Today their name is barely known to anyone outside southeastern Europe. The Thracians built for eternity – especially tombs and shrines – but they lived in the moment and, underestimating the importance of writing down their deeds, they left next to nothing about their history, faith and beliefs. And so, bar the fascinating sites and treasures they created, the life of the Thracians remains more or less a mystery.
What we know for sure is that the Thracians are Indo-Europeans and began to emerge as a singular ethnic group around the middle of the 2nd Millennium BC.
Did these people form gradually, over millennia, from the oldest, Neolithic inhabitants of southeastern Europe? Or descended from newcomers who changed the population in the region during the transition between the Chalcolithic and the Bronze ages, in the first half of the 4th Millennium BC? These questions so far have no definitive answer.
The ancient Greeks, who produced the most extensive historical source about their neighbours the Thracians, called Thraike or Thrake the lands to the northeast of their own territories. The people who lived there were respectively called Thracians.
There are several theories about what the name Thracian means. It could be the Greek form of a local ethnonym, possibly connected with ancient Troy and the Trojans. We know from Homer, who created the first written source of Thracians' existence, that the Thracians sided with Troy during the infamous 10-year war. Their kings Rhesus, Peiros and Acamas fought with the Greeks, and Rhesus was famed for his beautiful white horses.
Another theory claims that originally Thracian meant "brave" or "courageous", but later switched to mean "wild" and "savage." According to an ancient story, Thrace, the land of the Thracians, bore the name of a nymph called Thrake, a powerful sorceress who would use her knowledge of herbs to heal and harm, at her whim.
Rock niches at Zhenda village, near Kardzhali, in the Rhodope
The Thracians inhabited a vast area between the Carpathian mountains, the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea with the islands of Thassos and Samothrace, and the courses of the Struma and Morava rivers. Today these lands are divided between Bulgaria, northern Greece, European Turkey, southern Romania and parts of Serbia and Macedonia. The core of the Thracian lands is in Bulgaria.
The Thracians were famously disunited politically. They lived in numerous tribes – the accounts vary between 22 and 80 – and each of these groups had its own nobility and rulers. Among this multitude, the tribes of the Odrysians, the Bessi, the Tribali and the Getae have left the most significant historical and archaeological record.
The lands of the Thracians were rich in natural resources. The dense woods gave them timber and game; copper, iron, gold and silver mines dotted the mountains. Healing mineral water springs lured the Thracians to settle around, and the fertile soil nurtured the famed local wheat, horses and vines from which the Thracians made strong wine.
The Great Goddess of the Thracians is depicted seated in a chariot drawn by gryphons on a jug from the Rogozen Treasure from the second half or the beginning of the 3rd Century BC. This Thracian deity was sometimes associated with the Greek Artemis (note the bow she is holding) and was seen as the ruler of wild beasts
On the verge of the 2nd and the 1st millennia BC, the Thracians went through a crucial change of technology. Bronze was replaced by iron as the metal for tools and weapons. The new material made ploughing the land and cutting wood easier, faster and more productive, and the generally self-sufficient Thracian society found itself with more to sell on the market. The new weapons were better for killing people as well, and as the Thracian aristocrats saw hunting, war and plundering to be the sole activities worthy of men like themselves, they became richer.
Iron changed culture too, spearheading the building of megaliths. In this period, the Thracians created a significant number of dolmens, rock tombs and rock niches, and started hewing canals and ritual basins on their old shrines, situated on rocky peaks. The everyday objects also changed. Jewellery, pottery and tools all became more refined and practical.
Until the middle of the 1st Millennium BC, the Thracians stood out of the limelight, but this changed between the 7th and 5th centuries BC. The Greeks started building their colonies on the Aegean and the Black Sea coasts, and gradually replaced the Thracians on the Samothrace and Thassos islands. Before his campaign to Greece, the Persian king Darius I (550–486 BC) invaded a significant part of Southern Thrace.
The turmoil changed the Thracians. At the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 5th centuries BC, the Thracian tribes of the Derrones, the Oreski and the Lei began minting their own coins, a sign for economic and political emancipation. One of the most significant treasures of ancient Thracian coins is the one found at the Velichkovo village, near modern-day Pazardzhik, which numbers nine silver coins each weighing about 40 gr.
Ritual basins at the Harmankaya shrine
Soon afterwards, Herodotus, in his History, gave an astonishing piece of information about the Thracians. He wrote that they had been the most numerous nation in the world, second only to the Indians. In modern Bulgaria, you will see this proudly repeated all over in tourist literature. Historians, however, have long disputed the accuracy of Herodotus's account. The Thracians were indeed more numerous than the ancient Greeks, but they themselves were outnumbered by the ancient Scythians and the Celts.
Estimates see the population of ancient Thrace between 800,000 and 1 million, but this number may turn out to be higher.
The population was not distributed evenly. The lands north of the Stara Planina mountain were less populated, as they were more vulnerable to attacks from across the Danube and had harsher climate. Interestingly, the majority of Thracian gold and silver treasures have been found in this territory.
The population south of the Stara Planina was denser, leading to a greater number of Thracian sites: megaliths, monumental tombs, cities, fortresses. These lands were also closer to the Greek ones, and would be influenced by the ancient Greek civilisation. At the end of the 6th and during the early 5th centuries BC, this territory became the cradle of the first and the biggest political entity the Thracians ever created.
It was the Odrysian kingdom of King Teres I, a man who according to some sources lived to 92 years of age, led aggressive foreign policy, yet boasted that when he wasn't on a hunt or at war, he would be indistinguishable in appearance from his own stablemen.
The history of the Odrysian kingdom is better known, thanks to Thucydides, the great historian of the 5th Century BC.
In the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the Odrysian kingdom was a prominent actor in international politics, signing treaties and waging wars with Athens and the Kingdom of Macedonia. The Odrysian kingdom experienced its heyday in the 4th Century BC, under the kings Sitalces and Seuthes I, and spread far to the southeast, southwest and northeast of the Balkans. It was so strong that even the Greek colonies on the Aegean coast paid it tributes.
The game changed, however, in the mid-4th Century BC. Both King Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, invaded Thrace. Their power didn't last long, but had strong effects on the local economy, urban planning and culture. A number of cities, for example, were founded on the sites of earlier Thracian settlements, the most famous of them is Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), named after Philip II.
The death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BC, brought about the end of his empire, which fell apart in several chunks. Thrace was given to Lysimachus, one of Alexander's generals, but the change was seen by the Thracians as an opportunity for independence. Lysimachus tried, in vain, to secure his position in the eastern Balkans. In this period Thrace also drifted into the cosmopolitan Hellenistic world, where, just like today, people, goods, fashions and ideas moved freely.
The bronze head of a man from Golyama Kosmatka Mound is identified as King Seuthes. The craftsmanship of the sculpture and the intensity of the eyes show that this portrait was made by an established Greek master. The head was ritually slain from the statue it belonged to, and was buried in front of the Golyama Kosmatka Tomb. Latest analyses have shown that the sculpture was made in the nearby city of Seuthopolis by a Greek master, possibly one Silanion, a famed sculptor
In Thrace, a number of independent kingdoms sprang, and urbanisation was on the rise. The graves became richer, filled with luxurious and imported everyday objects, weapons and jewellery, signalling the increased wealth of the elite. Seuthes, the king of the Odrysians, even built himself a capital in line with the latest Hellenistic urban fashion – and gave it his name, just like Alexander the Great did with the cities he had founded.
At the beginning of the 3rd Century BC, Celts arrived in Thrace and even created a kingdom there. They had their capital at Tyle, but its location remains unidentified. The new settlers changed local culture, bringing in elements typical for Central Europe, like new fashions in jewellery and weaponry, mainly brooches, shields and swords.
After the mid-3rd Century BC, Thrace fell spiralled into gradual decline, a trend which continued until the 1st Century BC. The Thracian tribes waged war against one another, and fought with the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast. Thrace was also the scene of brutal fights between the heirs of Alexander the Great, and although it was part of the bigger Hellenistic civilisation, it was still in its periphery and far from the glorious centres of culture and trade in Egypt, the Near East and the Mediterranean islands.
As a result, most of the Thracian cities were abandoned and destroyed, and fewer aristocrats could afford expensive graves and tombs. The commoners had grown poorer.
The 1st Century BC became the time of gradual subjugation by the Romans, who used the tools of politics to achieve their goal – from war to buying off local rulers, and from diplomacy to pitting local fiefdoms against one another. By 45 AD the whole of Thrace was already under the Romans, divided into the provinces of Macedonia, Moesia, Thrace and Dacia. The Thracians lost their independence and became the subjects of the great empire.
Mural of a feast from the Kazanlak Tomb, around 280-260 BC. The Great Goddess is present too, in the form of the tall woman towering to the left of the feasting couple
Some of the Thracians decided that enough was enough, and fled to the mountains, where they became itinerant herdsmen and stuck to their traditions and language. Others remained in the cities and the villages in the plain, making the most of life in an empire. They became merchants, soldiers and administrators like the rich Thracian buried in the Eastern Mound at Karanovo. These people also learnt Greek and Latin, and prayed to new and old gods. After the 4th Century, a rising number of them fell for Christianity.
In their long history, the Thracians never managed to create vigorous city-states, which thrived on trade and war, like the Greeks, or a stable kingdom like the ancient Macedonians. The Thracian society was pretty simple – it was divided into a noble elite led by a king, and a majority of free commoners who made their living in agriculture and crafts. Slavery existed, but never reached the scale of the well-developed slave market in Greece and Rome. For the Thracians, slaves were mainly prisoners-of-war, and were treated as little more than servants.
Thracian women had more rights than their Greek sisters. Unlike the Greek women, who would spent their lives behind the walls of their houses, the Thracian girls enjoyed significant freedom before they married. Polygamy was common among the Thracian elite.
The life of aristocracy was understandably more pleasant than that of commoners. A significant portion of time was devoted to hunting and feasting, or to war. The Thracians had a reputation of fierce warriors, and throughout the Antiquity their lands were the source of a steady flow of mercenaries. The most bellicose tribes were the Bessi and the Tribali, and Spartacus, who shed fear across the Roman Empire with the rebellion of the gladiators in 74-71 BC, was a Thracian.
The Thracians also loved wine, shocking contemporary Greeks with their habit to drink it straight rather than mixed with water. Actually, they did that because the Thracian wine was not that thick and strong as the Greek one. The Thracians also had a kind of barley beer, which they drank with straws.
A couple of horses still in their harnesses are the most fascinating exhibit at Karanovo's Eastern Mound
Drugs, probably cannabis, were also part of the Thracian life. Ancient historians testify that seeds and weeds would be thrown into open fire, and the men around would get high on the smoke.
What happened with the Thracians when the Antiquity ended?
Many were already Romanised during the Roman era, so they gradually lost their distinct culture and language, blending with the broader imperial society until they disappeared. Lots of them lost their lives during the invasions of the so-called Barbarians, between the 3rd to 7th centuries AD. By the end of the 7th Century, a significant portion of Thrace was incorporated into a new, ambitious state, Bulgaria. What had left of the Thracians mixed with the newcomers, the Slavs and the Bulgarians, forming the foundation of modern Bulgarians.
Rhytons from the Borovo Treasure with the drinking parts in the form of an exquisitely made horse and sphinx. Curiously, the rhytons were found dismantled, prompting speculation which creature fitted which horn best
The existence of the Thracians was all but forgotten in the Middle Ages and during the Ottoman rule, but since the 19th Century archaeology and history have discovered more and interesting parts of this ancient people's heritage in Bulgaria. With this book, published with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, it is now yours to explore.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.