BMCR 2001.12.10

The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God

, The supreme gods of the Bosporan Kingdom : Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, v. 135. Leiden: Brill, 1999. x, 371 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9004112316 $115.50.

According to the Loeb edition of Tacitus’ Annals, the Bosporus was “a small dependent kingdom of considerable antiquity.”1 At the time when that 1937 text was published, the reader would have needed this small footnote to make sense of a faraway place that, to Tacitus’ contemporary readers, was very real. True, the kingdom was much younger than most of the independent states in the Graeco-Roman world, and it was small indeed. Situated on both sides of the Cimmerian Bosporus (the modern Straits of Kerch), it included a large part of the eastern Crimea along with Theodosia, the entire Kerch peninsula, the Taman peninsula with its adjoining territories as far as the foothills of the North Caucasus, and the Lower Don area.2 Therefore the kingdom had to seek protection among its stronger neighbours and could not afford the luxury of staying independent. However, the history of the Bosporus is full of dramatic events, and its kings were definitely more than just local rulers. Some of them played quite an important role on the political stage, especially during the Roman period. So it is only fair that the Bosporan kingdom has emerged from obscurity in the last decade as western scholars increasingly have turned their attention to regions outside of Greece and Rome.

The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom by Yulia Usinova is one of the works that facilitated this positive change. The book, issued part of Brill’s Religions in the Graeco-Roman World series, is a comprehensive study of Bosporan religion in the first few centuries A.D. Both the subject and the time period chosen are difficult to deal with, due to the fact that by the beginning of the first century the indigenous Bosporan cults have merged with the religious practices of the Greek colonists and their descendants to the extent that they can no longer be separated and discussed in their original forms.

In her study, Ustinova concentrates on two supreme gods of the Bosporan Kingdom—the Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God. The first part of the book offers an inquiry into the earlier local and Greek cults from which the later cult of the Celestial Aphrodite originated. According to the author, Aphrodite was not the only deity worshipped in the Greek cities of the Bosporus, but she was the only one who had distinct local connections even at the early stages of the Greek colonization of the area. Close examination of the goddesses of the Scythians and other Iranian peoples in the South Russian steppes led the scholar to the conclusion that the indigenous Great Goddess was a counterpart of Greek Aphrodite Apatouros. Features of both those divinities, as well as other local and Near Eastern female deities, can be traced in the later Bosporan cult of the Celestial Aphrodite, who was associated with victory, fertility, royal power, and the chthonic world.

The second part of Ustinova’s book is a detailed excursus into the cult of the anonymous Most High God, who emerged in the Bosporus in the first century A.D. and appears to have been second in importance after the cult of the Celestial Aphrodite. The god was worshipped by members of the so-called thiasoi, for which most evidence comes from Tanais and Panticapaeum. Identifying this anonymous deity is a hard task, as is the precise definition of its supposed predecessors and counterparts; however, the author treats this topic masterfully. She presents us with an insightful discussion of possible connections of the Bosporan Most High God with some Jewish, Thracian, and Iranian cults and argues that it had neither Jewish affiliation nor any conspicuous association with Thracian divinities.3 According to Usitnova, the Bosporan Most High God must have combined features of several Iranian as well as some local deities. She also touches upon the issue of regionalism, pointing out that even though the divinity addressed as the Most High God was worshipped in several places, it can not necessarily be identified as the same god in different areas of the Bosporus.

Thus, the scholar convincingly shows how numerous foreign and indigenous cults, having mingled together, eventually shaped the Bosporan pantheon of the first few centuries A.D. This tightly woven and all-encompassing book should be an excellent reference source for students of ancient religion, and not only for them: anyone interested in the archaeology of the Northern Black Sea Littoral will discover that the extremely rich bibliography provided by Ustinova is probably the most complete one on the subject today. In addition, she gives a thorough overview of the modern state of scholarship on this area, from which it becomes clear that there is still an enormous gap between the Western and the Eastern European studies. Unfortunately, most of the basic sources are still inaccessible for a western reader, and the information on relatively new finds, as well as the most recent re-interpretations of already known pieces, can still be found only in special periodicals, such as VDI, SA, KSIA.4 With her work, Ustinova is quite successful in bridging this gap.

However, a few words should be said about the historical background provided by the scholar at the beginning of her book. Her very useful outline of the Bosporan dynastic history is very general since the author is going over only the major events. One should thus not be misled by her smooth summary account of the Bosporan chronicles. The succession of the Bosporan kings under Roman rule is not very well documented and is therefore very problematic. Anyone beginning to study this topic is stepping into a field which best can be described by Vinogradov’s words as “das unsichere Meer riskanter Hypothesen und logischer Aberrationen.”5 We are quite well informed as to the founder of the dynasty, Mithridates VI, who incorporated the Bosporus into his domain. However, starting with the death of his son Pharnaces in 48/49 B.C. and until Aspourgos’ accession to the throne in 10/11 B.C., we can neither be sure about the dates, nor, in some cases, even about the fact of the reign of certain rulers over the Bosporus since the evidence coming from the ancient sources, inscriptions, and coins allows a variety of interpretations.6 In addition, new finds constantly force us to put major corrections into the scheme; for example, the recently discovered second coin of Dynamis. This coin, the earliest known golden stater minted under her rule, comes from the year 21/20 B.C. and moves the date of Asandros’ death a few years back from what we had thought before.7

I hope that in the near future more books on different aspects of life in the Bosporan kingdom will appear which will match the standard set by Ustinova’s studies on the topic of Bosporan religion. This geographical area is still understudied and presents a great opportunity for classical scholars of all interests. Tacitus wrote that triumphs come from the acquisition of untouched populations and kingdoms.8 Those who attempt to acquire knowledge of the Bosporan kingdom will find their efforts just as well rewarded.


1. Tac. Ann., ed. J. Jackson (London, 1937) 336.

2. G. Koshelenko, ed. The Ancient States of the Northern Black Sea Littoral (Moscow, 1984) 58.

3. The idea that the associations of the Most High God worshippers on the Bosporus emerged under Jewish influence was first expressed by E. Schuerer in his 1897 article “Die Juden im Bosporansichen Reiche und die Genossenschaften der sebomenoi theon upsiston ebendaselbst” in Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaft 1, and is still widely held. Another approach, arguing Thracian origin for the Bosporan Most High God, has been taken by several scholars after B. Latyshev had suggested it in his comments to IOSPE II.246.

4. VDI = Vestnik Drevney Istorii; SA = Sovetskaya Archeologiya; KSIA = Kratkiye Soobsheniya Instituta Arkheologii Akademii Nauk SSSR.

5. Y. Vinogradov, Pontische Studien (Mainz, 1997) 568.

6. Thus, we know neither the exact year of death of Pharnaces’ successor Asandros, nor the time and the circumstances concerning the reign of Polemon I’s predecessor Scribonius.

7. M. Rostowzew, Skythien und der Bosporus, Band II. Wiederentdeckte Kapitel und Verwandtes, ed. H. Heinen (Stuttgart, 1993) p. 229.

8. Tac. Ann. XII.XX: nam triumphos de populis regnisque integris acquire.