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In this lesson, we explore the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, the Thracians. Residing largely in what is today Bulgaria, the Thracians were famed for their fighting and considered barbarians by many ancient commentators.

Bad Rep

Reputations can often precede people: if someone is rumored to be a rough guy, chances are you are going to approach your first meeting with that person with some caution, even though you have never met him before and the person may actually be quite nice.Reputations can work this way not just for single persons, but for an entire people as well. The Thracians, an ancient Indo-European ethnic group that resided in what is today considered the Balkans, suffered from just such an ignominious characterization.

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Thracian Culture: Fact and Fiction

Most of what we know about the ancient Thracians comes from surviving ancient Greek and Roman sources. Both the Greeks and the Romans considered the Thracians to be barbarians, largely because they lived in relatively unsophisticated open-air dwellings and frequent intra-communal political strife preempted the Thracians from founding a large, consolidated empire like the Romans.Historians today, however, disagree that the Thracians were more primitive than their ancient neighbors. Despite their lack of political organization, the Thracians possessed highly advanced oral and linguistic traditions, and poetry, music, and folkloric literature was prized within Thracian communities. Unfortunately, no Thracian literature survives today, and we only know of their language from what few Thracian words have been included in Roman or Greek texts.

A Brief History of Ancient Thrace

The Thracians were an ancient ethnic group that inhabited parts of what is today European Turkey and the extreme north part of Greece, but the vast majority of Thracian land is in what is today Bulgaria. Although Thrace as an extant group seemingly disappears with the same third- to seventh-century Slavic, Gothic, and Visigothic invasions that felled the Roman Empire, many Bulgarians can still trace their bloodlines and DNA to ancient Thracian communities.Due to the lack of any surviving Thracian literature, what we know of the ancient Thracians comes from outside sources. While historians can only hypothesize as to the origins of the Thracians, they were likely around as long as the ancient Greek city-states; Homer’s Iliad, likely written in the seventh or eighth century B.C., notes that the Thracians were allied with the Trojans during the Trojan War.

According to other Greek sources, the Thracians were conquered by Persia in the sixth century B.C.Around 360 B.C., several Thracian tribes united to form a short-lived Thracian empire, the Odrysae. The empire was quickly conquered by Phillip II of Macedon, and consolidated into the Macedonian Empire by Alexander the Great.

After the fall of Macedon, many of the Thracian tribes became subjects of the burgeoning Roman Empire, and Thrace was fully annexed to become a Roman province in 46 A.D.After the fall of Rome, Thrace and the rest of the Balkans were crisscrossed by dozens of invading tribes, armies, and empires over the following centuries; everyone from the Russians, to the Ottoman Turks, to the relatively young Bulgaria of today have held land once inhabited by ancient Thracian tribes.

Thracian Gladiators

The Thracian reputation propagated by Greek and Roman literature had an impact on Roman sporting culture. Thracians were considered by ancient writers to be incredibly fierce warriors, and this reputation inspired a class of gladiators. The Thracian gladiators were armed far lighter than the other classes, with only a short sword and small shield.

The Thracian gladiators often had little or no body armor other than shin or ankle guards, although they often still wore a helmet, usually adorned with an animal or mythological beast.

Learning Outcomes

Set about doing the following things after sufficient study of the lesson on the Thracians:

  • Distinguish between fact and fiction with respect to the culture of the Thracians
  • Discuss the hypotheses of historians regarding the group’s origins
  • Recognize the Thracians’ reputation as fierce warriors

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