Thracian Characteristics

wpe7.gif (1405 bytes)




What's New



wpe8.gif (1406 bytes)

The  Threskourion

Home Contents Search What's New Feedback Links

An Extravagant, drunken, uninihibited people

Thracians are often referred to as an extravagant, drunken, high spirited people who loved singing and dancing (as well as war!). Plato (Republic, 435e) says "It would be absurd to suppose that the element of high spirit was not derived in states from the private citizens who are reputed to have this quality as the populations of Thracian and Skythian lands and generally northern regions…"

Polybius (XXVII,12) agrees: "Cotys [a king of the Odrysae] was a man of distinguished appearance and of great ability in military affairs, and besides, quite unlike a Thracian in character. For he was of sober habits; and gave evidence of a gentleness of temper and a steadiness of disposition worthy of a man of gentle birth."

By Tacitus’ account (Annals IV, XLVI-LI) it was a Thracian national custom to "gambol" with songs and dances in front of their ramparts. The Cambridge Ancient History adds "Before a battle the Thracians used to rattle their weapons in order to strike terror into the enemy." This is recorded by Polyaenus (Stratagems of War 9.10), who says "Clearchus, plundering Thrace and fearing a nocturnal attack of the Thracians, ordered all his men to remain under arms and to rouse themselves frequently.   As the night was dark, he took part of the army and appeared striking their weapons in the Thracian manner, but his men were ready as though the enemy were attacking...."

According to Livy (XLII, 60) "After the victors returned to the camp, all indeed rejoiced, but above the others the swaggering joy of the Thracians was conspicuous; for they returned bearing with songs the heads of their enemies impaled on spears."

Strabo (Geography 7 f40) says " Since the 'paeanismos' i.e. 'the chanting of the paen' of the Thracians is called 'titanismos' by the Greeks, in imitation of the cry to Titan, uttered in paeans, the Titans too were called Pelagonians."

To further point out the wild, warband-like tendencies of the Thracians, it should be remembered that the Thracians were also renowned for giving themselves up to the furious pleasures of wild orgies: "the women of this country [Macedonia] having always been extremely addicted to the enthusiastic Orphic rites, and the wild worship of Baccus... imitated in many things the practices of the Edonian and Thracian women about Mount Heamus, from whom the word threskeuein seems to have been derived, as a special form of superfluous and over-curious forms of adoration; and that Olympias, zealously affecting these fanatical and enthusiastic inspirations, to perform them with more barbaric dread, was wont in the dances proper to have great serpents around her..." (Plutarch, Life of Alexander).

Nick Sekunda remarks the Greeks and Macedonians thought the Thracians so uncivilised and savage, they "regarded the Thracians as scarcely capable of walking on their hind legs"! He continues "Alexander's Thracian cavalry were "a wild, uncivilised group of soldiery, who would compare well to the Croats of the Thirty Years's War. They were much given to drink, women, and booty." [13a]

Pausanias (Description of Greece 9.30.6) says that drunken Thracian women killed Orpheus, "and hereafter the custom of their men has been to march to battle drunk".  This custom is confirmed by Polyaenus (Stratagems 2.2.6), who says

"After plundering Thrace, Clearchus...  encamped near the mountains of Thrace.  When the Thracians gathered, he knew that, drunk and rushing from the mountains, they would attack at night...."

This doesn’t sound like the controlled, never impetuous DBM Thracian army to me. Indeed, "Thracian" seems to have been synonymous with "drinker". It's no surprise, then, that the Thracians were such enthusiastic supporters of Dionysius. Alcibiades "could adapt himself to his company and equally wear the appearance of virtue or vice... in Thrace, always drinking" (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades). Satyrs and people involved in Bacchic orgies are often shown in Thracian dress.

Cornelius Nepos Alcibiades: "Among the Thracians, a people given to drunkenness and lust, he surpassed even the Thracians in those vices"

Plato - Laws: Book I: "I am not speaking of drinking, or not drinking, wine at all, but of intoxication. Are we to follow the custom of the Scythians, and Persians, and Carthaginians, and Celts, and Iberians, and Thracians, who are all warlike nations, or that of your countrymen, for they, as you say, altogether abstain? But the Scythians and Thracians, both men and women, drink unmixed wine, which they pour on their garments, and this they think a happy and glorious institution. The Persians, again, are much given to other practices of luxury which you reject, but they have more moderation in them than the Thracians and Scythians. " - a picture of Thracian Dionysios

Athenaios, Deipnosophistai, 4.131b-c, p 260, Archibald

Anaxandrides, ridiculing in Protesilaos the wedding dinner of Iphikrates, when he married the daughter of the Thracian king, Kotys, says '...there were purple rugs spread out in the market place, right up to where his boat was moored.  At the dinner were huge crowds of butter-eating types, the great unwashed.  Kotys himself, girded, carried in the sauce in a goldern pitcher.  He had had a go at tasting the mixing bowls and so got drunk before the other guests.  Antigeneidas played the flute, Argas did the singing, with Kephisodotos of Acharnai on the harp.  Their works celebrated now Sparta with its broad acres, now seven-gated Thebes.  The groom received as presents a herd of chesnut horses, a herd of goats, a golden sack, ... a limpet-shaped vase, a pitcher of snow, a pot of millet, a cellar of onions twelve cubits deep and a hecatomb of octopuses.'

Great Musicians

The Thracians (the most famous being Orpheus, Linus, Thamyris, and Mysaeus) were also great singers and musicians; some say they were the best in the ancient world. Valerius Flaccus often pays them tribute. According to Fol (p 59), "Xenophon tells us Seuthes was the first to get up and perform the war dance... the high priests of the Getae came out to welcome the Macedonian army, singing and playing lyres..."

Valerius Flaccus I, 277-278

And now the Thracian bard with the melody of his lyre beguiles the night, singing how Phrixus stood...

Valerius Flaccus IV, 85-99

But from the high poop the Thracian bard in solace for heaven's destiny and life's distressful miseries sings to his comrades a melody whose measures bring healing and relief:  no sooner had he taken his lyre than grief and anger and weariness were dispelled, and the sweet memory of children fades away.

Homer Iliad 2.595 (Loeb)

[595] where the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian and made an end of his singing, even as he was journeying from Oechalia, from the house of Eurytus the Oechalian: for he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him,

Strabo Geography 10.3.17 (Loeb)

[10.3.17] From its melody and rhythm and instruments, all Thracian music has been considered to be Asiatic. And this is clear, first, from the places where the Muses have been worshipped, for Pieria and Olympus and Pimpla and Leibethrum were in ancient times Thracian places and mountains, though they are now held by the Macedonians; and again, Helicon was consecrated to the Muses by the Thracians who settled in Boeotia, the same who consecrated the cave of the nymphs called Leibethrides. And again, those who devoted their attention to the music of early times are called Thracians, I mean Orpheus, Musaeus, and Thamyris; and Eumolpus,1 too, got his name from there.

Xenophon Anabasis 6.1.6 (Loeb)

[6.1.6] And the Paphlagonians set up a cry. Then the first man despoiled the other of his arms and marched out singing the Sitalcas,1 while other Thracians carried off the fallen dancer, as though he were dead; in fact, he had not been hurt at all.

6,1,6,n1. A Thracian war-song, apparently composed in honour of an early king named Sitalcas.

Click here to visit a comprehensive Balkan music site with recordings (not very Thracian) - A web page about Thracian music, but without recordings

Warlike, Ferocious, And Savagely Bloodthirsty

Over and over again you read how the Thracians "were regarded as warlike, ferocious, and savagely bloodthirsty" (Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars p. 51). "Warlike temper, courage, and soldierly qualities are generally recognised to have been characteristic of the Thracians." [16] "[The Thynians and Bithynians] were Thracian immigrants from the opposite shore, and had the same characteristics as their European cousins, savage hardihood, wild abandonment to the frenzy of religion and war. The terror of them kept the Greeks from making any settlement along their coast from Calchedon to Heraclea, and woe betide any mariner driven there."[17] Simply having (S) Ax and Ps in the army list doesn’t reflect these descriptions. Ax and Ps aren’t very savage troop-types! In addition, Thracians are often described as being on a par with warband nations such as the Galatians.

Livy (XLII, 52) says the Macedonian army had as allies "Thracians and Gauls, the most warlike of all nations." The consul Marcus Acilius declaims (in Livy XXXVI, 17) "There, as you well know, they were Macedonians, Thracians, and Illyrians- all very warlike races." Quinctius reiterates: "The Macedonian kings now seem to threaten the liberty of Greece; but if that kingdom and people were removed, the Thracians, Illyrians, and after them the Gauls, savage and untamed peoples, would pour into Macedonia, and into Greece. By demolishing all the nearer powers, he said, we should offer access to ourselves by larger and more menacing races." (Livy XXXIII, 12). I have already mentioned Plato’s account above, where he bundles together"….Celts, and Iberians, and Thracians, who are all warlike nations.."  Appian confuses the Bastarnae with the Getae and calls the Triballi and Maedi Illyrian tribes.

Polybius (IV 44-46) reveals how the Thracians burdened Byzantium with "a perpetual and dangerous war: for what can be more hazardous or more formidable than a war with barbarians living on your borders?... For if they conquer one chief three others still more formidable invade their territory." The Gauls conquer the Thracians "until the reign of Cavarus, in whose reign their Kingdom came to an end; and their whole tribe, being in turn conquered by the Thracians, were entirely annihilated." Polybius, in common with other sources, clearly regarded the Galatians as being as dangerous as the Thracians (and not the other way around); here he indicates the fate of the Galatian invasion.

Florus, The Second Macedonian War, 186 BC, XXVII "The Macedonians… had induced the Thracians to support their efforts and had thus tempered the Macedonian persistence with Thracian energy, and Thracians savagery with Macedonian discipline."

Florus II, XXVII. The Thracian War.

"Though the Thracians had often revolted before, their most serious rising had taken place now under King Rhoemetalcis. He had accustomed the barbarians to the use of military standards and discipline and even of Roman weapons. Thoroughly subdued by Piso, they showed their mad rage even in captivity; for they punished their own savagery by trying to bite through their fetters."

Out of the twenty or so Thracian tribes and clans, a high proportion (eight, including all of the largest) are described as the best warriors. It’s no wonder Herodotus (V,3) says that "were they under one ruler, or united, they would, in my judgement be invincible and the strongest nation on earth." Does this simply qualify their list for (S) peltasts and psiloi? What about the cavalry? The peltasts can be (S) simply for being double-armed. In all probability, some of the tribes had different fighting styles, with differing proportions of troop-types. (For instance, Arrian says the Getae marched out against Alexander with 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 foot.- see below).

In Euripides Hecuba, 1089, Polymestor exclaims "Ho! My Thracian spearmen, armed, a race of knights whom Ares inspires!" (see below for Penguin translation) Fol [18] continues: "Could there be a more convincing personification of Ares' spirit than the warlike Thracians? As early as the seventh century BC the poet Achilochus called the Thracians (in this case Abantes), the gods of battle. and was not ashamed to admit having once fled from the field, leaving his shield as booty to a Thracian warrior. The ancients were hard put to it to decide which of the Thracian tribes was the most valiant: the Getae, Odomanti, Thyni, or Odrysae."

To the last list should be added the Dii, Bessi, Bisaltae, and Satrae. Herodotus (IV, 98) not only calls the Getae "the noblest and most just of the Thracians", "But these Satrae [of which the Bessi were a clan], as far as our knowledge goes, have never yet been subject to any man... they are warriors of high excellence." (VII, 3)

Livy (XLV, 30) relates "The first district [of the newly partitioned Macedonia] enjoys many advantages. It has the Bisaltae, first class fighting men (they live beyond the Nessus, in the neighbourhood of the Strymon)." The Dii lived nearby. Thucydides (II, 98) says of them: "The most warlike troops among the infantry [in Sitalces' army] were the independent swordsmen who came down from Mount Rhodope." However, Xenophon (Anabasis VII, 2) praises the Thyni: "Teres, with a large army, was said to have had his baggage train taken from him by the natives, who are called Thyni and are supposed to be the most dangerous of all the tribes, especially at night fighting."

In Aristphanes’ Archarnanians, 170, the Odomanti - are described as "the nastiest tribe in Thrace".

This behaviour fits Herodotus II, 167: "I know that in Thrace... those who learn trades and their dependants are held in less esteem than the rest of the people, and those who have nothing to do with artisan's work, especially men who are free to practice the art of war, are highly honoured."

Valerius Flaccus (II, 229-232) compares them to the anger of the sea: "Such is the savagery of sister, of wife, aye of closer of kin, of daughter and of mother; caught in their beds woman drags forth and butchers the men whom neither the huge Bessi nor the Getic armies nor the anger of the seas could overcome."

Some of the speeches in Euripides' "Hecabe" suggest that a Thracian rage was thought to be especially violent, and that it was considered no mean feat to kill a Thracian. For example, Agamemnon says to Hecabe "But how? What will you do? Can you handle a sword and kill a Thracian?" (p. 89, Penguin edition). Later, while talking to Hecabe about Polymestor, the Thracian King, the chorus comments "Listen to him! He's terribly strong and violent." Hecabe replies "Look, here he comes. I'll stand out of the way; he's in a boiling Thracian rage, and dangerous." [19] The use of "Thracian" in both these passages is obviously for emphasis- to emphasise Hecabe's peril and the extent of Polymestor's rage.  Hecabe follows this up at another time by saying "In the first place, how could your savage nation ever be a friend to Hellas?"

In addition, Livy (XXXVIII, 49) depicts the Thracians as "an enemy formidable by reason of his disposition and physical strength." Furthermore Livy XLII, 59 says : "First of all the Thracians, like beasts of prey long held behind bars, charged so vigourously with a great shout upon the Roman right wing, the Italian cavalry, that this people, courageous by nature and through experience in war, was thrown into confusion...* spears to attack the infantry, now to cut off the horses' legs', now to pierce their loins, Perseus charging in the centre of the line, thrust back the Greeks [Aetolian cavalry] with his first attack."

Arrian - the battle of Issus

7. Again, of foreigners, the Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, and Agrianians, who were the most robust and warlike of men in Europe, were about to be arrayed against the most sluggish and effeminate races of Asia.

Euripides, Hecabe, p96 (Penguin):

Polymestor: "Thracians!  Hear me, Thracians!  Come with your spears, your armour, your horses!  Thracian warriors, hearts of Ares!

Polybius XXIII, 37:

Flaminius here took up the argument, and said that... Yet, in truth, to the Greeks themselves it is greatly to their interest that Macedonia should be humbled, but not at all so that she should be destroyed.  For it might chance thereby that they would experience the barbarity of the Thracians and Gauls, as has been the case more than once already.

Diodorus Siculus XXXIII 14-15 and XXXIV 12 - the savagery and cruelty of Diegylis, a chieftain of the Caeni, and son-in-law to Prusias of Bithynia, c. 145 BC

14. When Diegylis, the king of the Thracians ascended the throne and the tide of fortune was flowing in his favour beyond all expectations, he ceased to govern his subjects as friends and comrades-in-arms, but lorded it over them harshly as if they were bought slaves or captive foes. Many were the fine, noble Thracians he tortured and put put to death, and many were the victims of his abusive treatment  and unbridled violence. There was no woman, no boy whose beauty he left intact, no rich store of possessions that was left undiminished: the whole realm was full of his lawlessness. He ravaged also the Greek cities along his borders, and the captives were subjected to his outrages or punished with terrible and exquisite tortures. Becoming master of Lysimacheia, a city subject to Attalus, he set the city afire, and picking out the most prominent of the captives visited them with peculiar and outlandish punishments. He would, for example, cut off the hands and feet and heads of children and hang them about their parents' necks to wear, or cut off the parts of husbands and wives and exchange them; at times, after lopping off his victims' hands, he would split them down the spine, and on occasion would even carry the hewn halves on the points of spears, whereby he surpassed in cruelty Phalaris and the tyrant of Cassandreia, Apollodorus. Even leaving out of account all the rest of his bloodthirstiness, one could judge of his surpassing cruelty by the single instance now to be related. In the course of celebrating his marriage according to ancient Thracian usage, he seized two young travellers, Greeks from the kingdom of Attalus, a pair of brothers, both strikingly handsome, one with the first down sprouting on his checks, the other just acquiring a suggestion of this bloom. Having garlanded them both like sacrificial victims he brought them in, and when he had had his attendants stretch out the younger at full length, as if to split him down the middle, he exclaimed that it was not right for kings and commoners to use the same kind of victims. When the older youth wailed, displaying a brotherly affection, and threw himself beneath the axe, the king ordered the attendants to stretch him out as well. His cruelty then redoubled, he aimed a single blow at each, and both times drove it home, while the spectators raised the paean to signal his success. And many other crimes as well did he commit.

15. Attalus, hearing how Diegylis was hated by his subjects because of his rapacity and his extreme cruelty, affected a policy that was just the opposite. Accordingly, by treating the Thracians who were taken captive with humanity and setting them free, he enlisted many voices to proclaim his mercy. Diegylis, on learning of this, inflicted terrible outrages and cruel tortures on the hostages left by any who absconded, among them children of very tender years and delicate constitution. For even these were torn limb from limb by every possible means, or had their heads, hands, and feet chopped off. Some of them were impaled on stakes, others exposed on trees. Women- and not a few only- were to be seen with bodies spread-eagled and offered for outrage in addition to the fate of death, being made to assume every shameful position that the arrogance of barbarians could suggest. Thus the victims were presented to their violators as the demonstration of a shameless savagery, but provoked many who were onlookers with a capacity for civilised reflection to feelings of pity for the hapless creatures.

XXXIV.12. Zibelmiusą, the son of Diegylis, emulating his father's thirst for blood and nursing his, anger at what the Thracians had done to Diegylis, went to such lengths of cruelty and lawlessness that he exacted punishment from those who offended him together with all their households. On the most trivial provocation he tore men limb from limb, or crucified or burned them alive. He slaughtered children before the eyes of their parents or in a parent's arms, and carving up their bodies would serve them to the closest of kin, reviving the storied banquets of Tereus and Thyestes. Finally the Thracians laid hands on Ziselmius, and though it was virtually impossible to retaliate upon him for his individual offences- for how could a single body make satisfaction for violence perpetrated against a whole nation? - nevertheless, within the range of what was possible, the exerted themselves to visit every indignity and punishment upon his person.

1.  Also spelt Ziselmius or Zisemis.


Appian's Roman History XI, II, 6 (the Syrian Wars)

Then Antiochus went down to the Hellespont and crossed over to Chersonesus and possessed himself fo a large part of Thrace by surrender or conquest.  He freed the Greeks who were under subjection to the Thracians...

Murderous Executioners

Thracians were the favourite troops for performing executions and massacres.

In Livy XXXII. 27 Aenesidemus, leader of the Achaean garrison of Argos, bars Philip of Maceon's way with his person and a few retainers.  "he replied that he intended to die under arms, in defence of a city entrusted to his care.   Then, at the prefect's order, javelins were hurled at the company by the Thracians, and all were killed."

Diodorus Siculus XIX. 11. 4 (317 BC)

Olympias...placed Eurydice and her husband Philip under guard and began to maltreat them.  Indeed she walled them up in a small space and supplied them with what was necessary through a single narrow opening.  But after she had for many days unlawfully treated the unfortunate captives, since she was thereby losing favour with the the Macedonians because of their pity for the sufferers, she ordered certain Thracians to stab Philip [III Arrhidaios] to death, who had been king for six years and three months; but she judged Eurydice...worthy of greater punishment...

Polyaenus, Stratagems 7.39 Seiles

Desiring to kill 3,000 Persian rebels, Seiles alleged that Seleucus harshly threatened him in a letter, and that by an alliance with the rebels he wished to take the initiative.   To draw up a plan, he arranged for them to meet at the village called Rhanda.   They believed him and came.  But he concealed 300 Thracian and Macednoan cavalry and 3,000 heavy infantry at a deep marshy hollow at the foot of the village and ordered them, when they saw a small bronze shield raised, to charge forth and kill all the rebels assembled there.  The small shield was shown and with a charge they killed the 3,000 Persians.

The Thracian love of plunder

Thracians were notorious for their love of plunder. The battle of Pydna is supposed to have been started by some Thracians trying to steal some baggage animals (Livy XLIV,40). Alcibiades sent his Thracian mercenaries out of Selymbria, for fear that they would plunder the town. [1] Then you have Thucydides’ sack of Mycalessus, and Plutarch’s story (from Alexander) about the Thracian thrown in a well by a woman because he thought there was plunder in it. Adding all this up indicates that DBM Thracian troops should have a more pronounced tendency to head for the baggage than usual - they should be impetuous.

Whether because of this love of plunder, or for some other reason, Thracians made good baggage guards. At the battle of Magnesia, "2,000 Macedonians and Thracians who had followed as volunteers…were left as guard for the camp". Antiochus pursued as far as the Roman camp, whereupon this body (then referred to as "2,000 brave men") is ordered to cut down the leading Roman fugitives (a very Thracian task!) and then "energetically withstood the king, in his disorderly pursuit"(Livy 38,40) A similar event occurred after one of Caesar’s victories over Pompey - the Pompeians flee to their camp, which "was bravely defended by the cohorts which had been left to guard it, but with much more spirit by the Thracians and foreign auxiliaries."[15] Thracians also successfully guarded Alexander’s baggage at Gaugamela, against attacks by the Persian right-wing cavalry and the Indians.

Classing some or all of the peltasts as Wb(F) or Bd (F) would make them more like their direct descendants, the Dacians (who spoke the same language as the Getae). This would also make the Thracians behave more in keeping with Thucydides VII, 29: "For the Thracian race, like all the most bloodthirsty barbarians, are always particularly bloodthirsty when everything is going their own way." (Penguin translation)

"the Thracian race, like the bloodiest of the barbarians, being evermost so when it has nothing to fear…" (Perseus translation)

The simplest way to represent this trait is for Thracians to impetuously follow-up their opponents.

There are many instances of impetuous or rash, uncompromising Thracian behavior. Despite being faced by overwhelming odds or a consistently victorious army, their answer was the same. Perhaps the most amusing example is in Plutarch's Life of Agesilaus: "Having passed the Hellespont, he [Agesilaus] marched by land through Thrace, not begging or entreating a passage anywhere, only he sent his messengers to them to demand whether they would let him pass as a friend or as an enemy. All the rest received him as a friend, and assisted him on his journey. But the Trallians, to whom Xerxes is also said to have given money, demanded a price of him, namely one hundred talents of silver and one hundred women. Agesilaus in scorn asked why they were not ready to receive them? He marched on, and finding the Trallians in arms to oppose him, fought them, and slew great numbers of them." Thus the Trallians, when faced by possibly the best army in the world at that time, refused to surrender, and were, of course, beaten by Agesilaus' battle hardened veterans. The Getae, when faced by Darius' huge army, refuse to submit, and suffer the same punishment.

The Triballi were easily tempted out of a wood by Alexander, who simply moved some psiloi up. When the shooting started, the Triballi "came surging forward to get to grips with the lightly armed Macedonian archers." (Arrian, Life of Alexander, 1,1-6)

Plutarch, Alexander

... Among the calamities that befell the city [Thebes], it happened that some Thracian soldiers, having broken into the house of a matron of high character and repute named Timoclea, their captain, after he had used violence with her, to satisfy his avarice as well as his lust, asked her, if she knew of any money concealed; to which she readily answered she did, and bade him follow her into a garden, where she showed him a well, into which, she told him, apon the taking of the city, she had thrown what she had of most value.  The greedy Thracian presently stooping down to view the place where he thought the treasure lay, she came behind him and pushed him into the well, and then flung great stones in apon him, till she had killed him.

Polyaenus, Stratagems,  8.40 Timoclea describes the same incident:

Timoclea, a Theban woman, was the sister of Theagenes who fought against Philip at Chaeronea.  When someone shouted "How far do you pursue?" it was Theagenes who replied "Up to Macedonia!"  His sister survived his death.   Alexander leveled Thebes to the ground.  Some looted one part of the city and others plundered different parts.  A Thracian cavalry commander seized Timoclea's house.  After dinner, he called her to the bedroom - and not only this, but he also forced her to admit if she had gold and silver hidden anywhere.  She said she had much silver tableware and gold in her necklaces, bracelets, drinking cups, and coins, but when the city was captured she threw it all into a dry well.  The Thracian believed her, and she brought him into the garden of the house where the well was and urged him to go down into it.  Upon descending, he looked for the silver and gold.  Timoclea from above with her servant girls rolled down upon him numerous stones and rocks and covered the barbarian with the heap.  The Macedonians arrested Timoclea and brought her to the kin Alexander.  She confessed, saying that she avenged herself on a crimminal and wonton Thracian.  Alexander in amazement let both her and all her relatives go free.

Curtius III, 10, 9-10 (before the battle of Issus):

Since the Illyrians and Thracians usually made their living by looting, Alexander told them to look at the enemy line agleam with gold and purple - equipped with booty not arms!  They were men, he said, so they should advance and seize the gold from this cowardly bunch of women.  They should exchange their rugged mountain-tops and barren hill-trails permanently stiff with frost for the rich plains and fields of the Persians.

Plutarch, Alcibiades 30.4

While they [the Selymbrians] were thus parleying with one another, up came the army of Alcibiades.   Judging now, as was really the case, that the Selymbrians were disposed for peace, he was afraid that his Thracian soldiers might plunder the city.  There were many of these, and they were zealous in their service, through the favour and goodwill they bore Alcibiades.  Accordingly, he sent them all out of the city, and then, at the plea of the Selymbrians, did their city no injury whatever, but merely took a sum of money from it, sent a garrison in it, and went on his way.

Frontinus, Stratagems III, XVI, 3  (168 BC) (Loeb)

When Diodotus was holding Amphipolis with a garrison, and entertained suspicions of two thousand Thracians, who seemed likely to pillage the city, he invented the story that a few hostile ships had put in at the shore nearby and could be plundered.   When he had incited the Thracians at that prospect, he let them out.  Then, closing the gates, he refused to admit them again.

This same incident is described in Livy XL, 44 (Penguin) as follows:

The news of the battle [of Pydna] had by now reached Amphipolis...   Diodorus, the city commander, feared that the Thracians, of whom there were 2,000 in the garrison, would plunder the city in the confusion.  He therefore  misled the people by suborning a man to pretend to be a bearer of dispatches, and received from him a document in the middle of the forum.  The message in the supposed dispatch was that the Roman fleet had put in a Emathia and was harasssing the countryside in those parts, and that the officers responsible for Emathia begged him to send a detachment to deal with the plunderers.   After reading this message the commandant urged the Thracians to set off to defend the Emathian coast, telling them they would inflict great slaughter on the Romans and win much booty from there while they were scattered all ove the countryside.  At the same time he played down the report of a defeat in battle; if the story were true, he said, the fugitives would hav been arriving one after another, fresh from the rout.  After getting rid of the Thracians on this pretext, he shut the gates as soon as he saw the they had crossed the Strymon.

Livy XXVII.40 describes how the victors of Magnesia are defeated in a defile by about 10,000 Thracians, and the Thracian love of plunder.

Livy 38,40 (from University of Virginia e-text archive)

The army was heavily weighted with spoils of every description and its advance consequently through the Chersonese was at a moderate pace till they reached Lysimachia. Here they rested for some time in order that their draught cattle might be as strong and fresh as possible before they entered Thrace, as they generally dreaded the march through that country. The same day on which he left Lysimachia the consul reached Melas, and the next day he arrived at Cypsela. From Cypsela a ten miles' march over broken ground shut in by forests awaited them. In view of the difficulties of the route the army was formed into two divisions. One was ordered to march in advance, the other, at a considerable distance, to bring up the rear. The baggage was placed between them. This included the wagons carrying the State money and other valuable booty. Whilst marching through a pass in this order a body of Thracians drawn from the four tribes of Astii, Caeni, Maduateni and Coreli, not more than 10,000 in number, occupied each side of the road at its narrowest part. It was generally thought that this was due to treachery on Philip's part, that he knew the Romans would return through Thrace and was also aware of the amount of money they were carrying.

The general was with the first division and the broken and difficult ground made him anxious. As long as the armed troops were passing through, the Thracians did not stir, but when they saw that the vanguard had cleared the narrowest part of the pass and those behind were nowhere near, they attacked the baggage and the pack animals, and killing the escort began to loot the wagons, while others led off the horses with their packs. The cries and shouts were first heard by those behind who had already entered the pass; then they reached the leading division. From both directions a rush was made to the centre, and irregular fighting began at several points. The booty itself exposed the Thracians to slaughter, hampered as they were by the loads they were carrying, and most of them without arms that they might have their hands free for pillage. The unfavourable ground on the other hand exposed the Romans to the barbarians, who ran up through paths they were familiar with or concealed themselves in the recesses of the rocks. Even the packs and wagons obstructed the combatants and interfered with the movements of one side or the other just as it chanced. Here a plunderer fell; there, one trying to recover the plunder. The fortunes of the battle changed as first one side and then the other was on favourable or unfavourable ground; as the courage of each rose or fell; as the numbers preponderated on either side, some engaged with larger, others with smaller bodies than their own. Many fell on both sides and night was already coming on when the Thracians drew off from the fight, not to escape wounds and death, but because they had as much plunder as they wanted.

When they had got clear of the pass, the first division of the Roman army encamped on open ground near the temple of Bendis. The second remained in the pass to protect the baggage train which they enclosed with a double rampart. The next day after reconnoitring the pass, they joined the front division. The fighting had practically extended the whole length of the pass, a portion of the pack animals and camp servants had fallen and a considerable number of soldiers. But the most serious loss was that of the gallant and energetic Q. Minucius Thermus. In the course of the day they reached the Hebrus, and from there they marched past a temple to the Zerynthian Apollo [Bendis], as the natives call him, into the country of the Aenians. Another defile near Tempyra had to be crossed, not less precipitous than the one already surmounted, but as there was no wooded country around it, it afforded no concealment for an ambush. Another Thracian tribe, the Thrausi, had assembled here, quite as greedy of plunder, but their movements, as they tried to block the pass, were visible from afar owing to the bareness of the landscape. The Romans were very little perturbed as though the ground was ill-adapted for maneuvering, they saw that they could fight on a proper front in a regular action. Charging in close order and raising their battle-cry they drove the enemy from his ground and then put him to flight. The narrowness of the pass crowded the fugitives together, and there was much slaughter.

The victorious Romans encamped at a village belonging to Maronia called Sale. The following day, marching through open country, they entered the plain of Priantae. Here they remained, taking in corn partly from the country people, who brought it in from their fields, and partly from the ships of the fleet which were loaded with all sorts of stores and were following their movements. A day's march brought them to Apollonia and from here, through the district of Abdera, they arrived at Neapolis. The whole of this march through the Greek colonies was unmolested, but the other part through the heart of Thrace, though not actually opposed, demanded caution both by day and night. When this army traversed the same route under Scipio they found the Thracians less aggressive; the only reason for this being that there was less chance of plunder, plunder being their one object. We are, however, told by Claudius that a body of Thracians, amounting to some 15,000, sought to oppose Muttines the Numidian, who was reconnoitring in advance of the main army. There were 400 Numidian cavalry and a few elephants; the son of Muttines, with 150 picked troopers, rode through the middle of the enemy, and after Muttines with his elephants in the centre and his cavalry on the flanks had engaged the enemy, his son attacked their rear and created such disorder amongst them that they never got near the main body of infantry. Passing through Macedonia, Cn. Manlius led his army into Thessaly and finally reached Apollonia. Here he remained for the winter, as the dangers of a winter voyage were not yet so contemptible that he could venture to cross.


Thucydides Histories 7.30.1

Accordingly, not wishing to incur expense in their present want of money, they sent back at once the Thracians who came too late for Demosthenes, under the conduct of Diitrephes, who was instructed, as they were to pass through the Euripus, to make use of them if possible in the voyage alongshore to injure the enemy. Diitrephes first landed them at Tanagra and hastily snatched some booty; he then sailed across the Euripus in the evening from Chalcis in Euboea and disembarking in Boeotia led them against Mycalessus. The night he passed unobserved near the temple of Hermes, not quite two miles from Mycalessus, and at daybreak assaulted and took the town, which is not a large one; the inhabitants being off their guard and not expecting that any one would ever come up so far from the sea to molest them, the wall too being weak, and in some places having tumbled down, while in others it had not been built to any height, and the gates also being left open through their feeling of security. The Thracians bursting into Mycalessus sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age, but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden, and whatever other living creatures they saw; the Thracian race, like the bloodiest of the barbarians, being even more so when it has nothing to fear. Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys' school, the largest that there was in the place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all. In short, the disaster falling upon the whole town was unsurpassed in magnitude, and unapproached by any in suddenness and in horror.

Meanwhile the Thebans heard of it and marched to the rescue, and overtaking the Thracians before they had gone far, recovered the plunder and drove them in panic to the Euripus and the sea, where the vessels which brought them were lying. The greatest slaughter took place while they were embarking, as they did not know how to swim, and those in the vessels on seeing what was going on on on shore moored them out of bowshot: in the rest of the retreat the Thracians made a very respectable defence against the Theban horse, by which they were first attacked, dashing out and closing their ranks according to the tactics of their country, and lost only a few men in that part of the affair. A good number who were after plunder were actually caught in the town and put to death. Altogether the Thracians had two hundred and fifty killed out of thirteen hundred, the Thebans and the rest who came to the rescue about twenty, troopers and heavy infantry, with Scirphondas, one of the Boeotarchs. The Mycalessians lost a large proportion of their population.

Excerpts of Polyaenus 31.3

In Thrace when the enemy encamped nearby, Iphicrates during the night set fire to the forest between the two camps and abandoned both his pack-animals and many cattle.  When the smoke made the night darker, he withdrew to a place thickly shaded and bushy.  The next day, after the Thracians came to his camp and found none of the Greeks, they began to carry off the cattle and pack-animals.  Iphicrates with his men in formation suddenly appeared from the countryside against the dispersed Thracians, defeated the enemy, and saved his baggage train.

After marching into Thrace, Iphicrates encamped with 8,000 soldiers.   He learned that the Thracians were going to attack by night and during the evening withdrew with his soldiers about three stades into a ravine capable of concealing his force.  After the Thracians fell upon the camp, they began to loot in disorder, cracking jokes about the Greeks as if they were in flight.  Iphicrates attacked out of nowhere: he killed many of them and took many prisoners.

Polyaenus Stratagems 2.2.6

After plundering Thrace, Clearchus did not succeed in returning to Byzantium and encamped near the mountains of Thrace.  When the Thracians gathered, he knew that, drunk and rushing from the mountains, they would attack at night.  He ordered his men to remain in arms and to rouse themselves frequently.  When the night was dark, he took a part of the army and appeared, striking his arms in the Thracian manner.  The men, as if the enemy appeared, were ready for a fight.  Meanwhile, the Thracians appeared, intending to catch them asleep, but, awake and armed, they met the attackers and killed most of them.

Plutarch, Aemilius Paulus

Scipio, surnamed Nasica, son-in-law to Scipio Africanus, who afterwards was so powerful in the senate-house, was the first that offered himself to command those that should be sent to encompass the enemy. Next to him, Fabius Maximus, eldest son of Aemilius, although yet very young, offered himself with great zeal. Aemilius, rejoicing, gave them, not so many as Polybius states, but, as Nasica himself tells us in a brief letter which he wrote to one of the kings with an account of the expedition, three thousand Italians that were not Romans, and his left wing consisting of five thousand. Taking with him, besides these, one hundred and twenty horsemen, and two hundred Thracians and Cretans intermixed that Harpalus had sent, he began his journey towards the sea, and encamped near the temple of Hercules....

When it grew towards evening, some tell us, Aemilius himself used a stratagem to induce the enemy to begin the fight; that he turned loose a horse without a bridle, and sent some of the Romans to catch him, upon whose following the beast the battle began. Others relate that the Thracians, under the command of one Alexander, set upon the Roman beasts of burden that were bringing forage to the camp; that to oppose these, a party of seven hundred Ligurians were immediately detached; and that, relief coming still from both armies, the main bodies at last engaged. Aemilius, like a wise pilot, foreseeing by the present waves and motion of the armies the greatness of the following storm, came out of his tent, went through the legions, and encouraged his soldiers. Nasica, in the meantime, who had ridden out to the skirmishers, saw the whole force of the enemy on the point of engaging. First marched the Thracians, who, he himself tells us, inspired him with most terror; they were of great stature, with bright and glittering shields and black frocks under them, their legs armed with greaves, and they brandished, as they moved, straight and heavily-ironed spears over their right shoulders. Next the Thracians marched the mercenary soldiers, armed after different fashions; with these Paeonians were mingled.

Other Characterisitics

Plutarch, Pericles, 19 (447 BC)

But of all his expeditions, that to the Chersonese gave most satisfaction and pleasure, having proved the safety of the Greeks who inhabited there. For not only by carrying along with him a thousand fresh citizens of Athens he gave new strength and vigour to the cities, but also by belting the neck of land, which joins the peninsula to the continent, with bulwarks and forts from sea to sea, he put a stop to the inroads of the Thracians, who lay all about the Chersonese, and closed the door against a continual and grievous war, with which that country had been long harassed, lying exposed to the encroachments and influx of barbarous neighbours, and groaning under the evils of a predatory population both upon and within its borders.

Plato - Laws: Book 7

And what arrangement of life to be found anywhere is preferable to this community which we are now assigning to them? Shall we prefer that which is adopted by the Thracians and many other races who use their women to till the ground and to be shepherds of their herds and flocks, and to minister to them like slaves?

Flavius Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.379 (Whiston) [13.379]

Now as Alexander fled to the mountains, six thousand of the Jews hereupon came together [from Demetrius] to him out of pity at the change of his fortune; upon which Demetrius was afraid, and retired out of the country; after which the Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten, were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had; and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. This was indeed by way of revenge for the injuries they had done him; which punishment yet was of an inhuman nature, though we suppose that he had been never so much distressed, as indeed he had been, by his wars with them, for he had by their means come to the last degree of hazard, both of his life and of his kingdom, while they were not satisfied by themselves only to fight against him, but introduced foreigners also for the same purpose; nay, at length they reduced him to that degree of necessity, that he was forced to deliver back to the king of Arabia the land of Moab and Gilead, which he had sub dued, and the places that were in them, that they might not join with them in the war against him, as they had done ten thousand other things that tended to affront and reproach him. However, this barbarity seems to have been without any necessity, on which account he bare the name of a Thracian among the Jews 407 whereupon the soldiers that had fought against him, being about eight thousand in number, ran away by night, and continued fugitives all the time that Alexander lived; who being now freed from any further disturbance from them, reigned the rest of his time in the utmost tranquillity.

13,n407. This name Thracida, which the Jews gave Alexander, must, by the coherence, denote as barbarous as a Thracian, or somewhat like it; but what it properly signifies is not known.

Cicero On the Consular Provinces 4 (Yonge)

[4] All these private matters, all these transactions which took place in the city, I say nothing about; though they are of such a nature that Hannibal himself never wished so much evil to this city, as those men have done. I come to the case of the provinces themselves, of which Macedonia, which was formerly fortified not by the towers built, but by the trophies erected by numbers of our generals, which had long ago been reduced to a state of tranquillity by many victories and triumphs, is now so harassed by the barbarians who are not allowed to rest in peace in consequence of the avarice of the late consul, that the people of Thessalonica, placed in the lap as it were of our empire are compelled to abandon their town and to fortify their citadel, that that military road of ours which reaches all through Macedonia as far as the Hellespont is not only infested by the incursions of the barbarians but is even studded with and divided among Thracian encampments. And so those nations which had given large sums of money to our illustrious commanders to purchase the blessings of peace, in order to be able to replenish their houses which had been thus drained, instead of the peace which they had purchased, have waged against us what is little short of a regular war. And now that very army of ours, collected by a most splendid enlistment, and by a very rigid levy, has almost entirely perished. I say this with the most real grief.

Cicero On the Consular Provinces 9 (Yonge)

[9]But as for Syria, is that Semiramis any longer to be retained there? a man whose march into the province bore the appearance of king Ariobarzanes having hired your consul to come and commit murder, as if he were some Thracian.

Strabo Geography 9.2.4 (Loeb)

[9.2.4] Ephorus says that the Thracians, after making a treaty with the Boeotians, attacked them by night when they, thinking that peace had been made, were encamping rather carelessly; and when the Boeotians frustrated the Thracians, at the same time making the charge that they were breaking the treaty, the Thracians asserted that they had not broken it, for the treaty said "by day," whereas they had made the attack by night; whence arose the proverb, "Thracian pretense";

Polyaenus, Stratagems 7.22, Cosingas

The Cebrenii and Sucaeboae were Thracian peoples, among whom it was the custom to have priests of Hera as their leaders.  Their priest-leader was Cosingas, who the Thracians would not obey.  Cosingas collected many large wooden ladders and having joinde them together one after the other, he said that he could ascend into heaven to declare to Hera that the Thracians dosbeyed him.  In fear of their leader's ascent into heaven, they begged like stupid, irrational Thracians, and swore on their honour to obey all his commands.


Thracian mercenaries loved loot so much, they were prone to switch sides in the middle of a battle. Click here:  Unreliable to read the full text of at least four incidents, on the Mercenaries page.

Polyaenus, Stratagems, 4.16, Antiochus Son of Antiochus [Antiochos II (261-246) ]

Antiochus was besieging Cypsela, a Thracian city.  He had with him many Thracian aristocrats, whom Teres and Dromichaetes commanded.  Decorating them with golden chains and silver-studded arms, he led them out to battle.  When they saw men of their own race and language wearing so much gold and silver, the men of Cypsela considered the men of Antiochus' army fortunate, threw down their arms, went over to Antiochus, and became allies instead of enemies.

Polyaenus, Stratagems, 7.43, Thracians

The Thracians fought a battle with the Boetians near Lake Copais.  Defeated and in flight toward Helicon, they made a truce with the Boetians for some days in which, as they planned, they would be reconciled.  The Boetians, taking heart from the victory and putting faith in the truce, began to celebrate and held victory sacrifices to Athena Itonia.  By night the Thracians attacked the unarmed Boetians while they sacrificed and celebrated. They killed many and took many prisoners.  When the Boetians accused the Thracians of breaking the truce, they replied that they in no way violated the truce, for they made an agreement expressly for days and no agreement with them about nights.

Polyaenus, Stratagems, 2.2.8

Clearchus plundered Thrace and killed many Thracians.  They sent ambassadors to ask him to end the war.  Considering peace harmful, he ordered the cooks to cut up two or three Thracian corpses and hang them up.  And if the Thracians should see them and inquire the reason, he told them to say, "Dinner is being prepared for Clearchus."  Shuddering at what they saw, the Thracian ambassadors left, no longer daring to say anything at all about ending hostilities.

Return to the top of the page



Square_KeyE171.gif (2075 bytes)

This page last updated on Monday, 07 January 2002 by Christopher Webber

All pages best viewed with a white backround in Internet Explorer.