BMCR 2014.09.60

Greco-Scythian Art and the Birth of Eurasia: From Classical Antiquity to Russian Modernity. Oxford Studies in ancient culture and representation

, Greco-Scythian Art and the Birth of Eurasia: From Classical Antiquity to Russian Modernity. Oxford Studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxix, 431. ISBN 9780199682331. $160.00.

Though the focus of this subtle, learned, and closely argued book is primarily archaeological, discussion of masterpieces of craftsmanship is integrated with intellectual and ideological history in a study which could have been attempted only by a scholar prepared to face the risks of disregarding conventional disciplinary boundaries to explore the diverse implications of a topic (or rather a group of topics) not in the mainstream of anglophone scholarship. Hovering over Meyer’s skilful and distinctive synthesis may be discerned the spirit of M. I. Rostovtzeff, whose work on the region’s antiquities represents a watershed for subsequent study, but it would be misleading to suggest an uncritical adherence to Rostovtzeff’s approach.

In Ch.1 ,’Introduction. Discovering Greco-Scythian art’ ,Meyer offers a definition of ‘Greco-Scythian’ (first attested in 1822) and outlines the issues raised by this style. The term covers the combination of traditional nomadic object types with a classical, naturalistic, style of figure decoration, clearly differentiated from the so-called ‘animal style’, ‘Tierstil’, the form of theriomorphic surface decoration originating in Central Asia and popular throughout the Eurasian steppe. Such metalwork comes from elite tombs, the kurgans (barrows) of the middle Dnieper region and the neighbourhood of the Kerch straits. 1 Recognition of its interest owed much to the publication (from 1830 onwards) of finds from Kul-Oba, a kurgan cemetery c.6 km to the west of Kerch. These became the nucleus of the collection of northern Black Sea antiquities at the Hermitage.

From this immensely impressive assemblage (dated c.350-300) one very attractive (and much reproduced) piece raises the major questions surrounding this form of craftsmanship. On a globular electrum cup four scenes depict Scythian warriors (Fig.3, p.13); one shows a man stringing a bow, another two figures in conversation, while two show the victims of injury, in one case to the leg, in the other to the mouth, receiving care from a comrade. It is not entirely satisfactory to take these scenes as vignettes illustrating Scythian social life; though fighting and hunting must often have led to injury, it would be strange to highlight its treatment in isolation from the exploits which made it necessary.

The cup gained a fresh interest with the suggestion of D.S. Raevskii that it should be interpreted by reference to the second of the myths of Scythian origins related by Herodotus (4.8-10) and credited to Greeks of the Black Sea littoral. Heracles (with whom the North Pontic Greeks evidently identified a Scythian hero), coming to Scythia in the course of his homeward journey from Spain, fathered three sons on a local divinity and left her with instructions that when they were full-grown she should subject them to tests involving his bow and belt; whichever was successful should stay, while the other two must leave. Raevskii argued that the scenes of medical treatment on the Kul-Oba vessel depict the injuries likely to result from unsuccesful attempts to string a Scythian bow: if the lower end, resting on the right thigh, slips, the bow springs back and strikes either the left leg or the lower jaw of the unlucky handler. The other two scenes may then be supposed to depict the successful candidate, the forefather of the Scythians, stringing the bow and in conversation (absorbing good advice from his father?).

While there are differences from Herodotus’ narrative, what he reports must be a story transmitted orally, and we may compare similar deviation from Odyssey 9 in many of the vase-paintings interpreted as illustrating Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus. Raevskii also associated with Herodotus’ narrative the scenes depicted on a silver cup from a kurgan of the Chastye group, Voronezh region (Fig.5, p.27), which can convincingly be interpreted as showing the outcome of the test, with the youngest (beardless) son being offered his father’s bow while his elder brothers prepare to depart.

The increasing recognition of the importance of mythical genealogies in the self-definition of ethnic groups lends Raevskii’s analysis a particular appeal, but Meyer is among the sceptics (pp.26-28). His discussion of these pieces and of Rostovtzeff’s boldly iranicizing interpretation of the less familiar Karagodeuaskh rhyton (Fig.6, p.29) highlights the issues raised by such fruitful crossing of cultural boundaries and the pressure to integrate archaeological and textual evidence. Who commissioned and who produced such pieces? (These are questions about ethnicity and status.) How far do they reflect social reality? Were they intended as primarily a convenient, easily portable means of displaying wealth, the more desirable as it became clear that pasture for vast herds of horses was not limitless? Or did they function mainly as ceremonial gifts, cementing formal friendships among elite members of different groups? How securely can they be dated?

Ch. 2 is largely museological, examining how, from the time of Peter the Great onwards, Russians were introduced to the visual culture of Greece and Rome. Pride of place goes to the New Hermitage, inaugurated in 1852, and the questions faced in the evolution of its arrangement well illustrate the more general problems of the reception of classical antiquity and the development of classical education in Russia.

Ch. 3, ‘Defining the Corpus’, tackles some of the questions suggested by the introductory chapter. Meyer emphasises the importance of the social and cultural contexts to which the artefacts classifiable as Greco-Scythian belong, and warns against the misconceptions almost inevitable when they are isolated, as they must generally be in museum displays, from their burial contexts. There is, moreover, as Herodotus was well aware (cf. 4.81.1), a fundamental and pervasive problem with the meaning of ‘Scythian’, worsened by a tendency, particularly noticeable in archaeological publication, to switch from treating it as marking a cultural category to ethnonymic usage.

Meyer shows how confusion on this point, combined with the attraction of linking archaeological evidence to Herodotus’ references to a period of 28 years of ‘Scythian’ rule in Asia (1.103-6; 4.1;11-12; 118.4; 119.2), has affected treatment of the material from the Kelermes barrows, c.25 km north of Maikop, a highly significant link between Eurasian and Mediterranean archaeology. The Kelermes mirror (Fig, 38, p.101), late seventh or early sixth century, which depicts inter alia a griffin between two shaggy males, often designated Arimaspians, is commonly treated as Scythian but its relevance is decidedly questionable. It now seems clear that the horse-riding warriors buried with valuable artefacts at Kelermes had no connection with the group who in Herodotus’ day controlled the region between the Danube and the Don.

In discussing ‘Scythian’ ethnicity we must allow for some fluidity. The evidence of physical anthropology indicates considerable diversity even among those whose manner of life was based on nomadic pastoralism, the elite, ‘royal’ Scythians, as Herodotus designates them (4.20), lords of a sedentary agricultural peasantry. Intermarriage among the elite, less formal unions with women captured in raiding, and the absorption of conquered groups contributed to the ethnic mix. No doubt by the mid-fourth century there were many on the northern Pontic coast who could claim mixed Greek, Scythian and Thracian ancestry, were fluent in more than one language, and familiar with the lore of more than one people. It is an obvious hypothesis that craftsmen with such a background took the initiative in producing Greco-Scythian artefacts. Meyer offers much of interest about the development and location of workshops, underlining the grounds for locating production of a high proportion of Greco-Scythian metalwork in Panticapaeum and other cities of the Cimmerian Bosporus.

Their history and culture is explored in Ch. 4, ‘Political monuments of the early Spartocid State’. The names of the dynasty, which ruled for more than 300 years, are either Greek or Thracian (not Scythian), but the history of the state which overrode the conventional boundary between Europe and Asia is not much reflected in Greek texts except in relation to the Athenian corn-supply. Meyer is diligent, but not unduly speculative, in breathing life into the varied and often apparently unpromising material evidence available, returning to the central theme with the chapter’s concluding sentence (p.187): ‘When it came to winning over the masters of the steppe, precious metalwork was the vehicle of choice’.

Its interpretation is considered in Ch. 5, ‘Looking at Greco-Scythian art’. ‘The spread and persistence of Greco-Scythian metalwork show that the objects were meant to establish an exchange that went beyond an exchange in bullion, and that objects with finely wrought figure decoration were thought to accomplish the transfer more effectively than plain ones ‘ (p. 189). Exploring the imagery thus employed is, as we have seen with the Kul-Oba vessel, not straightforward.

One of the most interesting cases discussed is the figure frieze on the gorytos’ (combined bow-case and quiver) gold overlay from the Chertomlyk kurgan; the popularity of this design is indicated by further examples recovered from Melitopol’ and two other burials (Figs. 66, 67, 70, pp.196, 198). Clearly the scenes depicted were meant to tell a story, but the designer expected those who saw it to supply the links between the episodes represented. The characters’ Greek dress encourages interpretation by reference to Greek legend. The most influential reading has been that of Carl Robert, who took it to reflect the story of Thetis’ concealment of Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes, king of Scyros, his detection by Diomedes and Odysseus, and the birth of his son, Neoptolemus, to Deidameia. Achilles’ association with the Black Sea’s northern coast, suggesting that he was early identified with a Scythian hero, recommends this interpretation, but it is not entirely easy. Other suggestions based on Greek mythology are no more convincing. The richness of the oral narrative traditions of Central Asia is better appreciated now than they were when the Chertomlyk gorytos first attracted scholarly attention, 2 and a bold appeal to Scythian/ Iranian legend has been made by K.Stähler and H.-H. Nieswandt, 3 who bring out many difficulties in Robert’s interpretation. But costume is against their approach— perhaps not impossibly so, but potential scenarios can only be exercises in imaginative speculation. Still, it must be significant that what appears to be the opening episode directs attention to a bow: might preeminence in archery be crucial to the hero’s success (as in Herodotus’ story of Heracles’ three sons)?

Notwithstanding the substantial differences among the objects discussed Meyer discerns a common underlying principle (p.239): ‘Greco-Scythian art can be seen to advertise as a possibility for positive behaviour a purified hyperbole of Scythian culture, evolving around notions of uninhibited personal authority, brute masculinity, and friendship – in short, the set of values that were at the core of the Bosporan system of elite ties with the steppe.’ Yet the controversy surrounding the interpretation of individual instances may sap confidence in the formulation of any general conclusion, thought this does not detract from the persuasiveness of the argument that such artefacts were used to maintain a far-flung elite network connecting the Spartocid state with the steppe, a factor of immense importance in accounting for the long survival of the Bosporan kingdom, which, in its multiethnic character and transcendence of conventional continental boundaries, could be seen to prefigure the region’s later development.

An appendix on ‘Grave inventories of Bosporan elite kurgans of the fifth and fourth centuries BC: a summary guide to excavations conducted 1821-1917’ offers a depressing reminder of what has been lost by the lack of adequate records of early excavations.

A map of the major urban sites and kurgans in the northern Black Sea region deserves more than a bare half-page (p.4). Proof-reading a work involving many languages and transliteration from several different scripts must have been daunting; I have noted remarkably few corrigenda in this fascinating and very readable book.


1. In the orthography of toponyms I have followed Meyer’s practice.

2. For an excellent introduction see Kurt Reichl. Turkic Oral Epic Poetry, New York/London, 1992.

3. Boreas 14/15 (1991/2) 85-108.