BMCR 2022.03.02

Advances in ancient Black Sea studies: historiography, archaeology and religion

, , , , Advances in ancient Black Sea studies: historiography, archaeology and religion. Pontica et Mediterranea, vol. 8. Cluj-Napoca: Mega Publishing House, 2019. Pp. 666. ISBN 9786060201045 €79,80.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

A common trend in studies of the Black Sea is the publication of edited volumes and conference proceedings. When done right, this is an effective way of bridging the spatial and temporal gaps that inevitably exist in studies of a region characterised as much by divisions—between the adjacent coasts and the region’s many languages, not to mention national scholarly traditions—as by the body of water which unites it. The volume under review seeks to redress some of these imbalances; its contributors represent both eastern and western scholarship while the chosen languages of the contributions (French, German and English) indicate an international audience. The avowed aim of the volume, the seventh instalment in the Pontica et Mediterranea series derived from a conference held in Constanta in 2018, is to “bridge the large gap” and “absorb, interpret and integrate” (9) research resulting from the Black Sea’s varied scholarly traditions. In framing the volume’s subject generally as “Advances”, the organisers, editors and contributing authors have considerable scope to present a variety of approaches to a wide-ranging set of temporal, spatial and disciplinary topics. Given the number of papers in the volume—26 in all, plus a preface setting out the goal of fostering dialogue between eastern and western scholarly traditions, and three indices (literary sources, inscriptions and proper names)—only a selection shall be discussed here.

Part I, “Between Colonization and Identity”, begins with Thibaut Castelli’s exploration of the Propontic regions or, rather, the passage through them. Using a variety of source material, both ancient and more recent, he seeks to reconstruct the “rythme annuel de l’utilisation de ces Détroits” (28). He argues that the oceanographic and meteorological conditions shaped the development of the coastal towns of the region, particularly in relation to their role in Pontic-Aegean trade networks. A good example of how this worked in practice is his discussion of the Ionie du Sud 3/TroD pottery workshop identified through neutron activation analysis. While this production centre produced South Ionian style pottery beginning around 600 BCE, the scholars who isolated its chemical signature have identified an origin in the Troad, at Abydos or elsewhere.[1] Castelli points out that during the summer sailing season voyaging along the European coast was preferable, thus suggesting to him that Sestos might be a more likely source of these wares (38). Since the major settlements of the Propontis remain by and large unexcavated, the area is often ignored in wider discussion of the Black Sea, and to this end Castelli presents a valuable discussion of the reality of movement through this difficult passage and the ways in which it fostered both the development of the region’s settlements and their wider interactions.

Madalina Dana focuses on etic and emic conceptions of Pontic identities in ancient literature. She demonstrates the traditional view that the Black Sea was seen in a negative light by many ancient authorities, who were influenced by mythic traditions to view it as a place of barbarism and death. This is supplemented by a less-explored but equally important tradition of Pontic typecasting and cliches exemplified by the witticisms of Stratonikos but found in a variety of works from the Classical to the second Sophistic. While many will be familiar with Ovid’s deliberately self-pitying laments, Dana’s focus on humorous stereotypes underlines an even more important conception of the region, its liminality between Hellenism and Barbarism, that audiences from Classical Athens to Imperial Rome were obviously familiar with. In the last section of her paper, she shows that these views do not represent the only constructions of the Black Sea. Greeks, Romans, and “Barbarians” also had many elements of shared culture encapsulated in the Bosporan Kingdom and, for Dana, in the figure of Callistratos who, as she demonstrates, was portrayed by Dio Chrysostom as Scythian in body but Greek in mind.

David Braund then explores relations between metropoleis and colonies through the contradiction between negative foundation narratives and ongoing kinship. He traces an ethical strand as early as the Archaic period. This claim is based on a passage of Athenaeus (Deip. 167 D) which recounts the tale of Aethiops who traded his land allotment at Syracus for a honey-cake en route. Athenaeus cites his source as Demetrias of Skepsis but also notes that Aethiops was mentioned by Archilochus. Braund, who is rightly cautious, suggests that the story reflects the “basic point” of a C7 BCE Archilochian narrative. Yet any number of narrative topoi, not necessarily Demetrias’ anecdote, could have been attached to this otherwise unknown figure by Archilochus. The final part of Braund’s paper offers its most important arguments, namely that we should not underestimate the key role of changing relations and methods of self-aggrandisement during the Hellenistic period which reinforced and potentially reinvented ties between colonies and mother cities. This key concept has not received the attention that it deserves for the Black Sea area, and it is refreshing to see Braund correct this lacuna.

The following paper by Valery Yaylenko argues for substantial Aeolian activity in the Black Sea based on the Lesbian origins of the Archaeanactidae. He notes that Archeaena- is a common name prefix in the Lesbian dialect (114), and cites a scholion on Alcaeus to the effect that the Mytilenian tyrant Pittakos was an Archaeanactid (119), which has not previously been noted in this context and is the closest he comes to offering “new data” as per his title. While a convincing case is made for the Lesbian origins of the name, I have reservations about the picture of Aeolian activity presented.[2] Essentially, Yaylenko revives the emporia model of Blavatsky[3] with the added twist that the emporia of the Taman peninsula were established by Aeolians who were later supplanted by agriculturally focused Ionian settlement. If, as he suggests, we are to take “the wide distribution of Lesbian amphorae” (117) as evidence for Aeolian commercial settlement, what should we make of the volume of Clazomenian wares, particularly in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE? Furthermore, he sees in Pittakos “peace-making initiatives” a model for the emergence of Archaeanactid rule in the Bosporus (120–126). This argument is underpinned by the claim that “at Mytilene, just like in Ionia, the descendants of the oikistai … were kings” (122) and that the Bosporan monarchy then “resembled … the rule of the ancient basilies” (126). Yet the evidence for these early monarchies is extremely problematic.[4] In short, I find this a creative yet ultimately unconvincing attempt to address the general disparity of scholarly focus between Ionians and Aeolians in the Black Sea.

Dan Ruscu draws attention to the ways in which authors of late antiquity utilised “Classical topoi” in their depictions of the Black Sea. Examples include the barbarism of the local tribes (146–7), mythologizing narratives, and the tendency to use classical ethnonyms, such as Scythians, for contemporary peoples such as Goths and Huns. Importantly, Ruscu places his sources within their intellectual “template” (155), drawing attention to the ways in which they used “literary material, myths, or their direct knowledge … combined in a rhetorically convincing form” (155), a necessity given that we continue to rely on some of these authors for details about the geography and cultural life of the Black Sea in earlier epochs.

Part II, focusing on Greeks and non-Greeks in scholarly traditions, opens with a short paper by Victor Cojocaru outlining the conception of and some statistical material from the Bibliographia Classica Orae Septentrionalis Ponti Euxini (BSCOPE) project, as well as a brief discussion of the contributions of Russophone scholarship. There is little to add to Kantor’s previous positive review of the resulting publications of the project in this journal (BMCR 2015.04.41), except to inform readers that his desideratum of an online edition has now been partially fulfilled in pdf format.

Valentina Mordvintseva explores scholarly discussions of the Scythians in Crimea from the 18th to 21st centuries. She problematises the deep influence of Soviet era culture theory and its continued resonance viz. the divide between ‘Late Scythian’ and ‘Sarmatian’ culture. She adroitly concludes that local and regional networks of interaction had as much if not more influence than incoming peoples and culture on the development of the region. Lavinia Grumeza takes up where Mordvintseva leaves off by looking at the construction of the Crimean Sarmatians as a distinct archaeological culture. She notes that their identity is predominantly tied to types of funerary architecture and concludes that “[t]he ‘Sarmatian’ name was most likely a generic brand” in antiquity (216).

Francois de Callataÿ’s contribution, focusing on the so-called dolphin and arrowhead coinage of the western and north-western Black Sea coasts, is one of the book’s most original and persuasive contributions. Most scholars have tended to see these small metallic objects, found in abundance in the late archaic and classical periods, as an early form of currency. De Callataÿ convincingly demonstrates that if this were so their development in terms of known contexts of numismatic development is anomalous. Taking up the notion that they relate to different epicleses of Apollo—Delphinios for the Dolphin and Ietros for the arrowheads—he puts forward the suggestion that they were originally intended as small ex-votos. De Callataÿ cogently surmises that, with the establishment of regular coinage in the Black Sea, they developed a secondary usage as tokens of exchange. This paper, in my view, conclusively solves the problem of these objects and should stimulate further work on their religious contexts.

Part III opens with a discussion of the aims, techniques, and dissemination of the Corpus Nummorum for Thrace online resource from Ulrich Peter. It is described as “eine Forschungsdatenbank, die die Trialektik zwischen Exemplar, Stempel und Typ widerspiegelt” (398). This multi-focal aim will doubtless prove extremely useful to numismatists as well as scholars in related disciplines.

Three chapters in part III focus on recent work in the vicinity of Ibida. Dorel Paraschiv, Mihaela Iacob and Costel Chiriac offer a discussion of the recently uncovered early principate building. It is now the earliest structure so far identified there and leads them to conclude that the settlement began as a vicus inhabited by veterans and local Thracians, a thesis further supported by the wide range of connections evidenced by the site’s small finds. Ştefan Honcu and Lucian Munteanu then present a study of a shield umbo discovered at the Fântâna Seacă villa nearby. Stylistic analysis suggests a C7 CE date, yet other military-style material from the site leads them to the conclusion that the owner of the villa was a veteran or active-duty soldier who abandoned the site and objects during the Gothic attacks in the third quarter of C5 CE. In terms of how archaeological material, particularly isolated or rare objects, is treated by scholars, Honcu and Munteanu ably demonstrate the importance of understanding material culture within its immediate context as well as through synthetic typologies. While typologies are often the first point of analysis for objects, particularly in terms of their chronology based on stylistic analysis of similar or related objects, this paper very clearly demonstrates how different dates can be acquired by different perspectives. By analysing the material remains of the site in a wider historical context, an earlier date is arrived at which seems to me more likely, given that the site shows signs of destruction and abandonment that fit with the historical contexts of the late C5 CE.

Dan Aparaschivei takes the opposite approach in providing a catalogue of fibulae from Ibida. While the publication and classification of these pieces will undoubtedly be useful to scholars specialising in the distribution of fibulae in the Byzantine era, Aparaschivei draws few wider conclusions from this material—somewhat regrettably, given his brief mention of their role in gendered representations and social and economic power in his introduction (474).

Part IV opens with a discussion of Ionian Apollo and Artemis by Jorge Tello Benedicto. His agreement with the view that Artemis Kithone—an important deity at Miletos in particular—should be seen as “of the Chiton” (512) is compelling, especially in light of the volume of evidence that he provides for textile offerings for the goddess. The section on Apollo’s Iatros epiclesis, however, is more problematic. Based on onomastic evidence Benedicto argues for an Ionian origin for this epithet. Yet the evidence he presents conversely demonstrates the relative antiquity of Pontic attestations—the earliest Ionian evidence is dated C5/4 BCE while an inscription naming Ietrodoros at Istros is from C6/5 BCE (510). He also fails to acknowledge C6/5 BCE dedicatory graffiti from Pantikapaion and Myrmekion that further undermine this thesis.[5]

At the beginning of this review, I noted that edited volumes, when done right, convey many advantages for the presentation of Black Sea scholarship. Overall, I would argue that this volume fulfils such a criterion. It introduces many interesting trends in Eastern European scholarship to a wider audience with very few errors,[6] and provides critical perspectives on several overarching subjects including ancient and modern historiography, numismatics, and material culture. The thoughtful critiques and nuanced analysis evident throughout the volume leads the authors of several chapters to new perspectives on well-worn topics, the best example being de Callataÿ’s interpretation of dolphin and arrowhead coins as votives. While the individual chapters will no doubt be of interest to specialists in variety of disciplines, scholars of more general topics such as colonization or late antiquity will likewise find much food for thought across the volume. In sum, we have here a valuable collection of papers showcasing the depth and breadth of contemporary Black Sea scholarship.

Authors and Titles

Part I. Studying the Black Sea: Between Colonization and Identity
Thibaut Castelli, Entrer et sortir du Pont—Euxin durant l’Antiquité (VIIe s. av. J.C. – premier quart du IVe s. ap. J.C.) (27–54)
Madalina Dana, Regards grecs sur le Pont—Euxin: réflexes changeants d’un espace «colonial» (55–78)
David Braund, Clashing Traditions Beyond the Clashing Rocks: (Un)Ethical Tales of Milesians, Scythians and Others in Archaic and Later Colonialism (79–108)
Valery P. Yaylenko, Diodorus’ Evidence on the Bosporan Archaeanactidae and New Data about the Aeolians on Taman (109–132)
Michael A. Speidel, Natione Ponticus: Roman Navy Soldiers and the Black Sea (133–142)
Dan Ruscu, The Black Sea in the Historical Writings of Late Antiquity (143–161)

Part II. Greeks and NonGreeks: Scholarly Traditions and Acculturation
Victor Cojocaru, BCOSPE IIII. Einige Überlegungen zum Beitrag der russischen, sowjetischen und postsowjetischen Schulen (165–178)
Valentina Mordvintseva, Scholarly Traditions in the Studies of the ‘Late Scythian Culture of the Crimea’ and ‘Crimean Scythia’ (179–198)
Lavinia Grumeza, ‘Sarmatian’ Identities in Crimea: A Survey of Recent Literature (199–230)
Marina Yu. Vakhtina and Maya T. Kashuba, East Greek Archaic Pottery at the Nemirov Fortified Settlement: On the Question of Classical Imports in ‘Local’ Context (231–256)
François de Callataÿ, Did “Dolphins” and Nonfunctional Arrowheads Massively Found in and Around Olbia, Istros and Apollonia Have Ever Had a Monetary Function? (257–280)
Amiran Kakhidze and Emzar Kakhidze, Hellenised Burial Customs and Deposit Patterns at Pichvnari: Intercultural Studies on the Acculturation of Colchis in the Classical Period (281–312)
Mikhail Treister, SecondHand for the Barbarians? Greek and Roman Metalware with Signs of Repair from the Nomadic Burials of Scythia and Sarmatia (313–346)
Jean Coert, Tassilo Schmitt, Wer war Fl. Dades? Überlegungen zum Verständnis einer Inschrift aus dem kaukasischen Iberien (347–390)

Part III. New Discoveries and Prospective Research Directions
Ulrike Peter, Von Mommsen zum Semantic Web: Perspektiven der vernetzten numismatischen Forschung—die Münzen der westlichen Schwarzmeerküste online (393–418)
Natalia V. Zavoykina, A Letter of Polemarkhos from Phanagoria (419–430)
Dorel Paraschiv, Mihaela Iacob and Costel Chiriac, Les origines de la vie romaine à (L)Ibida (451–456)
Ștefan Honcu and Lucian Munteanu, A Shield Umbo Discovered in the Rural Settlement of Ibida—‘Fântâna Seacă’ (Slava Rusă, Tulcea County) (457–472)
Dan Aparaschivei, Some Late Fibulae from Ibida (the Province of Scythia) (473–500)

Part IV. Studying Religion: Evolution, Iconography, Society
Jorge Tello Benedicto, Nouvelles perspectives sur le culte d’Apollon et d’Artémis dans le monde ionien archaïque (503–522)
Vladimir F. Stolba, Images with Meaning: Early Hellenistic Coin Typology of Olbia Pontike (523–542)
Livia Buzoianu and Maria Bărbulescu, Éléments communs de l’iconographie des terres cuites hellénistiques dans la région pontique (543–562)
Annamária Izabella Pázsint, Cult Associations in the Black Sea Area: A Comparative Study (3rd Century BC – 3rd Century AD) (563–586)
Gabriel Talmațchi, Monnaies et divinités. Remarques sur le culte d’Hélios à Istros à la basse époque hellénistique (587–600)
Marta Oller Guzmán, Les strategoi et le culte d’Apollon à Olbia du Pont. Nouvelles recherches prosopographiques (601–620)
Ligia Ruscu, Zu manchen Wandlungen im religiösen Leben der Schwarzmeerpoleis in der römischen Kaiserzeit (621–636)


[1] Mommsen, H.; Kerschner, M. and Posamentir, R. 2006. “Provenance determination of 111 pottery samples from Berezan by neutron activation analysis”, Istanbuler Mitteilungen, 56, pp. 166–7.
Dupont, P. 2008. “« Ionie du Sud 3 » Un centre producteur des confins de la Grèce de l’Est et du Pont-Euxin?”, Ancient Civilisations from Scythia to Siberia, 14, pp. 1–24.

[2] C.f. Handberg, S. 2013. “Milesian Ktiseis and Aeolian Potters in the Black Sea Region” in M. Manoledakis (ed.) Exploring the Hospitable Sea. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 1–18, unacknowledged by Yaylenko, who suggests that Aeolian craftsmen migrated to the Black Sea.

[3] Blavatsky, V. D. 1954. “Arkhaicheskiy Bospor” in M. M. Kobylina (ed.) Materialy i issledovaniy po Arkheologii Severnogo Prichernomor’ya v Antichuju Epokhy. Moscow: Nauka, pp. 7–44.

[4] See Morris, S. 2003. “Imaginary Kings: Alternatives to Monarchy in Early Greece” in K. Morgan (ed.) Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and its Discontents in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 1–24, who argues that these notions of monarchy were themselves a product of the emergence of tyranny in the archaic period.

[5] Tolstikov, V. P. 1992. “Pantikapey – stolitsa Bospora” in G. A. Koshelenko (ed.) Ocherki arkheologii i istorii Bospora. Moscow: Nauka, p. 95 n. 9.
Vinogradov, Yu. A. and Tokhtasev, S. R. 1998. “Novye posvyatitelnye graffiti iz Mirmekiya”, Hyperboreus 4, pp. 25–29, fig. 1.

[6] Of the spelling and grammatical errors I noticed, e.g. “embroildering” for embroidering (208), “Khapunov” for Khrapunov (211), “restauration” for restoration (232), “averse” for obverse and “Pichvnary” for Pichvnari (290); shifting possessive pronouns between single and plural, e.g., “the majority of vessels was acquired and in the process of its usage was sometimes repaired” (319, emphasis added); and use of “signed by” instead of “edited by” (568). None significantly altered the author’s intended meanings.