BMCR 2005.12.19

Scythians and Greeks: Cultural Interactions in Scythia, Athens and the Early Roman Empire (sixth century BC – first century AD)

, Scythians and Greeks : cultural interactions in Scythia, Athens and the early Roman Empire (sixth century BC-first century AD). Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005. xii, 254 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 085989746X. $90.00.

[The individual essays are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers collected in this volume represent the revised proceedings of a colloquium dedicated to the memory of Ellis H. Minns, held at Exeter in January 2000. The main purpose of the present book, as well as the central theme of the colloquium, as stated on page five, “is to bring together the rather separate traditions (i.e., the Russian and the Western ones) of ancient Greek history and archaeology, on the one hand, and the study of Scythian and other non-Greek cultures on the other”. It is an important collection —though not the first one in the bibliography— of historical, literary, art historical and archaeological accounts on a variety of topics from the Greco-Scythian world and its development in the North Black Sea area, covering a chronological range from the sixth century BC to the first century AD.

The editor’s brief opening essay presents extraordinary interest with its apt and useful generalizations and conclusions touching upon topics of both historical-archaeological as well as editorial significance. This essay presents in summary form some of the most important results of an effort, now ongoing for almost fifteen years, among a number of scholars and publishers to achieve the melding of two quite different scholarly worlds (the East, viz., Soviet and Russian, and the West). It has recently been rightly stressed — primarily in western historiography — that each new publication dealing with the history and archaeology of the Black Sea constitutes yet one more step forward in making the fascinating and abundant bibliography concerning this region more widely accessible. The language barrier and other factors (primarily economic) have placed considerable obstacles in the way of this rapprochement. For this reason alone, the volume under discussion should be welcomed, and considered essential by both classicists as well as scholars of the ancient world more generally.

V.Yu. Murzin’s contribution enables us to form a nearly complete picture of the major problems with which modern Scythian scholarship (chiefly in the Ukraine and Russia) is currently concerned. He presents a summary overview of the history of the Scythians, characterized chiefly by illumination of a number of rather obscure historical way-stations, and thus brings closer to the wider, non-Slavic scholarly readership the various questions specialists are endeavoring to answer.1 The identification of the native city of Belsk — on the River Vorskla, in the Ukraine — with the settlement of Gelonos referred to by Herodotos (IV, 108) is one of the most attractive arguments advanced by modern researchers (and not only by Scythian scholars); at the same time it constitutes a unique challenge to archaeology, which will determine the final outcome.2

Continuing with the Scythians, the following essay concerns the history of Scythian royalty and its dependency relations, as testified by the royal (as they are characteristically called) burials belonging to the 5th and 4th centuries BC which have been uncovered to date. Alekseyev makes a serious effort to connect these large burial monuments, which clearly belong to the Scythian aristocracy (as shown by their extremely rich grave offerings), with names known to belong to the genealogical trees of the Scythian kings, preserved chiefly in the ancient written sources (Herodotos and others). The writer, making use of both Scythian and Greek evidence in a masterful and highly appropriate manner, succeeds in identifying a number of similar burials with specific Scythian leaders.

The grave goods are so numerous and rich (especially those of the 4th c. BC) that they cry out for a full study, promising very interesting results, like those reached by M. Treister in the following contribution. Treister offers a thorough stylistic analysis of their construction techniques. An important issue touched upon is that of the relationship between Greek or “Hellenizing” production workshops and members of the wealthy class of Scythians. The main conclusion that T. draws here concerns the variety of techniques and the many different centers providing artistic prototypes represented by particular grave offerings.3 “Beyond the centres of the Hellespont and Western Asia Minor, Southern Italy and Macedonia may also have been places of origin of the jewellers and metalworkers active in the North Pontic area” (61).

Yu. Ustinova undertakes the analysis of Scythian religious beliefs concerning their descent, under the lens of Scythian iconography, and expands the framework of discussion to include the Mediterranean in the colloquium’s agenda. The myth concerning the descent and origin of the Scythians, as well as numerous variants which the ancient written tradition has preserved, is well known, and has already been the subject of scholarly research, particularly in Russian and Ukrainian historiography. Ustinova’s basic position is that the Scythian genealogical myth of the anguipede goddess — the snake-limbed ancestress of the Scythians — must be supported by an age-old Scythian belief, which in all likelihood this people brought with them when they left their homelands in Central Asia and began to migrate and settle in the Northern Black Sea steppes. At the conclusion it has become clear that the dissemination of similar snake-like beings throughout the Mediterranean basin “may well have started from Scythia and the northern Balkans” (76).

Concerning communication between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the volume’s editor D. Braund offers an interesting contribution dealing with Pericles’s acclaimed campaign in the 430’s directed at the Greek cities of the Pontus, and its consequences both for the Greeks who lived there as well as for the Athenians, in particular, the Athenian intelligentsia, who appear to have known little about the Black Sea Greek diaspora up until that time. Employing a fair amount of epigraphic material and ancient testimony from various writers, B. arrives at conclusions which are important for the reconstruction of some of the historical events of this period (viz., the 430’s and 420’s B.C.). Perhaps most significantly, in the wake of Pericles’ campaign, “the Black Sea region became part of the Athenian empire and, at the same time, more closely familiar to Athenians” (99).

The next contribution returns to the difficult problem of ethnic self-definition on the basis of the data afforded by the representative arts (the so-called ‘Scythian’ archers in Attic vase-painting). These data are often employed in research as evidencing relations between Greeks and Scythians. Equally frequent has been the effort, on the basis of the same evidence, to clarify how the Scythians were perceived in ancient Greek literature and the mythological tradition. A. Ivantchik, cites numerous characteristic examples from ancient Greek vase-painting to persuade the reader “that ‘Scythian’ costume was not an indication of ethnic origin for Attic vase-painters and their customers” (113). Another significant conclusion which Ivantchik reaches concerns the anachronistic rendering of Homeric heroes by (Attic) vase-painters.

The problem created by the uncertain ethnic identity of the ‘Scythian’ archers in Attic vase-painting is also touched upon in B. Bäbler’s text, where an effort is made to date the establishment of the ‘Scythian police force’, an institution that developed at the height of the Athenian democracy. Bäbler’s study, based on the testimony of ancient writers as well as on reliable archaeological remains of Scythians in Athens, which have not to date been seriously considered by scholars, extends the functioning of this institution to the second half of the 4th century B.C. (118). The reason Bäbler advances for the fact that the Athenians entrusted to the Scythians the responsibility for preservation of order in their city bears considerable merit, although it requires further elaboration and documentation.

The following essay is devoted to the much-discussed subject of the political history of the Greek city of Olbia. Its author, S.D. Kryzhitskiy, was for a number of years the director, and is now the scholarly consultant, to excavations on the site of this ancient colony. Kryzhitskiy’s main goal is to completely debunk the theory of imposition of a Scythian protectorate and the presence of a perennial Scythian threat to Olbia from 475-425 B.C. (Yuriy Germanovitch Vinogradov was responsible for this theory’s promulgation). Kryzhitskiy reviews, in much-abbreviated form, the (nine) basic arguments supporting the historical validity of the protectorate, and shows that scholarly support of such a view is today no longer tenable. The results of modern archaeological work both at Olbia itself and in its rural chora would also support rejecting this theory.4

The following paper concerns relations between Greek (citizens of Olbia) and the indigenous inhabitants of the Lower Dnieper Region. V. Bylkova classifies the settlements of this region into two chronological groups and proceeds to describe the archaeological finds from numerous sites, with particular focus on the settlement of Kamenskoye.5 One further detail is required for the purposes of this study: the separation of these settlements into ‘northern’ and ‘southern’, which facilitates comparisons and leads Bylkova to sounder conclusions. The basic result of modern archaeological research is “that the settlement on the lower Dnieper was not simply continuous, as had been thought, though there is substantial continuity from phase to phase” (147).

M.I. Zolotaryov’s contribution is closely connected with Bylkova’s, and from it one may draw much information regarding the various phases in the formation of the borders of Tauric Chersonesus during the 4th c. B.C. As was the case with every ancient city, the border policy of Chersonesus depended on its relations with the other large Greek city-powers along the northern coast of the Black Sea: Olbia, Theodosia, and the Bosporan Kingdom. A new inscription recently discovered in Olbia throws light on how the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea came into conflict with one another.

The development of Greek-barbarian relations in the European Bosporus (Eastern Crimea) from the 6th c. B.C. when the first Greek colonies began to be built, up to the first century B.C. and domination by the kingdom of Mithridates Eupator, is the subject of a detailed study by A.A. Maslennikov. The author’s three decades of excavation experience in the rural chora of this region have brought to light many valuable results, as is apparent throughout the text under review. However, more than five years have passed since Maslennikov presented his paper at the colloquium (January 2000), and the published text (May 2005) has not been updated.6 The same is true of all the texts with the exception of that by the editor, and, while this does not detract from the authority of the publication, archaeology has brought to light new and important finds in the meantime.7

The volume’s last two essays introduce us to the first emperors of the Roman period. S.Yu. Saprykin illuminates Rome’s diplomatic and military relations with the northern Black Sea region during the age of Augustus and his successors. Saprykin describes Rome’s presence as referee in Thrace, offering a parallel with contemporaneous events in the Cimmerian Bosporus. The second text, by V.M. Zubar, focuses on events during the Crimean campaign of Ti. Plautius Silvanus under Nero. The writer emphasizes the supporting role of new archaeological material from the Chersonesus and surrounding area in providing a richer, more nuanced understanding of this campaign.

Generally speaking, the volume Scythians and Greek is in every respect a useful tool for approaching the basic scholarly issues which are today occupying classical archaeology, the history of the northern Black Sea, and the greater Circumpontic region. This volume makes a significant contribution to the effort to make available to an international readership both what has already been accomplished as well as the results of ongoing research in this region. Such synthesizing works are essential for us all, particularly given the age in which we live.


David Braund, “Introduction” (1-12)

Grigoriy Bongard-Levin, “E.H. Minns and M.I. Rostovtzeff. Glimpses of a Scythian Friendship” (13-32)

V.Yu. Murzin, “Key Points in Scythian History” (33-38)

A.Yu. Aleskeyev, “Scythian Kings and ‘Royal’ Burial-Mounds of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC” (39-55)

M. Treister, “Masters and Workshops of the Jewellery and Toreutics from Fourth-Century Scythian Burial-Mounds” (56-63)

Yu. Ustinova, “Snake-Limbed and Tendril-Limbed Goddesses in the Art and Mythology of the Mediterranean and Black Sea” (64-79)

D. Braund, “Pericles, Cleon and the Pontus. The Black Sea in Athens c.440-421” (80-99)

A.I. Ivanchik, “Who were the ‘Scythian’ Archers of Archaic Attic Vases?” (100-113)

B. Bäbler, “Bobbies or Boobies? The Scythian Police Force in Classical Athens” (114-122)

S.D. Kryzhitskiy, “Olbia and the Scythians in the Fifth Century BC. The Scythian ‘Protectorate'” (123-130)

V. Bylkova, “The Lower Dnieper Region as an Area of Greek/Barbarian Interaction” (131-147)

M.I. Zolotaryov, “The Civic Frontiers of Tauric Chersonesus in the Fourth Century BC” (148-152)

A.A. Maslennikov, “The Development of Graeco-Barbarian Contacts in the Chora of the European Bosporus (Sixth – First Centuries)” (153-166)

S. Saprykin, “Thrace and the Bosporus under the Early Roman Emperors” (167-175)

V.M. Zubar, “The Crimean Campaign of Tiberius Plautius Silvanus” (176-180).


1. For further details on topics related to the early history of the Scythians and the relation of interdependence of Scythian history with the early presence and later development of Greek colonies in the area of the North Black Sea, see Elias K. Petropoulos, Hellenic Colonization in Euxeinos Pontos: Penetration, Early Establishment, and the Problem of the “emporion” Revisited. British Archaeological Reports International Series, 1934. Oxford, 2005: 21-24 (with updated bibliography).

2. On the identification of Gelonos with the settlement of Belsk, see Elias K. Petropoulos, op. cit., 2005: 79, 108-113 (with updated bibliography).

3. For additional description, details, and information about the finds that have come to light from the burial mounds of the cemetery known as Kul-Oba (near Panticapaeum), see N.F. Fedoseev, “The Nekropolis of Kul Oba” in E.K. Petropoulos & D.V. Grammenos (edd.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea -2 (forthcoming in British Archaeological Reports International Series, in 2006).

4. For a full description of the archaeological finds of the 5th century, with references to recent bibliography, see S.D. Kryzhytskyy, V.V. Krapivina, N.A. Lejpunskayja, and V.V. Nazarov, “Olbia-Berezan” in D.V. Grammenos & E.K. Petropoulos (edd.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea. Publications of the Archaeological Institute of Northern Greece, No 4. Volume I. Thessaloniki, 2003: 400-443. For the situation in the Olbian chora, see S.D. Kryzhytskyy, & V.V. Krapivina, “Olbian Chora” ibidem, volume I, 507-543. For a recent exhaustive study concerning the political history of Olbia during the 6th c. B.C., see A.V. Bouyskikh, “Nekotoriye polemitcheskiye zametki po povodu stanovleniya i razvitiya Borisfena i Olvii v VI v. do n.e.” (Some Polemical Notes on the Origin and Development of Boristhenes and Olbia in the Sixth Century B.C.) in Vestnik Drevney Istorii (Journal of Ancient History), Moscow 2005: 146-165.

5. See also N.A. Gavrilyuk & V.V. Krapivina, “Lower Dnieper Hillforts and the Influence of Greek Culture (2nd century B.C. – 2nd century A.D.)” in E.K. Petropoulos & D.V. Grammenos (edd.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea -2 (forthcoming).

6. For updates see A.A. Maslennikov, “Rural Territory of Ancient Cimmerian Bosporus” in D.V. Grammenos & E.K. Petropoulos (edd.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea. Volume II. Thessaloniki, 2003: 1155-1213; idem, “Small and Poorly Studied Towns of Ancient Kimmerian Bosporos” in E.K. Petropoulos & D.V. Grammenos (edd.), Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea -2 (forthcoming).

7. To avoid confusion among readers, I would like to correct (what one hopes is) a typographical error on page 157, where the phrase “620s or so” should have been “520s or so”.