The Ancient Boundaries of Classics

Dobrinka Chiekova

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”[1]

Silver-and-gilt plate from the Letnitza Treasure, from the 4th cent. BC, representing a horseman, probably the Thracian king (discovered in 1963 in Letnitza, Bulgaria, and now in the National History Museum, Sofia).

The name of the field of ‘Classics’ has been and continues to be an object of passionate debate, and one well worth having. The discussion is complex and cannot yield simple answers. What interests me personally more than the name, though, is advocating for the expansion of the field’s ancient boundaries.

The Epitaphios Logos (or Funeral Oration), which according to the Greek historian Thucydides (c.460–c.400 BC) the Athenian statesman Pericles (c.495–429 BC) delivered at the public funeral of the soldiers fallen during the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), is a very well-known and frequently referenced text. I hesitate to mention such a familiar piece of literature but, then again, why apologize if one among many reasons to study Classical texts is the inspiration and the endless occasions for re-reading that they offer?[2]

Bust of Pericles, Roman copy of a Greek original from c. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City).

Who the actual author of the Epitaphios was is still a subject for speculation: is it mostly the fruit of Thucydides’ pen, while preserving the vision of Pericles, or did Pericles’ extraordinary partner Aspasia (c.470–400 BC) compose the speech, as suggested by Plato in the Menexenus (written 380s BC)? Though very interesting, this problem doesn’t preoccupy us here. Whoever was responsible for this oration, he or she undoubtedly mastered to perfection the Athenian rhetorical tradition as well as the epitaphios genre. The speech is a complex, multifaceted, evocative, and brilliant expression of Athenian self-promotion and self-confidence.

Instead, I would like to evoke here a single, albeit salient, element in the speech: the concept of paideia. Among other themes, the orator compares the Athenians and their opponents in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans. More precisely, he constrasts their differing conceptions of paideia:

“διαφέρομεν δὲ καὶ ταῖς τῶν πολεμικῶν μελέταις τῶν ἐναντίων τοῖσδε. τήν τε γὰρ πόλιν κοινὴν παρέχομεν, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ὅτε ξενηλασίαις ἀπείργομέν τινα ἢ μαθήματος ἢ θεάματος, ὃ μὴ κρυφθὲν ἄν τις τῶν πολεμίων ἰδὼν ὠφεληθείη, πιστεύοντες οὐ ταῖς παρασκευαῖς τὸ πλέον καὶ ἀπάταις ἢ τῷ ἀφ᾽ ἡμῶν αὐτῶν ἐς τὰ ἔργα εὐψύχῳ· καὶ ἐν ταῖς παιδείαις οἱ μὲν ἐπιπόνῳ ἀσκήσει εὐθὺς νέοι ὄντες τὸ ἀνδρεῖον μετέρχονται, ἡμεῖς δὲ ἀνειμένως διαιτώμενοι οὐδὲν ἧσσον ἐπὶ τοὺς ἰσοπαλεῖς κινδύνους χωροῦμεν.”

“If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.” (Thuc. 2.39; trans. Richard Crawley)

Pericles’ funeral oration, Philipp Foltz, 1852 (priv. coll.).

The Greek notion of paideia means, in its narrow sense, “child rearing” or “education”, in which rigorous athletic and musical training play a central role in the formation of a youth. In a more abstract and broader sense, it conveys the idea of educated behavior or attitude – or, in other words, the way a society behaves, its traditions and values.[3] A related word, παίδευσις (paideusis), expresses this sense in the speaker’s claim that Athens is a “school” or a “cultural model” for all Greeks: ξυνελών τε λέγω τήν τε πᾶσαν πόλιν τῆς Ἑλλάδος παίδευσιν εἶναι (“In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas,” Thuc. 2.41).

In this latter sense, the Greek world, as well as the known world (the oikoumenē) more broadly, could be described as a magnificent mosaic of paideiai, or educated behaviors, which interacted, competed, and borrowed from each other, went to war against each other, and evolved together for millennia. Herodotus (born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum in Turkey, died around 430BC) has left us in his Histories the first absorbing tapestry of paideiai, word-woven from a Greek perspective. In its broader meaning, paideia encompasses myriad components and aspects, such as ethical and political values, religious beliefs and customs, and artistic expressions.

Illustration of Herodotus’ world by J.F. Horrabin for H.G. Wells’s Outline of History; being A Plain History of Life and Mankind (George Newnes, London, 1920).

My own research interests are focused on one relatively small and peripheral corner of the ancient Mediterranean world, the western coast of the Black Sea, and more narrowly on the topic of the religious traditions of the Greek colonies established there in the 6th and 5th centuries BC by colonists, mostly originating from Miletus and Megara.

In the ancient Mediterranean, as today, religion and religious values played an essential role in the cultural identity of different peoples and communities. The Greek poleis (city states) founded on the coasts of the Black Sea, as in other areas of the Mediterranean, entered dynamic, centuries-long relationships with their non-Greek neighbors. Unsurprisingly, there is abundant archaeological, epigraphic, and literary evidence for hostilities between the Hellenic settlers and the local populations, as well as for mutual accommodation and cooperation.

The Borovo Treasure: three rhyta, a rhyta jug, and a two-handed bowl, 4th cent. BC (found in 1974 in Borovo, Bulgaria, and now in Rousse Regional Historical Museum).

The adoption by local populations of Greek language and iconography has been in the past described as ‘Hellenization’, a concept which, understandably, could be seen as erroneous or problematic, if it is meant to imply a lack of agency on the part of the locals. I think, however, that Hellenization, carefully defined, can be a helpful term, expressing a complex historical process of adapting to, interacting with, and borrowing from Greek iconographic language and writing to express the religious, ethical and political values of non-literary societies (in the sense of a typologically oral culture). Peoples such as the Thracians or the Scythians around the Black Sea, which exhibit this multifaceted phenomenon, allow researchers today to study the paideia of non-literary societies by reading the Greek and Roman sources through the specific lens of what has been called interpretatio Thracica or Scythica – i.e. reading the extant source material from a Thracian or Scythian perspective.

The cities on the western Black Sea Coast, or as the Greeks refer to it, en aristerāi tou Pontou (“on the left of the Pontus” – from the view of sailors entering the Black Sea from the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus), in chronological order of their foundation are: Istros, Odessos, Tyras, Tomis, Callatis, Apollonia, Mesambria, Bizone and Dionysopolis.

Archaic and Classical sites on the Black Sea (a larger version can be studied here).

The western Black sea colonies have produced ample epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence revealing interaction with local religious traditions – either through direct loans and inclusion in their pantheons, or through a more subtle mode of molding those pantheons in a particular way.

Ovid, exiled by Augustus to Tomis (modern Constanța in Romania) on the west coast of the Black Sea, describes in bitter verses his place of exile as unremittingly cold and wild, inhabited by ferocious people. Moreover he complains, that the Greek and “barbarian” tongue had become utterly mixed in the city; he also claims to have composed a poem in the Getian language in honor of the new emperor Tiberius (ruled AD 14–37) which was finding some recognition among the uncivilized Getae:

nec te mirari, si sint vitiosa, decebit
    carmina, quae faciam paene poeta Getes.
a! pudet, et Getico scripsi sermone libellum,
    structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis:
et placui (gratare mihi) coepique poetae
    inter inhumanos nomen habere Getas.
materiam quaeris? laudes: de Caesare dixi.

Nor should you wonder if my verse prove faulty, for I am almost a Getic poet. Ah! It brings me shame! I have even written a poem in the Getic tongue, setting barbarian words to our measures: I even found favour – congratulate me! – and began to achieve among the uncivilized Getae the name of poet. You ask my theme? You would praise it: I sang of Caesar. (Ex Ponto 4.13, trans. A.L. Wheeler)

Ovid ruminates a hundred metres from the Black Sea: the Piața Ovidiu in the Romanian port of Constanța (ancient Tomis), to where he was exiled in AD 8.

Tragic indeed. It is hard not to commiserate with his plight and sense of dispair, but that very feature which so aggrieved Ovid has attracted the interest of many scholars in recent years: the creation of bilingual and bi-cultural areas on the Thracian coast of Black Sea between the 7th and 1st centuries BC.

To illustrate the idiosyncratic but intriguing material that originates from this area, I would like to  offer an example of the mysterious ‘Great God’ of Odessos (modern day Varna). The most important deity in this Milesian colony, at least during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, was Theos Megas, the Great God, which is known to us from the coinage and decrees of the city. On coins and inscriptions the Great God is referred to by the Thracian name Derzalas or Darzalas.

Silver tetradrachms from Odessos, dating from the 2nd century BC, portray a bearded god, with a ribbon in his hair, and on the reverse the god can be seen standing, clad in a long chiton, turned to the left, holding a libation cup in his right hand and a cornucopia in his left hand. On his right side is the legend Θεοῦ Μεγάλου (theou megalou,of the Great God”), and on his left side the name of the city Ὀδησιτῶν (Odēsitōn, “of the Odessitans”), under him is the Κύρσα (Cursa), which may be the name of the magistrate responsible for the coinage.

Theos Megas on silver tetradrachms of Odessos from the 2nd cent. BC; on the obverse appears the portrait of bearded god with ribbon in his hair; on the reverse the god is standing, clad in a long chiton, turned to the left, holding a patera in his closed right hand and in his left hand the cornucopia; to his right is the legend “Theou Megalou” at the left side the ethnikon “Odessiton”, and beneath it reads under “Kyrsa”.

A different image of the god appears on the bronze coins of Odessos from the 4th century BC; on the reverse the Great God is half-lying on a klīnē, with naked torso, holding a cornucopia in his left hand.

Bronze coins of Odessos from the 4th cent. BC; on the obverse is the portrait identified either as Apollo or an anonymous goddess, peer of the Great God; on the reverse the Great God appears half reclined on a kline, with naked torso, holding a cornucopia in his closed left hand.

On Roman coins, like this one of Gordian III (ruled 238–44), the portrait of the god is facing the portrait of the emperor, and on the obverse is a crown given to the victors in the games consecrated to Darzalas, the Darzaleia.

On the obverse of this coin from Odessos, the Great God faces the portrait of the emperor Gordian III; on the reverse is the victory crown awarded at the penteteric (quinquennial) festival in honor of Darzalas.

We know from inscriptions that the Great God Darzalas had a temple at Odessos of which a priest (neōkoros), elected by the Council and Assembly of the city, was in charge.[4] Among the monuments related to the cult of the Great God, a group of reliefs originates from sites more than 100km distant from the coast, in Thracian territory – between Nicopolis ad Istrum and Marcianopolis in Moesia Inferior.

On this example, a marble tablet with dedication to the god Darzalas is engraved with an image closely resembling the iconography on the coins of Odessos: a bearded God standing and clad in a long chiton, holding in his right hand a libation cup over a blazing altar, and in his left hand a cornucopia:

[Κ]υρίῳ Δαρζαλᾳ Τούρβων | βουλ(ευτὴς) εὐχαριστήριν ανέθ- | [ε]κεν 

“To Lord Darzalas, Tourbo (a Roman cognomen: turbo, meaning ‘whirlwind’), bouleutēs (member of the council) dedicated as a thank-offering.”

Inscriptiones Graecae in Bulgaria Repertae II, 768.

Another dedication on relief of the Thracian Rider, the most popular Thracian deity of which more than 5,000 monuments have been found from the regions of ancient Thrace, includes the following dedication:

Θεῷ ἐπηκόῳ Δερζει Αἴλιος Διογέ-

νης ἱππικὸς εὐξάμενος ἀνέθηκα.

To the god Derzis who gives ear (to prayers), I, the equestrian Aelius Diogenes, offered while making a vow. (Inscrptiones Graecae in Bulgaria Repertae II, 770)

A bearded horseman with a cornucopia is figured on monuments from the territory of Odessos, like this relief of a knight charging against an altar, blending elements of the iconography of Theos Megas and of the Thracian Rider.

On this votive relief there is a bearded horseman with a cornucopia, or rhyton, charging against an altar and a tree. The relief is dedicted to Heros Ordianos by three people with Greek names (Inscriptiones Graecae in Bulgaria Repertae I2, 281).

The problem of the origin and character of the cult of Theos Megas had prompted an abundance of hypotheses.[5] Most authors have concluded that the leading position the deity holds in the pantheon suggests ancient roots, and that Theos Megas Darzalas was by origin a local divinity, adopted by the Greeks at their arrival. This practice is not unique: we know from multiple examples around the Mediterranean that Greek-speakers preferred to refer to powerful indigenous deities by periphrasis instead of using a non-Greek name. For example, a local goddess on the Aegean coast of Thrace became for the Greeks simply “the Maiden” (Parthenos).

Golden pitcher from the Mogilanska Mogila Treasure, containing a royal burial dated to the 4th cent. BC. The pitcher depicts two opposing chariots drawn by four horses. (Vratsa History Museum, Bulgaria).

It is plausible that Theos Megas occupied a secondary position in the pantheon of Odessos in the Classical period when the patron deity, as for other Milesian colonies, was most probably Apollo. In the Hellenistic period, however, Theos Megas became the patron deity or the City God. In that moment this local divinity is named the Great God and adopts the iconographical traits of the Greek chthonic divinities on reliefs and coins. None the less, it is clear that he was not created or introduced then. The presence of the ethnikon name Odēsitōn, next to his image on the silver tetradrachms of Odessos, proves that this is indeed the patron deity of Odessos, and this importance points toward a cult with truly ancient roots.[6]

Persephone and Hades depicted in a sympotic scene, red-figure painting on a kylix attributed to the ‘Codrus Painter’, c.430 BC (found in Vulci, Italy, and now in the British Museum, London).

Fascinating and idiosyncratic material from the region of the ancient Black Sea, like the monuments to Theos Megas, is abundant, and each archaeological season turns up new examples and enigmas. I am confident that the broadening of the teaching of Classics and Ancient History, beyond the traditional cultural centers of Athens and Rome, will help us better understand not only the broader Mediterranean world but the Greeks and Romans themselves by shedding light on the aspects of their respective paideia, unmediated by the literary and intellectual tradition. On the other hand, there is no doubt that a solid knowledge of, and training in, Classical philology and archaeology can broaden the ancient frontiers of Classics.

A silver phiale with gold decoration depicting Auge and Heracles, dated to the 5th or 4th cent. BC, and part of the Rogozen Treasure (found in 1985 in Rogozen, Bulgaria, and now in Vratsa History Museum). The header image for this article depicts the Rogozen Treasure.

I am pleased to say that the study of the ancient world should not be a zero-sum game. Antigone is, and has always been, very open to this approach and has published some wonderful pieces on ancient Bactria, on modern Afghanistan, on the letters of a Persian satrap, and on the Scythians. This is an exciting path to take in the mission of expanding and enriching the field of Classics.

Dobrinka Chiekova teaches Ancient History at The College of New Jersey. Her research focuses on various aspects of the history and epigraphy of the Greek city-states on the ancient Black Sea. Her monograph Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche explores the religious traditions and cultural interactions in the region. She has previously written for Antigone on Athenians’ forgive-and-forget attitude, and the Mother Goddesses of Thrace.

Further Reading:

On Pericles’ Funeral Oration there is a great number of studies. One of the most insightful remains Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City (first published 1981; English trans. by Alan Sheridan, Zone Books, New York, 2006).

On Plato’s Menexenus and the Epitaphios Logos: Harold Parker and Jan Maximilian Robitzsch, Speeches for the Dead: Essays on Plato’s Menexenus (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2018).

On interactions of cultures around the ancient Black Sea: P. Guldager Bilde and J. Hjarl Petersen (edd.), Meetings of Cultures. Between Conflicts and Coexistence (Aarhus UP, 2008).

For a recent in-depth study of goddesses on the northern coast of the Black Sea, see David Braund, Greek Religion and Cults in the Black Sea Region. Goddesses in the Bosporan Kingdom from the Archaic Period to the Byzantine Era (Cambridge UP, 2018).

On the religion of the western Black Sea, see my Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche (VIIe-Ier siècle av. J.-C.) (Peter Lang, Bern, 2008).

On the iconography of the Thracian Rider, see the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae VI.1-2 (1992), s.v. Heros Equitans.

Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (3 vols, first published in German in Berlin/Leipzig, 1934-47) remains an essential reference for understanding the concept of Greek education, even if is justifiably critiqued for its conservative and, admittedly, classist ideas.


1 Juliet, speaking in Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597).
2 History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.34–46: The speech can be explored fully, in Greek and English, here.
3 I first heard this concept, paideia as възпитано поведение (“educated behavior”), from Professor Alexander Fol, the founder of Bulgarian Thracology.
4 D. Knoepfler, “Le tronc à offrandes d’un néocore érétrien,” Antike Kunst 41 (1998) 101–15, has demonstrated that the neōkoros was often in charge of the most important temple in the city.
5 For a detailed discussion of Theos Megas in Odessos and other cities see my work Cultes et vie religieuse des cités grecques du Pont Gauche (VIIe-Ier siècle av. J.-C.) (Peter Lang, Bern, 2008) 179–96, and my article “Greek and Thracian religious traditions in the Greek cities on the Western Black Sea Coast”, published in Philologos Dionysios. Mélanges offerts au professeur Denis Knoepfler (Librairie Droz, Geneva, 2011) 517-32.
6 Similar instances consecrated to the patron divinity in the genetive and with an ethnikon (the citizens’ name) are known for Illion – to Athena Illias, for Maroneia – to Dionysus Soter, for Thasos – to Heracles Soter, all ancestral cults in these cities). See in particular L. Robert, Monnaies antiques en Troade (Librairie Droz, Geneva, 1966).