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Thracian Horses

fourth century ring

Euripides, Hecuba


Thou too, my brother Polydorus, who art in Thrace, the home of steeds!

Thracian horses are usually described as being special in some way or other, contrary to what Snodgrass says in the introduction above.  In the texts below you can read how they were prized for their beauty, and also that they would help bring victory.  Horses were trained and bred for racing, a prequisite for successful cavalry warfare.

Fifth century ringsHorse riding epitomised the Thracians. Euripides and Homer called the Thracians "a race of horsemen", and Thrace, the land of the Thracian horsemen (Hecabe p63 Penguin); horses were very important to Thracians, and seem to have been of good quality. Studies of Thracian horses from fourth century tombs show that they were larger than steppe ponies and at least comparable to the breeds on the Greek mainland, which reached 1.34m or 13 hands. The biggest would have been between 1.36 and 1.44m, or 14 hands at the withers, similar to stallions of the Przewalski horse. Horses were trained and bred for racing, a prerequisite for successful cavalry warfare. Xenophon’s On Horsemanship VIII rates Thracian horses to be as good as Persian and Greek horses, and says that the Odrysians habitually ran their horse races downhill. In the Iliad a Trojan spy reports that the Thracian king Rhesus has the finest and strongest horses he has ever seen, "whiter than snow and fleeter than any wind that blows." Nestor later agrees, saying he never yet saw or heard of such horses; surely some god must have brought them (Homer, Iliad, X). Theocritus (Idyl xiv. 48) says that the Megarians asked an oracle who were better then they. The extraordinary reply received was: "Better than all other land is the land of Pelasgian Argos, Thracian mares are the best, and the Lacedaemonian women." In Vergil’s Aeneid (12.132), Aneas sought out Thracian horses. At his approach they toss their heads on high, and, proudly neighing, promise victory. Vergil describes three Thracian horses: One had white fetlocks and "a snowy star" on the forehead; another was a piebald, while a third was dappled with white. Horses in the Kazanluk paintings do not have any markings and are different shades of brown, except for a single white horse. The horse trappings were well crafted and highly decorative, and horses wearing all the items discovered in Thracian tombs must have made a fine sight. Saddles were not generally used, but the Kazanluk paintings show some brightly coloured and patterned Saddlecloths.

Above, left: 2.5cm diam. Gold ring from Brezovo, Plovdiv district, first half of fourth century BC.  A standing woman in a long chiton holds out a rhyton to a horseman.  This can be interpreted as a scene of investiture of a ruler by the Great Mother Goddess. p 180, Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians

Above, right: 2.6- 2.7cm diam Gold rings from different mounds in Duvanli, Plovdiv district, first half of fifth century BC.  The left-hand ring has the name of its owner Skythodokos incised on it; that on the right may have the name Mezenlis (the latter is probably not an individual, but a god-horseman).

East Thracian bridle ornaments

Olbian bridle ornaments were copied and disseminated.  Left: Bronze tetraskele bridle ornament from Olbia.  Centre: Sliver tetraskele bridle ornament from Oguz.   Right: Lead tetraskele applique from Magdalenska Gora.  Excavations at Magdalenska Gora, Sticna, and Toplica in Slovenia have shown that Thracian bridle ornaments were copied by Celts for dress appliqes, with a central hold instead of the metal loop for a bridle strip.

Centre: East Thracian bridle ornaments of cast silver covered with gold leaf from the Homina Mogila.  1. Frontlet. L.10.3cm. Height of lion 4cm.   2. Bridle-strap ornaments, 8x8cm.  3. Bridle-strap ornaments, 14x7cm.  4. Arrangements of ornaments on the bridle.

Below: East Thracian metalwork from Oguz.  1. Fragment of a silver-gilt plaque.  Height 12cm.  2. Sliver bridle-strap ornament, length 7.2cm.  3. Bridle frontlet depicting a bear cub.  Max width 4.5cm.  4.   Bridle frontlet depicting a horsehead.  Max width 4.5cm; a similar frontlet was found in the Alexandropol burial.

From R. F. Hoddinott, The Thracians, p99 (previous photograph from p116)

Figures 27 (left)  and 25 (right) - silver harness-plaquesFigures 23 (top), 24 (middle), and 26 (bottom) - silver harness plaques




Figure 23: Silver harness-plaque, from the same hoard as Figure 12 (Thracian Treasures no. 329)
Figure 24: Silver harness-plaque, c.400 BC (Thracian Treasures no. 207)
Figure 25: Silver harness-plaque from the tomb of a Getic prince at Craiova, Romania, 250 - 200 BC (Berciu)
Figure 26: Silver headstall, partly gilt, from the same hoard as Figures 22 and 23 (Thracian Treasures no. 325)
Figure 27: Silver headstall, c.400 BC (Thracian Treasures no. 241)

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Above: East Thracian (Getic) bridle ornaments, from I Daci

Horses from the ceiling of the Kazanluk tomb

Theocritus, Idyl xiv. 48.

The Megarians, being filled with pride, asked the god who were better then they. The first lines of the reply they received are:   "Better than all other land is the land of Pelasgian Argos, Thracian mares are the best, and the Lacedaemonian women."

Vergil Aeneid 5.738.dryden (Dryden)

Three graceful troops they form’d upon the green; Three graceful leaders at their head were seen; Twelve follow’d ev’ry chief, and left a space between. The first young Priam led; a lovely boy,  Whose grandsire was th’ unhappy king of Troy; His race in after times was known to fame, New honors adding to the Latian name; And well the royal boy his Thracian steed became. White were the fetlocks of his feet before, And on his front a snowy star he bore.

Cavalry from the ceiling of the Kazanluk tombVergil Aeneid 9.54.dryden (Dryden)

A piebald steed of Thracian strain he press’d;

Vergil Aeneid 9.61.williams (Williams)

Turnus, at full speed, had outridden far his laggard host, and, leading in his train a score of chosen knights, dashed into view hard by the walls. A barb of Thracian breed dappled with white he rode; a crimson plume flamed over his golden helmet. "Who," he cries, "Is foremost at the foe? Who follows me? Behold!" And, with the word, he hurled in air a javelin, provoking instant war: and, towering from his horse, charged o’er the field.

Vergil Aeneid 12.132 (Dryden)

He said, and striding on, with speedy pace, He sought his coursers of the Thracian race. At his approach they toss their heads on high, And, proudly neighing, promise victory. 130 The sires of these Orythia sent from far, To grace Pilumnus, when he went to war. The drifts of Thracian snows were scarce so white, Nor northern winds in fleetness match’d their flight. Officious grooms stand ready by his side; 135 And some with combs their flowing manes divide, And others stroke their chests and gently soothe their pride He sheath’d his limbs in arms; a temper’d mass Of golden metal those, and mountain brass. Then to his head his glitt’ring helm he tied, 140 And girt his faithful fauchion to his side.

Greek horsemen on 6th Century vase from EturiaPolyaenus Stratagems 3.9.60

Iphicrates carried off a great deal of booty from Odrysian territory.  A large number of Odrysians was pursuing him.  Having few horsemen, he gave them burning torches and told them to charge the enemy.  The Odrysians' horses, unable to endure the unfamiliar sight of the flame, turned around and fled.

Virgil, Aeneid

Lo! in the deep recesses of the wood,
Before his eyes his goddess mother stood:
A huntress in her habit and her mien;
Her dress a maid, her air confess'd a queen.
Bare were her knees, and knots her garments bind;
Loose was her hair, and wanton'd in the wind;
Her hand sustain'd a bow; her quiver hung behind.
She seem'd a virgin of the Spartan blood:
With such array Harpalyce bestrode
Her Thracian courser and outstripp'd the rapid flood.
"Ho, strangers! have you lately seen," she said,
"One of my sisters, like myself array'd,
Who cross'd the lawn, or in the forest stray'd?
A painted quiver at her back she bore;
Varied with spots, a lynx's hide she wore;
And at full cry pursued the tusky boar."
Thus Venus: thus her son replied again....



Thracian Horse trappings by V. PaunovaLeft: Fig 5 from Archeologia Bulgarica 1, 1999, page 3, a reconstruction by Vasilka Paunova of a set of silver harness ornaments from Binova tumulus.

Thracian horse by Opperman

Above: Left -horse bridle ornaments reconstruction from M. Opperman, Thraker.

See also figures 169 and  figure 169a, Arrangement of Thracian bridle ornaments suggested in D. Head, Armies and Enemies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars,

diomedes horse and groom.jpg (44399 bytes)Left: one of Diomedes' Thracian horses with a groomhorse-bit.jpg (7944 bytes)






Above: a 7th century horse bit (from the Plovdiv guidebook)




Hercules and Diomedes horse.jpg (40860 bytes)

Left: Reconstruction from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, showing Hercules with one of Diomedes' Thracian horses.

harness decoration.gif (25949 bytes)Left: Golden Thracian harness decoration










4th century cheekpiece4th century horse ornament4th century Triballi horse ornamentAbove Left: Phalera (bridle cheekpiece) 7cm diameter, from Letnitsa, mid-fourth century BC.   Similar cheekpieces have been found in the Ukraine, either stolen or exported there. p 137, Ancient Gold: the Wealth of the Thracians

Above right: silver-gilt fourth century Thracian (probably Triballi) horse ornaments from Lukovit.  The rider wears a draping chlamys and a tunic reaching to his mid-thigh.  p 123, Ancient Gold: the Wealth of the Thracians

Add my photograph of cavalry bit from Vratsa museum.

'WARRIOR' BURIALS, and horse trappings

- pp 247-251 from Zosia Archibald's "The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace" (1997)

The most distinctive features of a large group of middle ranking burials are sets of horse gear with a full range of weapons (sword, knife or knives, spearheads, and arrowheads), usually a helmet and occasionally other pieces of body armour, drinking equipment, and wine amphorae. Silverware is rarely preserved but there were pairs of phialai at Brezovo and Panagyurishte. More common was a set of bronze vessels, including a situla, jug, and a range of shallow and deeper bowls. Kaloyanovo is the best documented and rather better appointed than most.

The same latitude in tomb types prevailed in the fourth century for this heterogeneous group as had in the fifth and we are clearly dealing with a range of social distinctions. Stone-built cists and sarcophagi were more commonly used than true chambers. At Brezovo a man was inhumed in a stone cist with an iron sceptre at his right hand and a gold ring at his left. No information is available on the tomb form at Panagyurishte but instead of the ring and sceptre there was a set of parade armour. At Orizovo a man was inhumed in a wooden coffin with a fine set of bronze vessels and horse gear. There were analogous burials in slab cists or rubble chambers outside Odrysian territory-at Alexandrovo, Boukyovtsi, Gabrovo, and Pleven.

Horses were occasionally buried with such individuals. At Hadjidimovo (formerly Gornyani), near Nevrokop in the middle Nestos valley (where fieldwork has shown up a substantial settlement), a man was inhumed, probably in the final third of the fourth century, in a stone cist with his steed laid at the end of it in the earth fill. The horse' s bit was inside the sarcophagus, below the man's feet. The burial is dated by a silver tetradrachm of Philip II. Elsewhere there were only partial horse burials (Orizovo, Branichevo X) but often ownership was only symbolized by harness equipment.

The iron bit from Hadjidirnovo belongs to a recognizably Greek form found at a number of sites south of the Haimos and at Loukuvit, Turgovishte, and later Kralevo to the north (Fig. I0.3). The sporadic appearance of such bits suggests that they were acquired piecemeal, perhaps using the same networks as applied to prestige imports. The Hadjidimovo, Kralevo, and perhaps Turgovishte bits may in any case have been acquired after the Macedonian conquest. The principal indigenous forms consisted of two S-shaped branches with two or three rings or holes connected by a chainAgain, the poor preservation rate from chamber tombs leaves a good deal of uncertainty about the extent to which the Greek form replaced or supplemented the native ones in Odrysian territories. The hybrid form from Agighiol shows that the 'hard' bit was available before the mid-fourth century, albeit to a limited few. The Thracian bits are usually of iron, or iron covered with silver foil, as at Brezovo, where the branches have corrugated ends and fine zoomorphic terminals. The Greek bit usually consists of bronze parts fitted around an iron core with bronze links. Experiments using this type of 'hard' bit have shown that it not only helps the horse to salivate but makes the animal far easier to manoeuvre, just as Xenophon recommended. Where described in detail, many of the Thracian chain links are of iron, although some may also have been of bronze. Other harness fittings show a mixture of iron, bronze, and silver (particularly the 'Herakles knot' triple ring) or bronze and silver.

Among the grave goods at Panagyurishte was a silver sheet with concave sides and a central boss, ornamented with figures in a naive style -a winged boar above and below, with Herakles dragging the Nemean lion, whose head looks more like a horse, by the mane at the top end and a very odd-looking siren with a lyre at the bottom end. The same boar, this time without wings, appears together with an implausible lion and an even more peculiar bird on a pair of silver discs from the same tomb. Three more discs, two decorated with a rosette of four leaf-shaped petals, the other with five lotus blooms, were executed in the same way with dots hammered up from the back. The subjects are derived from east Greek sources but executed in a very idiosyncratic manner. The circular bosses recall Iranian or Skythian metalwork. There was a very similar set of undecorated silver plaques in the Southern Tumulus at Rozovets, all with rings for attachment on the reverse. At Kirk Kilise, near Kirklareli, only the axe-shaped plaque survived. There is now overwhelming evidence that such plaques were harness decorations, not shield bosses as once thought?'

Most of the harness appliques found in Thrace (Fig. 10. 4) are decorated with a distinctive repertoire of zoomorphic patterns and anthropomorphic motifs. They include birds with huge beaks, griffins, cervids, and other creatures familiar from the Eurasian 'Animal Style', but south of the Danube these features appear as reminiscences within a wider ornamental scheme. An ellipsoidal headstall with round and cruciform. plaques from the sixth- century burial at Sofronievo, in the Vratsa region, together with the griffin, hippocamp, birds', and other animal heads which make up the fifth-century set from tumulus XVI at Lasar Stanevo, Lovech, are clear evidence of a separate native tradition which nevertheless grew closer to similarly evolving Royal Skythian schemes during the fourth century. At the same time, Greek influences became increasingly more prominent.

The appliques from Vratsa, which accompanied the warrior's charger near the entrance of tomb II, included silver bit with an iron chain, a frontal decorated with lion's head, four 'triskele' of griffins' heads made up of circles and spirals, plus circular and elliptical plaques ornamented with the heads and foreparts of fantastic animals. Another 250 silver appliques, 206 of which showed barbarized female heads, might have been attached to the reins, or sewn onto a saddle blanket as suggested by Berciu for horse no.1 at Agighiol. Pictorial representations, like the four-horse chariots on the gold mug from Vratsa, or the Kazanluk tholos frieze, suggest that a variety of harnessing methods was used, some of which resembled Skythian practice, particularly the arrangement illustrated on the Chertomlyk amphora .

The harness sets from Vratsa and Agighiol, together with incomplete groups from Panagyurishte, Brezovo, Stoyan Zaimovo, Orizovo, Mezek, Stoyanovo, and Teteven, represent an early and still largely experimental stage. Heads and foreparts of lions and cervids, often hardly distinguishable as any species, are linked in amorphous patterns. Contemporary with them is silverware in a distinctive style, including the gilded greave from Vratsa, which seems particularly associated with Getic sites and appears only occasionally south of the Danube.  The gilt silver appliques from Letnitsa and Loukuvit represent two parallel alternatives in the evolution of native art. Zoomorphic forms are looser and more coherent but a hieratic tone and an animistic other-worldliness have also crept in. There is a Greek approach to composition on some of the animal combat groups as well as on scenes from the life of a sacred horseman from the same find (Fig. 10 5a-b). The rider depicted here is clearly a north Thracian, in scale corselet with separate sleeves and leggings and an anthropomorphic head on the greave, rather like the actual ones from Vratsa and Agighiol. These highly accomplished pieces were inspired by Odrysian princely iconography on coins and rings, which in turn drew on Greek and Macedonian aristocratic styles. In both Getic and Odrysian iconography the rider as hero is represented alongside a female divinity.

The hellenic imprint is even more apparent on a pair of horseman appliques from Loukuvit (Fig. 10.5c). Gone is the ritualistic fervour of the Letnitsa riders, the severed heads in the field, the libation cup, and other attributes suggesting sacred combat. In place of the quasirealistic armour and distinctive Thracian haircut-short and straight or the top-knot and beard minus moustache -there is a clean-shaven youth in a soft tunic with curly hair and bare legs. An elegantly folded cloak billows out behind him, as in Odrysian rings. The horse is plausibly galloping rather than seemingly airborne in the old Oriental manner. There is a quite novel attempt to suggest perspective, whereas the Letnitsa plaques unfold horizontally across the surface.

Two of the latest examples of Thracian harness equipment come from Kralevo and a small chamber tomb at Kavarna (ancient Bizone), and both were of gold. They retain some of the features of earlier sets but most of the figured appliques were replaced by circular reliefs decorated with human busts, which at Kralevo show Herakles. These, together with the proliferation of rosettes with pointed petals, thunderbolt motifs, as well as the snake-ended bracelets from Kralevo, were all popular toreutic designs in contemporary Macedonia and areas under Macedonian influence.

(Reproduced with the author's permission.)

fourlinda_horses.jpg (67001 bytes)

--- 1 ----------- 2 -------------------- 3 --------------------------- 4 ------------------

13 --------------------------------2

Above:  reconstruction of  some harness ornaments, by Linda Dicmanis. Linda Dicmanis 2001
1. Harness appliques, silver, HM Haskovo P.49 (items 186-187 of the Helsinki Exhibition).
2.Harness appliques, 3rd or 2nd century BC, Ravnogor, HM Pazardzik A4646-4652, 4707, 157 (items 152-157 from Helsinki Exhibition)
3. The Letnisa plaques, late 4th century.
4. Fourth century harness ornaments from the Lukovit treasure, Archaeological Museum, Sofia (items 42 - 47 from Ancient Gold)


------------ 1 ----------------------------------------------------------- 2 ----------------------------------------------- 3

1 -The Kralevo Treasure  ------------------------------------------- 2 - from the Lukovit treasure ----------------------------- 4th century shield  or horse appliqe


Above: reconstruction of  some other harness ornaments, by Linda Dicmanis.  Linda Dicmanis 2001

1. Kralevo treasure, Targoviste region, turn of 4th-3rd centuries BC (probably Getic).   HM Targoviste 2298-2306 (items 198-205 from the Helsinki Exhibition)
2. 4th century harness ornamnents from the Lukovit treasure, Archaeological Musuem, Sofia (items 49-53 from Ancient Gold)
3. The silver headstall from Mramor Moglia.  Right: mid-fourth century bridle ornament, previously thought to have been a shield applique.   It was found with five circular ornaments. Mramor Moglia, Panagyurishte district, Archaeological Museum, Sofia, second half of 4th Century BC.  It is 32 cm long, which Linda Dicmanis found to fit exactly onto a horse's head.


silverbit.jpg (21163 bytes)

Left: silver horse bit, height 18cm, Inv No. 1709, No. 212 from Gold der Thraker.
Below:  a cavalryman from a 4th century Rozogen pitcher.

A drawing of the Rozogen cavalrymanThe Rozogen cavalryman - Click for a closer view


Introduction | Texts | Light Cavalry | Heavy Cavalry | Thracian Horses 

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This page last updated on Monday, 07 January 2002 by Christopher Webber thracian@pnc.com.au

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