Ancient Thrace

Ancient Thrace covers an area that nowadays comprises Bulgaria and parts of Greece, Turkey and Romania. Defined by the river Istros (modern Danube) to the north, the Aegean Sea to the south and the Black Sea to the east, the land was rich in natural resources, navigable rivers and hospitable harbors. The western boundary of ancient Thrace is harder to pinpoint because of the constant movement of the numerous Thracian tribes inhabiting the area, and the continuous development of the historical and political landscape before and after the formation of the Macedonian Kingdom. Scholars usually accept the river Strymon as its western limit, and the river Nestos, for the period after the rise of Macedon and the conquest of Thrace by Philipp II, which led to the Macedonian dominance in ancient Thrace during the Hellenistic period.

Located in a strategic point between Europe and Asia, and gifted with large potential for agriculture, animal husbandry and mining, Ancient Thrace soon attracted the interest of prospective colonists, focusing especially on the Aegean coast and the islands across. By the sixth century BCE, trading posts and colonies were founded by Greek cities across the Thracian coast of the Aegean, the western coast of the Euxine Pontus and even further inland, near rivers commercial routes (e.g. Pistiros, Vetren) or the periphery of flourishing coastal colonies. The colonization process was long and had manifold consequences for both the immigrants and the locals. Even though each case should be studied on its own merit, as the local landscape, economy, politics and history may vary, there is however one unifying parameter that is worth exploring: the Athenian presence in ancient Thrace. And the best tool to help us investigate this aspect is the study of Attic painted pottery and its diffusion in the area.

Ancient Thrace (© Θρακική Εστία)

Athens, in particular, showed a keen interest in Thrace already in the sixth century, drawn by its natural resources, wealth and exceptional location. It was then that members of two prominent, aristocratic Athenian families (Peisistratos and Miltiades I) became interested in the area not only by exploiting the silver mines of Mt Pangaion and the feuds between locals on Propontis, but also by founding colonies, assisting native tribes under attack and striking personal and other relations with the indigenous communities, which eventually had a considerable impact on the Athenian society and economy itself.

These relations were officially cultivated by Athens in the fifth century, following the end of the Persian Wars, especially after the formation of the Odrysian Kingdom and around the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Seeking for goods, new markets and strong allies to promote her political and economic goals, Athens turned to the North, wishing, on the one hand, to influence the Greek colonies and on the other, to lure their wealthy Thracian neighbors on her side. The Athenian power in the area begins to fade by the end of the fifth century and more so with the conquests of Philip II and Alexander the Great.

By the end of the fourth century, the political scene in the northern Aegean and its periphery becomes more complex, confounding further the relations between the Athenians and the Greek colonies, as well as the Macedonian Kingdom, the Odrysians, other Thracian (semi-)autonomous tribes and rising powers to the North (e.g. Getae) and the East (e.g. satrapies). Despite the numerous upheavals that took place during the late sixth through the fourth centuries and the multi-faceted political terrain of ancient Thrace, pottery and other goods with it continued to be imported more or less uninterruptedly. Attic vases make their appearance in the area alongside with other ceramic wares (e.g. local, Ionian, Aeolian, Corinthian), but it is with the imports of black-glaze and, particularly, painted vases (i.e., made in the black- and red- figured technique) that they enjoy a long period of popularity at the Greek colonies and their periphery, as well as at Thracian sites in the interior.

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