Egypt and Thrace

Thracian Onomastics in Egypt

From the article: V. Atanassova, Thrace and Egypt in the Hellenistic Period (in Bulgarian). – В: Николов, В., Тракийската древност: технологични и генетични изследвания, история и нематериално наследство. София, 2017, 179–184.

     In recent years, researches in Thracology has shown that Thracians repeatedly reached Ancient Egypt and some of them even settled there permanently, creating their own settlements. One of the first migrations of this type was probably during the actions of the so-called “Sea people”, mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts from the reign of Merenptah and Ramses III in the late 13 – early 12 century BC. Then, due to unclear factors, different types of ethnic groups, among which, without any doubt, Thracians, crossed in a north-south direction the Mediterranean Sea. The relief of Ramses III in Medinet Habu shows that these tribes came with their household and families, which means that they arrived with the intention of settling in the land of the pharaohs. According to Egyptian sources, Ramses III attacked them in several battles on water and land and managed to repel them. Little is known, however, about the further destiny of these tribes. Probably one part was forced to return, another settled in the Middle East, and there may be was a third one that remained in Egypt.

Fig. 1. Relief from the temple of Ramses III in Medinet Habu with the battle with the “Sea people”.

     The next migration of the Thracians to Egypt was probably during the Persian Empire of Darius I (522-486), when various Thracian tribes were included in his army. The Persian Empire was at its peak, it extends throughout Thrace to Egypt, which undoubtedly leaded to migrations in a north-south direction and vice versa. In the ensuing Greco-Persian war, the son of Darius I Xerxes probably also used the fighting skills of the Thracians. Proof of this is the text of Herodotus, in which he says of the Thracian tribes that “Some of them who lived by the sea followed the ship of Xerxes: all the others who lived inland and are already listed by me were forced to follow him on land with the exception of the Satrys ”(VII, 110). Unfortunately, it is not known how long, for how long and how many Thracians followed Xerxes as part of his army. Such information about Thracians who took part in various military campaigns and settled permanently in Egypt comes mainly from the Hellenistic period, from the time of Alexander the Great and his successors.

Thracians in the army of Alexander the Great and his successors 

The Thracian people, when has nothing to fear,

is very prone to shed blood,

like the most bloodthirsty barbarian tribes.

Thucydides (VIII, 29).


Fig. 2. Thracians soldier on the “Karnobat jug”. 

      Undoubtedly, Alexander the Great appreciated very quickly the military qualities of the Thracians and attracted large groups of infantry and cavalry in his army. One of his most reliable biographers Arrian reports in The Anabasis of Alexander about various Thracian tribes, including Agrians, Peons and Odrysians, who fought side by side with the Macedonians during the war with the Persian ruler Darius III (336-330). The same author also informs us about Sitalces, a Thracian officer from Alexander’s army, who was at the head of the Thracian infantry (II. 5,1).

Fig. 3. Frieze with bulls from the Arsinoé II rotunda (Samothrace Museum). 

     After Alexander’s death, the tendency to recruit Thracian soldiers intensified, reaching its peak in the 3rd century BC. In the first years of his reign, Ptolemy Lagidus, who was proclaimed king of Egypt in 305 and known in history as Ptolemy I Soter, fought against Antigonus, Alexander’s successor in Asia. Thanks to a coalition between Ptolemy Ist and the other Diadochi, Antigonus was defeated at the battle of Ipsos, Phrygia in 301. After the defeat of one of Alexander’s most powerful Diadochi, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Ptolemy I shared his possissions in Asia Minor. After the victory (ca. 300-298), Ptolemy I gave his daughter Arsinoe II as a wife to Lysimachus, thus becoming related to the king of Thrace.

     Most likely, the wedding between Arsinoe II and Lysimachus was strengthened by certain benefits, which led to the presence of the Ptolemies in southern Thrace. After the death of her husband in 281 BC, the daughter of Ptolemy I fled to Samothrace, which was apparently already in the sphere of influence of her brother – the king of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphia (283- 246). The latter married his sister Arsinoe II, which gave him reason to expand his influence in the northern Aegean and establish control over the Thracian cities of Enos and Maroneia. In alliance with Byzantium, he fought against Antiochus II Theos during the Second Syrian War (260-253) and his fleet reached the Black Sea. The treasure of bronze coins with the image of Arsinoe II and the inscription (of King Ptolemy), found in the lands of the Thracian coast of Propontis (Marmara Sea), probably dates from this period.


Fig. 4. Bronze coin from a hord found in Turkey with Arsinoe’s II face and the name of Ptolemy II.

     The successor of Ptolemy II – Ptolemy III Everget (246-221), who brought the Ptolemaic naval empire to its greatest supremacy, managed to conquer the entire southern Thracian coast from Abdera to the Thracian Chersonese. Ptolemy III was the grandson of Lysimachus (from his mother Arsinoe I, the daughter of Lysimachus) and thus was good reason to claim the Thracian lands of his grandfather. During the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-203), the situation changed radically, as the new Egyptian king abandoned the active foreign policy of his predecessors. After his death, during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (203-181), the Macedonian king Philip V (221-179) allied with the Seleucid state and in 203-202 concluded a secret treaty with Antiochus III (223-187) in order to divide the non-Egyptian possessions of the Ptolemies, mainly those in Aegean Thrace. Gradually, Philip V conquered the Ptolemaic possessions in Thracian Chersonese and the Egyptian kings withdrew from Thrace forever.

     The whole 3rd century BC was marked by the presence of the Ptolemies in southern Thrace, which, without doubt, was a precondition not only for trade and cultural exchange, but also for constant migration in a North-South / South-North direction. Many of these migrations took place through the recruitment of Thracian soldiers into the Ptolemaic army in an old, tried-and-tested tradition dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. Their fate was after all different – some returned to Thrace, while others remained loyal to their army. From this period is the largest amount of documentary material from Egypt, which clearly shows that a huge number of Thracians left their homes, not only to serve the Egyptian army, but also to settle permanently in the South. As a rule, these people settled in the Nile Valley in military colonies or in some cities, remaining there for life. They married and gradually became part of the mixed local Hellenistic population.

The Thracian Diaspora in Egypt

     The predominant source material for Thracians who settled permanently in Egypt is found in Egyptian papyri, but also in some inscriptions on stelae or graffiti. The documents that have reached us are extremely diverse and include correspondence, land registers, tax lists, legal documents, dedication monuments, etc. Most materials are known to us from four Egyptian nomes (administrative districts) in Central Egypt – Arsinoite, Heracleopolit, Hermopolit and Oxyrinch. Thracian anthroponyms appeared in Egypt at the end of the 4th century BC, their number was especially important throughout the 3rd century BC, and began to decrease significantly in the second half of the 2nd century BC. This source material clearly shows that during the Hellenistic period in Egypt lived many Thracians as farmers and soldiers. Their social status probably did not differ or was close to that of the Greeks themselves. In papyrus (SB XVI 12221), dated to the 3rd century BC a list of eight horsemen and their servants was given. Four of the horsemen were Greeks, and the other four were Thracians, recognizable by their own or father’s name (Satokos, son of Satokos, Polyaynos, son of Sotokos, Bitus and Satokos, son of Dizaporos). They all were owners of land of 100 aurus and respectively had the same social status, which could be considered relatively high in the order of clergy (landowners in Egypt).

Fig. 5. Basalt stela with the list of the participants in the local games.

     Other documents from that period also testify to Thracians occupying important positions in Egyptian society. A similar monument was the basalt stela (SEG XXVII 1114), dated in March 8, 267 BC, on which it was written that certain Amadokos (a name with Thracian origin) opened the local racing games most likely in Heracleopolis in Central Egypt. The document is a stela with a list of the triumphant athletes in gymnastics, equestrian and martial arts. The list of the winners of the competitions begins with a dedication for the birthday of the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246). The dedication was made by Heracleitos, an Alexandrian nobleman. After this official presentation, the text informs us that Amadokos was the one who will open the games. The participants in the list were all of Macedonian, Greek or Thracian origin. Among the Thracians were mentioned the trumpet player and five of the winners. Most likely, three of the winners were the sons of Amadokos himself. The eldest brother, winner in the boxing competition in the adult category, was named with the old Thracian name Bastakilas. Two other winners were Aynesis, son of Patamozos, and Amadokos, son of Satokos. Both bear Thracian aristocratic names and probably came from noble Thracian families.

     The mentioned documents show that the Thracians in Egypt became not only part of the public space but also that some of them had a high social status. A Thracian who has reached the high social position to be able to organize games in honor of the king of Egypt could certainly be considered as a “noble person.” On the other hand, the fact that the Thracians were placed on the same social level with the Greeks themselves testifies to equal relations and living conditions. This situation was clearly preserved till later, because in the hymn from Medinet Madi (Fayum district) of Isidore dating from the First century BC in honor of the goddess Isis we read the following order of the world: “All people who live on earth – Thracians, Greeks and all barbarians – they repeat in their language, each in their homeland, your good name” (SEG 8, 548). It is immediately noticeable that the Thracians are not among the “barbarians” but were listed along with the Greeks themselves. They apparently form a group also known in religious circles that participates in the manifestations of religious mixing of ideas and cults in the complex Egyptian cultural life.

     Even though the Thracians were enjoying the same privileges as Greeks and were participating in cultural and religious life, they managed to preserve their ethnicity (at least until the first century BC). In Hellenistic texts we find definitions such as “Thracian quarter” or “Thracian settlement”. The ethnonym “Thracian” itself was very often added to the mentioned proper or paternal name (such as “the Thracian Amadokos” or “Amadocos son of the Thracian Ptolemy”). This means that they have, more or less, preserved, over time, their ethnicity, and with it, probably, their cultural and religious practices.

     In recent years archaeologists found about 15,000 ostracas (ostracon inscriptions on a piece of clay) written in Greek and Latin and for the most part unpublished yet. They represent a new source for the history of the military colonies in Egypt. The ostracas were discovered during excavations of various, small or large, military camps located in the Eastern Desert, on trade or military routes connecting the Nile Valley with the Red Sea, as well as the areas of the Egyptian quarries (Mons Claudianus, Mons Porphyrites, etc.). So far we only know that these documents contain a large amount of Thracian onomastics, which will probably help us to better understand the Thracian diaspora in Egypt.

   Thracian culture interacts with other cultures and it is necessary to trace this connections so that it could show us to what extent the ancient identity of the Thracians was reflected in the later evolution of the whole European civilization. Only new more complex interdisciplinary research could bring us closer to recognizing the specific remnants of the culture of the ancient population that once inhabited the Bulgarian lands with the culture of other societies close to his worldview.

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