Odrysian Kingdom: a diamond in the rough in the ancient world

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I sometimes come across a diamond in the rough. This unique story that is hidden or shadowed by other more important Balkan stories. The ancient kingdom of Odrysia is interesting and certainly a rough diamond, from the region of ancient Thrace and spanning around two hundred years, starting in the fifth century BC. Their territory covered the coast all along the Black Sea until it meets the Danube and along the Western River until it meets the Strymon River to the edge of the Aegean Sea. Note that the immediate land on the Aegean belonged to the Greek powers. Thucydides, the great writer, himself owned land near Abdera which faces the island of Samothraki, not far from the border with ancient Macedonia.

And true to form, I traveled through what would have been called Odrysia. Let me tell you a bit more about what I discovered on my travels.

The Odrysians were not hard-core Greeks, far from it and few people would claim that, certainly not in Bulgaria. Although many, including the royal family, eventually became Hellenized; at various stages parts of Odrysia were of course conquered by the Hellenes, while many Greek colonies appeared in their territory. Consequently, they made an appearance in the book, From Pyrrhus to Cyprus Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom. They were also reputed allies of Athens during the Peloponnesian War with no significant contribution that attracts the attention of historians.

Unlike the Illyrian tribes who constantly harassed Epiros and were more difficult to Hellenize, Thracian peoples such as the Odrysians apparently absorbed the Greek language and many Hellenic customs more easily when they came into constant contact with the Greeks. In fact, historians are able to piece together the history of Odrysia via coins and Greek writings. Unlike the Greeks, the Odrysians tended to gravitate towards inland entities rather than the coast and ocean and many wore trousers.

Billy Cotsis in Bulgaria. Photo: Supplied

The dozens of Greek colonies established by the Hellenes along the Black Sea, including Odessos and Messembria, helped spread Hellenism and trade. Recently I was in Messembria in Bulgaria and had the pleasure of spending a day in Nessebar where you can still see old pillars and ruins from that time. The city of Odrysia is now known as Edirne in Turkey and was the first European capital of the Ottoman Empire, in 1363.

Beginning as a union of tribes, the kingdom emerged in the fifth century around the city of Odrysia, the largest Thracian city. They grew in strength and developed following the failed Persian invasion of Greece in 480/79 BC. Their first king according to Thucydides was Teres I between 460 and 445 BC and he united 40 Thracian tribes.

Philip II conquered the kingdom in 341 BC. J.-C. and establishes in particular Philippopolis, today the impressive city of Plovdiv close to the geographical heart of Bulgaria. While the kingdom fell under Macedon, there were co-rulers from Thrace, notably Seuthes III who created the Hellenic city of Seuthopolis in 320 BC. The city used Greek architects and engineers to reflect a Hellenic polis. Seuthopolis was one of the most impressive and wealthy cities of the time and became its capital. The ruins of the city were discovered in 1948 by Bulgarian archaeologists in the province of Stara Zagora. The city palace was a sanctuary for the gods of Samothrace and the city was home to Thracians and Greeks. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed by the Celts in 281, at which time the Odrysian kingdom fragmented into several parts and under different spheres of influence.

Lysimachus, who was a trusted general under Alexander, took the kingdom around the turn of the century although he focused more on fighting his fellow Diadochi (Alexander’s generals). By 280, Lysimachus had been defeated in battle and his reign was taken by Pergamon of Asia Minor.

Until the arrival of the Romans in 146, Odrysian rulers coexisted with an overall Hellenic king from Pergamon or Macedon. The historians Polybius and Livy tell us that Cotys IV was possibly the last recognized Odrysian king and fought in the war against the Romans under King Philip V of Macedon. It is possible that Odrysia survived into the next century as a vassal state of Rome, although there is insufficient evidence to quantify at what level they were a state.

Thucydides had written in accounts of the Peloponnesian War how he believed that people on the fringes of the civilized Greek world were barbarians. It is fair to say that by the 3rd century BC the coastal Odrysians (especially) were an integral part of the Hellenic world, with their elites adopting Greek customs, administration carried out in Greek, widespread use of the Greek alphabet . A diamond in the rough of what had been considered barbaric lands in ancient times, Odrysian’s kingdom is certainly worth exploring.

*Billy Cotsis writes the story, including the new title, The Aegean Seven Take Back The Stolen Marbles.

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