Thucydides on Sitalkes, King of the Odrysians

A Map showing Thrace and the Odrysian Kingdom in the regional context of the Aegean and the Balkans.

This short article is about part of the commentary of Thucydides about the Kingdom of the Odrysians and the its king Sitalkes. 

From what we know about Sitalkes reign, he engaged in a great military campaign against the Kingdom of Macedon in 429 BCE. According to Thucydides, the combined strength of this force was over 150,000 men (2.98), of course the numbers in ancient armies are always a controversial topic, and this figure should be considered with a pinch of salt. But I am here to argue about how the Odrysians managed to control there kingdom, and a large army is an important in how they did so, since a large host is a prestige item as it represents the lands you have under control. The passage which describes how Sitalkes’ mustered his forces reveals a lot about how the Odrysian Kingdom worked, and for that reason I am going to quote it almost in its entirety:

“he [Sticalkes] called up the Thracian tribes which were subject to him in the area between Mounts Haemus and Rhodepe down to the sea; next the Getae on the other side of the Haemus and the other Tribes which live south of the Danube and more in the direction of the Euxine Sea

“He also summoned a number of independent Thracian Hill tribes…some followed him as mercenaries, and some came as volunteers” (Thucydides, 2.96.)

What this reveals are the intrinsic links between the various Thracian tribes and the physical geography of the land. It seems that there were varying degrees of control over different tribes, this patchwork effect meant that the kingdom needed certain events to unify around, warfare provided an opportunity to remind the kingdom’s constituent parts about the strength of the Odrysians. This is particularly important in a society with little bureaucracy, as control did not rest with the state, but with the king (Sobotkova 2013, pp.140. n.57).

It also shows the fluid nature of control in this period, since the Hill Tribes were independent of him, but joined his army in two ways, as mercenaries and as volunteers. The rise of a coordinated military campaign created a figure that that the Hill Tribes could follow, either as a mercenary fighting for coin or a volunteer fighting for booty. What this demonstrates is Odrysian control can flow into areas where it has been blocked by geography (in this case presumably by the hills) and make them loyal towards the king. I hypothesise that these ‘independent hill tribes’ were considered a part of Sitalkes realm, even though nominally independent, I think it is likely that there was a pre-existing relationship, but that this relationship was a simple one of gift-exchange, rather than a full blown alliance/dominion.

The final element of control, economic clout, helps us to understand the relationships between the Odrysian Kingdom and the Greeks. This history of connectivity between the two cultures goes as far back as the earliest colonies, and that trade networks existed overland (northwards) and along the coasts (Theodossiev 2014, pp.158; Popov 2015, pp.115). The Persian expansion and then retreat across Thrace, opened up Thrace for the Odrysians, by creating a situation which required a transition towards centralisation (Zahrnt 2015, pp.42; Popov 2015, pp.42; Vassileva 2015, pp.325), which took advantage of the connections that the neighbouring Persian empire offered. The unique cultural and physical geography of Thrace allowed the Odrysian Kingdom to become seen as an economic superpower, Thucydides says that under the King Seuthes I, the tribute from his subjects numbered at around 400 talents of silver and gold (2.97.3).

Sitalkes was able to take advantage of these pre-existing networks and expand them to the benefit of his kingdom. He was seen as a road builder (Archibald 1998, pp.112; Thucydides, 2.97.2; 2.98.1) and this benefitted both his military control and his economic clout. The roads allowed armies to march easier and were a statement of the power of the king. Economically, Archibald goes as far to say that these arterial roads and control of them was “probably key to the political and financial success” (1998, pp.111), due to their importance in maintaining relationships with the kingdom’s subjects and for providing the kingdom with a way to share its natural resources. The Greek trading emporion of Pistiros was founded late in the reign of Seuthes, which shows that even though his reign saw a raise in tribute costs the Greeks were willing to expand trade relations with the Odrysian Kingdom. Pistiros was founded on a favourable piece of land located by the River Hebros and on the point two roads cross, in a prime position to exploit the raw materials from the mountains, create an agricultural community and to utilise the roads and river for trade (Gotzev 2019, pp.97-98). This emporia likely made up a huge source of the wealth from tribute that the Odrysian Kings received, becoming a major source of control in dealing with the Greeks, but due to the fact all benefitted, the system remained strong well up until the late 4th century.


Archibald, Z. 1998. The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace: Orpheus Unmasked. Oxford: Claredon Press.

Gotzev, A. “Pistiros: A Thracian Emporion in Its Cultural and Natural Environment.” In Greek Colonization in Local Contexts: Case Studies in Colonial Interactions, edited by Lucas Jason, Murray Carrie Ann, and Owen Sara, by Millett Martin, 95-102. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019.

Popov, H. 2015. ‘Settlements’ in A Companion to Ancient Thrace. Ed. Valeva, J. Nankov, E. Graninger, D. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Sobotkova, A. 2013. Resisting Rule in Ancient Thrace. Exploring the Hospitable Sea, Proceedings of the International Workshop on the Black Sea in Antiquity Held in Thessaloniki, 21–23 September 2012.

Theodossiev, N. 2014. ‘Ancient Thrace Between the East and the West’ in Fingerprinting the Iron Age: Approaches to Identity in the European Iron Age. Intregrating South-Eastern Europe into the Debate. ed. Nicolae, C. & Stoddart, S. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Vassileva, M. 2015. ‘Persia’ In A Companion to Ancient Thrace. Ed. Valeva, J. Nankov, E. Graninger, D. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Zahrnt, M. 2015. ‘Early History of Thrace to the Murder of Kotys I (360 BCE)’ in A Companion to Ancient Thrace. Ed. Valeva, J. Nankov, E. Graninger, D. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

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