BMCR 2018.05.51

Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC until the Foundation of Constantinople

, Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC until the Foundation of Constantinople. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xvii, 290. ISBN 9780198790525. $120.00.


The book under review is a revision of the author’s 2013 Oxford D.Phil. thesis and exhibits many of the virtues and few of the flaws one would expect from a revised dissertation. Russell’s attention is mostly focused on the fifth to third centuries BCE, although he also treats Byzantium in the Roman period and discusses the late antique sources for the foundation of the city, notably the sixth-century Patria of Hesychius of Miletus, which would otherwise fall outside the time frame suggested by the title.

Chapter One has two purposes. The first is to describe the geography of the Bosporus as well as the seasonal and long-term conditions that prevailed in antiquity and indeed up to the present day. Eschewing appeals to naive environmental determinism, Russell examines how the confluence of variable currents and winds constrained passage through the strait. As a result of these factors ships frequently gathered in convoys at certain points to wait for better sailing, especially at the northern inlet at Hieron on the Asian shore (mod. Anadolu Kavağı) overlooked by the sanctuary of Zeus Ourios. Russell’s second purpose is to consider how the Byzantines appropriated the features of the Bosporus in terms of their own ideologies and identities by overlaying the landscape with self-serving narratives, especially those of Io and the Argonauts. He ends this section with an examination of Byzantium’s earliest coins, featuring a cow in motion above a dolphin. Offering a hypothesis he has published elsewhere,1 Russell argues that these coin-types may not just refer generally to the crossing of Io imagined to give the Bosporus its name, but refer to the local toponyms of “Delphinus” and “Bous” known from Polybius and Dionysius of Byzantium’s Anaplous Bosporou and can be best explained in the context of Byzantium and Chalcedon’s competing claims over priority as the point of Io’s departure and landing respectively. He suggests that this rivalry may have been exacerbated by Athenian retrenchment at the end of the fifth century when Byzantium began to both mint its first coins and establish itself as mistress of the strait.

Chapter Two starts by examining the efforts of several strongmen to capitalize on the challenges facing Bosporus shipping. Russell sifts our rather recalcitrant sources regarding the activities of Histiaeus of Miletus during the Ionian Revolt and of Pausanias after Plataea, endeavoring to tease out more or less probable conclusions about their aims and methods. This pattern of predation becomes more evident from the end of the fifth century with the occupation of Byzantium (twice) by the Spartan Clearchus and Philip of Macedon’s seizure of the fleet at Hieron in 340. Russell cogently observes that whatever the details of their actions, their subsequent infamy as would-be tyrants and hybristai demonstrates the perils of any attempt by an individual to interfere with trade through the strait without an effective strategy of legitimization. Legitimization through the monopolization of violence, Russell asserts, is what differentiated the Athenian control of the Bosporus under the aegis of the Delian League. He first considers Byzantium’s conspicuous position on the Athenian tribute lists, noting its extraordinarily high assessments compared to its peers. Russell dismisses the explanation of these figures as a straightforward index of prosperity resulting from the supposed Black Sea grain trade. Instead, he adopts Gabrielsen’s thesis that Byzantium was purposefully selected by the Athenians to serve as the linchpin of its centralization of control over the Bosporus. This leads to a discussion of the dekate tax on shipping imposed in 409 by Alcibiades, to be levied at Chrysopolis (mod. Üsküdar), likely a revival of the tax previously collected at Byzantium from the 430s but interrupted by the revolt of Byzantium against Athens in 411. As Gabrielsen theorized and as Russell accepts, it is possible that that the extremely high rate of taxation implied might have included the escorting of allied ships through and from the strait under the protection of the Athenian navy, as coordinated from Byzantium. Russell also evaluates, with considerable caution, the evidence suggesting the development of something like an imperial bureaucratic system to oversee these activities.

Chapter Three examines Hellenistic Byzantium’s unique position as a guarantor of passage through the Bosporus after the eclipse of Athenian seapower, and in the face of mounting exactions by the Galatians of Tylis from ca. 280-220 BCE. The sums occasionally demanded of Byzantium reached, as Russell notes, four times the city’s highest assessment under the Delian League, and apparently resulted in the Byzantines reimposing the dekate as a toll on shipping, a crisis response which nevertheless violated Byzantium’s presumed forbearance from profiting directly from passage through the Bosporus. The adoption of this measure led in 220 BCE to the Rhodians making war in retaliation for this breach of faith. Up to that point Byzantium seems to have derived indirect revenues from its management of the strait thanks to two interrelated developments discussed by Russell at length: first, the extension of its peraea on the southern shore of the Propontis during the third century and, second, its establishment of a “controlled-currency” regime over its territory with the collaboration of Chalcedon. Seyrig first proposed this arrangement, primarily on the basis of a local hoard that may have been interred during the Byzantine-Rhodian conflict. Tetradrachms on the Athenian weight standard appear to have been countermarked for use or exchanged for the local currency on a lower “Phoenician” weight standard, enabling the Byzantines to profit from the difference in lieu of collecting direct tolls. If this system was in fact operational, Russell notes that other currency monopolies are only known under the Ptolemies and Attalid Pergamon, who could back up their systems with force, whereas on the Bosporus it may have been the lack of alternative routes through the strait that allowed for what he terms a “perfect storm” of circumstances leading to and encouraging its implementation. Russell also entertains the possibility that the Ptolemies themselves financed this system as an element in their larger regional entanglements, and that the eventual withdrawal of their support around 240 BCE could explain Byzantium’s need to fall back on the dekate.

In chapter Four, “The Bounty of the Bosporus,” Russell seeks to clarify the impressionistic picture drawn by the literary sources of the Byzantine fishing industry’s contribution to the local economy and state revenues. Using statistical accounts of the Bosporus’s productivity from early-20th-century Istanbul, and comparative archaeological findings from Roman fishing and processing sites in the vicinity of Gibraltar, Russell argues that Byzantium, much like Cadiz, could have benefited greatly from the enormous numbers of migratory fish (especially tunny and mackerel) passing between the Black Sea and the Aegean, whose seasonal rhythms are so well known to the denizens of Istanbul’s meyhanes even today. Having determined its piscatorial potential, Russell then goes on to treat the evidence from epigraphy and Dionysius’s Anaplous for the presence of onshore infrastructure for netting and processing fish along the strait, comparable to those known from the western Mediterranean. It would seem that these migratory patterns did in fact allow the Byzantine state to extract significant revenues from the leasing of these fishing facilities, over which it exercised a monopoly.

In the following chapters, Russell details Byzantium’s ongoing construction of identity, first by surveying what we know of Byzantium’s relations with its Thracian subjects and the possibilities for their incorporation in the life of the city and its citizen body. This leads to a discussion of local cults, festivals, and calendar, which shows little in the way of Thracian practices but speaks to Byzantine self-promotion as a Greek settlement on the edge of Hellenic space. In the final chapter, “Explaining Byzantium,” he turns to the problem of Byzantium’s foundation as recounted in its various foundation narratives and suggested by the structure and nomenclature of its civic organization and offices. While conceding a significant share in shaping the city’s institutions to Megara, Russell quite reasonably views colonization as an incremental, contributive process rather than a moment of individual or state initiative. He interprets practices such as the continued use of the idiosyncratic beta like those used at Megara and Corinth less as a conservative artifact held over from its Megarian colonists than as a means of preserving the memory of Byzantium’s founder(s) and a self-conscious effort to display these links to a contemporary audience. Russell takes pains to point out that these connections and the various narratives underlying them were thus “good to think with,” both for the Byzantines and for those seeking to rule them. For example, noting the honors paid to the Spartan Pausanias as second founder of Byzantium, Russell follows up on a hypothesis of Lehmann-Haupt that the Serpent Column from the tripod commemorating the victory at Plataea was erected the in hippodrome by Constantine to join himself as a third and final ktistes with Byzas and Pausanias. But the Serpent Column is the sole survivor of a group of Delphic tripods attested as standing on the euripos,2 and it’s hard to see how such specific associations could have been gleaned by any spectators, if indeed such a message was intended at all. More convincing is Russell’s speculation in Chapter One (p. 47) that the transit of Hadrian through the region in 117/118 CE may have fostered linkages between myth and topography made by local elites engaging with the Roman establishment. The problem of Byzantine identity and self-representation then serves as an effective frame for the work as a whole.

The afterword echoes the introduction by calling attention to the value of regional and problem-oriented history, and offers some interesting signposts in the direction of future research, e.g., civic identity, topography, and self-fashioning; currency regimes and the complexities of the ancient economy; the responsiveness of imperial decision-making to local conditions. The value of Russell’s work lies in his comprehensive treatment of the relevant evidence and the scrutiny he pays to the scholarly arguments surrounding it. His most original contributions offer nuance to existing debates or otherwise theorize about their implications. This volume will doubtless be of interest to scholars in a wide range of fields: Mediterranean studies and the history of maritime communities, urbanism in the Black Sea region, Athenian imperialism, Greek and non-Greek relations, numismatics and economic history, narratives of colonization and foundation, and even the reception of the voyage of the Argo, to say nothing of those especially concerned with the long-term development of Byzantium and its later history as an imperial capital. ​


1. “The Land of Inachus – Byzantium’s early coinage and two Bosporus toponyms”, ZPE 180 (2012) 133-138.

2. Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge, 2004), p. 227.