Thrace: an ancient geographical area today split between Bulgaria, Romania and northwest Turkey. Divided among various tribes, the peoples of Thrace were numerous and diverse but shared a reputation as some of the most feared warriors in the Classical world.
Some tribes championed their skill as hardened, highland swordsmen; others inhabited great plains and mastered the art of mounted mobile skirmishing. Their large numbers and their ‘hearts of Ares’ ensured that the fear of unstoppable hordes of giant terrifying Thracians descending on the Aegean like a swarm of locusts, and wreaking unimaginable havoc on the heartlands of Hellenism, forever lingered in Classical Greece.
Divide and conquer
By 330 BC that threat had never materialised. Internal strife between various petty warlords ensured that Thracian unity was rare and far-between. United, Thrace was one of the most powerful forces in antiquity. But divided, Thracian internal strife could be exploited by ambitious, more-united foreign powers.
First came the Persians, who were able to gain supremacy over a significant swathe of southern Thrace between 512 and 479 BC. Then, in the 340s BC, King Philip II of Macedon exploited Thracian division to annex territory for his own growing kingdom. By the time of his death in 336 BC, Macedonian influence in Thrace stretched as far north as the Haemus Mountains.
Nevertheless a deep Thracian desire for independence remained. The province remained troublesome and, throughout the 330s BC, Macedonian kings (first Philip II and then his son Alexander the Great) and governors regularly had to intervene to maintain the peace within this northern province.
This, however, did not stop one ambitious governor looking beyond peacekeeping. Rather than consolidate, this figure would use his control over Thrace as a springboard for one of the boldest attempts of conquest in antiquity.
In 330 BC Antipater, Alexander’s viceroy in Europe, had appointed a new commander to serve as occupied Thrace’s new strategos – the region’s chief military authority. His name was Zopyrion, presumably one of Antipater’s senior subordinates. Keeping the peace was Zopyrion’s main responsibility – if need be with an iron fist.
But merely maintaining order did not satisfy this ambitious general. As news filtered back to the west of the countless victories and great glory gained by Alexander and his comrades in Asia, Zopyrion craved similar success. Pushing aside his peacekeeping duties in favour of conquest he amassed a significant army – 30,000 men.
Mercenary Thracian warriors must have formed the mainstay of this force, supplemented by a small nucleus of Macedonians and Hellenic hoplites of varied experience. A fleet was also constructed to accompany the expedition, built from the bustling shipyards of the Greek trading cities that dotted the Black Sea’s western coastline.
Once his troops were mobilised and his supply fleet ready, Zopyrion commenced his offensive. The general marched his expedition north, across the Danube River and far beyond the empire’s borders. They never returned.
The Getae Disaster
Zopyrion’s first target was Olbia, a rich Hellenic colony situated at the mouth of the Hypanis River. The expedition reached Olbia without any major issue and they proceeded to besiege the wealthy city.
But resistance proved tougher than expected. The Olbians enacted extreme measures to bolster their defences, increasing their available manpower by freeing slaves and granting rights of citizenship to foreigners. They were determined to hold out.
Zopyrion and his force settled in for a protracted siege. But then, as they struggled to contend with the defiant Olbian resistance, disaster struck. A great storm destroyed Zopyrion’s fleet – their vital supply lifeline.
Isolated and unable to continue the siege the general attempted to march his men homeward to the borders of Thrace, hugging the coastline as best they could. It did not save them. Passing through hostile ‘Getae’ territory:
He (Zopyrion) was wiped out with all his forces and paid the price for an impulsive attack on an unoffending people.
It was a catastrophic military disaster. A combination of poor weather and stubborn resistance had quickly doomed the expedition. His force annihilated – Zopyrion lay among the dead.
Thrace in turmoil
For the fledgling Macedonian Empire this annihilation north of the Danube was disastrous – the Teutoburg Forest equivalent of the Hellenistic Period. Casualties were terrible, but what was even worse in the long term were the repercussions Zopyrion’s demise had for Thrace.
Macedonian control over the region became threadbare. Zopyrion had emptied much of the region of its garrison for his expedition. As news started to spread of the force’s complete destruction north of the Danube it did not take long before powerful figures, seeking to free themselves from the Macedonian yoke, sensed opportunity.
One powerful Thracian dynast exploited Zopyrion’s demise more than any other. His name was Seuthes, the third Odrysian king of his name. Seeking to restore his kingdom to prominence, Seuthes declared his territory independent from Macedonian rule and began mustering a powerful force.
Over the next few years Seuthes would consolidate his homelands in the Tundza Valley – today ‘The Valley of the Roses’. Ultimately his challenge against Macedonian hegemony would outlast Alexander the Great, culminating in a series of clashes with the reckless Successor general Lysimachus.
All these troublesome events followed in the aftermath of Zopyrion’s dismal failure. His catastrophic expedition paved the way for weakened Macedonian control over Thrace. Never again would a Macedonian army march so far north beyond the Danube. The ‘Getae Forest’ disaster had left its mark.
Find out more in Alexander’s Successors at War: The Perdiccas Years 323 – 320 BC.