By Periklis Deligiannis
Map of the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus, the other Greek states in the region, the Scythian territory and the last refuge of the Scythians after their defeat by the Sarmatians (Historical Atlas of Ukraine: Greek colonies and the hinterland)
Since the Mycenaean Age, the Greek navigators and colonizers expressed their interest in the Black Sea and the rich countries that surround it. The Mycenaeans had explored the region, as shown by the tradition of the Argonauts and other evidence, philological and archaeological. Before the Mycenaeans, Minoan Crete was never really interested in the Black Sea region. Generally speaking, the Black Sea was inhospitable for the Mediterranean seafarer because sailing in its waters was difficult and the countries surrounding it were inhabited by savage peoples, who used to kill those who landed on their shores. For these reasons, the original Greek name of the Black Sea was the ‘Inhospitable Sea’ (Axeinos Pontos). The chaos of the 12th century BC in which the Greek world sank, with the devastating raids of the Sea Peoples in the entire area of the Eastern Mediterranean, the destruction of the ‘Mycenaean Commonwealth’ and the collapse of the palatial sociopolitical system and their aftermath, removed the Greek navigators of the Black Sea.
Since Early Antiquity, since the time of the ancient Tripolye civilization of the 3rd millennium BC, the modern Russo-Ukrainian steppes were inhabited by sedentary agricultural and stockbreeding populations. These populations were subdued by the nomadic peoples who arrived successively from Central Asia, moving north of the Caspian Sea. The Indo-Aryan or Iranian Cimmerians were the first known (historical) nomadic people to arrive there, followed by the Iranian Scythians and Sarmatians, and then by the Turko-Mongol Huns, Avars, Cumans, Pechenegs and others. The nomadic invaders considered the Russo-Ukrainian steppe as a very suitable environment for the growth of their flocks. The resident population of modern southwestern Ukraine was rather Thracian in origin, while that of southeastern Ukraine and the steppe north of the Caucasus belonged to the people of the older Shrubnaya (Timber-grave) culture. The lands of the natives were relatively rich in agricultural production, so they could pay without much difficulty the taxes imposed on them by the nomad rulers. Various nomadic tribes retained as long as they could their power on those lands, substantially as long as their military superiority against external threats lasted.
The Greeks returned to the Black Sea during the 8th-7th centuries BC, when the powerful nomadic Cimmerians controlled the region in the north of the Sea. In the 7th and mainly in the 6th centuries BC, the Cimmerians were attacked by the Scythians, a North Iranian nomadic people, who drove them out of the steppes between the Kuban and Dnieper rivers, and restricted them in the area of the Straits of the Cimmerian Bosporus (modern Strait of Kerch between the Peninsulas of Crimea and Taman). The headquarters of the Scythian power were moved from the steppes of the upper reaches of the Kuban River (known as Hypanis to the ancient Greeks) and the modern regions of Daghestan and Azerbaijan, to the Pontic steppe (modern Southern Ukraine). In the 6th century BC, the Scythians were stabilized in the region after the mass extermination of most Cimmerians, which was rather carried with the cooperation of the Thracians of the Dnieper area. The Scythian invaders founded a centralized state possibly with a feudal organization, controlling the entire steppe from the Danube River to the Caspian Sea, with possible exceptions the lower valley of the Kuban and the estuary of the river Don, where some Cimmerian survivors and the indigenous peoples of the Sindians and the Maeotians managed to stop the Scythian advance. The southern part of Crimea, populated by Tauri and Cimmerians, was not conquered as well by the Scythians because it was protected by the Mountains of the Crimea.
Coinage of King Rescuporis of the Cimmerian Bosporus.
The Cimmerian survivors and the Sindo-Maeotians considered the Greek colonists as a strong military ally against the Scythians. Since the 8th century B.C., the Ionic Greeks had begun to colonize the shores of the Black Sea, establishing themselves peacefully mainly in small indigenous towns who converted them to Greek colonies. The need for a common defense of the natives and the Greeks against the Scythians, explains the collaboration and the subsequent merger of the Cimmerians and groups of Maeotians and other indigenous populations with the colonists, resulting in their final Hellenization. The locations of the Ionic colonization were not random: the estuary of the Kuban (modern Taman peninsula), the southern Crimea, the estuaries of the Dnieper (in which the Ionians founded the colony Olbia) and Don (in which they founded Tanais). These areas were the ultimate refuge of the Cimmerians, the Maeotians and others against the relentless Scythians, thanks to their geophysics. The Scythian horses could not operate in the marshes which protected them. Especially in Crimea, the denser Greek settlements were established in the peninsula of Panticapaeum (Kerch), which was possibly the headquarters of the Cimmerians before their destruction by the Scythians. Only the savage indigenous Tauri (‘the Bulls’ in Greek) in the mountains of the Crimea, were equally hostile to the Greeks and the Scythians. The Tauri, like many of the region’s peoples including the Scythians, practiced human sacrifice and probably cannibalism until the Greek Classical Period.
The first Greek settlers in the area were probably the Teians (from the city-state Teos in Ionia) who founded Phanagoria. They were followed by the Clazomenians, the Miletians (or Milesians) and other Ionians (mostly in the 7th century BC). The Aeolians of Lesbos and the barbaric Carians who reinforced them, were assimilated by the early Ionic majority. The Milesians founded most of the Greek colonies not only on the north coast but on the entire round about of the Black Sea, where they founded possibly 60-70 colonies according to the most plausible modern estimate. The total number of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea was around 100. On the northern coast the Milesians founded twenty colonies, of which the largest were Panticapaeum, Olbia, Theodosia (modern Feodosiya), Hermonassa and others. The expansionary Milesians would transform the Black Sea in a ‘Milesian Lake’ but the Dorians of Megara came to the Black Sea and founded Heraclea on the south coast. Heraclea grew rapidly evolving into the Dorian rival of Panticapaeum, the great Ionic city of the northern Black Sea. Heraclea cooperating with metropolitan Megarians, refounded Chersonesus (probably in the 6th century BC), an old Milesian colony in the Crimea which was almost abandoned because of the attacks of the neighboring Tauri. Chersonesus founded three smaller colonies in the Crimea. Thus the Dorians were added to the Greek population of the Russo-Ukrainian region, which was exclusively Ionic until then. The strongest of the northwestern Ionic colonies was the rich Olbia which had the closest relations with the Scythians. Olbia succeeded in Hellenizing a number of villages in the lower reaches of the rivers Dnieper and Southern Bug and settle Greek colonists on them, who were mixed with the local Thracians creating a mixed population, the Mixellines of Herodotus’ History.
Scythian warlord, artwork by Johnny Shumate (copyright: Johnny Shumate). Note the heavy armor of bronze scales. The warlord’s helmet and the protective frontispiece of the horse consist of the same scales. Note also the typical Scythian semi-cylinder shield mounted on his back.
The initial main objective of the Greek colonies was the exploitation of the fishing (halieutics) in the Maeotis Lake (modern Sea of Azov) and the Cimmerian Bosporus. In the 7th century BC the Greek cities fought for their survival, but in the 6th century their growth has been exponential managing to get rich. The reason of their wealth was their compromise with the Scythians, after the two sides had noted that their cooperation would be very profitable. The Scythians and the other Iranian peoples were never seafarers, nor did they ever become such. The ‘Scythian pirates’ who were later reported by some ancient chronicles to prey on the Black Sea, was in fact Thracians of the Dnieper or Sindo-Maeotians whom the Greeks usually called generally ‘Scythians’ (as they did later with the Sarmatians, the Huns, the Turkic peoples and others). Nevertheless, the Scythians always wanted to maintain contact with the maritime trade routes, in order to sell their products to overseas markets and to acquire the products of Ionia and mainland Greece which they especially appreciated, especially the Greek wine which seemed to be considered by them as valuable as their gold. The Scythians did not hurt the Greek colonies in their region in order to maintain trade relations with the Aegean cities. Neither Herodotus nor any other Greek sources of the 6th-5th centuries BC refer to any serious conflict between the two sides. The trade between them enriched both of them. The Greek colonies in Asia Minor ought to a significant extent their flourishing and large populations, to the existence of the Kingdoms of the Phrygians and Lydians in their hinterland, with whom they had close trade relations. Similarly, the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea coast prospered because of their trade with the Scythians and through them with the peoples who lived in the north and the west of Scythia.
Miletos, the mother-city of the Ionians of the northern Black Sea, lost her influence on them until the beginning of the 5th century BC, to be replaced soon by Athens, the new great Ionic and generally Greek power. Athens and mainland Greece in general, struggled to sustain their rapidly growing population. After the expulsion of the Athenians from Egypt by the Persians (5th century BC), Athens was obliged to inaugurate relations with the Black Sea in order to ensure the necessary food for her population and for that of the cities of the Athenian-Delian Alliance. But first she had to disengage the Greeks of the region from their Scythian partners and suzerains, and control their export trade. For this reason, in the middle of the 5th century BC she established military colonies in the cities of Amisus and Sinope on the southern Black Sea, in order to maintain access to the Cimmerian Bosporus region (peninsulas of Kerch and Taman). In the Cimmerian Bosporus the Athenians founded colonies near the larger old Greek cities, real fortresses to secure their control: they founded Athenaeum near Theodosia, Nymphaeum near Panticapaeum and probably Stratokleia near Phanagoria. Thereby the C. Bosporus area became an Athenian protectorate, which ensured the supply of the cities of the Aegean with cereals and other foodstuff.
The Athenian domination was tested soon, in 438 BC, when Spartocus, a scion of a Hellenized family of Thracian aristocrats of Panticapaeum, established a tyranny in the city. The same personal name was common to kings and princes of Thrace and the Thracian Spartocus or (falsely called by the Romans) Spartacus, the leader of the most dangerous slave revolution confronted by Rome (1st cent. BC).
Thereby was founded in 438 BC, the state which later became the Kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus, which survived for more than eight centuries. Pericles of Athens visited the region, presumably to negotiate with the powerful new ruler of Panticapaeum (Panticapaeon in Greek). During the talks, it was agreed that Athens would maintain her military colonies in the C. Bosporus and continue to control the export trade. But the Athenian influence was becoming more and more limited because of the Peloponnesian War in the Aegean (431-404 BC) and it was obliterated in the end (404 BC). Spartocus’ successors, Satyr (his son, 431-389 BC) and Leucon (his grandson, 389-349 BC ) extended their power through conquests, as it was usual with tyrannies. Satyr bribed Gylon, the commander of the Athenian garrison of Nymphaeum to hand over the fort, and captured the town of Cimmericon. Leucon was the tyrant who made the Spartocid Hegemony a real kingdom. The conquest of Theodosia was an important strategic event because it overturned the plan of the aforementioned Heraclea (of the southern Black Sea coast) which controlled the neighboring Chersonesus, to conquer Theodosia. The Hegemony of Panticapaeon (Bosporan state) annexed gradually the Greek cities Hermonassa, Phanagoria, Gorgippia, Parthenium, Athenaeum, Myrmekium and other cities. Chersonesus avoided the Spartocid conquest thanks to the military aid of Heraclea. Leucon also subjugated many indigenous tribes: the Sindians and the Maeotian tribes of the Dandarii, the Psessae, the Toretae and others. His successor, Pairisades I (348-310 BC), further strengthened the Bosporan state leading it to its acme (covering an area of about 30 to 35,000 sq. km.). He fought against the Scythians, refusing to pay them the taxes paid until then by the Panticapaeans and the other Greeks to the Scythian king. At the same time, Athens abandoned officially her politico-military rights on the Cimmerian Bosporus, only maintaining some trade privileges.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II.