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Greek Art, Hellenistic Period
Macedonia and Thrace
330-150 BC

Archaic Period
(700-480 BC)
Classical Period
(480-330 BC)
Hellenistic Period
(330-150 BC)

Vergina, formerly known as Aigaes, was founded by King Perdikas in the 7th Century BC, and was the first capital of Macedonia. When the capital was later moved to Pella it continued to be used as the royal burial grounds. 

In 1976 the Royal Macedonian Tombs in Vergina (Greek Macedonia) were found and revealed important archeological finds from the Macedonian past.  The finding of the tomb of King Philip II (382-336 BC, father of king Alexander the Great) was so important for the understanding of Macedonia's past and Thracian art history, that a commemorative set of stamps was issued in 1979.  The set shown here is partly new, partly commercially used.  In 336 BC, King Phillip II was assassinated by one of his seven bodyguards while attending the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra in the theatre. 

Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Bust of King Philip II. Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. The Golden Urn of King Philip II. Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Golden Laurel Wreath.

It is an interesting co-incidence that the ancient name of present-day's Bulgarian town Plovdiv, was Philippopolis, directly named after the Macedonian kings Philip I and II.  With the death of King Philip II, a new era began with his son, Alexander the Great's policy of aggrandizement, and conquests of Turkey, Persia and penetration into India.  

Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Copper Vessel. Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Silver Ewer. Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Fragment of Golden Quiver. Greece 1979. Hellenistic Art. Gold and Iron Cuirass.

The civilization of Thrace arose during the second millennium BC, in the highest flowering of the Bronze Age, on the Balkan Peninsula.  The Balkan mountains, with their rich deposits of copper, silver, and gold, fueled the growth of Thrace into a nation with an advanced structure of government; a powerful military which, on Homer's authority, fought with the Trojans during the legendary war; and a lucrative trading business which evolved from barter into a coin-based commercial system. 

The Thracian people consisted of numerous individual tribes.  The names of many of these are known, but not in every case their exact location, although they were certainly spread all over the Balkan peninsula and across parts of Asia Minor as well.  They included the Odrysae, who inhabited an extensive area centering on the river Hebros (today Maritsa) in southern Bulgaria, and the Dardanae, who were situated partly on the Balkan peninsula and partly in the environs of Troy in Asia Minor.  Among the other Thracian tribes were the Triballi in the north-west of present-day Bulgaria, the Moesians on the right bank of the Danube and the Getae, who settled south of the Danube delta in what is today Romania.  

Homer's Iliad (X, 434-441), mentions a group of Thracian warriors led by a king called Rhesus.  Homer depicts him as a great lover of pomp: 

"The Thracians came on their own and lay separately from the others.
Their king was Rhesus, descended of Eioneus.
Ne'er did I see such great and magnificent steeds as his,
Whiter than snow and swift as the rushing wind.
His chariot was a splendid construction of gold and silver,
And as he approached we beheld with awe his mighty weapons of gold and silver.
Surely no mortal man could bear such arms, 
They could only be intended for immortal gods".  
  • The above verse seems appropriately illustrated by this parcel-gilt silver bust of Heracles on a chariot fitting from the excavations at Shishkovtsi (in present-day Bulgaria).  

Bulgaria. Hellenestic Art. Parcel-gilt silver bust of Heracles on a chariot.

The Bulgarian capital, Sofia's, first inhabitants were the Serdi, a Thracian tribe who settled there some 3000 years ago.  Directly west of Sofia, in Kazanlik close to the Shipka Pass, is found The Thracian Tomb, a site of a late fourth- or early third-century BC burial chamber, unearthed by chance in 1944 during the construction of an air-raid post.  Its frescos are so delicate that only scholars with authorization from the Ministry of Culture may enter (and only then with a good reason).  In this burial place is found some of the finest and most well preserved frescoes of Macedonian/Hellenistic art.  

Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #1 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria.

The stamps depict a procession of horses and servants approaching the chieftain for whom the tomb was built, who sits behind a low table laden with food.  

His wife, face downcast in mourning, reposes on an elaborate throne beside him, and the couple touch hands in a tender gesture of farewell.  

A bowl of fruit is offered to the deceased by a female figure, who has been linked with both the Great Mother Goddess common to Thracian tribes, and the queen of the Underworld in the Greek Pantheon, Persephone.  

Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #4 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria. Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #5 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria. Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #6 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria.
Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #3 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria. Bulgaria 1963. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #2 of six, depicting the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak, Bulgaria.

While flutists play the funeral music, racing chariots wheel around the apex of the dome, a possible reference to the games that often accompanied a Thracian funeral. 

With its graceful composition and naturalistic details, the painting is a masterpiece of Hellenistic art.  

According to Herodotus, deceased Thracian nobles were laid out for three days before a funeral feast of "various sacrificial animals" which followed a short period of wailing and mourning.  After the corpse was buried or cremated together with the deceased's most cherished belongings, a tumulus of soil was raised, and various competitive games were organized, the biggest prize being awarded for wrestling.  

The Bulgarian countryside is dotted with Thracian burial mounds, the majority of which remain unexcavated.  They were erected by a society that obviously thought it important to honour the illustrious dead with the construction of a fitting tomb, and that may have practised a form of ancestor-worship which involved the deification of tribal kings and chieftains.  

Bulgaria 1986. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #1 of two. Rogozen Thracian silver pitchers.

Bulgaria 1986. Hellenistic Art. Stamp #2 of two. Rogozen Thracian silver pitchers.

Later excavations of these tombs have revealed beautiful findings of gold treasures from the period.  The below stamps all depict such findings from the Vulchitrun excavation in the northern Bulgarian district of Pleven, on the southern bank of the river Danube, in December 1924.  They have been housed ever since in the Archaeological Museum  of Sofia.  It consists of 13 items of high-carat gold and has a total weight of 12.425 kg.  The centerpiece of the set is the krater (middle stamp in the first row), a vessel weighing over four kilograms in which, according to the ancient custom, the wine was mixed with water.  

Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Three Small Gold Kyathoi. Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Thracian gold "krater". Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Thracian Gold Kyathos.

The set shown above is completed by seven gold disks (lids), two equally large and five smaller ones.  They all have an onion-shaped knob on the upper surface.  Whereas the smaller ones are devoid of decoration the two largest bear a pattern on their top sides consisting of very thin bands of silver worked into the surface.  Investigations have established that the gold employed was mined in the Carpathians in what is today Romania.  The vessels themselves, however, were made in a Thracian workshop.  The local craftsman was not only an accomplished master of the artistic side of his trade, he also possessed extensive technical knowledge, which can be seen both in the fine silver inlays on the two large disks (stamps below) and also in the way the electrum was worked. 

Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Thracian Gold Disk. Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Thracian triple offering vessel. Bulgaria 1970. Hellenistic Art. Thracian Gold Disk.

Within the timeline late Thracians were contemporaries with the Etruscans, the enigmatic people populating the northern part of Italy during the last millennium BC, and who was equally strongly influenced by Hellenistic Art. 

There are at least two famous Thracians, known from Greek mythology and from Roman history.  

Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope (see her on stamps on the welcome-page of this site) and Apollo, the God of Music (or Oeagrus, King of Thrace), was known as poet and musician.  As such he was the chief representative of the art of song and playing the lyre, and of great importance in the religious history of Greece. Herodotus notes that the Thracians did not fear death overmuch.  According to many ancient sources, the Thracians believed in the existence of a soul, which, separate from the body, was capable of enjoying an afterlife.  It is not known whether this conception of life after death applied to everybody, or merely to an elite group of tribal chieftains and priest-kings; but Herodotus relates how certain tribes mourned the birth of children, and celebrated the death of their elders -- as if the latter event represented release from the misery of the material world.  Thracian beliefs about the immortality of the soul undoubtedly spread southward to Greece, where they contributed to the development of cults such as Orphism.  

Spartacus the Gladiator (?-71 BC).  He is thought to have been a deserter from the Roman army, and was sold as a slave to a trainer of gladiators in Capua, southern Italy. In 73 BC he escaped with other runaway gladiators and occupied the dormant crater of the volcano Vesuvius, where he was joined by large numbers of fugitive slaves. He led his followers in the Third Servile War, or Gladiators' War, defeating two Roman armies, and devastating southern Italy. In 72 BC he defeated three more Roman armies and reached Cisalpine Gaul, where he planned to disperse his followers to their homes. They decided to remain in Italy for the sake of plunder, and Spartacus marched south again. In 71 BC the Roman commander Marcus Licinius Crassus forced Spartacus and his followers into the narrow peninsula of Rhegium (now Reggio di Calabria), from which, however, they escaped through the Roman lines. Crassus then pursued Spartacus to Lucania, where the rebel army was destroyed and Spartacus was killed in battle. The insurrection came to an end, and many of his followers were crucified.  Crassus made quite a spectacle of horror by erecting the crucifixes for miles along the Appian Way (Via Appia) leading from southern Italy into Rome.   

Archaic Period
(700-480 BC)
Classical Period
(480-330 BC)
Hellenistic Period
(330-150 BC) 

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