Persians, Celts, Thracians, and others: Polyainos on “tricky” barbarians (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians, Celts, Thracians, and others: Polyainos on “tricky” barbarians (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024,

Ancient authors: Herodotos and other sources as compiled by Polyainos, Strategies in War, parts of book 7 (on “barbarians”) (link; link to Greek).

Comments: Polyainos’ compilation of Strategies in War is an ostensibly practical guide aimed at helping emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in their war against the Parthians (ca. 161-169 CE). Of the eight books, one excerpted below collects anecdotes regarding the techniques of Persians and other “barbarian” peoples. Polyainos’ introduction to this book makes it very clear that he is stereotyping all barbarian peoples as effective only in deceptions, “tricks” and underhanded techniques rather than legitimate war. So there is a presumption of the overall inferiority of these foreign peoples. Beyond that generalization, Polyainos seldom goes further to expressly label specific peoples, with the exception of the “stupid and ridiculous” Thracians. Polyainos supplies one tale about the Parthians themselves from the first century BCE. In compiling these tales, Polyainos does supply some stories of barbarian women that crossover with Plutarch’s stories about Virtuous Women (link), though put to different use here.


[Introduction to book 7]

I address this seventh book of Strategies to the most sacred emperors, Antoninus and Verus [160s CE]. In this book you will observe that even the minds of barbarians are capable of military strategies, deceptions, and tricks. So you will see that you yourselves should not underestimate them and your generals must be similarly cautious. For there is nothing against which your generals should guard more carefully than tricks, cunning and deception. The barbarians excel much more in these devices than in military prowess. And nothing will protect your generals more effectively from the tricks of the barbarians than a constant distrust of the barbarians’ promises and claims. By uniting this distrust with typical Roman courage, we can be still more superior to them, if we also add a knowledge of the strategies which they have sometimes employed.

[King Deiokes of the Medes]

(1) Deiokes the Mede seized power over the Medes in the following way. They were a nomadic people and had no settled homes. They had no cities, no laws, and knew no principles of justice. Instead they plundered each other of whatever one wanted and the other possessed. Deiokes gave laws to his neighbours, and tried to establish the principles of justice in their minds. They were delighted with his regulations, and obeyed his decrees. His name soon became famous among the Medes. Many of them used to turn to him, to settle their disputes, as a most just and upright judge.

As soon as his eminence and reputation had won him universal esteem, he obtained guards to protect him from the injuries, which his decisions might provoke. By the assistance of these guards, he filled his little house with stones during the night. He showed the stones to the Medes the next day, and claimed that they had been thrown at him, putting his life in danger, by those against whom he had adjudicated. The people were outraged at this treatment, which he had so undeservedly suffered. For his personal safety, they authorised him to live on the citadel at Ekbatana. They gave him a bodyguard of his own choice, and they ordered his necessary expenses to be paid out of the sacred funds. He continually increased his guards, until eventually instead of a judge he became their king.

[King Alyattes of the Lydians against the Kimmerians and Kolophonians]

(2) The Kimmerians, a people of great bodily size, made war on Alyattes [king of Lydia, just before Croesus]. He marched against them, and ordered his men to take into battle with them a number of large fierce dogs. When the dogs were released, they attacked the barbarians, as they would on a herd of wild beasts. They injured many of them, so as to disable them from action, and made the other soldiers flee.

To weaken the horsemen among the Kolophonians (which they were very powerful), Alyattes entered into an alliance with them. When they served under him, he always particularly favoured the horsemen in the distribution of gifts. At last, when he was at Sardis, he gave them sumptuous provisions and doubled their pay. As soon as the horsemen, who were encamped outside the city, heard that their pay had been doubled, they put their horses in the care of their grooms, and rushed off to the city, in great eagerness to receive their doubled pay. Alyattes suddenly ordered the gates to be shut, and he surrounded the Kolophonians with a body of armed men, who cut them to pieces. Then he mounted his own men on the Kolophonian horses.

[King Psammetichos of the Egyptians and Carian mercenaries]

(3) Psammetichos overthrew Tementhes, king of Egypt, in the following way. Tementhes consulted the oracle of Ammon about the kingship, and the oracle told him to beware of cocks. Psammetichos was informed by Pigres the Carian, who was his close friend, that the Carians were the first people who wore plumes of feathers on their helmets. He immediately understood the meaning of the oracle, and took into his service a large number of Carians, with whom he advanced against Memphis. Psammetichos defeated Tementhes in a battle near the temple of Isis, which is about five stadium-lengths away from the palace. A part of Memphis is called Caromemphitai, taking its name these Carians.

[King Amasis of the Egyptians against Arabians]

(4) When Amasis was fighting against the Arabians, he placed behind the Egyptians the statues of the gods which they held in most honour and veneration. This induced them to face danger more readily, because they supposed that they were in the immediate sight of their gods, who would not betray them, or leave them in the hands of their enemies.

[King Midas of the Phrygians]

(5) As Midas was pretending that he was going to perform a solemn sacrifice to the great gods, he led out the Phrygians by night as if in a procession, with flutes, and timbrels, and cymbals. However, each one of them at the same time secretly carried swords. The citizens all left their houses to watch the procession, but the musical performers drew their swords, killed the spectators as they came out into the streets, took possession of their houses, and set up Midas as their ruler.

[King Cyrus of the Persians against the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians]

(6) Cyrus was defeated in three different battles with the Medes. He decided to risk a fourth battle with them at Pasargadai, where the Persians had left their wives and children. He was defeated again, but when the Persians fled to the city, and saw their wives and children there, they were struck by the thought of what would happen to them if they fell into the hands of the victorious enemy. Upon this, they rallied and attacked the Medes, who had lost all order in their eager pursuit. The Persians gained a victory which was so decisive, that the Medes never again ventured to face Cyrus in battle.

Cyrus led his forces away from Sardis, in accordance with a treaty which he had agreed with Croesus. But as soon as night came, he returned, applied ladders to the walls which were unprepared for a siege, and took Sardis by storm. After Cyrus had captured Sardis, Croesus still held out in the citadel, hoping for assistance from the Greeks. Cyrus ordered the prisoners from Sardis, who were the friends and relations of the besieged, to be bound up and paraded in front of them. At the same time, a herald proclaimed that, if the besieged surrendered the citadel to Cyrus, they would receive their friends and relations safe and without ransom. However, if they persisted in holding out against him, he would hang every man before their eyes. The besieged chose to save their friends, rather than wait for the outcome of the precarious hopes, which Croesus had of assistance from the Greek ciites, and so they surrendered the citadel.

After Croesus had been defeated and captured, the Lydians revolted again. Cyrus, who was himself planning an expedition against Babylon, sent Mazares the Mede against Lydia. He ordered him, as soon as he had reduced the country into subjection, to take from them their weapons and horses; to force them to wear women’s clothes; to forbid them to take part in hurling the javelin, or horse-riding, or any martial exercises; and, to force them to take up female activities, such as spinning and singing. By these means he made their minds so effeminate that the Lydians, who were once a very warlike people, became the most feeble of all the barbarians [cf. Herodotos, Histories 1.155].

When Cyrus was besieging Babylon, he dug a channel (through which he intended to turn away the river Euphrates) which ran through the city. When he had completed the channel, he marched his army a considerable distance away. The Babylonians were induced by this to believe that he had given up all hope of capturing their city, and therefore they became more careless in their defence of it. But Cyrus suddenly diverted the course of the river, and secretly marched his army through the old channel. In this way, while the Babylonian thought themselves perfectly safe, he made himself master of the place [cf. Herodotus, Histories 1.191].

In a battle with Croesus, Cyrus observed that the Lydian depended greatly on his horsemen. To render them useless, in front of his hoplites he placed a number of camels. The nature of these animals is such that horses can bear neither the sight nor the smell of them. The horses therefore became uncontrollable, and fled away. They cast down the Lydians in their flight, and broke their ranks, so that Cyrus had won the victory, even before he had come to grips with the enemy [cf. Herodotus, Histories 1.80].

To persuade the Persians to throw off their subservience to the Medes, Cyrus used the following device. He pointed out to them a barren, thorny spot, and ordered them to clear and cultivate it. When with great labour and fatigue they had completed this task, the next day he ordered them to bathe and clean themselves, and come to a sumptuous feast which he had prepared for them. After they had spent the day in such luxury, he asked them which of the two days they preferred. They replied that the present day was as much preferable to the former, as happiness is to misery. “It is in your power then,” Cyrus said, “to obtain happiness. Free yourselves from your slavery under the Medes.” The Persians, struck by the greatness of this proposal, revolted and appointed Cyrus to be their king. Under his rule, they not only crushed the power of the Medes, but acquired for themselves the empire of all Asia [cf. Herodotos, Histories 1.126].

When Cyrus was besieging Babylon, the Babylonians, who had plenty of provisions of all kinds within the city, derided his efforts. But he soon discovered the means by which to attack them. Cyrus turned the river Euphrates, whose natural course ran through the city, into a neighbouring lake. Because their supplies were thus cut off, they had no alternative, but to surrender to Cyrus, or die of thirst [cf. Herodotos, Histories 1.190]

Cyrus, after having been defeated by the Medes, retreated to Pasargadai, and found that many of the Persian were deserting to the enemy. He informed his army that the next day he would receive from allied powers, who were hostile to the Medes, reinforcements amounting to a hundred thousand men. He told them all, therefore, to take a bundle of wood to welcome their allies. The Persian deserters informed the Medes about the expected reinforcements. As soon as night came on, Cyrus ordered every man to light his bundle of wood. The Medes, seeing the great number of fires burning, assumed that the reinforcements had arrived. Instead of pursuing the defeated foe, they thought it was better to retreat.

At the siege of Sardis, Cyrus constructed machines of wood which were as high as the walls. He placed statues on them, in Persian clothes, with beards, quivers on their shoulders, and bows in their hands. He moved these machines forwards at night, until they were so close to the walls that they seemed to be above the citadel. Early in the morning, Cyrus began his attack in a different area, and the whole force that Croesus had in the town was immediately directed against this attack. But when some of them looked around and saw the statues on the opposite side of the city, a general panic took hold of the besieged, as if the citadel was already captured by the enemy. Throwing open the gates, each made his escape in the best manner he could, and Cyrus captured Sardis by storm. . . [omitted case of Harpagos].

[King Croesus of the Lydians against the Persians]

(8) Croesus, finding that his Greek allies were slow in coming to his aid, chose out some of the ablest and strongest of the Lydians, and armed them in the Greek manner. Cyrus’ men, who were unaccustomed to Greek weapons, were at a loss how either to attack, or to guard against them. The clang of the spears upon the shields struck them with terror. Also, the splendour of the bronze shields so terrified the horses that they could not be brought to charge. Cyrus was defeated by this strategy, and made a truce with Croesus for three months.

Croesus, after having been defeated by Cyrus in Cappadocia, in order to make good his retreat, ordered his men to carry with them as much wood as they possibly could. They deposited this wood in a narrow opening, through which Croesus led his forces, and continued his march throughout the night with all possible speed. He left some of his light horse, to set fire to the wood, as soon as day appeared. By this means Croesus achieved his retreat, because Cyrus was greatly hindered in his pursuit by the fire.

[King Cambyses of the Persians against Egyptians]

(9) When Cambyses attacked Pelousion, which guarded the entrance into Egypt, the Egyptians defended it with great resolution. They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration. Cambyses captured Pelusium, and thereby opened up for himself the route into Egypt.

[King Darius against Magians, Scythians, Sakians, and Egyptians]

(10) After killing the Magians (magoi), who had usurped the government of Persia, Darius and his seven colleagues consulted about who was to become king. They decided, at a specified time, to meet on horseback at a place fixed for the purpose outside the city, and that the man whose horse neighed first should be king. Oebares, the groom of Darius, as soon as he heard what they had decided, brought his horse to the appointed place the day before the contest was due to take place. There he introduced him to a mare, and then he took the horse back to the stable. The next morning, they all mounted their horses and met at the place as had been agreed. Darius’ horse remembered the place, and the pleasure he had enjoyed there, and instantly neighed for his mare. The rest of the seven immediately dismounted, and did homage to Darius, saluting him as king of Persia [cf. Herodotos, Histories 3.85].

(11) When Darius was confronting the Scythians in battle, and both armies were ready to fight, a hare rose from its seat and ran close to the Scythian line. Several of the Scythians started to pursue it. Darius saw what was happening, and concluded that it was the wrong time to fight, if the Scythians were so confident in their superiority that they could pursue a hare in front of the Persian army. Accordingly he ordered his trumpets to sound a retreat [cf. Herodotos, Histories 4.134].

When Darius and the seven other Persians agreed to attack the Magians by night, he suggested that they wore the button, that usually fastens the tiara behind, on their forehead, so that by feeling the button, they might recognise their friends.

Darius was the first king who imposed taxes on the people. To remove the odium of such a measure from himself, he ordered the satraps to raise the taxes in each of their provinces. In accordance with their order, they collected large amounts of money which they handed over to Darius. But Darius kept only half of it for himself, and gave back the other half to the people.

Darius undertook an expedition into Scythia, but he was unable to gain any advantages there. When his provisions ran short, he began to think of a retreat. In order to conceal his intentions from the enemy, and thereby to retreat with the least loss, he directed his tents to be left standing, just as they had been for some time before. In the tents there were many wounded soldiers, asses, mules and dogs. Many fires were lighted, which those who were left behind were ordered to keep burning constantly throughout the night. The Scythians, seeing the fires and the tents, and hearing the confused noise of the animals, assumed that the Persians were still encamped, whereas they had actually successfully retreated. As soon as Darius’ movements were known to the Scythians, they pursued him as quickly as they could; but he was too far ahead, to be overtaken by them [cf. Herodotus, Histories 4.135].

When Darius besieged Chalcedon, the Chalcedonians neglected to make the exertions, which so formidable an enemy required, because they relied on the strength of their walls, and their great store of provisions. Nor did Darius on the other hand make any attack upon the walls. He contented himself with ravaging a large part of the country around, pretending that he was waiting for reinforcements before he attempted to attack the city directly. But while the whole attention of the Chalcedonians was directed towards their walls, the Persians dug a mine from a hill called Aphaseion, which was about fifteen stadium-lengths away from the city, and continued digging as far as the market-place. As soon as they reached that spot, which they identified from the roots of olive trees, which grew there, they waited for the approach of night. Then they entered the forum, and took possession of the city without the loss of a man, while the Chalcedonians were still wholly intent on the defence of their walls.

When Darius made an expedition against the Sakians, he found himself in danger of being surrounded by three armies. Therefore he advanced as quickly as possible against the army which was nearest to him, and defeated it in battle. Then he dressed his men in the clothes and weapons of the Sakians, and marched against another army of the Sakians, slowly and confidently as if to meet their friends. But as soon as they came within a spear’s length of them, the Persians, according to their orders, instead of friendly greetings, attacked the enemy and cut them to pieces. After having defeated two divisions of the enemy in this way, Darius advanced against the third, but they had already heard about the fate of the other two armies, and surrendered to him without risking a battle.

The Egyptians revolted, on account of the cruelties inflicted on them by Aryandes, their satrap. In order to reduce them to obedience, Darius himself marched through the Arabian desert and arrived at Memphis. This was the very time when the Egyptians were commemorating the death of Apis. Darius immediately made a proclamation that he would give a hundred talents of gold to the man who could produce Apis. The Egyptians were so impressed by the piety of the king, that they took decisive action against the rebels, and entirely devoted themselves to support of Darius.

[Sirakes among the Sakians against the Persians, but foiled]

(12) When Darius attacked the Sakians, their three kings – Sakesphares, Amorges and Thamyris – retired to consult about the measures which they should take to face this emergency. A certain stable-keeper, called Sirakes, was introduced to them, and he promised to destroy the Persian force by himself, if they pledged themselves by oath, to give to his children and family all the horses and treasure, which would fall into their hands as a result of the destruction of the enemy. After this had been agreed, he drew out his knife and cut off his nose and ears, and maimed himself also in other parts of his body. Disfigured in this way, he deserted to Darius, who believed his complaints about the cruel treatment which he had received from the king of the Sakians. “But”, added Sirakes, “by the eternal fire, and the sacred water, I swear that I will have my revenge, with the help of the Persians. And it is in your power to give the glorious revenge which I ask for, as I will explain to you. Tomorrow night the Sakians intend to move their camp to a place I know, and I can lead you to it by a more direct way than the one they will take. That way you can trap them as in a net. I am a horse-keeper, and know every step of the country for many miles around. But it will be necessary for us to take with us water and provisions for seven days. Order preparations to be made for this, because there is no time to lose.” Accordingly, he led the army in a march of seven days, into the most barren and sandy part of Media.

When both their water and their provisions began to run out, the commander of a thousand, Rhanosbates, suspecting his treachery, took him aside and rebuked him. “What could induce you,” he said, “to deceive so powerful a king, and so numerous an army? You have brought us to a place destitute of every necessity of life. Neither beast, nor bird inhabits it; nor do we know where to proceed, or how to return.” Sirakes clapped his hands, and answered him with a laugh, “I have gained a noble victory. I have saved my country from impending danger, and I have consigned the Persian army to destruction by famine and thirst.” In his anger, the commander of a thousand immediately cut off Sirakes’ head. Darius fixed his sceptre in the ground, and tied around it his tiara and the royal diadem. Then he climbed up a hill, and implored Apollo in this moment of distress to save his army by giving them water. The god heard his prayers, and there followed a plentiful shower of rain, which the army collected on hides and in vases. They survived on the water, until they reached the river Baktron, where they acknowledged that they owed their preservation to the favour of the gods. But though the ruse of the horse-keeper failed in this instance, Zopyros later copied it with success against the Babylonians.

[Satrap Zopyros among the Persians against Babylonians]

(13) Darius besieged Babylon for a long time, without being able to capture it. Then Zopyros, one of his satraps, mangled his face horribly and fled to the enemy, in the guise of a deserter. He pretended that he had been cruelly treated by Darius, and the Babylonians believed his complaints, which were so clearly supported by his appearance. They took him under their protection, and their confidence in him increased by degrees, until at last they entrusted him with the government of the city. After he had been invested with this power, he soon found the means to throw open the gates by night, and allowed Darius to take possession of Babylon. Darius expressed himself on that occasion in a manner worthy of a great and generous a king. “I would not,” he said, “even for twenty Babylons, wish to see Zopyros so disfigured as he is” [cf. Herodotus, Histories 3.153]. . . [omitted cases of Orontes].

[King Xerxes of the Persians]

(15) When Xerxes undertook an expedition against Greece, he persuaded a number of peoples (ethnē) to join in the enterprise by spreading a report that he had gained the support of some of the principal Greeks, who were willing to betray the country to him. The others supposed that they would be marching not to subdue a country, but to take possession of it. Therefore, they were easily persuaded to join the confederacy, and many of the barbarians voluntarily offered themselves as allies.

When some Greek spies were caught in his camp, Xerxes, instead of punishing them, ordered them to be taken through every part of it, and shown all his forces. Then he ordered them to go back and tell the Greeks everything which he had allowed them to seen [cf. Herodotos, Histories 7.146].

While Xerxes lay at anchor at Abydos, waiting to intercept the Greek fleet, he captured a fleet of store-ships, laden with provisions. The barbarians wanted to sink the ships, with all the men who were on board them. Xerxes would not agree to this, but summoned the men and asked where they were heading. “For Greece,” they replied. “So are we,” said Xerxes, “and therefore the ships belong to us. Now go away.” As soon as the men reached Greece, they spread universal terror there with their reports of Xerxes’ invasion [cf. Herodotos, Histories 7.147].

To conceal the great numbers of the barbarians who had been killed at Thermopylae, Xerxes ordered the relatives of those who had been to lost, to go out by night and bury them secretly.

Xerxes could not bring all of his large army into action at Thermopylai, because of the narrowness of the pass, and many Persians were killed there. But Ephialtes of Trachis revealed to him a secret way across the mountains, and Xerxes sent a hundred thousand men along that route. These men went around in a circuit and attacked the Greeks from behind. They cut down Leonidas himself, and every man of the little force he commanded.

[King Artaxerxes of the Persians]

(16) Artaxerxes sent Tithraustes to seize Tisaphernes. He gave him two letters, one to Tisaphernes himself, appointing him to command an expedition against the Greeks, and another to Ariaios, ordering him to assist Tithraustes in capturing Tisaphernes. As soon as Ariaios, who was then staying at Colossae in Phrygia, read the letter, he sent to Tisaphernes asking to meet him about some importance business, in particular concerning Greece. Tisaphernes entertained no suspicion of any plot against him. He left his bodyguard behind in Sardis, and immediately went to meet Ariaios, accompanied by a body of three hundred Arkadians and Milesians. When he arrived, he laid aside his sword, and went into a bath. Ariaios and his attendants suddenly rushed upon him, and seized him. Then they put him in a covered carriage and delivered him to Tithraustes. Tithraustes took him to Kelainai, and there struck off his head, which he carried to the king. Artaxerxes sent it to his mother Parysatis, who long wished to see Tisaphernes suffer in revenge for the death of Cyrus. And the mothers and wives of all the Greeks, who had followed Cyrus, expressed equal satisfaction at the punishment of a man, who had used such great treachery towards their sons and husbands [cf. Diodoros, Library of History 14.80].

Artaxerxes tried by all possible means to stir up wars between the Greeks. He was always willing to help the conquered side because, by giving assistance to the weaker power, he placed them nearer to equality, and thereby he exhausted the victors’ strength.

[King Ochos / Artaxerxes III of the Persians]

(17) After the death of Artaxerxes, his son Ochos realised that he would not immediately have the same authority over his subjects, which his father had. Therefore he convinced the eunuchs, the stewards, and the captain of the guard to conceal the death of his father for a period of ten months. In the meantime, he wrote letters in his father’s name, and sealed them with the royal signet, commanding his subjects to acknowledge Ochos as their king, and to pay homage to him. When this decree had been obeyed by all his subjects, Ochos announced the death of his father, and ordered a general mourning for him, according to the custom of the Persians. . . [omitted cases of the satrap Tisaphernes, satrap Pharnabazos, and commander Glos, and satrap Datames].

[Kosingas, leader among the “stupid and ridiculous” Thracians]

(22) The generals of the Kebrenians and Sykaiboians, Thracian peoples, were chosen from among the priests of Hera. Kosingas, according to the tradition of the country, was elected to be their priest and leader. However, the Thracians objected to his leadership and refused to obey him. To suppress the rebelliousness that had taken hold of the troops, Kosingas built a number of long ladders and fastened them one to another. He then put out a report that he had decided to climb up to heaven in order to inform Hera of the disobedience of the Thracians. The Thracians, who are notoriously stupid and ridiculous, were terrified by the idea of their general’s intended journey, and the resulting wrath of heaven. They implored him not to carry out his plan, and they promised with an oath to obey all of his future commands.

[King Mausolos of the Carians]

(23) When Mausolos [ca. 377-353 BCE], king of Caria, had need of more money than he could raise from his subjects, he assembled his friends and pretended that he was afraid that the great king [of Persia] would take away all of his territories. He showed them his treasures, gold and silver, his horses, jewels, and whatever else he had of value. He said that he intended to send it all to the king, with a request to allow him to continue in his hereditary lands. His friends believed that the situation really was as he described. The same day, they sent him an immense amount of treasure.

In order to gain control of Latmos, a strongly fortified city, Mausolos pretended that he wanted to form a close alliance with the Latmians. For that purpose, he restored to them the hostages, whom Hidrieus had taken. He also appointed Latmians to be his bodyguard, as if they were men on whose loyalty he could trust. He made a point of obliging them, in whatever they wished. After winning their support in this way, he asked them to send him three hundred men as guards for his person. He pretended that he had business that required him to go to Pygela and that he was afraid of the sinister schemes of Herophytos of Ephesos. The men whom he asked for were immediately sent to him, and they accompanied him, along with other forces he had in readiness, as he marched to Latmos, on his route to Pygela. When the citizens all came out, to see the army pass, a body of troops, whom he had placed in ambush during the night, advanced and occupied the city. The city had been deserted by its inhabitants, with the gates left wide open. Mausolos then turned round and entered Latmos with all his forces, and made himself master of the city. . . [omitted tale of Borges].

[King Dromichaites of the Thracians]

(25) Dromichaites was king of Thrace, and Lysimachos was king of Macedonia. When Lysimachos made war on Thrace, Dromichaites used the following strategy against him. Seuthes, his general, pretended to resent some insult which he had received from the Thracian king, and deserted to Lysimachos. Lysimachos trusted his loyalty, and followed his directions. But Seuthes brought the Macedonian army into such a situation that they had to contend at the same time with famine, thirst and a powerful enemy. Dromichaites took the opportunity to attack them when they were in this situation. Although the Macedonian army is reported to have amounted to a hundred thousand men, he defeated them with great slaughter, and took Lysimachos prisoner. . . [omitted story of the satraps Ariobarzanes, Autophradates,, Arsames, and Mithridates, and of Mempsis].

[Kersobleptes among the Odrysians in Thrace]

(31) Some of the relatives of Kersobleptes [son of king Kotys I of the Odrysians] revolted from him, after embezzling large sums of money. However, afterwards he found a way of recalling them to their duty. To separate them from each other, he gave them the command of different cities. After some time had passed, he sent orders for them to be seized, on account of the money which they had embezzled. He expelled them from their cities, and confiscated their estates.

[Seuthes among the Odrysians]

(32) When Seuthes, the second-in-command of Kersobleptes, was very short of money, he sent orders to every farmer to sow as much land as would require five measures (medimnoi) of seed. He carried the great quantity of wheat, which was produced by this increase in tillage, down to the sea. There he sold it at somewhat less than the market price which immediately brought into the treasury a very considerable sum of money. . . [omitted stories of satraps Artabazos and Aryandes].

[King Brennos of the Galatians]

(35) Brennos, king of the Galatians, in order to persuade the Galatians to undertake an expedition against Greece, convened an assembly of men and women. Brennos ordered some Greek prisoners to be displayed there; the prisoners were poor and feeble, with their heads shaven and shabbily dressed. Next to them he placed some Galatians, who were strong handsome men, equipped with Galatian armour. Then he addressed the assembly, saying: “Men like these [Galatians] are the men who march with us into battle, and men like those [Greek prisoners] are the enemies with which we have to contend.” By these means, the Galatians were brought to conceive such a contempt for the Greeks that they readily offered to serve in an expedition against them.

When the Galatian army marched into Greece, Brennos saw some gold statues at Delphi. He sent for some Delphian captives and asked them (through an interpreter) if the statues were of solid gold. When they informed him that they were only brass, covered with a thin layer of gold, he told them that he would certainly execute any of them who reported that. So he ordered them, whenever they were asked about the statues, to say the opposite, that they were made of solid gold. Then he sent for some of his generals, and in their presence he again asked the prisoners the same question that he had already put to them. They, as they had been instructed, replied that they were all real gold. He ordered the generals to communicate this message to the army, in order that the prospect of so much wealth might encourage them to obtain it through conquest. . . [omitted stories of Mygdonios and Pairisades].

[Odrysian Seuthes among the Thracians, with Getian mercenaries]

(38) When the Athenians were raiding and ravaging the coastal districts of Chersonesos, Seuthes hired two thousand light-armed Getians. He ordered them to ravage the country in full view of the enemy, destroying it with fire, and attacking the people on the walls with missiles and arrows. The Athenians assumed from these hostile actions, that the Getians were enemies of the Thracians. They disembarked in order to join them, and marched boldly up to the walls. Seuthes immediately advamced from the city against them. Advancing as if to their assistance, the Getians attacked from behind. So the Athenians, attacked on one side by the Thracians and by the Getians on the other, were all cut to pieces. . . [omitted story of Seleucid commander Cheiles and the Persian leader Oborzos

[Parthian general Sourenas against the Romans led by Crassus]

(41) Crassus [ca. 54 BCE], when he had been ignominiously defeated by the Parthians, retreated into the mountains. Sourenas, the general of the Parthians, was afraid that he would rally his forces, and renew the fight in desperation. Therefore he sent a herald to inform Crassus that the great king was ready to enter into a treaty of peace with him and that, after convincing the Romans of the Parthians’ courage, he was now ready to convince them of their generosity. Crassus suspected a plot, and he was unwilling to meet with them. But his soldiers, whose spirits were depressed and broken, clashed their weapons, and insisted that he comply with the barbarians’ request. In silent sorrow, Crassus set out for the Parthian camp on foot, but Sourenas, who pretended to treat him with great respect, sent a richly ornamented horse for him to ride. Then the barbarian groom pricked the horse and made him spring forwards. The horse would have carried Crassus, as was intended, into the middle of the Parthian army if one of this legates, Octavius, had not realized the danger and caught hold of the reins, and Petronius, a tribune, did the same. Octavius immediately drew his sword, and killed the groom on the spot, but he himself was slain by a Parthian. Exathres the Parthian attacked Crassus, cut off his head and right hand, and carried them to Hyrodes, the great king of the Parthians.

The Parthian king was at the time engaged in a banquet, where Jason of Tralles was performing the Bacchic-devotees of Euripides. The actor had just uttered the verse: “A new-skinned calf we from the mountains bring, / blessed spoil. . .” when they arrived with the head of Crassus, and brought it in to the king. While everyone immediately clapped and cheered, Exathres jumped up and observed, that the verse was most appropriate for the occasion. This incident gave a new zest to the royal banquet; the king rewarded the bearer with a handsome present, and gave the actor a talent.


(42) The Celts, who were engaged in a long and indecisive war against the Autoriatians, poisoned their own food and wine with noxious herbs, and suddenly left their camp by night in pretended confusion. The Autoriatians presumed that the enemy had admitted their inferiority and made a quick retreat. They took possession of their camp, and feasted on the provisions which they found there. But soon they were seized with a violent illness. While they were in that condition, the Celts attacked them and killed them.


(43) The Thracians fought against the Boiotians by lake Kopais, and were defeated. Then they retreated to Helikon, and made a truce with the Boiotians for a certain number of days, to give time for agreeing the terms of peace. The Boiotians, who were confident because of their recent victory and the truce that followed it, celebrated a sacrifice in honour of Athena Itonia. But at night while they still were intent on the ceremony and engaged in festivities, the Thracians prepared their weapons and attacked them. The Thracians cut many of the Boiotiansto pieces and took a large number prisoners. When the Boiotians afterwards charged them with a breach of the truce, the Thracians replied that the terms of the truce expressed a certain number of days, but said nothing concerning the nights [cf. Strabo, Geography 9.2.4].


(44) The Scythians, when they were about to go into battle against the Triballians [often considered a subset of Thracians], ordered their farmers and horse-keepers, as soon as they saw them engaged in fighting the enemy, to show themselves at a distance with as great a number of horses as they could collect. The Triballians on a distant view of such a number of men and horses, and the dust they raised, supposed them to be a fresh body of Scythians advancing to the assistance of their countrymen. So they were afraid and fled away.

While the Scythians were fighting in Asia, the Scythian women, thinking that they had been deserted by their husbands, had children by their slaves. When their masters returned, the slaves decided to resist them by force. They accordingly took the battle field and advanced with weapons in order to engage them in battle. One of the Scythians, fearing that desperation might make the slaves brave once the fighting started, advised that the Scythians should lay down their weapons and bows and advance against their slaves with whips in their hands. Accordingly the Scythians took up their whips, and the slaves, suddenly made conscious of their own status as slaves, immediately threw down their arms and fled [cf. Herodotos, Histories 4.3]. . . [omitted repeat of Persian story].


(46) When preparing for battle, the Taurians, a Scythian people, always used to dig ditches, throw up mounds, and make the ground behind them impassable. Because their means of retreat had been cut off in this way, they knew they had no alternative, but to conquer or die. . . [omitted stories of Trojan women].

[Women of Salmatis / Salmantika in Iberia]

(48) When Hannibal was besieging Salmatis, a great and wealthy city in Iberia [Spain], he agreed with the inhabitants to raise the siege, on payment of three hundred talents of silver, and the delivery of three hundred hostages. The inhabitants of Salmatis afterwards refused to carry out the terms of their agreement. As a result, Hannibal detached a body of troops to plunder the town. The barbarians then begged him for permission to leave the city with their wives, and only the clothes which they wore; they promised to leave behind their slaves, weapons, and other belongings. The women accordingly marched out with their husbands, each carrying a dagger concealed in her bosom. The soldiers immediately entered the town, and started plundering it. Then the women gave the daggers to their husbands, who re-entered the city and attacked the plunderers, while some of the women accompanied them with drawn swords. They captured some of the enemy, and drove the rest out of the city. Out of respect for the bravery of the women, Hannibal restored to them their hostages, their country, and their property [cf. Plutarch, Virtuous Women 248-249].

[Tyrrhenian women]

(49) The Tyrrhenians, who inhabited Lemnos and Imbros, were expelled from their homes by the Athenians, and landed at Taenarus. There they served as auxiliaries to the Spartans in the war against the Helots. As a reward for this service, they were presented with the freedom of the state, and they were allowed to intermarry with the Spartans. But they were suspected of being disaffected, because they were excluded from the council and all positions of trust. Afterwards they were accused of plotting against the state, and the Lakedaimonians threw them into prison. Their wives went to the prison, and asked the guards for permission to visit their husbands and talk with them. When the guards let them in, they exchanged clothes with their husbands; and in the evening the men escaped, disguised in the women’s clothes, while the women remained in prison, dressed in their husbands’ clothes, and prepared for whatever sufferings might ensue. The men did not forget or desert their wives; they took possession of Taygetus, and encouraged the Helots to revolt. The Lakedaimonians were afraid that there might be serious consequences; so they sent an embassy to settle the controversy, and gave them back their wives. They also supplied them with money and ships; and sent them out as Lakedaimonian colonists[ cf. Herodotos, Histories 4.146; Plutarch, Virtuous Women 247].

[Celtic women]

(50) The Celts, who had long been troubled by civil wars, had taken up arms against each other, and were just advancing to battle, when their wives rushed into the battlefield, threw themselves between the two armies, and begged them to lay aside their differences. By the insistence of the women, the battle was postponed. In the end, the disputes of the different parties were happily and amicably resolved. Ever since then, throughout the towns and villages of the Celts, whenever there is a debate about peace, or war, concerning either themselves or their allies, the women are always consulted. And in their treaties with Hannibal it was specified, that if the Celts should have any accusation to make against any of the Carthaginians, the dispute should be referred to the generals and commanders of the horsemen; but if the Carthaginians had any accusation to make against any of the Celts, it should be referred to the judgement of the Celtic women [cf. Plutarch, Virtuous Women 246].


Source of translation: R. Shepherd, Polyænus’s Stratagems of War (London: G. Nicol, 1793), adapted and checked against the Greek by Andrew Smith of, public domain, further adapted by Harland.

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