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CONTRIBUTION TO THE HISTORICAL ASPECT OF ANCIENT THRACE

Author: Hristo Danov

 

SUMMARY

This survey as its very title indicates represents a continuation of the study published by me a few years ago in which I analysed critically the more important Greek sources of the ancient history, geography and ethnography of the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula from Homer down to Strabon. In the following lines I analyse in the same manner the more typical pieces upon the Bulgarian lands, which are to be found in the Roman writers from the end of the 3rd century B.C. until the end of the 4th century of our era (Khristo Danov):

1. In the first chapter I deal with the information we find on Thrace in Plautus, Terentius, Cornelius Nepos, Varro, Cicero, Caesar and Sallustius. The critical sifting of their information is not particularly fruitful. It shows, as far as Plautus and Nepos are primarily concerned, that at least in the form in which they have come down to us, they do not know much about our lands and their population. Yet even the scanty information we find in them is in most cases a reflection of what they had found about them in their Hellenistic predecessors. The same applies to the records of Varro although thanks to his encyclopaedic interests and fondness of collecting they contain some valuable information.

Varro's information upon the agriculture in Thrace (De r. r. I, 57) is borrowed from Greek and Hellenistic sources. We could say the same of his information upon the Thracian flora too (De r. r. I, 5 and II, 5). Such is for example, the information upon the form of the Thracian shield (De r. r. VII, 3) or the description of the menagery and the park of the Roman wealthy man Quintus Hortensius (De r. r. III, 13. 2 ff.), which were arranged on Thracian model.

In Cicero, in spite of our expectations, there is almost nothing new about the geography and ethnography of Thace, but some information of historical nature has been preserved in his speech against L. Piso 83-89 and his speeches De prov. consul. 2-6 and Pro Sextio, 94, which we do not find in any other authors. Cicero refers in De offic. II, 7, 25 the custom of the Thracians to tattoo their body, a custom we know of from Greek sources too, but Cicero's information is very valuable for he had direct impressions from a part of Thrace and its inhabitants.

Caesar's records about our lands are too scanty and of general character as a result of the fact that his activities and interests had been lying in other fields. The same concerns also Sallustius' information all the more that those records which contain more facts have come down to us in a too fragmentary form.

2. The second chapter of our survey is dedicated to the records of Diodorus, Livy, Dionysios of Halicarnassus and Nicolaus of Damascus.

It is admitted by all that the greatest weakness in Diodorus as a historical writer lies in the fact that he does not weigh his sources critically and that he is nothing but a careful borrower who usually sticks blindly and uncritically to the sources he draws upon. It is this weakness that lends in our case a certain value to Diodorus's borrowing, because it enables us to learn what some other ancient authors whose writings have not been preserved until our time had known about our lands. This concerns chiefly the first 5 books of Diodoras in which the mythical history of ancient world is expounded. The information in Diodorus IV, 3, 2 that the Thracians had started celebrating Bacchic rites, that Sabazius was another name of Dionysus are worth mentioning here and the information of the author upon the early penetration of the Thracians in the Aegean Islands (V, 47, 2; V, 50; V, 50, 6; V, 51, 3) is of a particular import as well as the information upon their supremacy over sea (VII, frg. 13).

The second group of books in Diodorus history which originally consisted of 11 books and in which the author deals with the most important period of the history of ancient Greece (480-323) does not contain in general anything newer about Thrace besides what we know already from Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon.

Out of the third group of books, in which we find the description of the events following the death of Alexander the Great up to the subjugation of the Gauls by Caesar, only 3 whole books have come down to us, as this is well known, some of them being significant and some of them insignificant fragments of the remaining 20 books. I have paid particular attention to the information upon our lands in the books XVIII-XX, as well as in the beginning of book XXI, since this information seems to have been drawn upon some Hellenistic first-rate historic writers, headed by Hieronymus of Cardia, whose work is almost lost for us. I have reviewed the remnants of Diodorus' history in the fragments of the books XXX-XXXIV thoroughly as well, for the information in them upon Thrace is chiefly drawn upon Polybius.

After Diodorus I analyse thoroughly Livy as a source of the history of our lands and mainly the information that is to be found in the 3rd and 4th decade of his work, because as I have pointed out in my study upon Polybius, Livy draws in the case chiefly upon this author.

Out of the records of Dionysios of Halicarnassus about Thrace and the Thracians there is one passage in Ant. Rom. II, 10, 2 ff., that deserves particular notice, in which speaking about the costume and armament of the Roman Salii he ascertains the likeness in form between their shield and the Thracian one and describes it. I think that in this case Dionysios of Hal. draws upon Varro, De r. r. VII 43 and I emphasize the fact that in some ancient authors (such as Plut. Aem. Paul. 32, 5-6) the Thracian shield is also called "yeppon".

The records of the Nicolaus of Damascus about Thrace do not mark any advance in the information upon the ancient time along that line.

3. In this chapter the information offered by the Roman writers of the Augustan age upon the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula is thoroughly analysed. In addition to the information of Vergilius, Horatius and Ovid to whom much attention has been given, the information of Catullus, Tibulus and Phaedrus is also analysed here. The general impression from all this information is that it is meagre and adds nothing more to our knowledge about present Bulgarian lands than what we already knew from the Greek and Hellenistic writers. The knowledge of the Roman writers during the Augustan age about these lands is purely bookish, and besides that the geographic and ethnographic knowledge of the ancient Romans mark a great decline, so that their descriptions of Thrace give an indefinite and wrong rather than a clear and complete idea of that region. Through their descriptions of the northern Balkan regions, lacking in a real basis and influenced by certain Greek and Hellenistic writers and poets as well as by some philosophic schools of that time, the Roman authors of the Augustan age had had a considerable share in rounding and establishing more firmly the conventional notion of these regions, that failed to correspond to reality and was somewhat prejudiced. To all Roman authors of the epoch in question not only Thrace but all the northern Balkan regions are a synonym of an unattractive and savage region where almost permanent and unbearable cold weather prevails and which is inhabited by savage, non-cultural, ferocious tribes, greedy for prey and plunder. These are the lands of the far off barbarian north!

Ovid, who had come to know as a result of his personal observations not only a part of the western coast (more specifically the town of Tomi and its neighbourhood) where he had spent almost a decade in exile but also the entire Thrace, in his eagerness to appease Augustus and beg for his pardon, he described our lands in the darkest colours that could be thought of without the slightest touch of idealisation. But even in the Roman colleagues of Ovid the tendency to idealise the northern non-Greek countries we know of from the Greek authors declines and with a few exceptions, we could say that it disappears entirely. The tendency in the Roman literature toward describing the north Balkan countries in that conventional manner already referred to, and that being done in the darkest colours grows even stronger after Augustus. It is not only the Roman poets but also the Roman prose writers with a few exceptions though, that go on writing about Thrace in that same tone, disregarding the obvious fact that as early as the first half of the 1st century B.C., the Romans, due to their military operations in that part of the Balkan peninsula were able to become familiar with the entire eastern part of the Balkan peninsula.

They had got a closer knowledge of our regions during the military operations of L. Calpurnius Piso, a legate of Augustus against the Thracian tribe Bessians, whereas at that same time Agrippa, Augustus' generalissimo, suggested and encouraged the preparation of the famous map of the world and he himself owned the Thracian Chersonnesus.

4. In the fourth chapter I deal with the information of Justinus, Vell. Paterculus, Val. Maximus and Quintus Curtius upon Thrace, laying stress upon some historical information that has been preserved in those authors (particularly in Justinus and Val. Maximus).

5. In the fifth chapter the information of the Roman writers and poets from the 1st century A.D. up to Pliny the Elder included is discussed.

The information of these Roman authors is also marked by the same lack of originality and clarity as we have found out in the Roman authors of the time of Augustus and those following him. In fact Pliny the Elder offers us quite new facts about the ancient geography, ethnography, flora and fauna of our lands; certain historical facts are also offered, but these facts do not represent any significant progress in the science and they have been preserved in Pliny due to his conscientious work and his encyclopaedic interests.

6. The information upon Thrace we find in the Roman writers and poets after Pliny the Elder down to the end of the 2nd century A.D., excepting what we find in Tacitus and what I have surveyed in connection with some other question, is poorer and more stereotypic than the information of their predecessors. This concerns with a few exceptions the information of the poets Persius, Lucan, Silius Italicus, Statius, Martialis, V. Flaccus and Juvenalis, even as well as, the following prose-writers Pliny Junior, Suetonius, Aul. Gellius, Frontinus etc.

7. In this chapter I have analysed the information we find in the more significant Greek authors of the beginning of the 1st down to the end of the 2nd century A.D.

Unfortunately, the decline in the geographic and ethnographic knowledge about the north Balkan regions we have already referred to in the Roman authours is typical not only of the latter but of the Greek authours of that same age. Even more: the decline of the scientific impulse and chiefly of the eagerness for discovering new scientific methods and reaching new horizons in geography and ethnography was general and could not be helped. And yet the Greek writers of the first two centuries as well as of the 3rd and 4th century A.D., faithful to their greater literary and cultural traditions offer us information upon our land which exceed the information of their Roman colleagues, as far as quality is concerned.

Even an author such as Josephus Flavius shows that although he is deficient in wide knowledge, yet he has quite a clear idea of Thrace, its inhabitants and of its administration as a Roman province.

I analyse next the information of Dion Chrysostom who owing to his personal observations was familiar with a considerable portion of our lands and who had also written a history of the Getians, of which, unfortunately its title is only preserved. Some different facts connected with the life of the Thracian tribes and some very valuable information upon the history of the Greek colonies along the western Black sea coast that we find in his speeches display the solid knowledge of the author of the north Balkan lands and make us regret still more the loss of his Getica. The same fate has befallen upon the history of the Dacians written by the court physician of Trajan — Criton. Recently the English prominent scientist Buckler published an inscription from Asia Minor with the testament of this friend of Trajan, Osterr. Jahresh. XXX. 1937, Beiblatt, p. 6 ff.

The writing of Plutarch and Pseudoplutarch about Thrace are valuable because some information upon that country referring to different periods is preserved in him. Some portions of that information touch upon the past and life of its inhabitants, while others are connected with the personality of some Thracian notables, although some of the last pieces of information are in the form of anecdote.

Certain information upon the history, ethnography and topography of our lands that we find in Arrian and Appian that we analyse in details in the Bulgarian part of our survey are of some significance for the history, ethnography and topography of our lands.

8. This chapter deals with an information on Thrace to be found in Pausanias, Polyaenus, Galenus, Aelianus, Cassius Dio and Herodian. Although some of these authors such as Pausanias, Cassius Dio, Herodian and Polyaenus are familiar with certain parts of the eastern half of the Balkan peninsula as a result of personal observations, an essential feature of their information is the emphasis upon the unattractive character of these lands and the unbearable cold weather prevailing in them, an environment that has affected its inhabitants, too, and had made them poor, of low culture, savage and thence eager for plunder and constant bloody wars. It had also acted upon the animals that were living there.

As it seems the Greek authors of that time, like their Latin colleagues accept uncritically the theories of some of their predecessors of Greek and Hellenistic time and with the exception of some new and valuable details of geographic, historical and topographic nature, they do not offer us anything new about these lands.

Aelian is the only one who does not share some of his predecessors views already referred to and assumes an attitude contrary to theirs. Such is the case (De nat. anim. II, 55) of the information upon the hornless oxen that were raised in Moesia. The author does not deny that they had no horns but he points out that it was due not to the cold weather in the Danubian provinces, but to a peculiar feature of the physical structure of those animals and he adds that in Scythia (which was colder than Moesia) the oxen had horns and the Scythians were occupied with bee keeping. Thus Aelian rejects or at least makes two of Herodotus views (IV, 9; V, 10) groundless, although he apologises for his daring to argue with such an authority acknowledged by all.

9. Happily enough two outstanding representatives of the Second Sophistry such as Aristides and Lucian knew parts of our lands as a result of their own observations. In another study I have surveyed more thoroughly their information about Thrace so that I shall mention only here, that Aristides had passed through Aegean Thrace about the end of December 155 A.D. and had described his direct impressions of Thrace and its Inhabitants quite vividly (compare Ael. Arist. II 59, B, 5 ff. (ed. Keil). That description proves to be all the more up to date, considering that it confirms entirely the impressions of Stanley Casson, "Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria" p. 10 ff., of this same region he had visited eighteen centuries after Aristides and he seems not to have known his description.

Out of the works of Lucian about Thrace, which examine thoroughly in the Bulgarian portion of my study, I should like to mention here his vivid and impressive description of the town of Philippopolis, present Plovdiv (compare Luc. Fugit. 24 ff. and Danov, in the Real-Encyclopadie of Pauly-Wissowa XIX s. v. Philippopolis).

After Aristides and Lucian I analyse the information of several Greek writers of that same time, such as the two Philostratus, Alciphron, Xenophon of Ephesus, Ptolemy etc.

10. In the tenth and last chapter I have surveyed the more important Greek and Roman authors of the 3rd and 4th century A.D., in whom we find some information upon Thrace. The list of Greek authors starts with Babrius and ends with Libanius and Themisthius, while the list of the Latin authours starts with Fl. Vegetius and closes with Ammianus Marcellinus und Cl. Claudianus. I should not exaggerate if I say that the ancient writers did not offer us anything new about our lands, except perhaps, some new facts of their history. In other words these authors will repeat and in many cases misinterpret what their predecessors knew of the geography, ethnography, topography and toponymy of these lands. Even Ammianus Marcellinus who as a result of his own observations knows a considerable portion of the eastern half of the Balkan peninsula and gives us an extensive description of these lands, in many cases he still bows his head before the everlasting authority of Homer, while Claudianus repeats to the point of satiety the motives well known to us about the savageness, ferocity and predatory impulses of the ancient Thracian and the unbearable cold weather that benumbed their land. The Fathers of the Church of that time and even later take up and hand down without any alteration the principal motive of this old song.

The decline already pointed out in the knowledge of the ancient authors about our lands during a period of six whole centuries and particularly the decline in their geographic and ethnographic knowledge must not puzzle us. The originality in the Greek geographic and ethnographic science disappears as early as the last great historian of the ancient times — Posidonius of Apamea passes away. Everything written after him in this field is a careful compilation or a vague imitation, weaknesses that take monstrous forms in the Romans. And if today's science of the antiquity had have at its disposal only the geographic knowledge of the Romans it could hardly be able to speak of a real geographic science in the ancient Greeks. Without the information of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Strabon (Posidonius and Demetrius of Callatis) upon ancient Thrace and its inhabitants, our present knowledge about these lands would be utterly scanty and conventional as well.

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Addendum: Studies concerning ancient Thrace and the Thracians in Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, arise from the ancient Greek and Roman prosaists and poets, who bequeathed them to the first Christian writers and to the Byzantine authors between Photius (9th century AD) and Eustathius of Thessaloniki (12th century AD). The knowledge of the ancient geographers and ethnographers was re-recorded in the 5th century AD and later cartographed. Descriptions of archaeological sites, finds, artifacts, monuments and inscriptions from the ancient Thracian lands started also to appear at that time. Until the end of the 19th century AD, travelers, missionaries, couriers, diplomats and spies who crossed the lands of the Ottoman Empire in northwest-southeast direction wrote these texts. These were followed by the field surveys of the first terrain researchers, whose studies were published first in Modern Greek and partly in Romanian, and after the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule (1878) in Bulgarian.

The first general works on Thracian antiquity were based on the coin collections of several European museums, as they were the most attractive source of information at that time. After some less known attempts, a French numismatist — Felix Cary — presented before the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres in Paris, a paper on the history of the Thracian and Bosporan (Northern Black Sea) kings, as elucidated by their coins (Cary, 1757). As a whole, this paper was an interdisciplinary investigation, because the arrangement of the coins was possible only after an analysis of the most important written sources, which gave an opportunity to trace back the chronology of the Thracian kings.

Nearly 140 years after this study, a Vienna linguist — Wilhelm Tomaschek — published a fundamental work (Die Alten Thraker, 1893-94). He analyzed in it the documented traces — single words, names of deities, persons and places — of the Thracian language; defined it as an Indo-European (Indo-German according to the terminology of that time) language; and, with the help of some written and archaeological monuments known since the 19th century, formulated the first hypothesis concerning the origin of the Thracians and the character of their religion. Today, W. Tomaschek is recognized as a founder of modern Thracology.

The significance of Thracology for the studies on investigations on the Antiquity is endured by some exceptionally important archaeological excavations and finds, by new written and epigraphic data, and owing to the substantial scientific efforts of scholars from many European countries, as well as from the USA. The teams that carry out certain projects communicate with one another at meetings, symposia and conferences, as well as at the regularly organized International Congresses on Thracology at four year intervals. Following the First congress in Sofia (1972), they were organized in Bucharest, Vienna, Rotterdam, Moscow, Palma de Mallorca and Constantsa. This activity was supported by the International Council of Indo-European and Thracian Studies (45 scholars from 15 countries). The Council was founded by the Third Congress in Vienna and its Secretariat is in Sofia.

The ethnonym Thracians does not denote the united people of a single state. It covers an innumerable population that inhabited vast territories in Europe: from the northeastern Dnieper-Dniester areas to the lands between the rivers Strymon (pres. Strouma) and Axios (pres. Vardar) in the southwest, and from there to Northwestern Asia Minor. The demographic core of this population is situated in the space spanning from the Carpathian Mountains to the Aegean Sea, and manifests identical or similar culture-historical features during all main periods of its existence. It was also the resource of the Thracian diaspora, which was to be found during different epochs of the Antiquity in Eurasia and Egypt, and later — in Italy, Rome and the Roman provinces from Britain to Mesopotamia.

Considering this historical situation, Thracian culture turned out to be the main and most promising objective of investigation. The advantages of thus formed group of problems lie primarily in the circumstance that it encircles the highly active heralds of an oral community, evidenced fairly well in different living conditions and interactions. On the other hand, the European Southeast, together with Asia Minor, affords an extremely rare opportunity to consider an oral culture through its fruitful contacts with literary cultures — in this case the Hellenic, followed in the century BC by the Roman one. The study of the observers’ attitude towards the observed and described objects enables us to trace back how the Thracians entered History by the process of Hellenization, and partly of Romanization.

This approach determines that the non-literariness is not a historical blame but a type of attitude, conditioned by its own deeply significant traditional norms. Hence, culture is accepted as an equivalent to a historically creative behavior. It is the partner of the culture-behavior of the literary communities in the big spiritual syntheses, accomplished in the Southeastern Europe during the Antiquity. These syntheses give rise to steady and productive impulses for further evolution of the whole European civilization up to Modern Times.

 

 

Copyright © 2010 by the author.