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After Syracuse, Egypt and the Middle East, the Greek city-states of the Black Sea coast were the most significant Greek colonies in the world, forming a vital supply line bringing slaves and food to the Greek world. Through trade and conquest, the Cimmerian Kingdom of the Bosporus (also known as the Bosporan kingdom) expanded to become a regional power at the close of the 3rd century BCE, and even became one of Rome's most important allies until its decline and dissolution in the 4th century CE at the hands of the Huns.
"Faithful Land, Unfaithful Sea"Edit
Ever since the 3rd millenium BCE, the modern Russo-Ukrainian steppes were inhabited by sedentary agricultural and stockbreeding populations. These populations were subdued by the nomadic peoples who arrived successively from Central Asia, moving north of the Caspian Sea. The Indo-Aryan or Iranian Cimmerians were the first known (historical) nomadic people to arrive there, followed by the Iranian Scythians and Sarmatians. Over time, these nomads would in turn be supplanted by newcomers riding in from the east until the onset of the modern era.
These nomadic invaders considered the Russo-Ukrainian steppe as a very suitable environment for the rearing their flocks. Then, the resident population of modern southwestern Ukraine was rather Thracian in origin, while that of southeastern Ukraine and the steppe north of the Caucasus belonged to the people of the older Shrubnaya (Timber-grave) culture. The lands of the natives were relatively rich in agricultural production, so they could pay without much difficulty the taxes imposed on them by the nomad rulers. Various nomadic tribes retained as long as they could their power on those lands, substantially as long as their military superiority against external threats lasted. Eventually, however, the Scythians and Thracians would prove to be the most powerful, forcing the Cimmerians, Maeotians and other tribes who suffered their depradations into the coastal swamplands and peninsulas which dotted the Black Sea coast.
The Hellenic EraEdit
Those who survived welcomed Greek colonists as a strong military ally against the Scythians, and so from the 8th century BCE onward, the Greeks would colonise the shores of the Black Sea, establishing themselves in small indigenous towns which became Greek colonies thanks to the need for a common defence of the natives and the Greeks against the Scythians. One such example was the city of Panticapaeum which was established on the Kerch Strait which was called the "Cimmerian Bosporus" by the Greeks (to distinguish it from the more well-known Asian Bosporus). From that point onward, the Helleno-Cimmerian polity established here would be known as the "Bosporan" Kingdom.
Since time immemorial, the Greeks always had an interest in the Black Sea and the rich lands which surrounded it. The Mycenaeans had explored the region, as shown by the legend of the Argonauts and other evidence, both philological and archaeological. However, the Black Sea was inhospitable for the Mediterranean seafarer because sailing in its waters was difficult and the countries surrounding it were inhabited by savage peoples, who used to kill those who landed on their shores. For these reasons, the original Greek name of the Black Sea was the ‘Inhospitable Sea’ (Axeinos Pontos). Altogether, the Greeks founded roughly about 100 colonies throughout the Black Sea, of which the largest were Panticapaeum, Olbia, Theodosia (modern Feodosiya), Hermonassa and others.
Expansion and Athenian HegemonyEdit
The initial main objective of the Greek colonies was the exploitation of the fishing stocks of Lake Maeotis (now called the Sea of Azov) and the Cimmerian Bosporus. Initially the Greek cities here fought for survival against the Scythians, but over time the Scythians and the Greeks began to coexist with one another, when the Scythians realised they could cooperate with the Greeks to acquire the products of Ionia and mainland Greece which they especially appreciated, especially the Greek wine which seemed to be considered by them as valuable as their gold. The Greek cities of the northern Black Sea coast prospered because of their trade with the Scythians and through them with the peoples who lived in the north and the west of Scythia.
At the beginning of the 5th century BCE, the Athenians were about to embark on their golden age of empire and prosperity. After the expulsion of the Athenians from Egypt by the Persians (5th century BC), Athens was obliged to inaugurate relations with the Black Sea in order to ensure the necessary food for her population and for that of the cities of the Athenian-Delian Alliance. But first she had to disengage the Greeks of the region from their Scythian partners and suzerains, and control their export trade. For this reason, in the middle of the 5th century BC she established military colonies in the cities of Amisus and Sinope on the southern Black Sea, in order to maintain access to the Cimmerian Bosporus region (peninsulas of Kerch and Taman). Next, they founded colonies near the larger old Greek cities, which were fortresses to secure their control: they founded Athenaeum near Theodosia, Nymphaeum near Panticapaeum and probably Stratokleia near Phanagoria, effectively guaranteeing the supply of the cities of the Aegean with cereals and other foodstuff from the rich Cimmerian soil.
Naturally, this hegemonic control by Athens was resented by the locals. In 438 BC, Spartocus, a scion of a Hellenised family of Thracian aristocrats in Panticapaeum, established a tyranny in the city. The same personal name was common to kings and princes of Thrace and the Thracian Spartocus or (falsely called by the Romans) Spartacus, the leader of the most dangerous slave rebellion in Rome, the Second Servile War. At the same time, Athens was beleagured at home due to a war with Sparta as well as an outbreak of disease which ravaged the city. With Athenian hegemony gone, Spartocus’ successors, Satyr (his son, 431-389 BCE) and Leucon (his grandson, 389-349 BCE) extended their power through conquests, as it was usual with tyrannies.
Of these three, Leucon was the tyrant who made the Spartocid Hegemony a real kingdom. Through force or diplomacy, the weaker Hellenic city-states and Maeotian tribes of the region were inducted into the flourishing Bosporan kingdom. Leocon's heir, Pairisades I (348-310 BC), further strengthened the Bosporan state, leading it to its geographic acme (covering an area of about 30 to 35,000 sq. km). He fought against the Scythians, refusing to pay them the taxes due from the Panticapaeans and the other Greeks to the Scythian king. At the same time, Athens officially abandoned her politico-military rights on the Cimmerian Bosporus, choosing instead to maintain close diplomatic and commercial interests with the Cimmerians.
In 347BCE, Leucon passed on his throne to his sons Spartocus II and Paerisades I, although it seems that Spartocus II died five years after his father, allowing Paerisades to rule well until 310BCE. With his death, however, civil war broke out between his heir Satyros and Eumelos, Paerisades' younger son. At the same time, a new group of nomads from the east, the Sarmatians, had been making inroads eastwards from Asia and had become tributaries to the Bosporans following the efforts of the late Paerisades, and when the brothers' war broke out, Aripharnes, a chief of the Siracae, a Sarmatian tribe, pledged his tribe to Eumelos in the hopes of ousting the Scythians, who supported Satyros. Although the Siracae were defeated at the battle of the River Thatis, the winner Satyros died shortly afterwards at the siege of Aripharnes’ capital, leaving Eumelos to claim the throne.
Eumelos proved worthy of his royal forbears, particularly in the first five years of his reign. After strengthening his military power and treasury, he then turned his attention to further expansion of the kingdom. He intended to gradually annex the whole region of the northern Black Sea coast to the Bosporan kingdom, thus creating a powerful Hellenistic state which could confront the kingdom of Lysimachus in Asia Minor. At that time, Lysimachus controlled Thrace and the western coast of the Black Sea, possibly having aspirations of expansion to the northern coast. However Eumelos was killed in 304 BC in a strange accident that it was possibly ‘fixed’ (organised) by supporters of his late brother Satyros.
Nevertheless, Eumelos’ son, Spartocos III was proclaimed the new king of Bosporus (304-284 BCE). During his reign, Athens officially recognised the de facto independence of the Cimmerian Bosporus, which had existed for more than a century. After the destruction of her fleet by the Macedonians in the Aegean Sea (battle of Amorgos and other sea battles in 322 BC), Athens could not undertake any more serious overseas campaigns to restore her old zone of influence . Spartocos III like all his predecessors was a king for his native subjects, but he was just a minor strongman to the Bosporan Greeks. It was with his declaration of himself as basileus of all the Bosporans that the Cimmerian Bosporus was now an official kingdom in all senses, whether Greek or otherwise.
The Greeks and the Hellenised Thracians were originally the ruling class of the Cimmerian Bosporus, but the status of the indigenous population and the Scythian/Iranian minority, was also important. The two peoples (Greeks and non-Greeks) supported each other: the natives were Hellenized and the Greeks gradually adopted the spirit and the habits of the natives. This duality is obvious in every aspect of the social life of Cimmerian Bosporus. Thus a special Bosporan Greek identity was formed in the Northern Black Sea coast, based on those of faraway Ionia.
The two main military units of the Bosporan army were the noble cavalry (equipped much like their Scythian neighbors) and the Greek infantry of the cities (apparently hoplites and ‘psiloi’ or bowmen at the time of the Battle of Thatis). The Bosporan military aristocracy had mixed origins: Thracian, Cimmerian, Greek, Scythian, Maeotian, Sarmatian, etc.
Bosporan infantry forces of the were complemented by lightly armed warriors who belonged mainly to the pre-Greek population of the Bosporan hinterland and the adjacent areas: Taurians, Maeotians, Sindians, Northern Thracians, etc. Thracian mercenary peltasts seemed to be numerous, coming from Thrace south of the Danube. The military equipment of the local Greeks in later tombstones (especially in the tombstones of the neighboring independent city-state Chersonesus in Crimea) comprises scutum-type shields (θυρεός, ‘thyreos’ in Greek), a fact that indicates the adoption of the new Greek military equipment of the ‘thureophoros’ which gradually prevailed in all the Greek cities during the 3rd century BCE. Most native-born Greeks however shunned the service of the barbaric Spartocids, and so only mercenaries could be relied on to provide the heavy infantry component the Greeks were so famous for. Over time, however, these mercenaries would be replaced with recruits from the local Greek communities, especially during the lean years of the reign of Eumelos.
The proximity of the Black Sea and clashes with the Athenians also meant the need for a significant fleet, which was gradually strengthened after the fall of the Athenian influence in the area and the establishment of the Spartocid regime and Panticapaeum, Sinope, Heraclea and other large cities had fleets of triremes. The Spartocids of Panticapaeum had concluded a special agreement with Athens to recruit crews from Attica for their merchant ships and warships in 346 BCE. Master of the navy was especially important for Eumelos who needed to stamp out the piracy which threatened trade and his tax incomes during the civil war with Satyros.
Decline and DisappearanceEdit
In the 3rd century BC, the kingdom of Bosporus went into decline, facing intense military pressure by the Scythians who flocked en masse in the Crimea because of the Sarmatians, who defeated and expelled them from the Ukrainian steppe. Unable to face the onslaught alone, the then king Paerisades V requested help from the neighbouring kingdom of Pontos across the Black Sea. Paerisades V, however, was soon killed in battle, and the Pontic kingdom under its general Diophantus annexed all of the Bosporan realm. Shortly afterward, however, Pontos fell to the Romans following the Third Mithridatic War ending in 63BCE
The kingdom experienced a revival during the Roman period, when it was put under the protection of the Romans (with members of the Pontic royal family supplying puppet rulers) who increased its territory by annexing neighboring states to it (including the city-state of Chersonesus for some time). Rome protected the Greeks of the northern coast with garrisons and naval forces based at Chersonesus, Olbia and other ports but with the Roman civil wars of the mid-3rd century CE, the Bosporans had to abandon these distant military mountings. The Iranian Scythians and Sarmatians rapidly increased in population within the kingdom at the expense of the Greeks, supplanting them in the Late Roman Period.
As Roman power diminished, the Goths and the Sarmatians who lived altogether in the Ukrainian steppe were left to inflict serious blows on the once strong Bosporan kingdom, which finally collapsed under the Hunnic invasion of the 4th century CE in much slaughter and destruction, leading to depopulation of the kingdom. Although the capital Panthicapaeum, would survive, it would from now on change hands between the Byzantines and Turkish invaders from Asia. By the time the Russians captured the city in the 18th century, Panthicapaeum — now renamed as Kerch by generations of Turkic masters — was now a backwater port on the Black Sea, with all memories of its royal pomp and opulence long since departed or secreted in underground tombs.
- Deligiannis P; Τhe Bosporan Kingdom (Cimmerian Bosporus)