Thracians: Greeks and Thracians honouring the Thracian goddess Bendis (fifth-third centuries BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thracians: Greeks and Thracians honouring the Thracian goddess Bendis (fifth-third centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient authors: Plato, The Republic 327-328 (link); Greeks and Thracians in the Piraeus and on Salamis island, various inscriptions (see links below).

Comments: As Herodotos and Thucydides (both late fifth century BCE) show, Greek attitudes about Thracians (a Greek term for many peoples just north of Macedonia and west of the Black Sea) could be quite negative. Herodotos observes that they were the most populace set of peoples in the known world, but nonetheless places them very low on the ethnic hierarchy (reflecting hierarchies shared by other Greek elites) (link). Thucydides gives considerable attention to the Odrysian kingdom within Thrace, but also relates episodes involving Thracians that point to them being an extremely savage and violent people (link). You can search “Thracians” on this site to see many other examples of characterizations.

Nonetheless, there are also signs that some Athenians and others in Attica could have a different take on Thracians, or at least Thracian culture. So, for instance, in one of Aristophanes’ lost plays (cited by Athenaios, Deipnosophists 12.75), there are references to “Thrace-frequenters,” Athenian elites with a penchant for all things Thracian. Furthermore, there is substantial literary and, especially, epigraphic evidence (presented below) that the Thracian goddess Bendis was honoured in the Piraeus, Athens and elsewhere in Attica by at least 429 or 413 BCE (see Planeaux) not only by Thracian immigrants, but also by local Greeks. In fact, some of the evidence, including Plato’s dialogue, shows that Greeks and Thracians would, on occasion, join together to honor the goddess. So this, too, points to local examples of somewhat positive ethnic relations between Greeks and Thracians outside of Thrace itself.

Works consulted: J.J. Chu, “Thracians Among Others: A Study of ‘Thracianness’ in Ancient Cross-Cultural Contexts” (Ph.D., Riverside, CA, University of California, Riverside, 2022) (link); C. Planeaux, “The Date of Bendis’ Entry into Attica,” CJ 96 (2000): 165–92 (link).


Marble relief of Bendis, goddess of the Thracians, along with several athletic youths, now in the British Museum (ca. 400–375 BCE; photo by Harland).

Plato, The Republic (ca. 380 BCE)

[Character of Socrates refers to first performance of the night festival for the Thracian goddess]

(327-328) Socrates: I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Ariston’s son Glaukon to offer my prayers to the goddess [Bendis] and also because I wanted to watch the festival and see how they would perform it, seeing that this was the first time they were holding it. I must say that I thought that the procession of the local people was quite excellent, but the one put on by the Thracian contingent seemed no less impressive. When we had made our prayers and seen the spectacle, we started back toward town. Now, as we were heading homeward, Polemarchos the son of Kephalos caught sight of us from a distance and ordered his slave to run on and tell us to wait for him. Coming up from behind the slave caught hold of my cloak and said “Polemarchos tells you to wait.” So I turned round and asked where he was. “There he is,” he said, “behind you, coming this way. Do wait.” “All right, we will,” said Glaukon. . . [omitted long interchange indicating they may leave]. “Are you telling us that you don’t know,” Adeimantos added, “that there’s to be a torch race on horseback this evening in honour of the goddess [Bendis]” “On horseback?” I [Socrates] said; “that really is something new! Do you mean they pass torches on to each other as they race their horses? Or something else?” “Exactly that,” said Polemarchos, “and besides, they’re going to hold an all-night festival, which will be worth watching. After dinner we’ll get up and go out and have a look at the festival. We will meet a lot of young men there and talk to them. Do stay, and don’t refuse us.” “It looks as if we will have to stay,” replied Glaukon. “Well, if that’s what you decide,” I said, “that’s what we must do.” . . . [omitted remiainder of dialogue since the discussion distracts away from attending the night portion of the festival for Bendis].

Inscriptional evidence

Piraeus and Athens, Attica

Salamis island, Attica


Source of translations: P. Shorey, Plato: The Republic LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1930), public domain, adapted by Harland. Inscriptions translated by Kloppenborg and Harland.

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