Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Thracians

This is the final entry in the "Peoples of the empire" series.

Geographical definition
Thrace (Gk. Thrāikē, probably O.P. Skudra) was located in the eastern Balkans, covering most of southern Bulgaria from the Black Sea coast inward, the northeastern corner of modern Greece and European Turkey (that part of the country north of the Sea of Marmara and its strait).  Thracians were also to be found in Macedonia and other parts of the Balkans, Anatolia and as far east as western Scythia.

According to Leo Klejn, the Thracians originated with the multi-cordoned ware culture at the turn of the second millennium BC, which was pushed west from its native Ukraine by the expanding timber grave culture (widely believed to be proto-Scythian).

Settling west of the Black Sea, the Thracians remained divided into several tribes in Herodotus' day.  Like the Celts in western Europe, they lived mostly in small fortified villages.  Towns such as Byzantium were mainly the domain of Greek colonists in the Archaic period.  The Thracians did, however, become very widespread; Herodotus thought them the largest nation in the world second to the Indians, but weak because of their disunity.

In or about 513, Darius the Great sent his general Megabazus to conquer Thrace.  What happened on the expedition is not described in detail, but Herodotus says that Megabazus passed from place to place and conquered each tribe in turn.

The Persian hold over the area appears to have been weak.  In 492, during his punitive expedition against the Greeks following the Ionian Revolt, Mardonius was attacked by Bryges (a tribe of Thrace thought to be related to the Phrygians) while camped in Macedon.

Thracians called Bithynians, who dwelt just on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus, marched as infantry in Xerxes' invasion of Greece under Bassaces son of Artabanus.  These were part of the satrapy of Phrygia.  Some of them were retained by Mardonius for his reduced force, and may have fought at Plataea.

Herodotus reports that Thracians north of Greece carried off the sacred chariot Xerxes had left in the city of Siris when he was marching forth.  The king of the Bisaltae tribe refused to ally himself with the great king, and when his six sons followed the Persians regardless and then came home, their father had them blinded.  Some of Mardonius' men who survived Plataea were also killed by European Thracians as Artabazus led them toward Byzantium.

Herodotus described the Thracians as having similar customs, "save the Getae, the Trausi, and those who dwell above the Crestonaeans."  The Getae (he says) believed that they did not die, but were called as messengers to their god Salmoxis or Gebeleïzis.  Every five years, a man would be chosen by lot to be killed as a messenger; he would be given whatever prayers the Getae wished to convey, then thrown into the air over three lances.  If he did not die, they judged him an unfit messenger and chose again.

The Trausi believed that to live was to suffer, and lamented births like other peoples lamented deaths (which honestly makes me think of a kind of evil eye superstition), but when a person died, the funeral celebrated their release from suffering.  "Those who dwell above the Crestonaeans" were polygynists whose widows competed for the honor of being the one to be slain and buried with her husband.

Other Thracian tribes, the historian reports, would make lamentation and sacrifice at funerals, then cremate the dead or bury them in mounds, holding funeral games afterward.  They sold their children; husbands bought wives for a bride price and strictly coveted them, but unmarried women's chastity was not considered important.  Tattooing was an honor restricted to nobles, and warriors were held in the highest regard, farmers in the lowest.

Teres I (r. 460-445) and his son Sitalces (r. 431-424), of the Odrysae, united the tribes of the European Thracians in the mid-fifth century.  Although this union was unstable and the Odrysian rulers' political power far from absolute, they were regarded by foreigners as the kings of Thrace.  In 429, Sitalces allied with Athens and invaded Macedon, though had to retreat late in the year because of logistical problems.  This was the beginning of a complex political and military interplay between Thrace, Athens and Macedon lasting into the reign of Philip II.

The Odrysian kings adopted much Greek culture, including clothing and weapons, and used the Greek language for administration.  The kingdom reached its zenith in the first few decades; at the turn of the fourth century it broke into eastern, central and western dominions.  During the revolt of Ariobarzanes in or around 366, Cotys I took the opportunity to invade the Thracian Chersonese (modern Gallipoli), which was then held by Athens.  Cotys conquered the peninsula by 359, and concluded an alliance with Philip II of Macedon, but was murdered the following year by two students of Plato.  In 357 the Athenians retook the Chersonese.

Cotys' kingdom was divided between his son Cersobleptes in the east and two other princes, Berisades in the west and Amadocus II in central Thrace; these may have also been sons of Cotys.  Cersobleptes' Greek mercenary Charidemus was able to negotiate some kind of concession from Athens (the nature of which is uncertain but seems to have related to the Chersonese) which resulted in the breaking of Thrace's alliance with Macedon.

In 352, Berisades died and was succeeded by his son Cetriporis.  Cersobleptes tried to disinherit him, but the Thracians also had to deal with Macedonian incursions that year, when Philip took a son of Cersobleptes hostage.  In 347 Philip forced all the Thracian kings to acknowledge Macedonian suzerainty.  The next year, Philip seems to have returned to fight Cersobleptes, who nonetheless resumed attacks on Greek cities on the Hellespont afterward.  Philip invaded Thrace yet again in 343 to bring Cersobleptes to terms.  In the late 340s, Philip finally managed to reduce European Thrace to a tributary of Macedon.

Upon Philip's assassination in 336, the Triballi tribe allied with the Illyrians and rebelled against the Macedonians, at the same time as many other subjects.  Alexander fought and defeated the Triballi in the Balkan Mountains the next year, then crossed the Danube and skirmished with the Getae.  Thereafter the other Thracian tribes submitted to Alexander.

The Bithynians, meanwhile, seem to have set themselves up as an independent state under King Bas (r. 376-326) late in the Achaemenid period.  After the Granicus and Alexander's appointment of his general Calas as satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Calas tried to conquer Bithynia but failed.

Thracians presumably of Europe took part in Alexander's expedition into Asia, fighting as cavalry at Gaugamela in 331.  That year, Seuthes III became king of Thrace.  Following the death of Zopyrion, Seuthes declared independence in 325.  His rebellion was put down by Antipater, but he rebelled again in 323 after Thrace was given to Lysimachus in the Partition of Babylon.  In 320, he founded the new capital Seuthopolis (modern Kazanluk in central Bulgaria).  When Lysimachus came into conflict with Antigonus during the Wars of the Diadochi, Seuthes allied himself with Antigonus, but was again defeated in 313.  The Odrysian kingship continued thereafter under the suzerainty various Hellenistic kingdoms and then under the Romans until the death of Rhoemetalces III in AD 46.  As Rhoemetalces apparently had no heirs, Thrace was thereafter made a Roman province.  As such, the region became culturally Romanized; the Thracian language is believed to have become extinct by the fifth century AD.

Bithynia remained independent during the Hellenistic period, and Bas' grandson Nicomedes founded its new capital at Nicomedia, where it would last until the Pontians drove Nicomedes IV out in 90 BC.  He was restored to his throne by the Romans six years later and Bithynia became effectively a Roman client state, which Nicomedes officially bequeathed to Rome on his death in 74.  All the royals of Bithynia toward the end have Greek names and it seems likely that Bithynia became linguistically Hellenized during this time.

Too little of Thracian from the Classical period and earlier has been preserved to hope to speak it with any fluency.  The surviving corpus consists of some names, a handful of words from Greek texts, and only four, very short inscriptions.  It was clearly Indo-European but its classification is not certain.  It's usually placed along with Dacian (which some linguists regard as a branch of Thracian) in the Daco-Thracian branch.  Daco-Thracian may be part of a larger Thraco-Illyrian branch, or Thracian and Illyrian may form a Sprachbund.

Thracians were polytheists.  Among their chief gods was Sabazios, apparently the same deity worshipped by the Phrygians.  The artistic representation of Sabazios and similar-looking gods is called the "Thracian horseman," and seems to have been adopted in later centuries to represent Saint George.  The war goddess Cotys was widely celebrated at the Cotyttia festival, which involved going into the hills at night and getting drunk.  A cult of Cotys existed in Athens, where she was identified with Persephone.  Other recorded Thracian deities included Zibelthiurdos, whom the Greeks also identified with Zeus due to his association with lightning, and Bendis, a huntress identified with Artemis.  The Greek deities Semele and Dionysus may also have had Thracian roots.

The Getae worshipped a god called Salmoxis or Zalmoxis, whom Herodotus says was a deified human who had taught that humans do not die, but pass to a land of eternal happiness.  He also claims that the Getae believed in no god other than Salmoxis.  These statements have been the subject of much interest among researchers who have interpreted it to mean that Getae were monotheists and "proto-Christians" whose native beliefs facilitated a transition to Christianity.

Thracians wore belted, sleeveless or short-sleeved tunics, cloaks, laced boots and pointed tiaras.  The bold embroidery of Thracian cloaks (which in some illustrations appear kidney-shaped rather than square) is well-illustrated in Greek pottery.  According to Herodotus, their boots were deerskin and their hats were fox skin, though I would consider felt acceptable for the latter.

The boots were of a surprisingly modern laced design and could come up to the mid-calf, with downturned, dagged tops.  I've seen some reenactors use Minnetonka knee-high boots.  In times past these had the same crepe sole as the little ankle-high's I bought in 2011, but their website now seems to show them with a different design that hopefully will prove more durable.  They're also stitched up on the sides and seem less likely to admit sand, though this comes at the expense of a moc-style toe which is not correct for Thracian impressions.  Also they're made of the same suede as the ankle boots, which will pick up dust quickly if you use them on the beach.  Nonetheless, these are probably the best non-custom option out there.

The "Skudra" at Naqš-e Rostam wears a Scythian coat.  I can think of a number of explanations for this, but I think artwork has been consistent enough elsewhere that it's best to stick to simple tunics.

The best-known Thracian weapon is the javelin, which seems to have used a spearhead of size and shape comparable to a thrusting spear, but on a shorter, thinner shaft.  Some also had longer spears, so reenacting as a Thracian doesn't limit you to a missile troop role.

Thracians used a distinctive short sword or large knife similar to a smaller version of a falcata.  In Hellenistic times it came to be known as a sica, and later Roman "Thraex" gladiators were armed with a weapon based on it which resembled a crooked gladius.  According to Xenophon, Thynians (apparently cousins of the Bithynians) carried clubs, which he claimed were intended to knock the heads off spears. 

The famous Thracian shield was the pelta, which was made in both round and crescent shapes, the latter of which was apparently very similar to the crescent shields of West and Central Asia.  Conventional wisdom nowadays is that they were made of sticks woven vertically through a sheet of leather or rawhide, like the Persian rectangular shields and smaller Scythian ones, but militating against this is the fact that in Greek art they are frequently shown with designs on the front which would work best if the front were a smooth, solid surface.  I have seen a few people put forth that wood plank construction would have been common in heavily forested areas like Thrace, while the stick-and-hide construction would more likely prevail in the grassy steppes (ex.:  the Pazyryk finds and Solokha comb) even if the shape were the same.

Several grip systems for the pelta are shown in Greek art:  Most commonly, a handgrip near the rim was combined with some kind of central arm grip, either similar in shape to a porpax or simply a pair of crossed bands.  There are other instances where two non-crossed central bands are used as the grips, pinched together in one hand, like the grips of a sipar or dhal.  In a few cases it appears that a single central grip was used, but this system gives less stability than the double grips.

The famous Thracian infantry called peltasts carried the pelta shield and a spear or several javelins.  Peltasts were versatile; their javelineers were missile troops, but due to their shields, both spear- and javelin-armed peltasts had an advantage in melee over missile troops who had no shields, while still being more mobile than hoplites in phalanx.

Osprey writer Christopher Webber claims that Thracians in the fourth century started wearing helmets.  They were apparently of the Phrygian type, with attached cheek guards giving them a fleeting resemblance to a Chalcidian helmet, but also having a tall curled peak similar to Thracian and Phrygian tiaras.

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