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Thrace

Updated on January 3, 2017

The Thracians, who spoke an Indo-European language, originally extended as far west as the Adriatic Sea, but they lost their lands west of the Axius (Vardar) River to the Illyrians before 1100 B.C. Beginning about 700 B.C. the Greeks began to colonize the coast of Thrace.

The ancient Greeks considered the Thracians not only barbarians, but even slightly ludicrous. The Thracians, like the Macedonians, consciously imitated their Greek neighbors, but with little success, and seem to have possessed almost no cultural refinements. The military prowess of the Thracians, however, was widely respected.

The Persians invaded Thrace in 512 B.C. and occupied the area for the next three decades. When their forces withdrew, the southern Thra-cian tribes were organized into the Odrysian kingdom, perhaps by Teres I. The vigorous and enterprising Sitalces, son of Teres, figures prominently in the history of the later 5th century. He extended the power of Thracian arms in 429 into the southern Macedonian plain and the valley of the Axius River. The independent states in the mountains of northern Thrace served in his army. Sitalces was killed in battle against the Triballi in 424 and was succeeded by his nephew Seuthes I, who increased the general prosperity and military strength of the kingdom so that it became the most powerful empire between the Adriatic and Black seas.

During this period the Thracian kings levied taxes on the cities in Thrace that had been settled by Greeks. Among the more important of these cities were Ainos (Aenus), Maroneia, and Abdera, home of the philosopher Democritus. The Greeks, especially those from the island of Thasos, mined the gold and silver of Mt. Pan-gaeus.

The Odrysian kingdom began to decline in power at the end of the 5th century B.C. under King Amatokos, and by 359 it seems to have been divided into three separate monarchies. The western kingdom was conquered by Philip II of Macedonia in 356, and by 342 all of southern Thrace was under Macedonia.

Thracian peltasts (light-armed warriors) served with distinction in the army of Alexander the Great and that of his successor in Thrace, Lysimachus, and often formed mercenary contingents in the Hellenistic period.

After a brief period of independence, Thrace was subjected to a series of invasions by Roman armies in the 1st century B.C. In 46 A.D., Emperor Claudius annexed northern Thrace to the province of Moesia and organized central and southern Thrace into a separate province.

Peninsular Thrace

The Thracian Chersonese, or Gallipoli Peninsula, in Turkey, which forms the European side of the Dardanelles strait (the ancient Hellespont), has a history somewhat distinct from that of Thrace generally. The great flow of traffic through the Hellespont encouraged settlement mainly on the side of the peninsula that faces the straits, and the closeness of some points to the Asian coast made the region still more important strategically. The chief ferry points were at the Greek towns of Sestos, opposite Abydos in Asia near the west end of the straits, and Kallipolis (modern Gallipoli), facing Lampsacus (modern Lapseki) near the entrance to the Sea of Marmara.

A Thracian tribe called the Dolonkoi inhabited the peninsula in the mid-6th century B.C., and they invited the Athenian Miltiades I to aid them in a war against the Apsinthian Thracians of the plain near Ainos. Miltiades arrived with colonists, founded or refounded several towns at both extremities of the peninsula, and established personal control over both ends of the straits. Miltiades II, nephew of the founder, fled the region in 510 before the threat of a Scythian invasion but returned in 496, again at the invitation of the Thracians. Aegospotami, the site of the great Spartan victory over the Athenian fleet in 405 B.C., was located on the coast between Kallipolis and Sestos.

Athenian dominance in the peninsula was reasserted in the mid-4th century when new groups of colonists were sent there. The wealth of the region, which seems never to have been exceptional, must have come primarily from taxation on traffic and transcontinental transport, and from piloting through the Hellespont.

Thrace From the Byzantine Period to the Present

With the division of the Roman Empire into east and west, Thrace became part of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, although northern Thrace came under Bulgarian control in the 7th century. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, all Thrace was subject to the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, historic Thrace was divided among three successor states, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. After 1885, "Thrace" was applicable politically only to southern Thrace, divided into Western and Eastern Thrace by the Maritsa River. Turkey controlled Western as well as Eastern Thrace until the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). The present-day boundaries were fixed after several shifts in 1923.

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