Thrace II

By Archdruid

This is primarily drawn from an Osprey Military title, 'The Thracians', with a bit of stuff from other sources thrown in where appropriate.

All dates are BC unless otherwise stated.


The Greeks identified with the Thracians to some extent, appreciating their way of life even while they derided them as barbarians. In most ways the Thracians were very much like the early Greeks (around the time of Homer) - mostly tribal, with the beginnings of a more advanced culture. The Thracians had a war cry respected by even the Greeks, who called it the titanismos, a cry to the titans. The Thracians also resembled the Greeks in their tendency towards internal conflict, even to the point that it several times cost them battles and kingdoms.

There were around 40 minor Thracian tribes at any given time, though this number fluctuated and by Roman times there were less than 20.

The Thracians were described by Herodotus as savage warriors who valued plunder above all else. This was reflected in their lifestyle - constant tribal raids and raids on the neighboring Greek and Macedonian, and later Roman, cultures to the south. Thracians were commonly used as high-price mercenaries, and also as slaves - the constant raiding meant a large number of them were captured and sold into slavery. The Thracians were theoretically under Persian dominion during the invasion of Greece, and supposedly supplied a 60,000 strong force. Herodotus estimated there were millions of Thracians, and given the size and value of the area they inhabited, there may well have been over a million spread between the many tribes.

The Thracians stayed in the Persian employ until right after Platea, even while their brethren farther north raided Persian supply convoys. After Platea, the Thracians wounded Mardonius and stole many of the Persian supplies as they withdrew, thus significantly hindering the Persian cause in Greece.

Not long after Persian withdrawal from Thrace, the Odrysai tribe managed to unite all except a few of the other tribes into the first Thracian Kingdom. The rulers of this Kingdom intermarried with the Scythians to the North, and fought them as well. During the Peloponnesian War, the Thracian Kingdom allied with Athens, and 150,000 (again, Herodotus, so not terribly realistic, but there may well have been nearly 100,000 based on the effect on Macedonia) Thracian troops poured into Macedonia, sacking several settlements and forcing many farmers to flee their fields. The Athenians failed to provide naval support, and as such the Thracians were stuck in the north. Had the two been able to combine their forces, Athens would have been nearly unstoppable.

After this fiasco, the various Thracian tribes sold themselves as mercenaries extensively to both sides in the war. Thracians fought mainly as peltasts, and in a manner which proved very effective against even the most hardened hoplites. Eventually the Greeks constructed a wall across the Gallipoli peninsula to make it harder for Thracians to attack the Hellespont.

When Cyrus the Younger rebelled against the Persian Emperor, Thracians joined both sides as mercenaries, and Xenophon records approximately 1000 Thracians accompanying his 'Ten Thousand' on their great march. Upon their arrival back in Thrace, they found that the Thracian Kingdom had split in two, but now one King, the one who had caused the split, now sat on the throne. Many of the remaining hoplites of the 10,000 joined the ousted King, while Athens fought with yet more Thracians who had resumed raiding activities. Once Athens concluded a peace with them, the Athenian general Iphicrates began working in Thrace, assisting the same King as the remaining 10,000. In all, Iphicrates had approximately 8,000 Athenians under him, as well as numerous Thracians.

In 376 Thracians laid siege to the Greek colony of Abdera, who were aided at first by the more local Thracian groups. The Abderites were eventually slaughtered almost to a man after the local groups switched sides due to a large bribe.

In 357 the war between Athens and Thrace finally came to a close. Macedonia was on the rise, and both Thrace and Athens wanted to focus on it rather than each other. The Thracian Kingdom also fractured in this time into at least 4 pieces.

Taking advantage of their confusion, Philip II of Macedon conquered Southwestern Thrace. In 339 Thracians defeated Philip as he returned from a campaign against the Scythians, and the battle with the Thracians was one which Philip himself barely survived.

When Philip II was assassinated and his son Alexander (later the Great) took the Macedonian throne, the Thracians in the southwest rebelled. The Thracian Getai tribe held the bank of the Danube against Alexander with 10,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, but Alexander crossed the river in the night and this unnerved the Getai, who fled on the first cavalry charge. Alexander sacked a nearby town and the Thracian tribes soon came to join his forces. At least 8000 Thracians accompanied Alexander into Asia, and more joined him at almost every step of the way. At Granicus, Thracians formed Alexander's left flank, but were not engaged. At Issus Thracians again formed the left flank along with a squad of Cretan archers, and again at Gaugamela, where savage Thracian infantry and light cavalry managed to hold off superior Persian cavalry forces, but were unable to prevent Indian satrap cavalry from raiding Alexander's baggage train. At Hyspades, the Thracians were again on the left flank, and held their own against Indian Elephants with great success due in part to the Thracians' skirmishing tactics.

While Alexander was in Asia, however, Thrace nearly rebelled under the assistance of Memnon. Antipater came to terms with Memnon, however, and this led Memnon to take 5000 Thracian cavalry and join Alexander in Asia.

Zopyrion, the new governor of Thrace, perished in a campaign against the Scythians between 335 and 331, and was replaced by Lysamichus. Lysamichus consolidated his hold on Thrace by attacking a rebel army led by the son of a former King, and despite heavy losses on both sides, Lysamichus claimed a rather Pyrrhic victory. The Thracian leader, Seuthes III, eventually began to rule parts of Thrace anyways, but this had little effect since Lysamichus still had access to massive numbers of Thracian troops. When the western Pontic cities allied against Lysamichus, he marched out and defeated them, only to encounter an army led by Seuthes III on his return. In yet another savage battle, Lysamichus proved victorious, and founded his capital city, declaring himself King of Thrace. In 301 at Ipsus, Lysamichus allied with Seleucus and Cassander, gaining victory and killing Antigonus I in the process. Antigonus' possessions in Asia Minor were split between Lysamichus and Seleucus. Lysamichus successfully siezed the Macedonian throne in 285/286, but died in battle in 281 against Seleucus.

In 279 the Celts swarmed into Thrace, establishing a Kingdom which lasted until destroyed by Thracians in 214/213. In the meantime the Thracians had hired themselves out as mercenaries en masse, and at Raphia in 217 the right flank Ptolemaic Thracians routed the left flank Seleucid Thracians.

At Cynocephelae in 197, Philip V of Macedon had several thousand Thracians on one flank, which successfully defeated the Romans opposing them. Despite this, Philip's phalanx shattered and he was forced to sign a treaty with Rome.

At Magnesia in 190 the Seleucid King Antiochus III managed to break through the Roman left flank, but his army was halted at the Roman camp by Thracian mercenaries. In the meantime the Roman right and center were victorious, and Anthiochus' army was destroyed.

The Thracians aided Perseus, son of Philip V, against Rome, but after a humiliating defeat at Pydna the Thracian Kings acted only with Roman approval, and used Roman troops to secure themselves. The Thracians proved hard to control as a client state, and threw their lot in with Mithridates (later the Great) of Pontus. When he was defeated in Europe, the Romans plundered much of Thrace in retribution.

Thrace subsequently assisted Rome against Mithridates, and it was a squad of Thracian cavalrymen who guarded Lucullus' flank against Armenian cataphracts while he campaigned in Asia Minor. Thracian mercenaries continued to serve Mithridates, but officially Thrace was on the Roman side.

Thrace remained restless right up until 46 AD, when it was annexed by the Emperor Claudius.

Thracians primarily relied on peltasts and skirmishing to win battles; these light infantry were faster and more mobile than the hoplites they were usually facing, and Thracian light cavalry could make effective charges once the skirmishers had broken the ranks of a phalanx. Thracians' extensive use of throwing spears is often credited with inspiring the creation of the super-heavy hoplites which proved so effective against the Persians, and Thracian peltasts are sometimes regarded as one of the inspirations for the Iphicratean reforms.

Thracian armor usually imitated that of the Greeks, but in lighter form, and they were known for their love of booty, even that salvaged from the battlefield. As such any given Thracian force would consist of irregular troops in varying amounts of armor.

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