The Strongest Nation on Earth: Who Were the Thracians?

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

27 Nov 2019

The Thracians were an Indo-European people who dominated large swathes of land between southern Russia, Serbia and western Turkey for much of antiquity. Archaeological evidence suggests they had lived in the region since at least 1300 BC, boasting close ties with their neighbours.

Rhesus

One of our earliest literary references of the Thracians comes from the Iliad, the epic poem of Homer that describes the latter stages of the Trojan War. King Rhesus, a local Thracian dynast, had arrived on Troy’s shores intending to come to the city’s aid.

In Rhesus’ retinue were some of the most feared horsemen of the period – this Thracian reputation for equine expertise remained among their nobility throughout antiquity.

Rhesus’ hopes to lift the Greek siege of Troy quickly fell through however – his men never saw action. Rather than falling on the battlefield, Rhesus and his soldiers were killed in their sleep; their famous horses were captured by Diomedes and Odysseus, the cunning duo.

The legendary Rhesus became a hero of Thracian folklore – a powerful horse lord famed for his skill at war.

Rhesus, depicted here asleep as Odysseus approaches.

Rhesus, depicted here asleep as Odysseus approaches.

A divided people

Throughout much of antiquity Thrace was not a single kingdom. The land was divided between multiple tribes, each boasting their preferred styles of warfare & each vehemently cherishing their own tribal identity.

United, the Thracians were one of the most populous people in antiquity, second only in size to the Indians.

Herodotus:

If they were under one ruler, or united, they would, in my judgement, be invincible and the strongest nation on earth.

Rarely, however, did these tribes live harmoniously alongside one another. Internal tribal strife was common; rival claimants to a tribe’s chief position often emerged.

Rarely would one clan willingly submit to another. All zealously championed their own, individual tribal identities; internal disputes were regularly settled by the sword or spear. It is no surprise that the Thracian people soon developed a reputation for bringing up bellicose and fearsome warriors.

Thracian peltast.

Depiction of a Thracian peltast.

In 512 BC, much of southern Thrace had come under the rule of Darius I, Great King of Persia. It proved one of the most unstable provinces in the whole of the Persian Empire. Throughout the length of Persian occupation (512-479 BC), bands of Thracians continued to resist their new overlords – using guerrilla tactics to devastating effect.

By the time the Persians abandoned the region following their failed invasion of Greece, the Thracians were sure to pounce. They severely mauled what remained of the Achaemenid army, as it made its way home to Asia.

‘Hearts of Ares’

The Persian retreat sparked a new era for Thrace. The region’s fearsome reputation continued to grow, particularly in the form of the newly-created Odrysian Kingdom, the dominant tribe. Thucydides speaks of huge Odrysian armies forming by the end of the 5th century BC – 150,000 men strong.

Indeed, given the large manpower reserves the Odrysians could count on, it’s very possible this number is not an exaggeration.

The Odrysian Kingdom and other Thracian tribes

The Odrysii inhabited the central Thracian plain and were famed for their light cavalry. Image Credit: MaryroseB54 / Commons.

The dominance of the Odrysian Kingdom, combined with Thrace’s huge manpower reserves, meant that constant concern gripped city-states such as Athens, Corinth and Thebes. They feared a great Thracian invasion – consisting of thousands of tall, well-built warriors – descending on the civilised world and wrecking havoc.

The Thracian warrior’s feared reputation was well-deserved. Described by Euripides as men with ‘Hearts of Ares’, the tribes were particularly renowned for their peltast troops.

These men were swift and lightly-armed, equipped primarily with javelins. But they could also hold their own in melee. To oppose a foe in hand-to-hand combat, these warriors usually either wielded a sword or spear, although some mountainous tribes such as the Bessi preferred to wield the region’s most iconic arm.

That weapon was the rhomphaia, a two-handed curved blade that could be used both to slash and thrust into enemy horse and man alike. It was a terrible weapon; the horrific wounds it could cause sparked dread and fear into any soldier they opposed. And rightly so.

Seeking wealth and plunder, Thracian warbands often offered their services to the armies of Greek city-states, fighting as mercenaries. 5th century BC pottery regularly depicts Thracian warriors, iconic by their fox-skin alopekis hats, their cloaks and their crescent-shaped pelta shields.

As the Greeks considered these warriors ‘barbarians’, they were often employed for unsavoury tasks, such as political murders or policing.

Perhaps the most infamous case of Thracians in combat comes in 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, when a band of Bessi mercenaries in Athenian service sacked the Hellenic city of Mycalessus. All citizens were put to the sword. Men. Women. Children. For the Thracians, plunder was their goal.

GlobalXplorer is the citizen science platform that archaeologist Sarah Parcak built with the 2016 TED Prize, to train a 21st century virtual army to help look for signs of archaeological looting, urban encroachment and sites that haven’t been excavated yet.Listen Now

Hellenisation

Southern Thrace became increasingly ‘Hellenised’ during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Hellenic armies regularly campaigned in the region, taking advantage of internal Thracian disputes. Athens maintained regular contact with the Odrysians; Alexander the Great enlisted subjugated Thracian warriors for his great Persian Campaign.

Nevertheless, the Odrysian tribe experienced a rapid revival in the wake of Alexander’s departure, under King Seuthes III.

Seuthes was determined to portray himself and his prestigious kingdom as equal to the Successors of Alexander. He faced off the powerful Lysimachus in battle; he created the ‘Thracian Alexandria’, constructing a new capital along Hellenistic lines and naming it Seuthopolis, after himself. It became a thriving city for a short period.

Bronze head of King Seuthes III.

The bronze head of a Seuthes III statue, uncovered from Seuthopolis. Image Credit: Ann Wuyts / Commons.

To the north, however, a Scythian influence prevailed. Thracian tribes such as the Getae became more and more aligned with their northern Scythian neighbours. They became renowned for their cavalry, particularly their mounted archers. Archaeology has only confirmed this notable Scythian influence.

Enter Rome

Thracian units fought for King Perseus of Macedon against the Romans at the Battle of Pydna. It was a band of Thracians that played a key role in the commencement of the fighting, impressing their Roman counterparts with their tall, strong physiques.

It was not long before much of Thrace came under Roman control, though their reputation as fearsome fighters continued. The legendary Spartacus, one of Rome’s greatest rivals, was a Thracian.

Just as the Greeks had done before them, the Romans noticed the Thracians’ skill at warfare and employed many units to serve as auxiliaries in their armies.

From Syria to the Antonine Wall in Britain, cohorts of Thracian auxiliaries found themselves posted in far-flung regions of the empire, tasked with the unsavoury job of protecting Rome’s borders from the barbarians beyond.

Funerary inscription for Nectovelius, highlighting his service as part of the Second Thracian cohort on the Antonine Wall.

Featured Image Credit: A find from the Letnitsa treasure. Ivorrusev / Commons.