Thracians and other Black Sea peoples: Ammianus Marcellinus on their “savage” character and on Roman control (late fourth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thracians and other Black Sea peoples: Ammianus Marcellinus on their “savage” character and on Roman control (late fourth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 2, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17418.

Ancient author: Ammianus Marcellinus (late fourth century CE), Roman AntiquitiesRes Gestae 22.8.1; 22.8.18-48; and, 27.4.1-14 (link).

Comments: There are two main spots where Ammianus Marcellinus takes the opportunity to describe peoples in Thrace or around the Black Sea area in general.  On the one hand is his digression in connection with emperor Julian’s activities in relation to Thracian and other communities while at Constantinople in the early 360s CE. This passage ranges more widely across the peoples of the Black Sea area generally, including groups traditionally included under the rubric of “Scythians.” Alans are mentioned briefly here, but in another passage Ammianus delves more deeply into the Alans in connection with invasions by Huns (link), with both of these peoples described in Scythian terms.

On the other hand is Ammianus’ description in connection with emperor Valens’ plans for a campaign against the Goths (later in the 360s CE). This second main passage on peoples of the Black Sea area is more focussed on peoples on the west coast encompassed by the (primarily) outsider category of “Thracians,” particularly Skordiskians and Odrysians. Ammianus is here seeing some close relation between these Thracian peoples and the populations designated “Goths” in his own time (which led to the digression). For a later approach in which Getians are equated with Goths by a Goth, see the sixth century account of Jordanes (link). Ammianus’ account of Odrysians (as representative of Thracians) emphasizes Roman control of the populations over time.

Source of translation: J. C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge: HUP, 1935-1940), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted and modernized by Harland.

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[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Egyptians, go to this link.]

[Digression on the Black Sea and its peoples]

(22.8.1) Now is a fitting time (I think), since the history of a great prince [emperor Julian] has opportunely brought us to these places, to provide a clear and accurate account of the remote parts of Thrace and of the topography of the Pontic sea, partly from my own observation and partly from reading. . . [omitted some geographic description of the Aegean leading into the Black Sea, Bithynia, Pontus, and Paphlagonia].

[Peoples on the northeastern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea]

[Amazons]

(22.8.18-48) In the old days, the Amazons – who wore down their neighbours through constant losses and devastated them by bloody raids – had higher aspirations. Considering their strength and feeling that it was too great merely for frequent attacks upon their neighbours, being carried away besides by the headstrong heat of covetousness, they broke through many peoples and made war upon the Athenians.​ But after a bitter contest they were scattered in all directions, and since the flanks of their cavalry were left unprotected, they all perished. Receiving news of the destruction, the remainder who had been left at home as unfit for war suffered extreme hardship. In order to avoid the deadly attacks of their neighbours, who paid them like for like, they moved to a quieter abode on the river Thermodon. Thereafter their descendants, who had greatly increased, returned, thanks to their numerous offspring, with a very powerful force, and in later times were a cause of terror to diverse populations.

Not far from there the hill called Karambis lifts itself with gentle slope, rising towards the constellation of the Great Bear of the north, and opposite this, at a distance of two thousand five hundred stadium-lengths, is Kriumetopon,​ a promontory of Taurika. From this point the whole seacoast, beginning at the river Halys, as if drawn in a straight line, has the form of the string joined to the two tips of the bow. Bordering on these regions are the Daans (Dahae), the fiercest of all warriors, and the Chalybians (Chalybes), by whom iron was first mined and worked. Beyond these are open plains, inhabited by the Byzares, Sapires, Tibarenians, Mossynoikians, Makronians and Philyrians, populations (populi) not known to us through any interactions.

A short distance from these are the tombs of famous men, in which are buried Sthenelos,​ Idmon,​ and Tiphys. The first of these was a companion of Herakles (Hercules), mortally wounded in the war with the Amazons, the second the augur of the Argonauts, the third the careful steersman of that same craft. After passing the places mentioned, one comes to the grotto of Aulion and the river Kallichoros,​ which owes its name to the fact that Bacchos [i.e. the god Dionysos], when he had after three years vanquished the peoples of India, returned to those regions, and on the green and shady banks of that river renewed the former rituals and dances. Some think that this kind of festival was also called trieterika.​

[Karmaritians, Kolchians, and Heniochians]

Beyond these territories are the populous districts of the Kamaritians,​ and the Phasis in impetuous course borders on the Kolchians, who are of Egyptian origin. There,​ among other cities, is Phasis, which gets its name from the river, and Dioskourias, well known even to this day, said to have been founded by Amphitos and Kerkios of Sparta, the charioteers of Castor and Pollux, and founders of the people (natio) of the Heniochians.​ A short distance from these are the Achaians who, after the end of an earlier war at Troy (not the one which was fought about Helen, as some writers have asserted), being carried out of their course by contrary winds to Pontos, and meeting enemies everywhere, were unable to find a place for a permanent home, and so they settled on the tops of mountains covered with perpetual snow. Compelled by the rigorous climate, they there became accustomed to make a dangerous living by robbery, and hence became later beyond all measure savage. About the Kerketians (Cercetae) who adjoin them, we have no information worth mentioning.

Behind these dwell the inhabitants of the Kimmerian Bosporos, where Milesian cities are located and where Pantikapaion river – the mother of all, so to speak – is located, which is fed by the river Hypanis, swollen with its own and tributary waters. Next, at a considerable distance, are the Amazons, who extend to the Kaspian sea [Caspian Sea] and live around the Tanais [Don] river,​ which rises among the crags of Kaukasos range [Caucasus], flows in a course with many windings and, after separating Europe from Asia, vanishes in the standing pools of the Maiotis marsh [Sea of Azov]. Near this is the river Ra,​ on whose banks grows a plant of the same name, the root of which is used for many medicinal purposes.

[Sauromatians]

Beyond the Tanais the Sauromatians have a territory of wide extent, through which flow the never-failing rivers Marakkos, Rombites, Theophanes and Totordanes. However, there is also another people (natio) of the Sauromatians an enormous distance away, extending along the shore which receives the river Korax and pours it far out into the Euxine sea [Black Sea].

[Peoples around lake Maiotis]

Nearby is the Maiotic gulf​ of wide circuit, from whose abundant springs a great body of water bursts through the narrows of Panticapes into the Pontos [Black Sea]. On its right side are the islands Phanagoros and Hermonassa, founded by the effort of the Greeks. Around these farthest and most distant marshes live numerous peoples (nationes), differing in the variety of their languages and customs: the Ixomatians, Maiotians, Iazygians, Roxolanians, Alans (Halani), Melanchlainians, and, with the Gelonians, the Agathyrsians, in whose country an abundance of the stone called adamant​ is found. Farther beyond are other peoples, who are wholly unknown, since they are the remotest of all men. But near the left [west] side of the Maiotis marsh is the Chersonesos,​ full of Greek colonies. Hence the inhabitants are quiet and peaceful, working with the plough and living on the products of the soil.

[Taurians and supposed human sacrifice]

Not far from these are the Taurians, divided into various kingdoms, among whom the Arichians, the Sinchians, and the Napaians are terrible for their ruthless cruelty. Since long continued freedom has increased their savageness, they have given the sea the name of “Inhospitable”; but in irony​ it is called by the contrary name of Pontus “Euxeinos” (“Hospitable”),​ just as we Greeks call a fool “euēthēs,” night “euphronē”, and the Furies “Eumenides”.​ For these peoples offer human victims to the gods and sacrifice strangers to Diana [Artemis], whom they call “Orsiloche,” and affix the skulls of the slain to the walls of her temple, as a lasting memorial of their courageous actions.

In this Taurian country is the island of Leuke, which is​ entirely uninhabited dedicated to Achilles. And if any happen to be carried to that island, after looking at the ancient remains, the temple, and the gifts consecrated to that hero, they return at evening to their ships. For it is said that no one can pass the night there except at the risk of his life. At that place there are also springs and white birds live there resembling halcyons, of whose origin and battles in the Hellespont I will speak​ at the appropriate time. Now there are some cities in the Taurian region, conspicuous among which are Eupatoria, Dandake, and Theodosia, with other smaller towns, which are not contaminated with human sacrifices.

[Peoples on the western and northwestern coast of the Black Sea]

[Aremphaians, Sindians, Neurians and others in the northwest]

So far the peak of the bow [i.e. the shape of the upper Black Sea area] is thought to extend. The remainder of it, gently curved and lying under the Bear in the skies, we will now follow as far as the left side of the Thracian Bosporos [i.e. the northwestern coast of the Black Sea], as the order demands, with this warning: While the bows of all other descent groups are bent with the staves curved, in those of the Scythians alone, or the Parthians, since a straight rounded​ handle divides them in the middle, the ends are bent downwards on both sides and far apart,​ presenting the form of a waning moon.

Well then, at the very beginning of this district, where the Ripaian (Riphaean) mountains sink to the plain, dwell the Aremphaians, just men and known for their gentleness, through whose country flow the rivers Chronios and Bisula (Visula). Near them are the Massagetians, Alans, and Sargetians, as well as several other obscure peoples whose names and customs are unknown to us. Then at a considerable distance the Karkinitian gulf opens up, with a river of the same name, and the grove of Tribia (Trivia),​ sacred in those regions. Next the Borysthenes [Dnieper] river,​ rising in the mountains of the Neurians (Nervii), rich in waters from its own springs, which are increased by many tributaries and mingle with the sea in high-rolling waves. On its well-wooded banks are the cities of Borysthenes [Olbia / modern Parutyne, Ukraine] and Kephalonesos and the altars consecrated to Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar.

Then, a long distance away, is a peninsula inhabited by the Sindians, people of low birth, who after the disaster to their masters in Asia​ got possession of their wives and property. Next to these is a narrow strip of shore which the natives call “Achilles’ course,”​ memorable in times past for the exercises of the Thessalian leader.​ And next to it is the city Tyras [near Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Ukraine], a colony of the Phoenicians, washed by the river Tyras.

[Alans and Kostobokians]

Now in the middle space of the bow, which, as I have said, is widely rounded out and is fifteen days’ journey for an active traveller, are the European Alans (Halani), the Kostobokians, and innumerable Scythian descent groups, which extend to lands which have no known limit. Of these, only a small part live on the fruits of the earth. All the rest roam over desert waste lands, which have never been plowed or seeded, but are rough from neglect and subject to frosts. They eat like wild animals. Their dear ones, their dwellings, and their poor belongings they pack upon wagons covered with the bark of trees. Whenever they feel like it, they change their abode without trouble, wheeling their carts to the place which has attracted them.

[Peoples near the Danube delta]

But when we have come to another bend, abounding in harbours, which forms the last part of the curve of the bow, the island of Peuke juts out [sometimes placed in the Danube delta],​ and around this dwell the Trogodytes (or: Troglodytes; “Cave-dwellers”), the Peukians, and other lesser descent groups. Here is Histros, once a powerful city, and Tomi, Apollonia, Anchialos, and Odessos [now modern Romania], besides many other cities which lie along the Thracian coast. But the river Danube, rising near the mountains near the Raitian frontier, extends over a wide tract, and after receiving sixty tributaries, nearly all of which are navigable, breaks through this Scythian shore into the sea through seven mouths.​ The first of these, as their names are interpreted in the Greek language, is the previously mentioned island of Peuke,​ the second Narakou-mouth, the third Kalon-mouth, the fourth Pseudo-mouth; but the Borion-mouth and Steno-mouth are far smaller than the others; the seventh is muddy and black like a swamp.

Now the entire Pontos [Black Sea] throughout its whole circuit is misty,​ has sweeter​ waters than the other seas,​ and is full of shoals, since the air is often thickened and condensed from the evaporation of moisture, and is tempered by the great masses of water that flow into it. Because the many rivers that pour into it from every side bring in mud and clods, it rises in shoals that are full of ridges. And it is a well-known fact that fish from the remotest bounds of our sea​ come in schools to this retreat for the purpose of spawning, in order that they may rear their young more healthfully in its sweet waters. In the refuge of the hollows, such as are very numerous there, they may be secure from voracious sea-beasts; for in the Pontus nothing of that kind has ever been seen,​ except small and harmless dolphins. But the part of that same Pontic gulf which is scourged by the north wind and by frosts is so completely bound in ice, that neither are the courses of the rivers believed to flow beneath the ice, nor can men or animals keep their footing on the treacherous and slippery surface. This is a defect which an unmixed sea never has, but only one which is mingled with water from rivers. But since I have been carried somewhat farther than I expected, let us hasten on to the rest of our story. . . [omitted return to the narrative of contemporary events under emperor Julian].

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Maurians and Aursourianians, go to this link.]

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[For Ammianus’ previous discussion of Persians, go to this link.]

[Thracians and their territories]

(27.4) While the above-mentioned events were taking place in Gaul and Italy, a new campaign was set on foot in Thrace. For Valens [eastern emperor, ca. 364-378 CE], in accordance with the desire of his brother, whom he consulted and by whose will he was guided, took up arms against the Goths, influenced by a just reason, namely, that they had sent aid to Procopius, when he began his civil war [ca. 365-366 CE]. It will be fitting, then, to sketch hastily in a brief digression the early history and the topography of those regions.

[Skordiskians and human sacrifice]

A description of Thrace would be easy, if the pens of the earlier writers agreed. However, since their obscurity and their differences lend no aid to a work whose aim is truth, it will suffice to present what I myself remember to have seen. That this land formerly consisted of a boundless expanse of gentle plains and lofty mountains, we know from the immortal testimony of Homer, who imagines that the north and west winds begin to blow from there [Iliad 9.5]. But this is either a fable, or else in former times the widely extended tracts marked out to be the home of savage peoples (nationes) were all included under the name of “Thrace.” A part of these were inhabited by the Skordiskians,​ who are now widely separated from those same provinces: a people formerly cruel and savage, and, as ancient history declares, accustomed to offer up their prisoners as victims to Bellona and Mars, and from their hollowed skulls greedily to drink human blood. By their savageness Roman society was often very troubled and after many sad disasters finally lost a whole army with its commander [perhaps referring to events in 114 BCE under M. Porcius Cato].

[Odrysians]

But, as we now see them, those same places, formed in the shape of a crescent moon, present the appearance of a beautiful theatre. At its western summit are the steep mountains through which the narrow pass of Succi opens, separating Thrace from Dacia. The left side,​ towards the northern stars, is shut in by the lofty heights of mount Haimos and the Ister (Hister) [Danube],​ which, where it washes Roman soil, borders on many cities, fortresses, and castles. On the right, which is the south side, extend the cliffs of Rhodope, and where the morning star rises it is bounded by the strait which flows with an abundance of water from the Euxine [Black Sea], and going on with alternating current to the Aegean, opens a narrow cleft​ between the lands. But on the eastern corner the land is connected with the frontiers of Macedonia by a steep and narrow pass, which is called Akontisma.​ Next to this is the posting-station of Arethusa, in which is to be seen the tomb of Euripides,​ noted for his lofty tragedies, and Stagira, known as the birthplace of Aristotle, who, as Cicero says,​ poured forth a golden stream.

These regions also were occupied in former times by barbarians, who differed from one another in customs and language. Of these the Odrysias (Odrysae) are noted for their savage cruelty beyond all others, being so habituated to the shedding of human blood that when there were no enemies at hand, at their feasts, after a satiety of food and drink they plunged the sword into the bodies of their own countrymen, as if they were those of foreigners.

[Roman attempts to control over these peoples]

But when our country increased in power, and the rule of consuls was in full sway, Marcus Didius [Julianus, ca. 193 CE], with great determination, checked these descent groups that before had been always invincible and were roaming about without culture (cultus) or laws (leges). Drusus [the Elder, ca. 12-9 BCE] confined them within their own bounds. Minucius [Marcus Minucius Rufus] utterly defeated them in a battle near the river Hebros [109 BCE], which flows from the high mountains of the Odrysians, and after these the survivors were completely annihilated by the proconsul Appius Claudius in a terrible battle [ca. 76 BCE].​ Indeed, the Roman fleets took possession of the towns situated on the Bosporos and the Propontis. After these came General Lucullus [Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus],​ who was the first of all to encounter the savage descent group of the Bessians and in the same onslaught overcame the Haimimontanians in spite of their stout resistance [ca. 72 BCE].​ While he threatened that region, all parts of Thrace passed under the sway of our ancestors and, in this way, after dangerous campaigns, six provinces were won for the [Roman] republic. . . [omitted list of Roman provinces in the area].

[Health of the mountain peoples of Thrace]

Now it is well known, as constant reports have spread abroad, that almost all the country folk who dwell in the high mountains throughout the lands just described surpass us in health and strength, and in the prerogative (so to speak) of prolonging life. It is thought that this is due to abstinence from a conglomeration of diet and from hot baths,​ and a lasting freshness knits their bodies through cold sprinklings with dew. They enjoy the sweetness of a purer air. Furthermore, they are first of all to feel the rays of the sun, which are by their own nature life-giving, before they are infected with any stains from human affairs. After having thus given an account of these matters, let us return to our task.

[For Ammianus’ subsequent discussion of Isaurians, go to this link.]

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