Thracians: Attic vase paintings depicting Thracian women with tattoos, warriors, and Orpheus (sixth-fifth centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thracians: Attic vase paintings depicting Thracian women with tattoos, warriors, and Orpheus (sixth-fifth centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 1, 2023,

Attic red-figure vase (likely for mixing wine) depicting two Thracian women with tattoos on their arms and legs, the first of which is pictured with unsheathed sword perhaps in pursuit of Orpheus, who is not depicted (ca. 470 BCE; now at Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek 2378 / J.777):

Attic red-figure drinking cup depicting a warrior on horseback wearing a Thracian cloak (decorated with stripes and geometric patterns) and spear in hand (490-480 BCE; now in the Museo nazionale etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome, no. 50407):

Attic red-figure drinking cup depicting a warrior (“peltast”) wearing a Thracian cloak (decorated with stripes and geometric patterns), a cap with flaps, and boots while holding both a crescent shield (peltē) decorated with large eyes and a spear (ca. 470-460 BCE; now in the Sackler Museum, Harvard, inv. 1959.219):

Attic red-figure cup depicting warrior wearing a tunic, a Thracian cloak (decorated with dots and zigzags), and an Attic helmet while holding a crescent shield decorated with large eyes and a spear (ca. 510-500 BCE; British Museum, inv. 1897,1028.1):

Attic red-figure vase (likely for mixing wine) depicting Orpheus seated while playing on the left with a man in Thracian garb and a woman with a sickle (ca. 440 BCE; now in the Met, inv. 24.97.30):

Attic red-figure vase depicting Orpheus – lyre fallen to the ground – being attacked by Thracian women from both sides, with the woman on the left thrusting a spear at his throat and the woman on the right preparing to swing her axe (ca. 460-450 BCE; now in the Getty Museum, 80.AE.71):

Comments: Alongside Scythians who attracted interest somewhat earlier (link), the variety of peoples that Greeks labelled “Thracians” (living west of the Black Sea in what is now Bulgaria and Moldova) were among the favourite “barbarian” peoples to depict on Attic red-figure vases in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. This was, in part, due to increased attention to the northern Aegean on the part of the Athenians (especially 550-338 BCE), primarily for trade and mining but also in connection with Greek colonization and the expansion of Athenian control. As Thucydides shows (link), Athenians might also rely on certain “Thracian” peoples (such as those gathered under the control of the Odrysian king Sitalkes I) for support in military campaigns.

Athenian and other Greek attitudes about Thracians could be quite ambivalent, however (on all of this, see Sears 2013). On the one hand, there are starkly negative stereotypes expressed about Thracians and their customs (e.g. Herodotos at this link). There was also a tendency to assume that “Thracian” (like “Scythian”) was the equivalent of “slave” (link), since a significant portion of Thracian diaspora populations consisted of such forced migrants. On the other hand, a playwright like Aristophanes could speak about “Thrace-frequenters” or “disciples of Thrace” (thraikophoitai) to indicate a strong attraction to Thrace and Thracian culture among some Athenians or Greeks (Gerytades, as cited by Athenaios, Deipnosophists 12.75). Certain Greeks might also distinguish among sub-peoples, as when Herodotos positively assesses the Getians as superior (in bravery and justice) to other Thracians.

The depiction of the Thracians on Attic vases is part of the Athenian fascination, whether positive or negative. The images presented here show some of the key attributes or distinctive features of the Thracian from an Athenian or Greek perspective. As Herodotos also shows (link), Greeks took careful notice of the practice of tattooing among noble Thracian women (on which see Tiafakis 2015), and the two women above (who may be among the women considered to attack the singer Orpheus) are pictured with tattoos in geometic or zoomorphic shapes on both their arms and their legs. As Despoina Tsiafakis (2000) explains, the main visual features of a Thracian man (from a Greek perspective), which can also be seen in the images here, included a cap (alopekis) made from an animal pelt, a multi-coloured thick woolen cloak (zeira) with geometric patterns, fawn-skin boots, and, in the case of warriors, crescent-shaped small shields (peltai), spears, and/or daggers. As Thracians were particularly known as warriors and also hired as mercenaries for that reason, they are sometimes depicted as horsemen specifically, as in the drinking cup above. The warriors illustrated on the two other vases are characterized as Thracians by their outfits and equipment as well.

Frequently the appearance of Thracians on these vases is linked to mythological scenes, and the singer-musician Orpheus is central here (see especially the final images above). As Pausanias clarifies in the midst of his survey of varying local stories about Orpheus, one of the more common stories among Greeks (by which he may mean Athenians specifically) has to do with women killing Orpheus because he enthralled the men:

They [“the Greeks”] say that the Thracian women plotted Orpheus’ death, because he had persuaded their husbands to follow him in his roamings, but that they did not dare to carry out their plot for fear of their husbands. However, when they had drunk a lot of wine, they did the deed, and from that time it has been the rule for the men to march to battle drunk (Description of Greece 9.30; trans. Frazer 1898, adapted).

Orpheus is pictured playing for Thracian men in images above and being attacked by two women, and it’s possible the tatooed women in the first vase were likewise connected with the story.

Works consulted: M.A. Sears, Athens, Thrace, and the Shaping of Athenian Leadership (Cambridge: CUP, 2013); D. Tsiafakis, “The Allure and Repulsion of Thracians in the Art of Classical Athens,” in Not the Classical Ideal, ed. B. Cohen (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 364–89; D. Tsiafakis, “Thracian Tatoos,” in Bodies in Transition: Dissolving the Boundaries of Embodied Knowledge, ed. D. Boschung, H.A. Shapiro, and F. Wascheck (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015), 89–117.

Source of images: Photo of vase with two Thracian women at Munich and photo of Thracian warrior on horseback by ArchaiOptix (CC BY-SA 4.0); photo of first Thracian warrior by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums; photo of second Thracian warrior by Egisto Sani (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); photo of Orpheus with a Thracian man and woman courtesy of the Met (CC0); photo of Orpheus attacked by two Thracian women courtesy of the Getty (CC0).

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