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Introduction | Texts | Light Cavalry | Heavy Cavalry | Thracian Horses


chieftan.jpg (19724 bytes)«5th century Thracian king or member of his heavy cavalry bodyguard, a reconstruction by Daniella Carlsson.   Note the boots, kopis, cuirass, Thracian cloak, javelins, and shield (used on foot only).

Ian Cheshire,  The Thracians: Auxiliaries of the Hellenistic World says: "Early Thracian cavalry did not carry shields, but appear to have followed the Greeks in adopting them around 275 B.C. Thracian cavalry used the 'wedge' formation which the Macedonians found well suited to the charge and mobile manoeuvrability. Signalling among the cavalry was apparently by trumpeter as Xenophon records one with the Thracian prince, Seuthes.(2) Most Thracian cavalry were light­armed skirmishers, although the nobles and Royal retainers among the cavalry would be better equipped for the charge. Those serving in the Macedonian army of Perseus are described as charging 'like wild beasts who had long been kept caged'.(6) These latter were supported by an equal number of light infantry, a tactic which may have become fairly standard practice in later years. Thracian cavalry could form up to 40% of a fair sized army, like that of the Getae which opposed Alexander at the Danube (4), but this was not so true of the less affluent tribes.

The majority of the cavalry were unarmoured skirmishers who could hope for little protective equipment. Most would have a helmet at best if they could afford or loot it. They would be mainly armed with sword and javelins, but the Getae are recorded as using the bow while mounted. These latter were a northern tribe under heavy Scythian influence and Thucydides tells of one Getic force composed entirely of Scythian­style horse archers.(3)

The nobles among the cavalry would no doubt be able to afford better protection and could have quite an effective panoply. This could consist of metal helmet, greaves, gorges, and body armour. This latter would normally comprise breast and back plates, although chain­mail was also popular among the northern tribes ­ another facet of Scythian influence. Seuthes is recorded as 'appearing with his cavalry wearing their breastplates . . . all ready for action',(2) and Cotys' cavalry in Perseus' Macedonian army were probably similarly armed. It is also possible that some cavalry wore full body armour. This possibility is based on an applique of the Thracian Hero (their god in mounted warrior form) showing either chainmail or rather hairy arms and legs! Main offensive weapons would be sword and spear or javelins." 

Thracian boots on Cavalry, from the Parthenon friezeCharles Grant writes: "All this time, of course, we have been considering the Thracians as infantry, and certainly the majority of our sources considers them as dismounted troops. Several vase paintings, however, show them as being mounted, and frequently, following Greek artistic convention, the mythical Amazons are depicted in the Thracian garb of 'zeira', alopekis and high boots. Without doubt they fought as cavalry in their native country, but did not venture much beyond Thrace other than as the peltasts we have been considering - or not for some time, at least. The quality of horses available to them might have had some bearing on this, the point being considered by Professor J. K. Anderson (Ancient Greek Horsemanship - Univ. of California Press) who deems the Thracian horse to have been a compound of 'all possible faults". He puts this down to the fact that Thrace had been scourged by numerous wars and invasions, whatever was good in the equine sense being stolen or destroyed. However, as the 4th Century progresses we do find Thracian cavalry coming to notice." From The Thracians, by Charles Grant, in MILITARY MODELLING, December 1976


Thracian boots on another part of the Parthenon frieze

Thracian headdress on cavalry from the Partheon frieze









Thracian-style headress from Parthenon frieze

Thracian headdress from a Parthenon frieze











Archibald, pp 204-206:

There is little objective evidence for assessing the effectiveness of Thracian cavalry.   No descriptions of set-piece battles survive and references to Thracian tactics are indirect.  Seuthes' success against the Thyni and other mountain Thracians was achieved largely by a show of force.  A mounted soldier in armour but without stirrups could not fight from horseback;  he could use a bow and arrow or spears and javelins.  The burials give prominence to both methods, even if the bow was more commonly used in hunting.  He could in theory trample or maim infantrymen.   Ancient cavalry relied heavily on swift, controlled formation to cow and break down the infantry line.  Well-led horsemen operating in brigades could harry poorly trained infantry formations with complete success.  Against better-trained infantry and guerilla tactics hand-to-hand combat was inevitable.

Arrian attributed the wedge formation to the Thracians who had learnt it from the Skythians (Arrian, Tactica 16.6).  The wedge formation was ideal both for skirmishing and charging into combat.  Nearly all Thracian cavalry came from the Odrysian and Getic tribes.  The Odrysians alone could outnumber all the fifth-century Greek poleis and the tribal kingdoms collectively in cavalry forces.  Of the 50,000 or so employed during the invasion of Macedonia in 429, the core was Odrysian, the rest Getic (2.98. 3-4).  Seuthes successfully used Getic cavalry against the Athenians in the Chersonese (Polyainos 7.38), so Getic contingents may have been among the regular units.  Horse-riding epitomised the Thracians from the time of Homer onwards. 

Perhaps the best evidence for the success of Thracian cavalry is the way that Thracian cavalry dress, and perhaps horsemanship, was taken up by the mainland Greeks.  The most characteristic features of Thracian dress, worn by cavalry and peltasts alike, the alopekis, embades (calf-length boots), and zeira, began to appear on Attic Black Figure vases in the final decades of the sixth century BC, and have ususally been connected withthe introduction of Thracian mercenaries by Peisistratos, aquired during his second exile in the region of Mount Pangaion, and with a renewed interest in things Thracian following the Athenian colonisation of the Chersonese.  In most cases, it is Athenian cavalrymen wearing Thracian dress that are being depicted, not Thracian cavalry.  Athenian riders wearing Thracian boots and/or Thracian headdress can be seen on the Parthenon.  "Local versions of Thracian boots and cloaks, if not the real things, became so much part of the cavalryman's equipment at Athens that, by the time the Parthenon frieze was carved, there was nothing unusual about their appearance.  The introduction of Thracian items of dress preceded any official inter-state relations with the Odrysians.  They were adopted presumably for their practical use and perhaps for the attractive appearance of the patterned woven fabrics."Thracian boots and headdress from a Parthenon frieze

Above: scenes from the Parthenon freize, in the British Museum - author's photographs.

The Lovets  belt, showing a boar hunt by archers and heavy cavalry

Above: Part of a 5th-6th Century gilt silver belt from the village of Lovech, Stara Zagora district, showing a royal wild boar hunt by heavy cavalry and archers.  Archibald (p198) says the mounted warriors are wearing leather armour with pteryges.

Text from Zosia Archibald, The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace, 1998, pp 206 - 208

Whatever the social significance of such features in Athenian art -a controversial topic which will be considered below-the adoption of certain forms of Thracian dress by Athenian cavalrymen is not in question. Thracian mercenaries and Skythian archers are difficult to tell apart and artists rarely used distinctive physiognomic details to identify ethnic groups. Both Thracian cavalrymen and Athenian knights are shown wearing the long, ankle-length cloak which Xenophon distinguishes, along with the long tunic, as characteristically Thracian and appropriate for the cold winters north of the Rhodopes (Anab. 7. 4. 4) . Local versions of Thracian boots and cloaks, if not the real things, became so much part of the cavalryman's equipment at Athens that, by the time the Parthenon frieze was carved, there was nothing unusual about their appearance. The introduction of Thracian items of dress preceded any official inter-state relations with the Odrysians. They were adopted presumably for their practical use and perhaps for the attractive appearance of the patterned woven fabrics.

The cavalry corps at Athens was expanded from 300 to 1,000 at a time when links with the Odrysians were particularly close. This would have made it easier for Athenians to get more practical experience of managing larger contingents from their northern allies, perhaps as part of joint manoeuvres. Although the joint invasion of Macedonia by Sitalkes and Athens did not come off, this did not prevent the exchange of Thracian mercenary peltasts. The Chalkidian League's strong cavalry tradition and use of peltast tactics in advance of many other states were closely connected with local experience and a willingness to adapt traditional Greek fighting practice to changing needs. The tactics of the northern tribes, which combined a strong cavalry arm with flexible units of lightarmed peltasts, happened to coincide with contemporary tactical needs in the Aegean. Nor is it accidental that the most striking description of a horseman in Classical poetry is Euripides' Rhesos . Athenian hippeis had suddenly reacquired a social raison d'être which had all but disappeared with Kimon and Pindar's encomia.

5 Thracian saddle cloths from the Kazanluk and Alexandrovo tomb paintingsThe technical usefulness of peltasts, whether Thracians or regional Greeks who had adopted similar methods, became increasingly apparent during the course of the Peloponnesian War, contributing to a fundamental transformation in fighting tactics over the following century. Light-armed troops were less vulnerable to cavalry attack than hoplites because they could run away faster. On occasion they could even make swift charges against cavalry as at Mykalessos (Thuk. 7. 27. 1; 29), or even fight in formation. Shields and a long spear could achieve the effect of the phalanx. These were to become the essential features of the Macedonian phalanx, which itself reflects how far military practice had moved away from traditional hoplite equipment ....

Left: The left side of 5 Thracian saddle cloths from the Kazanluk and Alexandrovo tombs.

Studies of Attic representations of foreigners, particularly on painted vases, have usually concentrated on identifying particular ethnic characteristics. But it is not easy to decide what the inclusion of alien dress and weapons meant for the painters or their audience. If a figure is shown wearing a Thracian cloak does this mean that a Thracian was meant or is this foreign element being used as an independent, abstract motif in its own right? If so, is it intended as a 'genre' feature or does it have some further significance? Too often it has been assumed that because details might be represented realistically, the Athenian artist's aim was to reproduce natives in some characteristically native form of dress. But the uncomfortable fact is that the 'typical' elements of Thracian military dress already referred to were not used consistently but often as excerpts. Whereas 'genre' scenes are intended to evoke a particular atmosphere using a small number of identifiable motifs, the elements which we find repeated are symbolic rather than emblematic; foxskin caps all look the same and cloaks reproduce a narrow range of patterns. What seems to be intended is simply the idea of the cap or the cloak.

Although the appearance of Skythian and Thracian features makes sense in terms of known historical links, their subsequent history in vase painting is much harder to explain. Skythian archers seem to play an extraordinarily visible role, in contrast to their actual presence in Athens. For every ten painted Skythians there is one Thracian-the opposite of what one might expect from the frequency of Athenian contacts with and ambitions in Thrace. Athenian artists were not, it seems, reproducing scenes from life any more than the Persian ones were. Nor may their intention have been to show foreigners as such. In a provocative but highly convincing reconsideration of these images, François Lissargue has proposed that 'allied features of dress appear predominantly as metaphors for what is nonGreek, where 'Greekness' is defined, especially in the early stages of martial imagery, as the hoplite and his equipment." The archer, in this interpretation, is the hoplite's double; this explains why archers, whether overtly 'Skythian' or not, appear alongside Greek hoplites. Peltasts, on the other hand, are at the polar opposite end from the hoplite; they never appear alongside hoplites in battle and sometimes are direct opponents.`

Cavalrymen occupy a slightly anomalous position in this scheme. Athenian hippeis were often prominent public figures as well as wealthy citizens and the possession of horses made them far more visible than other social groups. Yet vase paintings show cavalrymen consistently in Thracian costume.` It is not clear why this particular 'altérité' (and this alone) was selected as especially representative of the cavalry class. Nor is it easy to understand how the consciously 'alien' items depicted on painted vases relate to actual costumes. What begin as genuine 'foreign' accoutrements around the end of the sixth century have become unexceptionable by the end of the fifth, if we are to judge by the Parthenon frieze. The visual significance of these 'intrusive' items seems therefore to have undergone considerable development as the century progressed, with the new items becoming increasingly domesticated. Despite the apparent connection with Thracian habits, the outfits of Athenian knights do not look like those of Odrysian knights at all, at least, not like the latters' mortuary equipment. But this does, perhaps, reflect how far mortuary equipmhorseman stone.jpg (18702 bytes)ent differs from daily practice. There is at least a possibility that the styles and habits of contemporary Odrysian knights were not entirely without influence at Athens. Lissargue has demonstrated how the iconography of the warrior's aristeia begins with the classic hoplite's outfit, which then loses its monopoly in the artist's vocabulary when other tactics begin to acquire more equal weight." The very ambiguity in styles of dress, the uncertainty as to whether Greeks or Thracians were intended by the artist, is itself a measure of the degree to which hippeis were not being seen to conform, or were not intended to conform, to the rhetorical image of hero as hoplite. horse stone 2.jpg (25937 bytes)

We have no comparable indigenous representations of Thracian soldiers from the fifth century BC. Although we can say very little about how ordinary Thracian mercenaries looked, those individuals privileged enough to have tumulus burials in the Odrysian kingdom had no qualms about being seen to use foreign equipment alongside traditional items. The consistent emphasis on the male as warrior in these burials, to the exclusion of other aspects, disguises whatever real functional nuances existed during life.

Left and right: The Thracian horseman, a photograph I took in Veliki Turnovo in 1999 inside where flash wasn't permitted.


Euripides, Hecabe, p63 (Penguin)

Polydorus: "To Thrace, to the palace of his old friend Polymestor, who farms the fertile plain of this peninsula and rules over a race of horsemen with his sword."

p 84:

Hecabe: "It was my own trusted friend; the Thracian horseman, to whose house Priam had sent him secretly."

Homer, Illiad, X

If you want to find your way into the host of the Trojans, there are the Thracians, who have lately come here and lie apart from the others at the far end of the camp; and they have Rhesus son of Eioneus for their king. His horses are the finest and strongest that I have ever seen, they are whiter than snow and fleeter than any wind that blows. His chariot is bedecked with silver and gold, and he has brought his marvellous golden armour, of the rarest workmanship- too splendid for any mortal man to carry, and meet only for the gods. Now, therefore, take me to the ships or bind me securely here, until you come back and have proved my words whether they be false or true."
Diomed looked sternly at him and answered, "Think not, Dolon, for all the good information you have given us, that you shall escape now you are in our hands, for if we ransom you or let you go, you will come some second time to the ships of the Achaeans either as a spy or as an open enemy, but if I kill you and an end of you, you will give no more trouble."
On this Dolon would have caught him by the beard to beseech him further, but Diomed struck him in the middle of his neck with his sword and cut through both sinews so that his head fell rolling in the dust while he was yet speaking. They took the ferret-skin cap from his head, and also the wolf-skin, the bow, and his long spear. Ulysses hung them up aloft in honour of Minerva the goddess of plunder, and prayed saying, "Accept these, goddess, for we give them to you in preference to all the gods in Olympus: therefore speed us still further towards the horses and sleeping-ground of the Thracians."
With these words he took the spoils and set them upon a tamarisk tree, and they marked the place by pulling up reeds and gathering boughs of tamarisk that they might not miss it as they came back through the flying hours of darkness. The two then went onwards amid the fallen armour and the blood, and came presently to the company of Thracian soldiers, who were sleeping, tired out with their day's toil; their goodly armour was lying on the ground beside them all orderly in three rows, and each man had his yoke of horses beside him. Rhesus was sleeping in the middle, and hard by him his horses were made fast to the topmost rim of his chariot. Ulysses from some way off saw him and said, "This, Diomed, is the man, and these are the horses about which Dolon whom we killed told us. Do your very utmost; dally not about your armour, but loose the horses at once- or else kill the men yourself, while I see to the horses."
Thereon Minerva put courage into the heart of Diomed, and he smote them right and left. They made a hideous groaning as they were being hacked about, and the earth was red with their blood. As a lion springs furiously upon a flock of sheep or goats when he finds without their shepherd, so did the son of Tydeus set upon the Thracian soldiers till he had killed twelve. As he killed them Ulysses came and drew them aside by their feet one by one, that the horses might go forward freely without being frightened as they passed over the dead bodies, for they were not yet used to them. When the son of Tydeus came to the king, he killed him too (which made thirteen), as he was breathing hard, for by the counsel of Minerva an evil dream, the seed of Oeneus, hovered that night over his head. Meanwhile Ulysses untied the horses, made them fast one to another and drove them off, striking them with his bow, for he had forgotten to take the whip from the chariot. Then he whistled as a sign to Diomed. But Diomed stayed where he was, thinking what other daring deed he might accomplish. He was doubting whether to take the chariot in which the king's armour was lying, and draw it out by the pole, or to lift the armour out and carry it off; or whether again, he should not kill some more Thracians. While he was thus hesitating Minerva came up to him and said, "Get back, Diomed, to the ships or you may be driven thither, should some other god rouse the Trojans."
Diomed knew that it was the goddess, and at once sprang upon the horses. Ulysses beat them with his bow and they flew onward to the ships of the Achaeans. But Apollo kept no blind look-out when he saw Minerva with the son of Tydeus. He was angry with her, and coming to the host of the Trojans he roused Hippocoon, a counsellor of the Thracians and a noble kinsman of Rhesus. He started up out of his sleep and saw that the horses were no longer in their place, and that the men were gasping in their death-agony; on this he groaned aloud, and called upon his friend by name. Then the whole Trojan camp was in an uproar as the people kept hurrying together, and they marvelled at the deeds of the heroes who had now got away towards the ships.
When they reached the place where they had killed Hector's scout, Ulysses stayed his horses, and the son of Tydeus, leaping to the ground, placed the blood-stained spoils in the hands of Ulysses and remounted: then he lashed the horses onwards, and they flew forward nothing loth towards the ships as though of their own free will. Nestor was first to hear the tramp of their feet. "My friends," said he, "princes and counsellors of the Argives, shall I guess right or wrong?- but I must say what I think: there is a sound in my ears as of the tramp of horses. I hope it may Diomed and Ulysses driving in horses from the Trojans, but I much fear that the bravest of the Argives may have come to some harm at their hands."
He had hardly done speaking when the two men came in and dismounted,  whereon the others shook hands right gladly with them and congratulated them. Nestor knight of Gerene was first to question them. "Tell me," said he, "renowned Ulysses, how did you two come by these horses? Did you steal in among the Trojan forces, or did some god meet you and give them to you? They are like sunbeams. I am well conversant with the Trojans, for old warrior though I am I never hold back by the ships, but I never yet saw or heard of such horses as these are. Surely some god must have met you and given them to you, for you are both of dear to Jove, and to Jove's daughter Minerva."
And Ulysses answered, "Nestor son of Neleus, honour to the Achaean name, heaven, if it so will, can give us even better horses than these, for the gods are far mightier than we are. These horses, however, about which you ask me, are freshly come from Thrace. Diomed killed their king with the twelve bravest of his companions. Hard by the ships we took a thirteenth man- a scout whom Hector and the other Trojans had sent as a spy upon our ships."

Homer Iliad 10.460 (Loeb)

[460] and these things did goodly Odysseus hold aloft in his hand to Athene, the driver of the spoil, and he made prayer, and spake, saying: "Rejoice, goddess, in these, for on thee, first of all the immortals in Olympus, will we call; but send thou us on against the horses and the sleeping-places of the Thracian warriors."

Homer Iliad 13.1 (Loeb)

Now Zeus, when he had brought the Trojans and Hector to the ships, left the combatants there to have toil and woe unceasingly, but himself turned away his bright eyes, and looked afar, upon the land of the Thracian horsemen,

Homer, Iliad, XIV

Venus now went back into the house of Jove, while Juno darted down from the summits of Olympus. She passed over Pieria and fair Emathia, and went on and on till she came to the snowy ranges of the Thracian horsemen, over whose topmost crests she sped without ever setting foot to ground.


Cavalry in Wedge Formation - Arrian, Taktica 16, 6-9

We hear that the Scythians in particular employed wedge-shaped formations and that the Thracians learned this from the Scythians. Philip of Macedon also trained the Macedonians to use this formation. This formation also seems useful because the leaders are drawn up around the perimeter and the tapering front allows it to cut easily right through the enemy formation and gives the facility to make rapid turns and counter-turns.   For four-sided formations are hard to wheel about, but the pointed formation (even if it is deployed in depth while advancing) nevertheless, through wheeling about within a small space around the point, allows the whole formation to manoeuvre [or 'extend into line'] readily. The Persians in particular employ tetragonal formations as do the natives in Sicily and most of the Greeks, including the most skilled cavalrymen.

The use of the Cavalry javelin -Xenophon, On Horsemanship, XII:

Again, in place of the long reed spear, which is apt to be weak and
awkward to carry, we would substitute two darts of cornel-wood;
the one of which the skilful horseman can let fly, and still ply the
one reserved in all directions, forwards, backwards, and
obliquely; add to that, these smaller weapons are not only stronger
than the spear but far more manageable...

As regards range of discharge in shooting we are in favour of the longest possible, as giving more time to rally[12] and transfer the second javelin to the right hand. And here we will state shortly the most effective method of hurling the javelin. The horseman should throw forward his left side, while drawing back his right; then rising bodily from the thighs, he should let fly the missile with the point slightly upwards. The dart so discharged will carry with the greatest force and to the farthest distance; we may add, too, with the truest aim, if at the moment of discharge the lance be directed steadily on the object aimed at.[13]

[12] Al. "to turn right-about."

[13] "If the lance is steadily eyeing the mark at the instant of discharge."


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