The Warriors of Thrace

The Warriors of Thrace


Simon Anglim MA PhD MRUSI

The Bulgarian Cultural Institute London extends its gratitude to the author for writing this piece especially for our website.

The Romans said of the tribes of Thrace – modern south-eastern Bulgaria and neighbouring areas of Greece and Turkey – that if they ever stopped fighting among themselves, they would conquer the world. Thracian warriors were certainly different from what the Greeks or Romans were used to. Ancient Greek and Roman armies centred on disciplined armoured infantry trained for close combat – Greek hoplites of the sort romanticised in the film 300, or Roman legionaries. Thracians, though, had an individualist culture, and the hilly, heavily forested areas over which the Thracian tribes fought produced warfare based on raids and ambushes, making the Thracian peltast the most renowned light infantry soldier in the Classical world.

The peltast was named for his shield. The pelta was crescent-shaped, made of wicker covered with goat or sheepskin and carried by a central handgrip. Contemporary illustrations of Thracian peltasts show them wearing fox skin caps and simple tunics, or stripped for speed, and carrying pelta and javelins. Most also carried the traditional Balkan weapon, the rhomphaia or falx, a one or two-handed scythe with a curved iron blade, 120 cm long, which could behead a man, hamstring a horse or smash right through armour with a single blow. When, in the second century AD, the Romans fought the Dacians, the ancestors of today’s Romanians, they had to deploy special units of legionaries with extra-heavy armour to face them.

Thracian tactics emphasised speed and evasiveness, contrasting with the shock action of hoplites or legionaries:
They came running down from the hills on all sides, hurling their javelins, falling back whenever the Athenian army advanced, and came on again as soon as it retired. So for some time the fighting went on this way, with alternate advances and retreats, in both of which the Athenians had the worse of it…the soldiers had become tired out with having to make constantly the same wearisome manoeuvres….The main body….rushed into the forest, where there were no paths by which they could escape and which was set on fire by the enemy so that it burned all around them…
(Thucydides III.98)

The Athenian commander in this action, Demosthenes, learned his lesson. Sent to destroy a Spartan force on the island of Pylos in 425 BC, he engaged 800 mercenary Thracian peltasts to support his hoplites. His experience against them taught Demosthenes how best to use them:

[They] occupied the highest points of ground, with the object of causing the enemy the greatest possible embarrassment; for he would be surrounded on all sides and have no single point against which to counter-attack; instead he would always be exposed to great numbers in every direction, and if he attacked those in front he would be shot at from the rear, if he attacked those on one flank, he would be shot at by those on the other. Wherever he went he would have enemies behind him, lightly armed and the hardest of all to deal with, since with their arrows, javelins, stones and slings they were effective at long range and it was impossible to come to close quarters with them; for…they had the advantage in speed…
(Thucydides IV.32)

From the Fourth Century BC onwards, peltasts became an integral part of Greek armies, and Thracians formed part of the army which Alexander took into Asia, where, at the Battle of the Jhelum in 326 BC they faced the most awesome weapon on the whole battlefield – Indian war elephants. The elephants came second best:

Alexander sent…the Thracian light-armed against the elephants, for they were better at skirmishing than fighting at close-quarters. They released a thick barrage of missiles on both elephants and drivers…
(Curtius VIII.14.24-25)

The javelin barrage soon told, a number of elephants going berserk and charging about aimlessly. The Thracians alternately chased and fled from the elephants, using typical skirmish tactics, sometimes closing to attack an elephant at close quarters when it became isolated from the rest, using falxes to hack off the elephant’s feet.

No wonder the Spartans said that other Greeks were as afraid of peltasts as children were of the bogey man.

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