Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Julia Valeva, Emil Nankov, Denver Graninger (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Thrace. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Malden; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Pp. 512. ISBN 9781444351040. £120.00 / €150.00.

Reviewed by Athanasios Sideris, University of the Aegean and Thrace Foundation (thanos_sideris@hotmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


This book comes in the familiar format of the publisher's series of Companions, within which the closest parallel is the one dedicated to neighboring Macedonia.1 The less-than-a-page "Editors' Preface" does not provide any substantive explanation of the volume's articulation, the methodology followed, or the editors' aims, especially since its latter half is dedicated to acknowledgments. Throughout the 29 chapters of the volume, however, it is clear that most of the authors have made an effort to deal with the entirety of ancient Thrace, parts of which lie mainly in four different modern countries. The chapters dealing with the historical and sociocultural topics are more successful in this enterprise, while those dealing with the archaeological ones are less so. The focus, although never explicitly stated, remains Bulgarian Thrace, a fact also illustrated by the authors' nationalities: 21 out of 27 are Bulgarian scholars.

In the first chapter, Theodossiev presents a brief history of the research and in doing so, exemplifies the underlying indecision of the volume as a whole as to how to define its content. More than a century of research in Turkish and Greek Thrace is summed up in Hasluck's publication of the Eriklice tomb. In the limited space of a Companion such a bias is almost unavoidable. For a more detailed account, as well as for the political uses of the Thracian past, one may now refer to Marinov's essay.2

The following chapters on "Geography" and "Ethnicity" (Bouzek, Graninger) emphasize the importance of Thrace ("the largest country in Europe": Thuc. 2.29, 2.97.5) and acknowledge the problem of changing boundaries, but they do not tackle the most controversial topics, such as the ethnic affiliation of the Late Archaic culture documented by the finds of Trebenishte and Arkhontiko.

Part II, dedicated to the history of Thrace, is organized into five chapters written by Zahrnt (early to 360 B.C.), Delev (360-73 B.C., two chapters), Lozanov (Roman), and Dumanov (Late Antiquity). They all are, of course, largely based on the Greek and Roman sources and thus, inevitably, pay more attention to the Greek colonies of the Aegean and the Black Sea coasts. Some interesting insights for the 5th century B.C. could have been extracted from Porozhanov's calculations on the Athenian Tribute Lists.3

The ten chapters of Part III represent the archaeological core of the volume, each one dealing with familiar subject matter. Popov presents a very useful and fully updated account on "Settlements." He rightly points to a number of issues concerning the settlements, which cannot be answered considering the current state of the field, e.g., the absence (rather rarity) of small villages in the archaeological record (120). In the following chapter Nekhrizov summarizes the research on the "Dolmens and Rock-Cut Monuments."

Pit fields, often and tentatively referred to as "ritual pits" or "pit sanctuaries," are characteristic of the Thracian culture. Georgieva rightly dismisses the criticism of some scholars, who believe them all to be misinterpreted garbage, storage, or utility pits (145), and establishes through numerous paradigms the ritual character of at least some of them. Their form, construction, and fill leave no doubt about their ritual function. All the more so as some pits contained, in addition to pottery and artifacts used in domestic activities, human remains—bodies that had been dismembered or buried in abnormal positions. 4 This issue has divided the Bulgarian archaeological community and skepticism is expressed even in the volume under review (120).

The following two chapters deal with the "Tomb Architecture" (Stoyanova) and tomb decoration (Valeva). Stoyanova offers a valuable overview of the monumental chamber tombs, often accessed by a dromos and covered by an artificial mound. The tomb in Chetynyova mogila represents probably the most evident case of Greek influence in the design and construction of these monuments (162). Another one, Golyamata Kosmatka, has been linked to Seuthes III on the basis of a bronze portrait head and some artifacts bearing the king's name. Stoyanova calls into question this association by invoking the construction phases and the presence of artifacts "that considerably postdate the likely date of Seuthes III's death" (161). The tomb is now published,5 and her second argument can be safely dismissed.6

Valeva also authored the chapter on the metal vases. Her approach, rather descriptive and conventional, privileges the typology over the chronology, the stylistic affiliations, the patterns of circulation, and the social function of these luxury products. The Athenian silverware receives barely four lines (199), despite the fact that it represents a crucial issue for the understanding of the 5th century B.C. cultural politics and diplomacy.7 In the following thorough overview of the "Adornments" Tonkova collects the jewelry and the horse trapping ornaments, for many of which a common origin is plausibly suggested. Two main groups are discussed: the imports and the local production. The existence of the latter is now firmly established since several punches, matrices, and fine instruments have been discovered in inland Thrace.

Bozhkova in the chapter on "Pottery" rightly emphasizes fabrics and classes, which are less well known (handmade, EIA II monochrome ware). The systematic correlation of the locally produced pottery with the imported vases may substantially improve the dating of many sites. The Thracian mythological subjects represented on the Athenian vases (Orpheus, Tereus, Diomedes, Lycurgus, etc.) are a topic that one would expect to be addressed in the chapter on "Athens" (not addressed). The almost total absence of such vases from Thrace itself, however, merits further investigation.

This part of the book closes with two chapters dealing respectively with "Inscriptions" and "Numismatics." Dana in the former examines the meager evidence for the Thracian language, but keeps a safe distance from the more imaginative interpretations. Among other comments he suggests a new word-separation in the inscription on the lintel of a monumental chamber tomb in Smjadovo: ΓΟΝΙΜΑΣΗΖΗ / ΣΕΥΘΘΥΓΥΝΗ as Γονιμαση ζῆ / Σεύθ<ο>υ γυνή: Gonimase, Seuthes' wife (still) lives! (246). Paunov's brilliant essay on the numismatics of Thrace includes a general account, a quantitative approach, as well as two detailed lists of cities kings, and dynasts that minted coins.

Part IV, labeled "Influence and Interaction" comprises six chapters. In the first Damyanov addresses thoroughly the broader issues of colonization and makes clear that comparisons between the two main regions (Northern Aegean, Black Sea) must be made with caution (301). Sears in the following chapter reiterates the main theses of his book on Athenian-Thracian relations. The focal point in his narrative is the appeal that the Thracian military way of life allegedly exercised on Athenian aristocrats, motivating them to choose Thrace for extended visits or even as their permanent residence (313–318). This and the allegedly ensuing Thracophilia of the Athenian nobility have received some rather loud criticism.8 Athens' early interest in Thrace was subsequently matched by the expanding Achaemenid Empire, the topic of the chapter authored by Vassileva. She reviews the ancient sources, remains skeptical on the identification of Thrace with the satrapy of Skudra (322–323), and points to the impact that the retreat of the Persians had on the formation of the Odrysian Kingdom. Equally useful is her discussion of the Achaemenid influence on the material culture related to the banquet, which is mostly seen in the type of plate that was used. She rightly sees East Greek or local Thracian imitations in Persianizing style in most of the artifacts of this class discovered in Thrace (327). The silver amphora with zoomorphic handles from Kukova mogila is, however, an exception, which should be ascribed either to a Court or, less probably, to an important satrapal workshop.

The "Macedonian Kingship" provided direct inspiration for the shaping of the Thracian one. Greenwalt in his chapter on this topic draws analogies between the two and searches for the influence of the former on the iconography of the artifacts created or used in Thrace. Braund follows a similar line when addressing the ambivalent relations between Thrace and Scythia. In the final chapter of Part IV, Emilov deals with the Celts. The contacts between the Celts and Thrace are discussed from their earliest occurrence, but the emphasis is put on the Celtic invasion. During the Late Hellenistic period the archaeological visibility of the amalgamation between Thracians and Celts reaches much farther geographically than is usually noted (Iberic Peninsula).9

The concluding part, "Controversies" comprises five chapters. In the first one Archibald attempts a literary critique of the ancient sources, measures the rather weak impact of economic theory on Thracian studies, and traces the current trends in the scholarship. Nankov in the chapter on "Urbanization" discusses the character of some specific types of settlements, such as the Macedonian colonies (Philippopolis, Drongylon, Kabyle, etc.), the emporia (Pistiros), the Royal cities (Seuthopolis, Helis), and the residential complexes of country estates (Kozi Gramadi) believed to have served as residences for the local chieftains. In the chapter on "Trade," Tzochev follows the earliest contacts and their development during the Colonization era, the structure and organization of the royal economy, as well as the function of marketplaces and the degree of monetization. This is a blueprint of what may become a significant synthetic work on the Thracian economy.

Next comes a chapter on "Warfare," in which Stoyanov details the various types of arms and weapons. The machaira was by far the preferred weapon for close combat, while the most widespread types of helmets are the Chalcidian and the Thracian (or Phrygian) ones. The romphaia is not mentioned. Many aspects of the tactics, the use of artillery, and the construction of fortresses seem to have developed under Macedonian influence, while the equipment and practices related to horsemanship have much in common with the Scythian culture. In the final chapter of the volume Rabadjiev addresses the questions of "Religion." The Thracian gods were anthropomorphic and omnipresent. Their cult could thus occur almost anywhere, especially because it often involved only pits or hearths, and did not require any monumental construction. The archaeological evidence points in some cases to a connection between the funerary monuments and heroic cult rituals.

Despite the enormous volume of information and the extent of the topics covered in the Companion, the individual chapters show a remarkable cohesion, which could have been enhanced had the cross-references been more frequent. Any project of such scale will inevitably suffer from some degree of disparity in depth of information, mastery of the subject matter, and fluidity of expression. The final balance, however, is unquestionably positive. In its favor must be counted the novelty of the information presented and the cautious treatment of many still-debated issues. Sincere praise is due to the editors for their achievement. The Companion offers a concise but reliable and often in-depth orientation for anyone researching Thracian matters and their connections to the neighboring cultures. I would strongly recommend its purchase, but unfortunately the publisher's price is prohibitive.


1.   See BMCR 2011.12.31.
2.   Marinov, Tch., "Ancient Thrace in the Modern Imagination," in R. Daskalov and A. Vezenkov (eds.), Entangled Histories of the Balkans III. Shared Pasts, Disputed Legacies, Balkan Studies Library 9, Leiden 2015, pp. 10–117.
3.   Porozhanov, K., The Odrysian Kingdom, the Poleis along its Coasts, and Athens from the End of the 6th century until 341 BC, Studia Thracica 14, Blagoevgrad 2011.
4.   Two additional cases recently reported from Halka Bunar, southeast Bulgaria: Archaeological Discoveries and Excavations = AOR 2011, pp. 156–158, fig. 1; AOR 2012, pp. 147–149, fig. 2b.
5.   Dimitrova, D., The Tomb of King Seuthes III in Golyama Kosmatka Tumulus, Sofia 2015.
6.   Again in Stoyanov, T., and D. Stoyanova, in O. Henry and U. Kelp (eds.), Tumulus as Sema. Space, Politics, Culture and Religion in the First Millennium BC, Berlin and Boston 2016, pp. 317–322. Criticism: Sideris, A., Metal Vases in the Vassil Bojkov Collection, Sofia 2016, pp. 237–238.
7.   Different approaches: Rufin Solas, A., in A. Rufin Solas, M.-G. Parissaki, E. Kosmidou (eds.), Armées grecques et romaines dans le nord des Balkans. Conflits et intégration des communautés guerrières, Akanthina 7, Gdańsk-Toruń 2013, pp. 29–50; Sideris, A., Theseus in Thrace. The Silver Lining on the Clouds of the Athenian–Thracian Relations in the 5th Century BC, Sofia 2015.
8.   Herein BMCR 2013.09.51, and Taylor, M.C., CJ-Online 2014.05.01.
9.   E.g., Spânu D., Dacia N.S. 43–45, 1999–2001, pp. 31–72; Spânu, D., and V. Cojocaru, "The Dacian Hoard from Bucureşti-Herăstrău. Archaeological and Archaeometallurgical Approaches," Materiale şi Cercetări Arheologice SN 5, 2009, pp. 97–116.

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