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The Neighboring Cultures of the Ancient Greeks

Scythian rider
A gold plaque depicting a Scythian on horseback. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

As one of the most popularly studied civilizations of antiquity, the ancient Greeks tend to overshadow many of the neighboring cultures they interacted with.

However, the Greeks shared the ancient world with a myriad of other interesting cultures and civilizations, some of which are severely underappreciated in mainstream historical discourse.

In this article, we’ll be skipping over the other “heavyweights” of the ancient world, such as the Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and Phoenicians to focus on some of the lesser-known cultures the Greeks were familiar with to various extents.

What did the ancient Greeks think of neighboring cultures?

The term “barbarian” likely finds its roots in the Sumerian word “barbar,” which meant “foreigner.” In Greek, it served as both a loan word and an onomatopoeic representation, mimicking the unintelligible babbling sounds that the Greeks associated with foreigners speaking their languages.

Originally, “barbaroi” served as a neutral, collective name for all non-Greeks, without inherently negative connotations. However, over time, the term acquired a negative meaning, reflecting the prevailing Greek perception of non-Greeks as uncivilized or inferior.

As noted by the academic Stavros Moutsios,  “This political designation of the barbarians, however, did not entail lack of acknowledgment nor of admiration of their achievements.” Indeed, the ancient Greeks often displayed a great deal of curiosity toward neighboring cultures and civilizations.

A good example of this was the practice of religious syncretism, whereby the Greeks would merge the gods of their pantheon with similar foreign deities. For example, the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis possessed a combination of the Egyptian deities Osiris and Apis with the Greek deities Hades and Demeter.

Naturally, the perceptions of the Greeks toward other cultures varied a great deal. Often, our modern preconceptions of ancient peoples are shaped by the surviving literary sources written by ancient Greek authors about neighboring peoples who were themselves not literate.

The Scythians

The Scythians were one of the most enigmatic peoples of antiquity, famous for their mastery over horses. To call the Scythians “neighbors” of the ancient Greeks is somewhat of a misnomer since the Scythians were nomads and had no fixed borders, but the Greeks had fairly frequent contact with them through trade and war.

The Scythians were an Eastern Ianic people who inhabited the region north of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine, southern Russia, Kazakhstan, and parts of Central Asia, from around the 9th century BC to the 4th century AD.

Our main source on the perceptions of the ancient Greeks regarding the Scythians is the accounts of the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus and later Greek writers. Incidentally, Herodotus, the”Father of History”, is also our main literary source on the Scythians generally.

According to Herodotus, the arrival of the Scythians led to conflict among the Cimmerians, with the royal tribe wanting to defend their lands and the rest of the population seeking to flee. Another account stated that the Scythians chased the Cimmerians out of their territory, forcing them to migrate south into West Asia.

A Scythian depicted on ancient Greek red-figure pottery. Credit: Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

As time passed, the image of the Scythians in Athens became the quintessential stereotype used for non-Greeks, and they were associated with drunkenness due to Greeks’ caricatural representation of foreigners as unmoderated drinkers.

Later Greek literature transformed the Scythian prince Anacharsis into a legendary figure representing “Barbarian wisdom.” He became one of the Seven Sages of Greece and an ideal “man of nature” or “noble savage” figure. Ephorus of Cyme, a 4th-century BC historian, idealized the Scythians as “invincible” people, creating a fictitious account of a legendary Scythian king named Idanthyrsos who defeated the legendary pharaoh Sesostris and ruled all of Asia. This perception of the Scythians as a powerful and wise people became a tradition in Greek literature.

The Scythians were also included in Greek mythology, with mythical Scythian characters appearing in stories. Herodotus of Heraclea, for instance, portrayed Teutarus, a mythical Scythian, as a herdsman who served Amphitryon and taught archery to Heracles. Additionally, the Titan Prometheus was described as a Scythian king, and his son Deucalion was also linked to the Scythians in Greek myths.

The Thracians

The Thracians were a group of Indo-European-speaking people who inhabited significant portions of Southeast Europe during ancient history. They mainly resided in regions that now correspond to modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, and northern Greece. However, Thracian settlements were not confined solely to Southeast Europe; they also extended to north-western Anatolia (Asia Minor) in what is present-day Turkey.

The Greeks and Romans described Thracian culture as tribal, and they remained largely disunited until the establishment of the Odrysian kingdom. The Odrysian Kingdom was a state union of over 40 Thracian tribes and 22 kingdoms that flourished from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD. It encompassed mainly present-day Bulgaria, with extensions into parts of Southeastern Romania (Northern Dobruja), Northern Greece, and modern-day European Turkey.

By the fifth century BC, Herodotus referred to the Thracians as the second-most numerous people in the known world after the Indians and potentially the most powerful, had it not been for their lack of unity. The Thracians were generally not known for constructing cities, and Seuthopolis was their sole polis.

Thracians Greek pottery
Orpheus amongst the Thracians. Side A of an Attic red-figure bell-krater, c. 440 BC. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC BY 2.5

The Greeks frequently fought with the Thracians but also admired them for their martial prowess and hired them as mercenaries. Both Alexander the Great and his father Philip II fought on the Thracians on various occasions.

The Thracian ruler Kersebleptes was Philip’s most consequential Thracian enemy. Over a series of campaigns from 356 to 340 BC, Philip II succeeded in bringing Kersebleptes under his control as a tributary vassal, and in the process, he conquered a substantial portion of Thrace. Alexander again successfully fought the Thracians – among the other peoples – during the Balkan Campaign of 335 BC.

The Phrygians

The Phrygians were an ancient Indo-European-speaking people who resided in central-western Anatolia. Ancient Greek authors used “Phrygian” as a broad term to refer to a diverse ethnocultural grouping situated mainly in the central regions of Anatolia, rather than denoting a single “tribe” or “people.”

The ethnolinguistic homogeneity of the Phrygians is subject to debate. According to Herodotus, the Phrygians were originally dwelling in the southern Balkans under the name of Bryges (Briges), but they later changed their name to Phryges after migrating to Anatolia through the Hellespont.

While numerous historians purport the theory of a Phrygian migration from Europe to Asia Minor around 1200 BC, Anatolian archaeologists have largely dismissed this notion. Instead, it has been proposed that the Phrygian migration to Asia Minor, which Greek sources indicate took place shortly after the Trojan War, actually occurred much earlier and in multiple stages.

Phrygian soldiers
Phrygian soldiers depicted on a reconstruction of a Phrygian building in Turkey. Credit: Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Greeks and Phrygians had significant cultural connections, particularly in the realm of music. The earliest traditions of ancient Greek music were partly influenced by Phrygian music, which was transmitted through the Greek colonies in Anatolia. The Phrygian mode, known as the warlike mode in ancient Greek music, was one of the musical elements borrowed from the Phrygians.

The Phrygian king, Midas, renowned for his “golden touch,” was said to have been tutored in music by the legendary Orpheus himself, according to mythological accounts. Moreover, the aulos, a reed instrument with two pipes, was another musical invention attributed to Phrygia and subsequently embraced by the Greeks.

In classical Greek iconography, Paris, a Trojan prince famous for abducting Helen in the Iliad, is depicted as non-Greek by wearing a Phrygian cap. This distinct headgear was also worn by Mithras and has persisted in modern imagery as the “Liberty cap” of the American and French revolutionaries, symbolizing freedom and rebellion. More amusingly, the Smurfs also wear the Phrygian cap.

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