Thermopylai – became frightened in case the army would come to attack them as well, and so were making preparations. The same alarm was felt also by the Thracians who inhabit the plain beyond the Strymon to the north, that is, the Panaians, Odomantians, Droans, and Dersaians, which are independent peoples. Sitalkes also encouraged a rumour, which spread even to the Greeks hostile to Athens, that the Thracians might be led on by the Athenians in accordance with the terms of their alliance and come against them as well.

[Withdrawal by means of diplomatic marriages]

Meanwhile, Sitalkes kept on ravaging at one and the same time Chalkidike, Bottice, and Macedonia. Then, since none of the original objects of his invasion was being accomplished and his army lacked food and was suffering from the winter, he was persuaded by Seuthes son of Sparadokos (his nephew and next to him in power) to go back home at once. Now Seuthes had been secretly won over by Perdikkas, who had promised to give him his sister in marriage and a dowry with her. So Sitalkes yielded, and after a stay of only thirty days in all, eight of which had been spent among the Chalkidians, returned home with his army with all speed. Perdikkas afterwards gave his sister Stratonike to Seuthes as he had promised. Such, then, is the history of the expedition of Sitalkes. . . [omitted numerous books].


[Extreme violence by mercenaries drawn from independent Thracian Dians from the mountains]

(7.27) During this same summer [ca. 413 BCE] there arrived at Athens thirteen hundred peltasts of the sword-bearing (machairophoroi) Thracians of the descent group (genos) of Dians (Dioi), who were supposed to sail to Sicily with Demosthenes. But since they came too late, the Athenians were disposed to send them back to Thrace, from which they had come. To keep them for the war that was being carried on from Dekeleia [northern subdivision of Attica, north of Athens] seemed too expensive, since each received as pay a drachma per day. . . [omitted sections].

(7.29) As for the Thracians, then, who had come too late for Demosthenes, the Athenians immediately sent them back, being unwilling on account of the present shortage of money to incur expense. They commissioned Dieitrephes to conduct them, giving him instructions to use them, as he sailed along the coast (for they would go by way of the Euripos strait), in doing whatever damage he could to the enemy. So he disembarked them in the territory of Tanagra and made a hasty raid. Then he sailed immediately after nightfall from Chalkis in Euboia across the Euripos. Landing the Thracians in Boiotian territory, Dieitrephes led them against Mykalessos. During the night he camped unobserved near the sanctuary of Hermes, about sixteen stadium-lengths away from Mykalessos. But at daybreak, he assaulted the town, which was not large, and took it becuase he attacked the people when they were caught off guard and not expecting that anybody would ever march so far inland from the sea and attack them. Furthermore, their wall was weak, and at some places even fallen down, while elsewhere it had been built low, and at the same time the gates were open because of their feeling of security.

So the Thracians burst into Mykalessos and engaged in plundering the houses and the temples and butchering the people, sparing neither old nor young. They were killing everyone that they met, even children and women, yes, pack-animals as well and whatever other living things they saw.

[Negative characterization of the Thracian descent group]

For the Thracian descent group (genos), like the worst barbarians, is most bloodthirsty whenever it has nothing to fear. So on this occasion – in addition to the general confusion which was great – every form of destruction ensued. In particular, they attacked a boys’ school, the largest in the town, which the children had just entered, and killed them all. And this was the worst disaster that had ever happened to a whole city. Beyond any other incident, this was unexpected and terrible.

[Theban’s response to the slaughter]

(7.30) When the Thebans heard of this event they hurried to the rescue. Overtaking the Thracians before they had advanced far, they took away their plunder and, putting them to flight, pursued them to the Euripos, where the boats which had brought them lay at anchor. Most of those who fell were killed by the Thebans while embarking, for they could not swim. The crews of the boats, when they saw what was happening on shore, anchored the boats beyond bowshot. Elsewhere, as they were retreating, the Thracians made their defence against the Theban horsemen, which was the first to attack them, not unskilfully. The Theban horsemen dash out against them and closed up their ranks again after the manner of fighting peculiar to their country and, in the process, few of them perished. A certain number of the Thracians were also killed in the town itself, being caught there while engaged in plundering. Altogether two hundred and fifty out of thirteen hundred Thracians were killed. Of the Thebans and the others who took part in the rescue, a total of about twenty horsemen and hoplites perished. Among them was Skirphondas, one of the Theban leaders of Boiotia. Of the population of Mykalessos, a considerable portion lost their lives. That was the fate of Mykalessos, which faced a disaster that, for the size of the city, was not less deplorable than any of the events of this [Peloponessian] war.

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