Ancient Thrace Was Gradually Taken Over by Ancient Greek, Greco-Roman Sports Culture, Reveals New Exhibition at Bulgaria’s National Museum of Archaeology
Bulgaria’s National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia has unveiled a new large-scale exhibition presenting “Sports in Ancient Thrace” with a wide-range of archaeological artifacts dating from the Iron Age to the Late Antiquity.
The exhibition on Sports in Ancient Thrace was formally opened on April 24, 2018, at the main building of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology near the Bulgarian Presidency in downtown Sofia.
It is dedicated to the city of Sofia’s election as European Capital of Sports during 2018, the Museum has said.
“The purpose of the exhibition is to show the place of sports in the society of the Ancient Thracians who inhabited Bulgaria’s territories in [both] the pre-Roman and the Roman period, and who were under the strong cultural influence of the Antiquity Greco-Roman civilization,” the Museum explains.
“In addition, the exhibition on Sports in Ancient Thrace is an occasion to acquaint the public with the rich historical, archaeological, and cultural heritage of Bulgaria’s lands as views through the lense of sports. With its rich history, sports carries universal values and traditions that turn it even today in one of the most notable unifying niches in European culture,” it elaborates.
The Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition presents the emergence and adaptation of sports culture in the lands of the Ancient Thracians. This is revealed by the exhibition curators through a wide range of artifacts.
Stone reliefs and inscriptions as well as paintings on ceramic vessels produced in the Ancient Greek colonies on what is today Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast testify to the tradition of the Ancient Greeks to organize and participate actively in sports competitions such as sprint, discus throw, javelin throw, long jump, pankration (a combination wrestling and boxing), wrestling, and boxing.
“An important testimony to this are the strigils, tools used by the athletes to cleanse their bodies by scraping them off after practice or competitions. Their discovery, for example, in necropolises in Messembria (today’s Black Sea town of Nessebar) and Odessos (today’s Black Sea city of Varna) shows that these items were also placed in graves as part of the personal belongings of the deceased with which they were sent to the afterlife,” the National Institute and Museum in Sofia says.
It adds that as a result of political, economic, and cultural contracts with the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Thrace gradually adopted the sports culture.
One particularly strong example of that is a gold seal ring with the image of an athlete from the end of the 5th century BC which belonged to an Ancient Thracian aristocrat.
The gold ring with the athlete was discovered by late archaeologist Georgi Kitov back in 2004 in the Svetitsata (“The Saint”) Thracian burial mound near the town of Shipka in Central Bulgaria together with a now world-famous gold mask.
If the hypothesis that the gold mask in question belonged to King Teres I (r. 475 – 445 BC), the first leader of the powerful Odrysian Thracian Kingdom, is correct, then the gold athlete ring may have belonged to him as well.
Another key artifact from the Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition is a silver phiale (bowl) owned by a Thracian aristocrat with a composition of engraved and gilded images showing a chariot race. The phiale in question has been discovered in a grave with a very rich inventory in the Bashova Mogila mound, Plovdiv District.
The discovery of iron strigils in the tomb of Ancient Thracian Odrysian King Seuthes III in the Golyama Kosmatka Mound is seen as further evidence that the sports culture was adopted at the highest possible social level.
“After the inclusion of the Thracian territories in the Roman Empire, sports games began occupying an increasingly important place in the cities of Thrace, turning not just into a fashion followed en masse throughout the Roman provinces, but also into a means of propaganda for the Roman authority and its representatives in the city councils,” the National Institute and Museum in Sofia says.
The Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition showcases a stone inscription which is an invitation on part of the authorities of the Ancient Roman city of Serdica, today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, to participate in sports competitions.
Images and inscriptions on coins also testify to the official holding of sports games in the cities of the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace). Certain stone inscriptions reveal that famous athletes from Asia Minor also participated in those games.
“On various monuments, such as coins, stone reliefs, vessels, we find images of athletes who competed in disciplines included in the program of these sports games.
One other ancient artifact which is said to have generated “exceptional interest” is spherical bronze vessel, a balsamarium, found in a grave near the town of Slokolshtitsa, Kyustendil District, in Western Bulgaria.
The entire bronze balsamarium is covered with reliefs depicting scenes from sports competitions: two athletes with typical hairstyles fighting in a pankration match, a town crier announcing the victory of a boxer who is seen placing a winner’s crown on his own head, and tables with prizes for winners in sports competitions.
The Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition also features the marble head of a pankratiast (a pankration athlete) discovered in the Ancient Roman city of Almus, today’s Danube town of Lom in Northwest Bulgaria.
The marble pankratiast’s head “recreates in an extremely expressive way the athlete’s physique as well as his exhaustion from the hard matches [he’s had]”, emphasizes the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
“Through this cultural interaction with the Hellenes, definitely, sports culture was introduced gradually [to Ancient Thrace]. The Thracians like it, and, of course, gradually, they themselves started to participate in the competitions, and to score wins,” Petya Andreeva, the curator of the Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition, has told BNR.
“[In the Antiquity, sports occupied a place that is rather similar to the place sports occupy in modern-day society, with a few small exceptions… The then athletes had a major influence in the society. Of course, sometimes they were used for political purposes. In some respects, they enjoyed greater privileges than today’s athletes,” says Assoc. Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia
He notes that less data has been found about sports in Ancient Thrace before it was conquered by the Roman Empire.
“The sports practiced in the Thracian society was different from the Classical Greco-Roman sports culture of which we have a lot more data. Ancient Thrace became part of it even before it was conquered [by the Roman Empire], I am talking about the 4th – 1st century BC. This form of the Greco-Roman sports culture was promoted by the Roman Era, the Thracians adopted it, and the Thracian elite began to practice it,” Vagalinski elaborates.
He adds that in the Greek version [of sports], athletes practiced sports naked which led to certain indignation on part of Ancient Roman thnkers.
“Cicero, for instance, was indignant, and declared that taking your clothes off before the citizens was the beginning of vice. That’s why the Romans weren’t very keen on those types of sports even though they were very popular across the Roman state, especially in the eastern provinces, including Thracia (Thrace),” notes Vagalinski who is a specialist in Antiquity archaeology.
“There were also more extreme opinions. For example, that of Diogen the Cynic, the philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC. He had a very negative view [of the athletes], he said those men… had to be chopped into pieces and served at a feast because they had too much flesh. That was the cry of an intellectual who resented the excessive accumulation of muscle. Back then, just as now, the athletes had special diets,” the archaeologist explains.
“Many generals in the Antiquity were indignant over the fact that the athletes were rather frail, required a special diet, couldn’t endure much tension and hardship, and actually were no good as soldiers,” Vagalinski adds.
“We can also hear such views today but at the same time, in the Antiquity, there was admiration for the athletes’ achievements, they vie for giving them awards. What is more, back then, just as now, the athletes received retirement pensions under certain rules. What’s interesting is that the pension which you, as a prominent athlete, were to receive for life, you could sell it, you could sell legally your right to a pension to people who had nothing to do with sports. That was huge business in a scope that’s unknown for our society today,” the archaeologist elaborates.
He stresses that the Olympic creed of the Modern Era formulated by Baron de Coubertin, namely, that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part”, would have been impossible to fathom by the athletes of Ancient Thrace, Greece, and Rome because they always competed for a prize, be it an expensive belonging or later money.
“With a few exceptions, the Roman Emperors weren’t interested in sports as such because sports, in the form in which they were popular throughout the Mediterranean world was not very glorified in the Roman society because sports were practiced naked. They were rather skeptic about these activities. Part of the Roman elite even thought that Rome managed to conquer the Ancient Greeks because the latter were too engulfed by their sports competitions, and forgot the good practices. To them, sports were useless because sports didn’t turn the athletes into good soldiers, but diverted their attention,” says the Director of the National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
At the same time, Vagalinski contrasts those “eastern” types of sports with the gladiator fights and chariot races, which also had a lot in common with sports, but were controlled and promoted directly by the Roman Emperors.
“Gladiator games were a whole other story – the emperors controlled them because they channeled the energy of the masses. Just as it is today on football (soccer) stadiums, and today’s governments also pay a lot of attention to them. Not to theater or musical performances because, as they said even back in the Antiquity, few people are interested in those. Those are for the elite, the more enlightened part of the people. Back then, as now, the masses want action,” the archaeologist says.
He emphasizes that back in the Antiquity, in Ancient Greece and Thrace, and in the Roman Era, sports injuries were much more severe than they are today.
“As one source says, ca. 200 AD, the mature Roman Imperial Age, an athlete named Euridamantes won a boxing match, and even though all of his teeth had been knocked out during the match, he swallowed them so his opponent wouldn’t find out,” Vagalinski says.
“They had no protectors, they fought very fiercely, and there were no weight categories, just age categories which were men, children, and sometimes teens. The bigger you were, the better chance you had at winning. They had this sport pankration which was something like a combination between wrestling, judo, and jiu-jitsu, and they could fight all day until one of them conceded his loss,” the archaeologist explains.
He notes that Ancient Greek sources provide information about the sports competitions of the Ancient Thracians as early as the 8th, 7th, and 6th century BC: the Thracians would organize funeral sports events when some of their nobles died, there were chariot races and one-on-one competitions.
“The sources don’t say exactly what kind those one-on-one matches were but they were hardly any different from those of the Ancient Greeks who had wrestling and boxing. Homer described these funeral events rather well in the Iliad when Achilles had them over the death of his friend Patroclus. The Thracians also had them but the archaeological data is scarce, the written sources give data to some extent,” Vagalinski says.
“After that, there are more sources and data because with the Early Hellenism, the end of the 4th – 3rd century BC, Ancient Thrace became part of the large Hellenistic ethno-cultural environment. The Thracians were part of Alexander the Great’s army, they had closer contact with other civilizations, and saw more of the world, and one part of their elite started practicing sports in their Ancient Greek form. We have found strigils in their burials, for example, of Odrysian King Seuthes III. That means that he and those close to him practiced the Greek form of sports and hygiene,” he adds.
“That was a temporary phenomenon, though, because in order to have and practice sports, you need to have a developed urban culture with permanent cities. That was the case in Thrace in the 4th – 3rd century BC, up until the middle of the 3rd century BC. After that, there were transitions, barbarian invasions, up until Thrace became part of the Roman Empire when cities, urban settlements saw major development,” Vagalinski concludes.
The exhibition on Sports in Ancient Thrace of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia has been co-organized by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture and a total of 15 other museums from across Bulgaria.
The exhibition also features photos of some of the world’s most famous statues of athletes from the collection of the National Roman Museum in Rome, Italy: the Boxer of Quirinal, a Hellenistic Greek sculpture of a seated boxer, found on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885, and the Discobolus Palombara or Lancellotti.
“The images of these two athletes reflect in an unmatched way the spirit of sports in the Antiquity, a spirit which also took over Ancient Thrace,” the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia concludes.
The Sports in Ancient Thrace exhibition can be visited from April 25 until September 2, 2018.
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