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Strymon


The Strymon near Amphipolis. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Strymon near Amphipolis
Strymon: river in Thrace. Today, it is called Struma (in Bulgarian) and Strymonas (in Greek). The poetic name Kara Su, "the black waters", is Turkish.

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Histories, 8.115), the Strymon has its sources in the land of the Thracians, and we can add that its well is immediately south of the Balkan range. The name of the river is Thracian, and is derived from an Indo-European root *sru, "stream".

For the greatest part of its course, it flows more or less directly to the south, accepting the waters of several tribituaries, which make the river navigable. In Antiquity, the river first emptied itself in Lake Prasias, a large expanse of water that has in the twentieth century been converted into a fertile plain, stretching from the northwest to the southeast. Turning south again, the river broke through a range of high and steep hills (the site of a city called Amphipolis), and finally emptied itself, for the second time, in the Aegean Sea near Eļon. The total length of the river is about 415 km.

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The mouth of the Strymon near Eļon. Photo Jona Lendering.
The mouth of the Strymon near Eļon

The Athenian historian Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.96.3), implies that the river was the boundary between the Paeonians (who lived to the west of the river) and the Thracians. When the Paeonians were subdued by the Macedonians, the river became the frontier between Thrace and Macedonia (cf. Strabo, Geography, 7, fr.11).

Several Thracian and Paeonian tribes used to live on the banks of the river. Our sources mention the Agrianians on the upper-Strymon, the Maedians (probably in the southwest of modern Bulgaria), and the Sintians and Bisaltians along the lower reaches of the river. It is difficult to identify the precise area where these people lived, because tribal structures are by nature fluid, and names vary over the ages. Other names referred to are the Laeaeans and Odomantes.

A relief showing the Dioscuri and the river god (to the right; only his legs are visible). Museum of Amphipolis (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
A relief showing the Dioscuri and the river god (to the right; only his legs are visible). Museum of Amphipolis.

Herodotus (Histories, 7.114) tells a famous story about the Achaemenid ruler Xerxes and the river Strymon. When the great king arrived at Nine Roads (an old name for Amphipolis), he decided to sacrifice nine boys and girls to the gods of the Underworld, in order to obtain a save passage across the river. The truth of this story has been challenged because human sacrifice is not known as an Iranian cult practice.

On the other hand, it was not uncommon to worship river gods, and it is possible that the Amphipolitans had an important cult for the Strymon. The god is shown on coins, and had a mythology of his own (he was, for example, believed to be the father of Olynthus).

Finally, it may be noted that the Strymon was considered to be the winter home of the cranes that migrate to the Nile (Claudian, War against Gildo, 475-476).
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 21 April 2012
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