Classicists have long overlooked Thracian art due primarily to a Greek-centric view of the ancient world. Despite this, Ancient Thrace, similar to Greece, had an exceptional material culture that displayed sophisticated craftsmanship that rivaled the quality of Greek art. The Thracians were neighbors of the Greeks, having mainly settled in the region of modern-day southeast Bulgaria, northern Greece, and West Turkey (Marinov 2015, 10-117). Over hundreds of years, they accumulated a rich history, with their own language, folklore, music, poetry, and literature, almost all of which are unfortunately lost today (Casson & Venedikov 1977, 1-84). Despite their vast culture, Thrace is not as prevalently studied as Ancient Greece even though both civilizations existed alongside one another in Classical Antiquity. The root cause of the dismissal of Thracian culture was that very few Thracian records existed, and what did exist was written by the “barbarian” fearing Greeks (Casson et al. 1977, 3-5). The Greek perspective of Thrace drastically defined our modern view of its reputation. The Greco-centric perspective of Thracians as primitive barbarians perpetuated the misunderstanding of Thracian art and culture; contrary to this perspective Thrace had a vast material culture that paralleled that of the Greeks.
Artifacts discovered in Thracian territory dating from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age demonstrated artistic and technological complexity. Figurines and idols dating as far back as the sixth millennium BC were uncovered. The figurines were made of bone and ceramics in the shapes of human bodies and faces (Casson et al. 1977, 9). These religious idols contained themes and motifs found across several cultures of the Ancient Near East such as a “mother goddess” figurine, the building style of homes, and the pottery techniques all bearing resemblance. By the time of the Bronze Age, Thrace was already established as a civilization with an organized social hierarchy. This is evident from the various burial mounds uncovered in Varna, Eastern Bulgaria where several sources agree that the oldest technologically worked gold in the world can be traced to around the mid-fifth millennium BC on Thracian land (Marinov 2015, 88). The complexity of the material culture found within Thracian territory originated with the sixth-millennium religious idols and figurines, as well as the oldest technologically worked gold. These early objects provided a foundation for the elaborate metalworking and sophisticated craftsmanship displayed later in Thracian art.
Some of the greatest examples of Thracian skill in metalworking was the treasure of Vulchitrun where several ritual vessels weighing 27½ pounds of pure gold adorned with delicate and precise ornamentation. There was also special attention taken to fortify the joins and handles of the vessels elegantly. These gold vessels were most likely used in brotherhood rituals or treaty ceremonies where two people were able to drink from the same vessel simultaneously (Valeva 2015, 196-211). The Thracians even believed that if a liquid passed through an animal-shaped rhyton it would gather and transfer the spiritual essence of that animal to the liquid that was consumed (Valeva, 196-211). These mysterious rituals may not only have served a religious purpose but also a political purpose since aristocratic clients who commissioned these vessels linked both the positions of priest and ruler into one (Casson et al., 12-15 and Valeva, 198). From some of the earliest pieces of Thracian artwork, it is evident that Thracians employed unique methods and designs in their artwork, which were used for ritualistic and political purposes.
During the Late Bronze Age, the rise of Thracian kings mirrored that of the Greek Mycenaean kings, demonstrating another parallel between the two cultures. Initially, there were key differences between the art styles of both cultures (Casson et al., 11). Thracian art and pottery from this time had large, bulky, proportions and was decorated with a series of incisions and the use of white paste for further decor. Bronze Age local Thracian metalwork also showed high levels of refinement from not only the bronze spears and weapons that survive but also the matrices into which the molten metal was poured into the desired shape (Casson et al., 12-15).
During the Early Iron Age, Thracian art observed a decline due to the adversities the civilization faced from constant invasions that displaced many of the inhabitants of the region (Casson et al., 15-20). In this period of difficulty, Thracian art began to borrow influence from Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Greece for the first time in its history. The Middle Iron Age brought the Thracians in close proximity to the Greeks for the first time when they began settling the Aegean coast in colonies. Throughout the progression of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, trade began to bloom between not only the two cultures but also the Persian Achaemenids, marking an end to the isolation of Thrace behind its northern curtain and entering it into recorded history for the first time as well. Around this time, a variety of elaborate, rich jewelry and armor was uncovered in Thracian burial mounds — all fashioned in Greek workshops. The art from this period marked the intrinsic connection between the two cultures that spanned throughout the entirety of their respective histories in which the two cultures regularly influenced one another.
The Greeks’ first impression of Thrace is contained in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Trojan War in these epics likely marked when the Greeks first began to acquire a sour taste for the Thracians. Homer writes that the Thracians were highly skilled bloodthirsty warriors, clad on the backs of massive, swift horses, shining with the reflections of gold and shiver armor and chariots (Casson et al., 2-3). Homer also described the Thracian king Rhesos riding in a magnificent chariot adorned in gold and silver with armor so elaborately decorated that it should only have been fit for gods, not mere mortals (Casson et al., 2-3). In the Odyssey, the Thracian priest-king Maron rewarded Odysseus over 500 pounds of golden treasure for sparing his life, which demonstrates that the nature and quantity of Thracian goldwork was enough to impress any Greek. Even though they may have been in awe of the Thracians, the Greeks believed that the land of Thrace was harsh and unfriendly. To the Greeks it was the supposed place of origin of not only the deadly North Wind Boreas but also the most fearsome war-god, Ares Casson et al., 73-75). The Greeks also saw the ancient hero, and bard, Orpheus as hailing from Thrace. Despite the Greeks’ view towards Thrace’s land, this area held significance to Greek mythology as it was the believed place of origin of a few mythological figures.
One particular moment from the Trojan War was captured on a Greek krater from the 4th century BC, as seen in Figure 1, where scholars believe both the Greek and the Thracian figures are displayed in a harrowing scene (“Rhesus,” 2020). On the upper portion of the krater, the Greek hero Odysseus creeps in on the sleeping Thracian King Rhesos who is about to be killed in his sleep. Not only is the Greek hero on the left side of the scene, following the canon in Greek Art, but he is also nude and beardless with perfectly curled hair with his garment billowing behind him, the ultimate symbol of the ideal young Greek warrior. This is a stark contrast to the bearded Thracian king in foreign clothing, sound asleep. Odysseus elegantly reaches for the head of the sleeping king, with his sword drawn in his other hand, moments before he strikes. On the right side of the scene, the goddess Athena has come to the Greek’s aid, completely surrounding the Thracian King and alluding to his imminent demise and eventual Greek victory in the war (Casson et al., 76). The Trojan War was one of the first times the Greeks encountered the Thracian people. Ever since then, this encounter left a lasting negative impression on the Greek perspective of their Northern neighbors.
It is possible that the conflictive narrative on this krater holds value in the story between the Greeks and Thracians. When we think of the Greeks as victors, as seen in the many reliefs of the Parthenon, they are often depicted in brutal hand-to-hand combat with their enemies such as the Centaurs or Amazons. They are always fighting their equals and still coming out as the clear winners. However, when the Greeks depict themselves fighting the Thracians, the question arises of why Odysseus doesn’t fight King Rhesos like an equal, but instead kills him when he is at his most vulnerable, when he is deeply asleep? The explanation of this paradox could come from the idea that the Thracians instilled an element of fear into the Greeks through their looming force on the Greek border (Casson et al., 76). The Thracians were infamous for their effective and intense fighting style, which even the Greeks found formidable.
There are several ways in which the Greeks created the Thracian reputation as ruthless and uncivilized barbarians and most of them stemmed from fundamental differences in the practices and beliefs between the two societies. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus, ventured to the distant land of Thrace to write detailed accounts of the Thracian people and their culture (Casson et al. 3-4; Marinov, 11). Herodotus and other Greeks were vastly displeased to learn about Thracian polygamous marriages where a man could have several wives at once, very different from the largely monogamous Greek marriages, on paper at least (Casson et al., 76). Even more shocking to the Greeks was that when a Thracian husband died, his wives competed for their relatives to decide which wife loved him most, and then proceeded to honor her the privilege of being sacrificed alongside him in his tomb. It is also remarkable that the weapons buried with the deceased person were often deliberately broken or rendered unusable so that the inanimate objects underwent their own
-“death” so they could consequently undergo their own “rebirth” and aid the deceased person in the afterlife (Casson et al., 76). Death was seen as a joyous occasion in the Thracian culture where the family of the deceased person vehemently celebrated with feasts and merriment (Casson et al., 73). In fierce juxtaposition, the birth of a child was a somber event of mourning given the notion that the child would have a life of challenge and hardship ahead of them. These practices and beliefs were extremely foreign to the Greeks who greatly mourned death and disregarded the civility of the Thracians entirely after learning their death customs.
Another realm in which the Thracians and Greeks were extremely different was in religion. The Thracians of the Getai tribe believed in a legend following the resurrection and deification of their King Zalmoxis into the god of a strikingly monotheistic religion (Casson et al., 73-74). Herodotus tried to rationalize this “resurrection” legend as the human king hiding underground in his tomb, but he eventually gave up this explanation. The Getai even sacrificed human “messengers” to Zalmoxis in order to prosper from his continual support. Tribe chieftains were also associated with religious power. Their idea of the afterlife was a place where you were surrounded by “every conceivable good,” free of the pain and suffering of mortal life. In contrast, the polytheistic Greeks had several gods that they worshiped in various cults such as the god Hades who ruled the underworld and the dead. For Thracians, the “underworld” was the neutral resting place of the soul where the deeds or sins of mortal life shed their impact in the afterlife. There was no place of “inconceivable good” as the Thracians believed in, let alone one deified
The social structure of Thracian society also differed greatly from the Greeks. One of the most striking comments Herodotus made about the Thracians was that given the population of Thrace being second only to the Indians, they had the potential to be one of the most powerful civilizations in the world if their squabbling tribes were able to unite (Casson et al., 76; Marinov, 11). In the ideal Thracian household, women farmed and brought up children. On the other hand, the greatest conquest for a man would be to fight fiercely. Unsurprisingly then, Thracian soldiers were infamous for their cavalry’s impressive skill with horses and chariot wielding. The Greek military lacked a strong cavalry and lightly-armed foot soldiers, so in response, they were quick to make mercenaries of the Thracians as early as the sixth century BC, and they were not an unusual sight in Greek cities by any means (Casson et al., 4). However as Thracians began to intermingle with Greek society, they also commonly served as slaves in Greek households. The Greek playwright Aristophanes even integrated these servants in many of his plays under the name of “Thratta,” meaning “Thracian girl,” and poked fun at their marriage customs. There was clearly an air of superiority with which the Greeks viewed themselves, and by keeping Thracians as slaves, they promoted the idea that the only purpose a Thracian could serve in Greek society was either as a servant or soldier, the lowest members of society.
Even in appearance, there were distinct differences between Greeks and Thracians ranging from their stature to their physical features. The Greeks often described the Thracians as tall and rugged, having blue or gray eyes matched with fairer red or blonde hair (Casson et al., 4). Their features naturally stood out greatly against the dark-eyed and dark-haired Greeks, who were shorter and tanner. These physical dissimilarities only bolstered the Thracians’ “otherness” that the Greeks wanted to separate themselves from. In nearly every aspect between the two cultures, from their core beliefs in daily life, to religion, to society, to death and the afterlife, the numerous differences the Greeks saw between themselves and the Thracians led them to continue writing the narrative that the Thracians were primitive and uncivilized.
There was a distinctive way that the Thracians were portrayed or reflected in Greek art, from the first millennium BC in particular. The typical attire of Thracian soldiers in Greek depictions on pottery include long tunics covered by multicolored cloaks, fox-skin hats that come to a distinct point at the top of the head, and fawn-skin boots that had a rim of petal-like flaps that came up just below their knees (Casson et al., 4). In the battlefield, they carried light “pelta” shields that were recognizable by their distinct crescent shape along with javelins and daggers (see Figure 2). The foot soldiers, called Peltasts, were said to be incredibly agile and fought guerilla-style since they were lightly armed and very well-trained. In art, the aristocracy of Thracian society can also be recognized through their numerous and intricate tattoos that symbolize their status, as Herodotus also mentions in his writings (Casson et al., 76). The Greek aristocracy typically frowned upon tattooing as it was associated with slaves, criminals, and barbarians.
Thracian elements appeared in Greek sculpture as well as vase paintings, even into the Hellenistic period. The Greek marble statue in Figure 3 is most likely of the god Dionysus, commonly accepted to be the jubilant god of wine, merriment, and madness (Smith 1870). There seems to be a deliberate choice made to put Dionysus in Thracian boots that reach up below the knee with a spade-like decoration around the top rim (Marble statuette of Dionysus). This compelling detail that connects him to Thrace is significant because the concept that he is a foreigner to Greece or “the god that comes” is integral to many Greek Dionysian cults. It is also interesting to consider that some of these cults even believe that Dionysus was born in Thrace. Even though they might have viewed him as a Thracian foreigner, they still worship him (Topper 2015, 139-72). There is a myth in which Dionysus visits Thrace in order to punish the Thracian King Lykourgos for outlawing Dionysus’s cult and imprisoning his followers. In response to Lykourgos’s deed, Dionysus fevers him with an intense madness to the point where he mistakes his loved ones for grapevine branches, one of the many symbols of Dionysus, and in striking them down in his rage, kills them. Furthermore, scholars agree that the large goatskin draped on the shoulders of this statue attributes it specifically to the cult of Dionysus “Melanaegis,” meaning Dionysus of the Black Goatskin, where the god is seen in a much darker version of himself, usually in league with the underworldly evil spirits (Metmuseum.org). By connecting this maddened, dark version of the god with Thrace, the Greeks still continued to reinforce the idea that the Thracians also possess these negative barbaric features, which only undermines the Thracians’ reputation in Greek eyes.
After examining how the Greeks portrayed the Thracians in art, it is vital to discuss how the Thracians viewed themselves in their art. The complex themes found in their art were unique to their culture and reflected that they were, indeed, an intelligent and advanced society with trained craftspeople able to master many different forms of art. Most famous, arguably, is Thracian metalwork in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, which featured a variety of armor, weapons, horse trappings, jewelry, and ritual vessels (Valeva, 197-207). One of the unique motifs that is seen only in Thracian art is the symbol of the “Thracian Horseman” or “Thracian Rider” who can be associated with a figure that gained god-like status and was even the center of cults during the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Thrace (Dimitrova 2002, 209-29). Not only is the horseman portrayed on various votive tablets like in Figure 4, but also in statuettes and reliefs of metal and stone. The figure harkens back to the Iron Age image of the swift horsemen in their shining armor and horse trappings employed in the Trojan War that Homer described. The Romans believed this entity was a culmination of multiple gods like Apollo, Dionysus, and Asklepios (Casson et al., 6,56). It is interesting to note that during the Christianization era, the Thracians simply reframed the horseman to be St. George since the Saint is also an equestrian wielding a spear or javelin. This intriguing detail demonstrates how the Thracians were still able to hold onto their ancient traditional allegiances, not conforming to religion forced upon them, in discreet ways even near the decline of their civilization.
The eight-limbed stag in Figure 5, found on a cup from the Agighiol treasure dating approximately to the fourth century BC, is another visual element that is uniquely Thracian and not associated with any neighboring culture (Farkas 1981, 33-48). The stag has four front legs and four hind legs accompanied by massively long antlers that balance out the composition of the image. Even though the stag has double the number of legs that it should have, its frame is not as cluttered or cumbersome as would be expected from a creature with so many legs. Scholars have postulated that the eight-legged stag could represent freedom and swiftness, as an animal with so many legs must be able to move quite fast, and it might be a reference to supernatural powers or to a lost Thracian myth or legend. One other solely Thracian embellishment is the addition of spirals around the shoulder or hip joints on animals like lions that were commonly seen on the animals adorning armor and horse trappings (Casson et al., 39). It is palpable from studying the various elements in Thracian art that they were a culture capable of expertly crafting and utilizing their own individual themes that were meaningful to them. This is an indication of a culture that is far from primitive and underdeveloped as the Greeks believed.
As many ancient cultures often did, the Thracians borrowed certain elements from those surrounding them as well, similar to how the Greeks borrowed from the Near East during their “Orientalizing Period.” The influence of neighboring cultures does not detract from the high quality of Thracian art. Once Thrace began to come in contact with the Greeks and Persians through trade during the Middle Iron Age, the intermingling of visual elements from all three cultures was bound to take hold (Casson et al., 21). From the East, the Thracians borrowed several themes including the “master of animals” where a human was depicted interacting with animals from the Achaemenid culture such as griffins, lions, and eagles (Casson et al., 39).
From the Greeks, the Thracians borrowed several elements that are exemplified in the Panagyurishte treasure (Figure 6), one of the most famous Bulgarian finds from approximately the fourth to third century BC. Weighing in over thirteen pounds of solid gold, the treasure included a phiale, an amphora-rhyton and seven rhyta with the central shape of animal heads and human female heads (Valeva, 202-204). The Greek elements among these objects are extremely excessive from the veristic approach to the anatomy and proportions of the stag, goat, and ram shapes, to the masterfully crafted details around the eyes and the perfectly coiled tufts of fur. The human female heads are also very Greek reminiscent, with finely curled hair framing the face and a long straight characteristically Greek nose bridge alluding closely to the images of Greek goddesses. The most undoubtedly Greek element to the rhyta are the images that are directly inscribed with the names of several Greek gods and figures from the immortal Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, and Nike to the mortals Herakles and Paris in various mythological scenes (Casson et al., 40-51). Although there is a myriad of Greek influence in these objects, archeological evidence suggests their origin is, in fact, Thracian because they are inscribed with the names of Thracian kings and were likely crafted on the Asiatic shores of Dardanelles in Thracian territory. Even though there are numerous components of the Panagyurishte treasure that are not Thracian in nature, it is impossible not to admire the sheer artistry and craftsmanship of the pieces. From their spectacular realism to their unimaginably intricate details and near-perfect preservation, they are the epitome of what advanced, dedicated, master artists could accomplish. Surely, the Thracians were capable of multitudes more than the Greeks could have expected from them, producing art that reached the Greeks’ level beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Time eventually eroded through the thousand years of rich history that the Thracians had amassed as it faced its decline. As Greece fell subject to Imperial Rome, so too did Thrace as it was split up into sections and governed as a Roman protectorate (Casson et al., 65). At that point, Thrace had been slowly declining for decades following weak, fickle rulers and onslaughts of invasions that racked through the land. Slowly but surely, the territory began to become urbanized with new infrastructure, and art from that time period was Romanized, with little traces of Ancient Thracian themes or visual elements to be found. From that point on, the Thracian tribes would never be the powerful forces that they used to be ever again. Nonetheless, Thracians still served as Roman slaves, and young Thracian men were often employed for their ever-reputable fighting talents in the gladiatorial positions they seemed to be born for (Casson et al., 5). Spartacus, one of the only gladiators that most people today can recognize by name, was Thracian. As the hourglass turned and the years faded, the Slavs migrated in large numbers to the region, and the Thracians slowly became mixed in with the variety of settlers that eventually descended into the modern inhabitants of the land.
Ultimately, the Thracians were much different from their Greek label as primitive and barbaric people who could never serve a higher purpose in Greek society other than slaves, soldiers, or Greek enemies. From their fascinating customs revolving death to their own unique god figures, to their infamous excellence of horsemanship and fighting style, and especially in their art, they were a group of people that had an expansive culture with much more to uncover than meets the eye. The Thracians depicted their own uniquely symbolic motifs and masterfully adapted themes borrowed from other cultures in outstanding displays of craftsmanship in their art. They were finely trained in metalwork and their pieces speak for themselves as to the advanced nature of their understanding of the craft as it developed over thousands of years.
Thracian craftsmanship extended throughout all of their art, from their ritual vessels to their ornamentation and armor, to their weapons. All of these pieces and artifacts represent an advanced and elaborate material culture, which demonstrates why more research in classical studies should highlight Thrace’s complexity to combat the Greco-centric narrative of Thrace. Hopefully, we can now begin to understand the Thracians for their rich history without the presence of a skewed Greek lens over them and continue to uncover more through their perspective. Thracian material culture paints a beautifully complex portrait of the Thracians and their story, far from their barbaric reputation given by the Greeks, with much more left to be explored.
As a descendant of Southern Bulgaria myself, it is deeply invigorating to have researched these extraordinary long lost people and hopefully tip the scales of balance into the light of my ancestors who were on the Greek side of history for thousands of years. There is an undoubtedly sacred sentiment in my heart that the continuation of the Thracian story endures through me and into posterity.
Figure 1– Apulian Red-figure Krater, Greek, ca. 340 BC; King Rhesos of Thrace being murdered in sleep.“Rhesos Krater” Darius Painter. Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany, Inv. No. 1984.39 [see pdf for higher quality image]
Figure 2– Attic red-figured Kylix (manner of Onesimos), c. 480 BC; “Thracian peltast,” Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Inv. No. 1959.219 [see pdf for higher quality image]
Figure 3– Marble statuette of Dionysos, Greek, Early Hellenistic, early 3rd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Inv. No. 59.11.2 [see pdf for higher quality image]
Figure 4– Bridle ornament, Thracian, 4th century BC; from the treasure of Letnitsa, Lovech District, northern Bulgaria. Gilded silver, H. 5 cm. Lovech, District Museum of History, Inv. No. 589 [see pdf for higher quality imgae]
Figure 5– Cup, Thracian, 4th century BC; from a tomb at Agighiol, eastern Romania. Silver, Bucharest, Historical Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Inv. No. AR 128, 129 [see pdf for higher quality image]
Figure 6– Panagyurishte Treasure, Thracian, Turn of the 4th-3rd centuries BC, Archaeological Museum, Plovdiv, Inv. No. 3198, 3204, 3196, 3197, 3199, 3201, 3202, 3200, 3203 [see pdf for higher quality image]