Geographical and Historical Overview of Western Thrace and the Lands of Middle Struma in Antiquity

Geographical and Historical Overview of Western Thrace and the Lands of Middle Struma in Antiquity

Written by „Сотир Иванов“ (директор ИМП)

Complete and reliable recovery of the Thracian tribes' historical geography is an impossible task. One of the reasons is the condition of the ancient written tradition where is the most crucial evidence for the Thracian tribes, their settlements, and history. In emphasizing the state of the ancient written tradition, there are specific weaknesses. They are, in most cases, insurmountable; information about the early history of the Thracians is not sufficiently reliable and unclear. First of all, the ethnic geography of such a vast land is constantly changing, even after the middle of the first millennium B.C., for economic and political reasons, and as often as the various chronological strata of ancient geographers suggest. Therefore, from Homer to Thucydides, from Thucydides to Strabo, and from Strabo to Claudius Ptolemy, there can be observed constant movement of tribes or parts of tribes – the so-called disappearance of some and the emergence of new ethnonyms. Secondly, one has to take into consideration that the Greek, followed by Roman geographical literature, reflects only the name of the tribe that is in the time the strongest and most famous. Third, the emergence of a new ethnonym does not always mean that a new tribe appears, which has hitherto been under the political hegemony of some union. The name can have a toponymic or sacral origin. However, as early as the middle of the second millennium B.C., individual Thracian tribes are already a factor in political relations in the Aegean world[1]


Proceeding to consider the geographical dislocation of the Thracian tribes in the early period, we take into account the chronological sequence of the relevant written sources. At the north-western end of the ancient Thracian lands was located the tribal union of the Dardanians, who were not Thracians by origin. Some of the Dardani tribes, such as the Thunatae, bordered the Maedi. The Thracian tribe Triballi was located on the territory of nowadays North-western Bulgaria. Hecateus and Herodotus show that, at the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 5th century, the Greek poleis had good trade relations with this region. Moving along the western border of the Thracian tribes and descending south of the Tribally territory, we reach the upper reaches of the Oyskos (Iskar) and what is today Sofia Valley, which was inhabited by the Serdi. Close political, commercial, and cultural relations inevitably led to mixing and merging between different tribal groups, especially when communication between them was intense and centuries-old.


South of the Serdi's settlements stretched the tribal territory of the Dentheletae, which corresponds mainly to the valley along the upper reaches of the river Strymon (Struma). Nowadays, this corresponds to the area of the Bulgarian towns Kyustendil and Dupnitsa. The Maedi, together with their branches, was one of the numerous and powerful West Thracian tribes. They were located south of the Dentheletae in the Strymon River Valley, the rivers Pontos (Strumeshnitsa), and Astibos (Bregalnitsa). Due to the predominantly mountainous nature of their land, the Maedi became resilient during the armed struggle against the Macedonians and later against the Roman legions. It is no coincidence that, compared to many Thracian tribes, they retained their independence and defensive power against the Roman conquerors who occupied Macedonia and Greece. Often the Maedi forays invaded the Macedonian and Greek provinces, reaching as far as the temple at Delphi. In all probability, the Maedi and Sintians are part of those Thracian tribes, which at the end of the VIII century B.C. left the valley of Strymon and settled in western Asia Minor – the region of Bithynia. For it is no coincidence that in the area of ancient Caria, there is the mountain Orbela – an undoubted memory of the mountain Orbel (Belasitsa). At the same time, the Satrae tribe lived on the upper and middle reaches of the Nestos (Mesta). The other bank of the river Nestos, on its upper course, was inhabited by the Dii, presumably branch of the Bessi tribe. On the upper reaches of the river Hebros (Maritsa), Pliny the Elder lists the Thracian tribes Sapei, Trausi, and Travi, and on the left bank of the lower reaches of the Nestos, he mentions the Odomanti tribe. The situation is different with the Thracian tribe Sinti (Sintii). As early as the 5th century B.C., they lived south of the Maedi and, with the north-western end of their land, wedged themselves between the Maedi and Paeonians. Probably in the 9th-8th century B.C., the Sinti lived significantly north, inhabiting the lands upstream of the Strymon River. Subsequently, under the pressure of Vitinian tribes and their branches, they moved to another location. The Sinti's displacement took the form of migration, as they reached and settled as far as the island of Lemnos. It seems that the socio-economic relations with those Sinti who remained to live in the Strymon Valley were so advanced that polis or semi-polis type settlements appeared on their territory.


The Bisaltae tribe lived next to the Sinti. This populous Thracian tribe inhabited the right bank of the Strymon River, in its lower reaches. East of the lower reaches of the Strymon River lived the Edoni and Pieres. Between the Strymon and Aksii (Vardar) rivers lived the tribes Krestones and Μygdones. Between the lower reaches of the two rivers lived the remains of the once-great Brygi tribe. синтите живеели бисалтите. Това многолюдно тракийско племе населявало десния бряг на р. Стримон, и то в най-долното й течение. Източно от долното течение на р. Стримон живеели едоните и пиерите. Между р. Стримон и р. Аксий (Вардар) живеели племената крестони и мигдони. Между долните течения на двете реки живеели остатъци от някога голямото племе бриги.


The tribe Sithones inhabit south-western outskirts of the ancient Thracian lands, south of Olynthus on the peninsulas of Sithonia and Pallene in Chalkidiki. The Abantes is one of the Thracian tribes that penetrated at the same time not only in Greece but also in the more remote islands of the Aegean Sea. First, they penetrated Phocaea (Central Greece) and later reached the island of Chios.


In ancient times, the Strymon River was a natural link of the Aegean world with the Thrace's interior. It sprang from the Agrianes tribe lands, passed through the Maedi and Sinti territory, and flowed into the sea somewhere on the borders of the Bisaltae and Odomanti tribes. The river itself had a status of divine origin as a child of Thetis and Ocean. Pseudo-Plutarch, in his treatise on rivers, reports that it was first called Konozos. Palestine, the son of Poseidon, drowned in it; the river was named Palestine after him. Later the name Strymon is after the son of Ares and Helike, who drowned himself in the river after his son's Rhesus tragic death before the walls of Troy. Rhesus himself was deified and worshiped as the god of the underworld, war, and fertility.


The early settlement of Middle Struma by the Thracian tribes Maedi and Sinti, and on the south of the Odomanti, Bisaltae, and Edones was due to both the suitable climatic conditions and the rich flora and fauna. The mountains in the lands of Maedi and Sinti were full of game and covered with dense and impassable forests. Thucydides speaks of Mount Kerkine on the border between the Sinti and Paeoni, which was forested and devoid of settlements. Xenophon says about lands inhabited by panthers and lions, lynxes and bears. Herodotus, in his "History," also confirms the presence of lions in the lands between Struma and Mesta Rivers; lions attack of Xerxes' army during its travel to Thessaloniki (5th century B.C.) is a significant example. Aristotle also reports some animals that lived in Peonia and Medica: the bison, which had two hooves, a large mane, and two inwardly curved horns; the wild bull inhabiting Mount Orbel and the surrounding pastures. The valley of Sredna Struma, after its conquest in 346 B.C., became a favorite hunting ground for Philip II and his successors. Even Aristotle mentions the river Pontos (Strumeshnitsa), which flowed between the lands of the Sinti and the Maedi. He admired this river, on which hot stones floated. "It is the opposite of what happens to charcoal. It is when they swell, they go out quickly, when sprinkled with water, they ignite and burn better. When they burn, they emit an odor similar to asphalt, and no reptile could remain where they burned. Athenaeus tells of a spring named Inna on the border between Maedi and Paeoni, a possible link with the legend of the capture of Silena by King Midas. There were many gold mines at Crenida near Mount Pangea. The mountain itself was also rich in silver and gold mines, as was the area beyond Strymon.


During the restoration of the dynasty of the Antigonids (277-168 B.C.), the valley of the Middle Struma and Heraclea Sintica retained their strategic importance. After the battle of Pydna, from 168 to 148 B.C., Heraclea Sintica became part of the First Macedonian District with its capital Amphipolis. Macedonia was declared a Roman province with the suppression of the uprising of Andriscus (Philip VI). The region's complicated political history has its impact on the material culture of the Petrich region. Its creation combines Thracian, Macedonian, Roman, Hellenic, and even Egyptian art. The influence of the Mediterranean, the excellent climate, the many mineral springs, natural protection, the political and economic stability during the Roman era are prerequisites for an intensive cultural and economic life. The road from the White Sea to the interior was also of great importance, unfortunately not mentioned in the ancient itineraries and road maps. This time it passed through the Rupel Gorge, on the left bank of the Struma and the Kresna Gorge, connecting Thessaloniki and Serdica.


The development of Heraclea Sintica during the Antiquity could be revealed fully through a comprehensive archaeological study of the Kozhuh area. The research will establish the territory of the ancient settlement, the urban plan - agora, residential neighborhoods, fortifications and necropolis, the contacts with other settlements in the valley of Sredna and Dolna Struma. The accumulation of more materials will provide an opportunity to rediscover the rich spiritual and material culture of the past, also the changes that occurred during the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.[7].


[1] Мегалитите в Тракия, 1976 г., с.16.

[2] Хр. Данов, Древна Тракия, С., 1968 г., с. 22.

[3] Г. Кацаров, Д. Дечев, Извори за старата история и география на Тракия и Македония, С.,1949 г., с. 15.

[4] Омир, 1971 г., с. 211 – 213.

[5] Г. Кацаров, Д. Дечев. Извори за старата история и география на Тракия и Македония, С.,1949 г., с.167.

[6] Б. Геров. Проучвания върху западнотракийските земи през римско време, ГСУФФ, Ч І, С.,1961 г., с. 167.

[7] Милчев 1960: Атанас Милчев. Археологически разкопки и проучвания в долината на Средна Струма, ГСУФИФ, LIII, 361 – 402; Митрев 2002: Г. Митрев. Civitas Heracleotarum. Новооткрит епиграфски паметник с името на античния град при Рупите, Петричко – Археология, 2002, кн. 4, 25 – 32; Митрев 2002: Г. Митрев. Религиозни институции и общества в провинция Македония (148 г. пр. Хр. – 284 г. сл. Хр.), София, 2003, с. 116 – 118.; Митрев 2005: Г. Митрев. Писмени и археологически сведения за Хераклея Синтика и долината на Средна Струма през античната епоха – Културни текстове на миналото. Носители, символи и идеи, кн. 1, София, 2005, 121 – 125; Митрев, Иванов 2006: Георги Митрев, Сотир Иванов. Антични паметници от Хераклея Синтика и близката околност – ПУ “Паисий Хилендарски”, Научни трудове, том 1, кн. 1., 2006, 73 – 79.



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