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Chersonesus Between Greece and Scythia*

Stanley M. Burstein


     The important role played by the Black Sea1 in the history of ancient Eurasia receives surprisingly little recognition in World History texts and courses. For much of antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, the Black Sea was the link between the world of the Eurasian steppe and the Mediterranean basin. The critical intermediaries in the interaction between these two worlds were the Greek cities that occupied the north coast of the Black Sea and its extension, the Sea of Azov.

     The Black Sea was the last major area settled by Greeks during the extraordinary migration that resulted in the foundation of Greek cities from southern Spain to the mouth of the Don River at the eastern end of the Sea of Azov. Identifying the causes that drove Greeks from their Aegean homeland is one of the great themes of Greek historiography. Land hunger, trade, and refuge from expanding imperial powers such as Lydia and Persia have all been proposed. While historians cannot agree on the ultimate cause or causes of Greek overseas settlement, there is no dispute concerning the significance of Greek colonization for the history of the Black Sea basin.2

     Although Greek mariners probably entered the Black Sea and made contact with its inhabitants as early as the eighth century BCE, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the bulk of Greek settlement in the region occurred in the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE, when Miletus and other Greek cities from the west coast of Anatolia together with the city of Megara from southern Greece founded settlements in the Black Sea basin, first on its south coast, and then on its north and west coasts. Unlike the Mediterranean, where the Phoenicians proved to be formidable competitors for prime settlement sites, the Greeks had no rivals in the Black Sea so that by the early fifth century BCE the Black Sea was almost entirely ringed by prosperous Greek cities that were equipped with fine public buildings and linked to each other, their non-Greek neighbors, and their Aegean homeland by complex political and economic ties.The most important of these cities, however, were concentrated on the north coast of the Black Sea between Olbia near the mouth of the Bug River in the west and Panticapaeum on the Straits of Kerch in the northeastern Crimea.

     Reconstructing the history of these of these cities is difficult because relevant ancient sources are few, forcing historians to rely on scattered references in Greek and Latin literature, inscriptions, and especially archaeology. The source problems, moreover, have been aggravated by scholars' tendency to reconstruct the histories of the cities and their relationships with their non-Greek neighbors on the basis of misleading analogies between ancient Greek colonies and nineteenth century European colonies with their often overwhelming military and economic superiority to local populations,3 when the actual situation was more similar to that of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century colonies, whose survival often depended on their ability to find allies among local populations.

     Despite these problems, reconstructing the history of the Greek cities of the Black Sea and their relations with the peoples—both nomadic and settled—of the western Eurasian steppe was one of the triumphs of Czarist and Soviet era scholarship. The bulk of that scholarship focused, however, on the history of Bosporus, a kingdom formed in the late fifth century BCE by the unification of the Greek cities and non-Greek peoples living on both sides of the Straits of Kerch that survived until the sixth century CE.4 The focus of this paper is a different but particularly revealing piece of this vast and complex history: the history of the principal rival of Bosporus, the city of Chersonesus Taurica in the southwestern Crimea, the ancestor of modern Sevastopol, and the strategies that enabled the city to survive and prosper as a critical intermediary between the nomadic populations of the Ukrainian steppe and the states of the Black Sea and Mediterranean basins.

     Chersonesus was one of the last founded and longest lived of the Greek cities of the Crimea.5 Indeed, it survived as a center of Greek culture under its Byzantine name of Cherson as late as the fifteenth century CE, and was the location of some of the key events of early Russian history. Cyril and Methodius prepared there for their unsuccessful mission to the Khazars in the mid-ninth century CE that was the forerunner of their later missions to the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, Moravia, and Pannonia; and Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was baptized there in 988 CE, thereby beginning the process of Christianizing Russia.

     Until recently archaeologists believed that Chersonesus was founded in 422/21 BCE jointly by the north Anatolian city of Heraclea Pontica, modern Ereğli, about 100 miles east of the Bosporus, and exiles from the island of Delos. Since Chersonesus, like its modern successor, Sevastapol, is located on Quarantine Bay, the best harbor at the northern end of the shortest direct sailing route between the north and south coasts of the Black Sea, its late foundation was surprising. Historians tried to explain the late date of the city's establishment by citing the hostility of the Tauri, the local non-Greek population, who were famous as pirates and supposedly sacrificed shipwrecked Greek sailors to their patron goddess, the Parthenos or Virgin. Thus, according to Herodotus (4.103.1–3) writing in the fifth century BCE, "The Tauri…sacrifice to the Virgin all who are shipwrecked and any Greeks they seize at sea. After beginning the sacrificial ritual, they crush in the victim's head with a club…. (and) then impale the head on a stake….They treat prisoners of war as follows. Each man cuts off one of their heads, brings it home, and then he sticks it on a long pole and raises it high above his house."

     Despite their fearsome reputation, however, the Tauri were unlikely to have been the reason for Chesonesus' supposed late foundation. Virtually all Pontic Greek cities actually were founded with the cooperation of local populations, and the foundation of Chersonesus in their territory indicates that the Tauri were also open to relations with Greeks. This suggestion has been confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries that indicate that such cooperation began much earlier than scholars had believed, and that an Ionian settlement, probably Milesian in origin like the other colonies in the region, already existed on the site in the late sixth century BCE. Historical Chersonesus, therefore, was a re-foundation and expansion of an already existing settlement. Moreover, the existence of non-Greek burials and settlement sites near Chersonesus combined with the adoption of the Parthenos, the "Virgin," as the city's chief deity and the presence of non-Greek names—primarily Iranian—among its elite suggests that, as was the case elsewhere in the Black Sea, the city was founded with the cooperation of the Tauri. Moreover, the identification of the Tauri's virgin goddess with Iphigenia, the daughter of the Homeric hero Agamemnon, also already attested in Herodotus (4.103.2), further suggests that the early cooperation between the Tauri and the Greek settlers was facilitated by the sort of creative misunderstanding typical of what historians call "Middle Ground" situations.6

     History was to prove that the Heracleotes had chosen well when they decided to found Chersonesus in the southwestern Crimea. The new city grew rapidly and prospered throughout the fourth century BCE and into the early third century BCE. Although literary sources are lacking for Chersonesus' early history, inscriptions and archaeological evidence have gone far to remedy that deficiency. Most revealing is a large inscription containing the text of an oath sworn by all Chersonesite citizens on coming of age.7 Historians date the inscription to ca. 280 BCE, and the oath's detailed imprecations against those persons and their allies who intended to overthrow the democracy or betray the city, its institutions, or its secrets suggest that it was instituted after an unsuccessful attempt to establish an oligarchy or a tyranny at Chersonesus. Particularly revealing, however, is the citizens' promise that "I will not betray Chersonesus, nor Kerkinitis nor Kalos Limen (Beautiful Harbor) nor the other forts or the other territories the Chersonesites inhabit or have inhabited (IOSPE 1, 401, lines 7–12)." As these settlements were located well to the north of Chersonesus, the oath indicates that sometime before the oath was composed in the early third century BCE the city had expanded its territory northward from its original site at Quarantine Bay to include almost the whole west coast of the Crimea.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: The Oath of Chersonesus.  

     Archaeology allows us to fill in the details of the process.8 Ukrainian archaeologists call Chersonesus a Slavic Pompeii with some justification. Much of the city's Medieval street plan still survives. Equally important, the most complete example of planned land division from any ancient Greek city also survives at Chersonesus,9 and this fact enabled Soviet archaeologists to reconstruct in detail the agricultural settlement plan of the fourth century BCE city. The evidence revealed by decades of excavation indicates that the city's agricultural territory was systematically divided and re-distributed by the city's government in the mid-fourth century BCE. Stone paved roads and stone retaining walls marked out the territory into roughly equal rectangular plots sufficient for at least 2,400 families. The plots themselves included internal stone terracing and planting walls for grape vines, and in some cases the remains of well-built farmhouses and other farm buildings still survive. Wine producing facilities on many of the farms and large scale local production of amphorae for the transportation of wine beginning in the late fourth century BCE suggest, moreover, that the main purpose of this development was commercial and not subsistence agriculture.

     So radical a change in the pattern of land division and usage in the territory of Chersonesus must have seriously impacted the life of the Tauri. Until recently, the dominant view among scholars has been that Chersonesus followed the example of its mother city Heraclea Pontica, and obtained the needed labor force to work its farms by reducing the Tauri to the status of a dependent agricultural laboring population, whose society remained intact but subject to the rule of the Greek city.10 Recent excavations in Chersonesus' agricultural hinterland suggest a different scenario, however, revealing that (1) the Kizil-Koba culture, which scholars identify with the material culture of the Tauri, disappeared from the territory of Chersonesus in the late fourth century BCE; and (2) many of the new Greek farms were superimposed on the burned out remains of settlements of the Kizil-Koba culture. Taken together, these developments indicate that the fourth century BCE expansion of Chersonesus' territory was accompanied by the forcible expulsion of the Tauri from the city's rural hinterland. Moreover, the remains of towers on some of the farm plots, which have recently been shown to have functioned as jail-like barracks for workers,11 suggest that slaves and other impoverished laborers provided much of the city's needed work force instead of a serf-like Tauri population.

     The "good times" for Chersonesus and the other cities of the north coast of the Black Sea ended, however, in the early and mid-third century BCE. Archaeological evidence of the crisis is clear. Fortifications at Chersonesus and its dependencies of Kerkinitis and Kalos Limen were strengthened, more distant farms were abandoned as the area under cultivation retreated closer to the protection of the city's walls, while surviving farm houses were fitted with anti-ramming belts to protect them against attack by raiders. The most likely cause of the sudden increase in insecurity, according to Russian and Ukrainian scholars, was a dramatic change in the balance of power among the nomadic populations of the Pontic steppe and their relationship to the Greek cities of the north coast of the Black Sea.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: the Crimea in Antiquity.  

     For most of their early history, the central fact of life for Greek cities of the northern Black Sea like Chersonesus was their relationship to the kingdom of the Royal Scythians in the Pontic steppe, which dominated the southern Ukraine from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE.12 Information about how the Scythians exercised their influence over cities like Chersonesus is limited, but it is clear that the survival of Chersonesus and its neighbors depended on accommodating the Scythians' need for trading outlets to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean while at the same time profiting from the protection the Scythians could provide against raids by peoples living in the city's Crimean hinterlands. The most tangible evidence of the cities' efforts to establish good relations with the Scythians are the splendid gold and bronze objects found in royal tombs and elite graves throughout the region that most likely were either diplomatic gifts or part of the cities' tribute payments instead of trade goods as was assumed in the old view of relations between the Greeks and their non-Greek neighbors.13

     The system collapsed, however, in the early third century BCE as a result of population movements in the Pontic steppe. Specifically, a new people, Iranian speaking nomads Greek and Roman authors call Sauromatae or Sarmatians, moved westward into the Pontic steppe from their home east of the Volga River and broke the power of the Royal Scythians.14 The first century BCE historian Diodorus (2.43.6–7) summarizes the result as follows: "Many years later this people (sc. the Sarmatians) grew strong and overran much of Scythia, completely destroying those they had conquered and turning most of the land into a desert." Normally an account of generalized destruction such as this would arouse skepticism. In this case, however, archaeological evidence confirms the broad picture drawn by Diodorus, indicating that Scythian settlement and the construction of royal and elite graves both ceased in the Pontic steppe in the early third century BCE with the survivors retreating into the Crimea where they founded a new kingdom with its capital at Neapolis ("New City"), modern Simferopol, that survived until the early first century CE.15

     The causes of the Sarmatian migration and the resulting upheavals in the Pontic Steppe and the Crimea are unknown. The usual suspects have been suggested including climate change and pressure from nomadic peoples further east, but evidence is lacking to confirm any of the proposed explanations. What is clear is that the irruption of the Sarmatians into the Pontic steppe and the consequent disintegration of Scythian power resulted in a crisis that threatened the survival of Chersonesus as the rump kingdom of the Scythians in the Crimea sought to expand its territory at the expense of Chersonesus and the neighboring Bosporan kingdom. While Chersonesus initially sought to solve the problem by forming an alliance with the Scythians' Sarmatian enemies,16 that strategy failed because of the unreliability of their new Sarmatian allies as is revealed by a Chersonesian decree (IOSPE 1, 343) honoring the Parthenos for having saved the people "from the greatest dangers and now (sc. did so) when the free men together with their children and wives had gone out to collect the harvest in the month of Dionysus and the neighboring barbarians unexpectedly made an attack and a force of Sarmatians was preparing to invade (?)…and the free people were in danger of being sold by the barbarians into Sarmatian territory…."

     The severity of the Sarmatian menace is indicated by the fact that Sarmatian continued to be used as a generic designation in Chersonesian tradition for hostile nomads in the Pontic steppe long after the real Sarmatians had disappeared.17 Still, Chersonesus survived and even prospered thanks to its strategic position on the trade route from the Pontic steppe to northern Anatolia and the Mediterranean by adopting a new strategy, namely, seeking the protection of powers outside the north coast of the Black Sea and its steppe hinterland. The first evidence of the new strategy is an alliance concluded in the first half of the second century BCE with Pharnaces I, the ruler of the kingdom of Pontus in northeast Anatolia. When Pontus was conquered by Rome, similar relations were established with Rome and then with its Byzantine successor state. Security, however, came at a price. For the rest of its history, Chersonesus was a client state of its various protectors, first Pontus, then Rome, and finally the Byzantine Empire.

     As the dynamics of the system did not change throughout the city's long history, it is fitting that the clearest exposition of its implications for the city is found near the end of that history in a remarkable work, the On the Administration of the Empire, a manual of statecraft compiled by the tenth century CE Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913–957 CE) for his son Romanus II (959–963 CE). According to Constantine,18 "the Pechenegs," who dominated the Pontic Steppe, "trade with the Chersonites, and perform services for them and for the emperor in Russia…and…they receive from the Chersonites a prearranged remuneration in respect of this service proportionate to their labor and trouble in the form of pieces of purple cloth, ribbons, silks, gold brocade, pepper, scarlet or 'Parthian' leather, and other commodities which they require." Constantine19 is clear about the implications of these relationships for Chersonesus: "If the Chersonesites do not journey to the land of the Romans and sell the hides and wax that they get by trade from the Pechenegs, they cannot live. If grain does not pass across (sc. to them) from (sc. the land of the Romans), they cannot live." In other words, from the crisis of the third century BCE to the end of its history, Chersonesus survived and prospered, but only by walking a fine line between the demands of its two masters: nomads such as the Pechenegs and their predecessors who dominated the Pontic steppe and whose elites needed Mediterranean luxury goods and the city's Anatolian protectors who needed the products of the steppe Chersonesus provided thanks to its role of intermediary between Greece and Scythia.

     While the details of Chersonesus' long and complex history were peculiar to it, its historical experience was not unique. In his classic study of ports of trade, "Ports of Trade in Early Societies," the economic historian Karl Polanyi20 noted that the Black Sea was an area, where ports of trade were common; and Chersonesus probably began its long history as a typical "port of trade," being located on the interface between two ecological zones, the Pontic steppe and the Black Sea and founded with its permission in the territory of a strong local population, the Tauri. Chersonesus' existence as a port of trade was temporary, however, and for most of its long history it was an independent city, while continuing to perform the functions of a port of trade. Still, as Constantine VII's perceptive description of the city's situation shows, its independence and prosperity were always precarious, requiring constant negotiation and renegotiation with its more powerful neighbors in the Pontic steppe and the Black Sea basin. Equally important, Chersonesus' experience can be paralleled among the other Greek colonies of the Black Sea and many of the Greek and Phoenician colonies of the Mediterranean basin including Massalia—modern Marseilles—and Carthage, as well as similarly situated cities in other regions and periods of history.

Stanley M. Burstein is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Los Angeles, where he taught from 1968 to 2004. He received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. degrees in Ancient History from UCLA. His field of research is relations between Greeks and non-Greeks with emphasis on the Black Sea and ancient Africa. He is past-president of the Association of Ancient Historians. His books include: Outpost of Hellenism: The Emergence of Heraclea on the Black Sea; The Babyloniaca of Berossus; Agatharchides of Cnidus, On the Erythrean Sea; Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum; and The Reign of Cleopatra. His email address is:


* This article is a revised version of a paper delivered at the 2015 meeting of the World History Association in Savannah, Georgia. Unless otherwise noted, translations are by the author.

1 The most recent general history of the Black Sea is Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

2 For Greek colonization of the Black Sea see Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, "The Black Sea" in: Kurt A. Raaflaub and Hans van Wees (eds.), A Companion To Archaic Greece (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 330–346.

3 Cf. Franco De Angelis, "Ancient Past, imperial present: the British Empire in T. J. Dunbabin's The Western Greeks," Antiquity, 72 (1998), 539–49; and Gocha Tsetskhladze and James Hargrave, "Colonisation from Antiquity to Modern Times: Comparisons and Contrasts," Ancient West & East, 10 (2011), 161–182.

4 The fullest treatment of the kingdom of Bosporus in English is John Hind, "The Bosporan Kingdom" in: D. M. Lewis, John Boardman, Simon Hornblower, and M. Ostwald (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. VI, The Fourth Century B.C., 2nd edition (Cambridge, 1994), 476–511.

5 For the history of Chersonesus see Sergei J. Saprykin, Heraclea Pontica and Tauric Chersonesus Before Roman Domination (VI – I Centuries B.C.), (Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, Publisher, 1997).

6 For the "Middle Ground" in antiquity see Greg Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), passim.

7 See now Vladimir F. Stolba, "The Oath of Chersonesos and the Chersonesean Economy in the Early Hellenistic Period" in: Zofia H. Archibald, John K. Davies, and Vincent Gabrielsen (eds.), Making, Moving and Managing: The New World of Ancient Economies, 32531 BC (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005), 298–321.

8 The archaeological evidence for the history of Chersonesus is summarized in Crimean Chersonesos: City, Chora, Museum, and Environs (Austin: Institute of Classical Archaeology, 2003).

9 Crimean Chersonesos, 120–134.

10 The classic expression of this view is D. M. Pippidi, "Die Agrarverhältnisse in den griechschen Städten der Dobrudscha in vorrömischer Zeit" in: D. M. Pippidi, Epigraphische Beiträge zur Geschichte Histrias in Hellenistscher und Römischer Zeit (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1962), 60–74.

11 Sarah P. Morris and John K. Papadopoulos, "Greek Towers and Slaves: An Archaeology of Exploitation," American Journal of Archaeology, 109 (2005) 155–225.

12 Stanley M. Burstein, "The Greek Cities of the Black Sea" in: Konrad H. Kinzl (ed.), A Companion to the Greek World (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 141–142.

13 See now Anna A. Trofimova (ed.), Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art from the Hermitage (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007).

14 The fullest account of the Sarmatians in English is T. Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970).

15 Barry Cunliffe, By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 281–182.

16 Polyaenus, Strategemata 8.56 with Stanley M. Burstein, "The Date of Amage, Queen of the Sarmatians: A Note on Polyaenus, Strategemata 8.56," Ancient West & East, 1 (2002) 173–177.

17 Romily J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyogenitus, De Administrando Imperio: A Commentary (London: Athlone Press, 1962), 206.

18 Constantine Porphyrogenius, De Administrando Imperio, edited and translated by Gy. Moravcsik and R. J. H. Jenkins (Budapest, 1949), 6.

19 Constantine, DAI 53.

20 Karl Polanyi, "Ports of Trade in Early Societies" in: George Dalton (ed.), Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968), 239.

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