In 399 BCE, Prince Seuthes (a future Thracian king) hired around 7,000 experienced Greek mercenaries to further his interests in a region to the northwest of Byzantium. The mercenary company that he employed had just spent the last three years, 401-399 BCE, marauding through Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Armenia and the southern coast of the Black Sea. These spears-for-hire were now starting to weary of war (and thus they expected great pay), but, on the other hand, they were an incredibly experienced and effective army. Xenophon—the philosopher, historian and accomplished mercenary—was at this time the most influential general of the mercenary force, and he wrote down their exploits (including the campaign with Seuthes) in his Anabasis.
According to Xenophon, Seuthes’ goal for hiring the mercenaries was to conquer independent tribes that had once been ruled by his father, Maesades. These tribes included the Melanditae, the Tranipsae and the Thynians, of which the last group was Prince Seuthes’ first target. The Thracian nobleman and his mercenaries began their invasion at midnight, reaching a mountainous region with several villages by noon on the next day. Seuthes immediately attacked the villages, which were unprepared and did not put up much of a fight. According to Xenophon, “about 1,000 captives were herded together, along with 2,000 oxen and 10,000 sheep and goats as well” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 3).
After capturing these villages and enslaving anyone who was not able to flee, Seuthes set fire to the towns and moved closer to the mountains. There were more villages near the forested slopes, but these were virtually deserted, as the inhabitants had reportedly withdrawn to secluded camps on the mountainside, intending to take a guerrilla warfare approach to Seuthes’ invasion. The Thracian prince promised the Thynians on the mountainside (through captives sent as messengers) that no harm would come to them if they returned to their villages and lived peacefully as his subjects. Women, children and elderly did indeed return to the villages, but the Thynian warriors remained on the mountain. Seuthues, in order to starve out these insurgents, sent his mercenary forces to occupy the villages closest to the mountains. When Xenophon and his troops reached the towns, some young warriors were still there and a few were killed, but most of the Thynian fighters were able to flee deeper into the mountains.
With the Thynian warriors quarantined to the mountains, the forces of Seuthes spread out among the villages. The Thracian prince brought his personal troops back down into the plains and camped in the more docile region. Xenophon and the mercenaries, however, remained at the villages closest to the mountains. Around this time, the guerrillas from the mountainside sent representatives to Seuthes to discuss a truce. Other representatives also visited the mercenary camp on a similar mission to broker peace. Yet, these diplomats also served another purpose—they were gathering intelligence on the occupation camps and were at the same time reconnecting with their contacts in the villages. Consequentially, on a night not long after the negotiations began, Thynian warriors silently poured out of the mountains and crept toward the villages, where, as had been planned, they were let into the villages by sympathizers and guided to the homes where the mercenary leaders were staying. When the assailants were in place, they began hurling spears and javelins into the building, while also setting the structures on fire. Xenophon, who awoke to the disembodied voices of the Thynians taunting him by name, described his perspective of the night raid:
“Flames were just beginning to be visible through the roof, and Xenophon and his men were inside, with their breastplates on and equipped with shields, swords, and helmets. Then Silanus of Macistus, who was eighteen years old, blew a blast on his trumpet and they immediately dashed out of the house with their swords drawn. The Greeks in the other houses did the same, and the Thracians [Thynians] ran away, with their shields swung round on their backs, as is their custom. Some of them got their shields snagged on the stakes as they tried to leap over a stockade and were caught hanging there; others were killed because they could not find their way out of the village” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 4).
Thanks to their quick and calm response to the attack, the experienced mercenaries were able to turn the potentially disastrous night raid of the Thynians into a great victory for the Greeks. Curiously, when the sounds of battle erupted, Prince Seuthes rushed over to aid the mercenaries with only a reported seven horsemen and one trumpeter. Yet, after the mercenaries had everything under control, the Thracian prince soon brought his entire force to the mountain villages, and soon after, the guerrillas agreed to become Seuthes’ subjects.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Archers, painted by Bryson Burroughs (1869-1934), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.