(A. Ivantchik)

Four Geo-Economic Areas of the Black Sea

Although the Black Sea region has always constituted a certain unity since antiquity, particularly in an economic sense, it was by no means homogenous, and Greek colonists found themselves in substantially different conditions in different parts of the region. From the earliest period of colonization , four areas could be distinguished within the region – each of these determined by the type of local population with whom the Greek colonists came into contact.

In the first of these areas, the southern coast, Greek colonists encountered populous groups representing an extension of civilizations of the Near East and of Asia Minor. The nature of interaction between Greek colonists and indigenous populations in southern coastal area is still poorly understood due to the fragmentary nature of textual sources and a lack of controlled archaeological exploration.

The second area, which adjoins the first and constitutes to some extent its continuation, is better known: the eastern coast of the Black Sea, covering the territory of modern Georgia and stretching to the heights of the Caucasus. Ecologically, this area resembles the southern coast, as it also consists of a narrow strip of coastal plains circumscribed by mountain ranges. In the center of this area, however, we find the extensive fertile plain of Colchis, watered by the river Rioni (Phasis) that flows west to the sea. By the time that Greek colonists reached this area, the plain of Colchis was already home to a highly developed indigenous culture.

Along the western coast (modern Bulgaria and Romania), the third area of the Black Sea region, Greeks founded cities in locations long-occupied and densely populated by Thracians, already well-known to the Greeks both on the northern shores of the Aegean Sea and in northwestern Anatolia. Here, Greek colonists came into contact with settled agricultural populations who did not substantially differ in economic or social organization from their other neighbors such as the Macedonians, Thracians, and Carians, all of whom lacked a city-state structure.

Circumstances in the fourth of these areas, the northern coast of the Black Sea was crucially different from those in the other three. If the whole region of the Black Sea was, so to speak, “another world” for the Greeks, the northern coast of the Black Sea was doubly “other.” This peculiarity was due to the fact that the northern coast constitutes the western extension of the Eurasian steppes stretching from Mongolia and northern China in the east to the Karpathian mountains in the west, the home of many nomadic civilizations. Until their encounter with the Greek colonists, Eurasian nomads were not particularly visible in the historical arena, but from the 7th century BC onward, the relations between the nomads of the Eurasian steppes and the settled civilizations of both East and West became a prominent and influential factor in the history of Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean basin.

Photograph © Irene Polinskaya

Photograph © Irene Polinskaya

Greek Settlers and Indigenous Populations

At the inception of Greek colonization in the northern region of the Black Sea, nomadic lifestyle based on horse breeding and horsemanship was already prevalent in the Eurasian steppes, including on the northern coast of the Black Sea among Scythians, a people of the Iranian language group. Greek colonists founded their cities around estuaries of big rivers flowing into the Black Sea and pushed their way up these rivers to establish economic relations with the settled populations of the hinterland. The coastal Greek colonies in turn attracted the indigenous inland population who started to move to the coastal areas that were previously unpopulated, settling around Greek cities and in their countryside (chora).

In the early 5th century, new waves of nomadic tribes threatened the peace of the Greek colonies and prompted them to build defensive structures around their cities, and the archaeological record contains evidence of contemporary destruction and burning. The most enduring response to the incursions was unification of the city-states of the Cimmerian Bosporus into a military union – soon to become a territorial state ruled by hereditary tyrants, the Bosporan kingdom, which stemmed the tide of Scythian invasions. Other city-states in the area (e.g., Olbia, Kerkinitis, Nikonion, and Tyras) ultimately accepted the hegemony of the Scythian kings.

The geopolitical structure of the northern Black Sea region retained its characteristic shape for centuries, preserving distinct divisions between the northwestern coast of the Black Sea, western Crimea, and the Cimmerian Bosporus. The northwestern area stretched from the mouth of the Danube to the mouth of the Dniepr. Predominantly populated at first by Scythians and, later, Sarmatians the area was largely under the control of the city-states of Tyras and Olbia (modern Parutino, in the Nikolajev region).

In the second area, western Crimea, the dominant city-state was the Dorian Chersonesos (modern Sevastopol), and the cities of Kerkinitis (modern Yevpatoria) and Kalos Limen, each with its own chora, lay to the north. Heavily hellenized Scythians created their own kingdom in Crimea, its capital at the newly founded Neapolis Scythica (modern Simferopol), and dominated all of western Crimea with the exception of Chersonesos until the time of Mithridates Eupator, who subdued both the Scythians and Chersonesos. The north of the area was subsequently dominated by Sarmatians, while Scythians and Taurians occupied much of the central Crimea.

The third and the largest of the Greek areas of the north Pontic region, the Cimmerian Bosporus, consisted of eastern Crimea including Theodosia and territories to the east of her (the European Bosporus) and the Taman peninsula with surrounding territories (the Asian Bosporus). Originally independent, by the first half of the fifth century BC, the city-states of Cimmerian Bosporus had joined to form a unified kingdom that lasted until the end of antiquity. Major cities of the European Bosporus were Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), its capital, and Theodosia, and of the Asian Bosporus – Phanogoreia, Hermonasse, and Gorgippia. The dominant local populations in the European Bosporus were Scythians and Taurians, and in the Asian Bosporus, – Sindi, Meotes, and later, Sarmatians.

All Greek cities of the northern Black Sea directed their trade contacts both inward towards the hinterland and outward towards the Greek world beyond the Black Sea basin, unmistakably contributing to the development of a certain Greek cultural koine (a shared cultural code) throughout the littoral of the northern Black Sea. Hellenization of local populations living alongside the Greek states promoted, at the same time, a Greco-Barbarian koine constituting a feature of the region peculiar within the Greek world. Particulars of these distinct characteristics were played out in the history of the region throughout antiquity.