In the winter of 429 BCE, King Sitalces of the Odrysian Empire in Thrace launched a campaign against his western neighbors of Macedonia and Chalcidice. At the time, Sitalces was an ally of Athens, and was consequently on the Athenian side of the Peloponnesian War. The Chalcidians, however, had sided with the Peloponnesians, led by Sparta. The kingdom of Macedonia, as usual, was trying to navigate precariously with both sides of the war. King Perdiccas of Macedonia had voiced support for Athens at the beginning of the conflict (on the urging of King Sitalces), but had shown little desire to support the Athenian war effort ever since becoming their ally. In fact, the historian, Thucydides, wrote that Perdiccas lent the Peloponnesians 1,000 Macedonian soldiers for a failed attack on Athenian-aligned Acarnania that occurred earlier in 429 BCE, but his troops arrived too late to be of any help. Therefore, King Sitalces’ winter invasion served as both an attack against an Athenian enemy and a punitive mission against a terrible Athenian ally.
Around the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), the Odrysian Empire in Thrace was considered one the most powerful entities known to the Greek world. Thucydides, an Athenian, even claimed that Sitalces’ kingdom was more wealthy and prosperous than the Athenian Empire. Also, in sheer military might, Thucydides estimated that the Thracians could have only been outmatched by the combined power of the populous Scythian tribes.
King Sitalces summoned a large force from several regions of his empire. Out of his heartland in Thrace, he called up a force of cavalry. From the Getae tribe near Scythia, he recruited mounted archers. Bands of sword-wielding infantrymen poured into his army from the Dii and other tribes near Mount Rhodope. Even more infantry joined the Thracian king from the Agrianian and Paeonian tribes. In the end, Thucydides estimated (with a likely dose of exaggeration) that King Sitalces set out on his winter invasion with around 150,000 men. One-third of the army was made up of cavalry, while the rest consisted of infantry. Even though the Thracian king had mustered a formidable military, the strength of Sitalces’ army was mainly due to sheer numbers—training and discipline were apparently lacking.
King Sitalces gathered his forces at Doberus, and once the troops were in position, he marched his men through mountainous terrain into lower Macedonia. Despite the alleged poor quality of his troops, Sitalces’ army did quite well. They caught the Macedonians off guard, causing Perdiccas to pull his men further back into Macedonia to regroup. In the meantime, he sent small bands of Macedonian cavalry to harass the Thracians, but he even had to call off these raids, because the horsemen were all too often surrounded and defeated by Sitalces’ horde of men. The Thracians were so confident when they saw the Macedonians withdrawing, that they split off a section of their army to march southward against the lands of the Chalcidians and even the Bottiaeans, another Peloponnesian ally. Just as had happened in Macedonia, the Chalcidians and Bottiaeans were forced to retreat further into their territories as the Thracians sacked towns and ravaged the countryside.
After about a month, King Sitalces had occupied and pillaged large swaths of Macedonia, Chalcidice and Bottiaea. Nevertheless, he had overextended himself, and, from the beginning, his military logistics had been lackluster. The king supposedly had 150,000 mouths to feed, and his horses and pack animals, too, required food and water. After a short campaign lasting only thirty days, King Sitalces simply ran out of supplies.
During this invasion, King Perdiccas of Macedonia had been allegedly keeping up a secret correspondence with Sitalces’ son, Seuthes. When the Thracians faced their food shortage after their month of mayhem, Seuthes urgently suggested to his father that the invasion needed to be ended and the soldiers should return home. In an underwhelming end to the Thracian winter invasion of 429, Sitalces agreed to his son’s advice and retreated back to his kingdom after only thirty days of fighting. Sometime later, King Perdiccas of Macedonia arranged for his daughter, Stratonice, to marry Seuthes as a reward for his service and accepted the Thracian as his son-in-law.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (4th-century paintings of Macedonian soldiers from the tomb of Agios Athanasios in Greece, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book II) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.