How the Wealthy Bosporan Kingdom Descended Into Fratricidal Civil War | History Hit

How the Wealthy Bosporan Kingdom Descended Into Fratricidal Civil War

Panticapaeum, capital of the Bosporan Kingdom
Image Credit: Public Domain

In 310 BC, the Bosporan King Paerisades died after a 38 year reign. In his lifetime, Paerisades had continued in the successful footsteps of his predecessors and ruled one of the most lucrative kingdoms in the world. By the time of his death such was this man’s renown that many worshipped him as a god.

Upon his death Paerisades left three sons: Prytanis, Eumelos and Satyrus, the eldest, whom Paerisades declared successor. Prytanis accepted his father’s choice, pinning his colours to Satyrus’ kingship. But Eumelos, the youngest, had his gaze fixed on ruling the wealthy Bosporan Kingdom. As Satyrus began his rule, Eumelos sought allies to support his own claim. What followed was epic civil war between the brothers.

The Siraces

To the east of the Bosporan Kingdom, in modern day southern Russia, was the kingdom of the Siraces. Inhabiting the land alongside the Hypanis River (now the Kuban River), the Siraces were a Sarmatian tribe. The Siraces king, Aripharnes, wielded a powerful army to control a huge domain. Eumelos sought his alliance.

Aripharnes agreed, seeing an opportunity to gain greater influence. Mustering a great army of 42,000 men – including 22,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, Eumelos and Aripharnes marched to war. Meanwhile, Satyrus gathered an army to confront his brother.

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The lion’s share of Satyrus’ troops were Scythians. Various Scythian tribes, such as the Tauri and Sindi, were subject to the Bosporan Kingdom at this time and it was in their interests that Satyrus succeeded against Aripharnes. But Satyrus’ army did not consist entirely of Scythians. He had a substantial number of Thracian warriors and 2,000 expert Greek mercenaries, trained to fight as hoplites – heavy infantrymen wielding spear and shield.

Satyrus thus had specialist heavy infantry, light infantry and cavalry at his disposal. This formidable army, numbering some 34,000 men, set forth to confront young Eumelos. In 310-309 BC, somewhere along the bank of the River Thatis, the two forces approached each other.

Preparing for battle

Having crossed the river, Satyrus surrounded his camp with a defensive wall of wagons and marched his army out. Satyrus and his mounted bodyguard, presumably including Bosporan nobles, took position at the centre of the line, surrounded by his infantry. As for his Scythian cavalry, equipped with javelins, bows, axes, spears or swords, Satyrus presumably placed these on each wing. Like Satyrus, Aripharnes placed himself in the centre of the opposing Siraces army, being both their king and commander. As for Eumelos, he commanded the cavalry on Aripharnes’ right wing.

The Battle of the River Thatis

Battle commenced with Eumelos charging his force into the mercenaries on the right of Satyrus’ line. As this fight was going on however, Satyrus made his move. Realising that Aripharnes had similarly deployed himself in the centre of his line, he gathered his finest cavalry, and embarked on a risky, but potentially decisive move.

With himself in the lead, Satyrus and his men charged the Siraces king. With spear and shield the two forces of mounted bodyguards clashed – the fighting fierce on either side. Yet eventually a breakthrough was made. Suffering under the weight of Satyrus’ attack, Aripharnes and his cavalry crumbled and fled. Satyrus’ attack had been decisive causing the Siraces chief to rout, though the battle was not over yet.

As Satyrus began to pursue the fleeing Aripharnes news reached the Bosporan king that would alter his plans completely: Eumelos and his cavalry were still in the fight, carving a path through his right wing and what remained of Satyrus’ army was now under threat – his own mercenaries having lost their nerve and turned tail. (If Satyrus did place any guards behind his mercenaries, evidently it did not work.)

Detail from Stele with two Hellenistic soldiers of the Bosporan Kingdom; from Taman peninsula (Yubileynoe), southern Russia, 3rd quarter of the 4th century BC.

Image Credit: Pushkin Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0

Realising the perilous situation, the Bosporan king gave up the chase and returned to the battlefield. Aripharnes survived to fight another day. Although initially gaining great success, the spirits of Eumelos and his cavalry must have dropped as they saw hundreds of ferocious horsemen bearing down on them, keen to gain complete victory. The result was devastating. Eumelos’ force and what remained of Aripharnes’ army was routed. Yet the young claimant survived.

Only the beginning

The Battle of the River Thatis was over; Satyrus had emerged victorious and won his spurs. Critically, however, neither of his opponents lay dead on the field. Satyrus may have won the battle but the war was far from over. Following their setback, Eumelos, Aripharnes and what remained of their army retreated to Siracena, Aripharnes’ capital situated on a large island further along the Thatis River, with Satyrus following close on their heels.

Upon reaching Siracena, shock and dismay must have struck Satyrus and his pursuing army. Not only was the Thatis River encircling the island very deep, but commanding cliffs and thick woods surrounded Aripharnes’ stronghold, making Siracena accessible in only two places.

A formidable fortress

Aripharnes knew this all too well. His men had sited outworks and several dominating wooden towers to protect the main entrance leading directly to his palace; meanwhile the other entrance, situated on the far side of the city, was protected by both a swamp and a strong timber palisade. Storming Siracena would be far from easy. Nevertheless, Satyrus remained undeterred and determined to eradicate this threat to his rule. After plundering the neighbouring land, he besieged the city.

Initially the siege brought mixed success. The Bosporan king’s attempt to break through the main entrance and strike directly at Aripharnes’ palace was thwarted – the wooden towers and the outworks proving a death-trap for Satyrus’ men. All was not doom and gloom for Satyrus. As the first attack was going in, the king had ordered another portion of his army to attack the entrance through the swamp. Getting through the marsh was no doubt difficult for these men and they then had the equally-difficult job of destroying the palisade and breaching the city! It was a big ask.

The result was overwhelming success. Satyrus’ men forced their way through the swamp, catching Aripharnes’ defence completely off-guard. Swiftly they captured the palisade; swiftly they destroyed it. The city was breached.

Advantage Satyrus

Having destroyed the barricades and crossed his army to that side of the river, Satyrus now set his eyes on Eumelos and Aripharnes, shirking behind their walled-off stronghold on the far side of the island. Aripharnes’ citadel would not be easy to breach however. Standing in the army’s way was a dense forest that had to be removed if they were to advance. Satyrus was not going to turn around now. And so, he set to work.

He ordered his soldiers to cut down the woods and create a roadway through the forest to the citadel’s walls.  But Aripharnes would not sit idly by as his enemy slowly carved their way towards him:

He stationed archers on both sides of the passage, by whose aid he easily inflicted mortal wounds on the men who were cutting down the woods, for because of the density of the trees they could neither see the missiles in time nor strike back at the archers

Diodorus Siculus XX. 23. 4

Although the woodcutters and road layers suffered heavily from Aripharnes’ archers, the work continued. Within four days, their roadway had traversed the passage and drawn near the wall. Now they had to breach it.

All or nothing

Satyrus’ army advanced, pushing laboriously forwards through the confined roadway – a valley of death – as Aripharnes and Eumelos’ soldiers rained a hail of arrows down. Right and left men fell as they tried to advance. Fighting a cornered foe, they must have known the battle was going to be hard fought. The worst was still to come.

As Satyrus’ men reached the wall, Eumelos and Aripharnes sallied out from the defences with a large force to oppose them. With spear, sword, axe and shield the desperate defenders defiantly fought back. Overwhelmed, Satyrus’ men began to waiver. Seeing his men were struggling against the great tide of cornered defenders, Satyrus rushed to their aid, perhaps believing that another personally-led charge would clinch success. Yet this time there would be no repeat of his previous heroics.

The prophecy

According to a local legend, prior to the siege Satyrus had received a prophecy:

They (the Bosporans) say that the god had told Satyrus to be on his guard against the mouse lest it sometime cause his death.

Diodorus Siculus XX. 26. 1

Because of this Satyrus had always feared mice, believing they could be the architects of his downfall. Yet despite his bizarre phobia, the prophecy now came to fruition, albeit from an unexpected direction. As Satyrus and his men forced back the sally, a defender’s spear tore through the Bosporan king’s upper arm muscle, known also in Greek as ‘the mouse’. Unable to fight on, Satyrus withdrew from the assault – his men followed close behind. Eumelos and Aripharnes had held on! And for them further good news soon followed.

That night at Satyrus’ camp the prophecy was fulfilled. Mortally wounded by the blow he had received just hours earlier, the Bosporan king breathed his last. The victor of the clash at the Thatis and the rightful Bosporan ruler was no more. He had reigned only nine months.

As Satyrus’ reign ended abruptly, so too did the siege of Siracena. What remained of Satyrus’ demoralised army retreated to the eastern coast of Lake Maeotis, bearing their dead leader’s body. From there they had Satyrus’ corpse sent to Panticapaeum where his brother, Prytanis, received it and provided a burial fit for a king. The reign of Satyrus was over; the rule of Prytanis had begun.

King Prytanis

Prytanis now continued the war his brothers had started, crossing the Bosporus, taking command of Satyrus’ army and refusing to co-rule the kingdom with his resurgent younger brother. There would be no peace. Realising any attempts to negotiate were fruitless, Eumelos acted. Having learnt that Prytanis had quickly retreated his main army back to Panticapaeum, Eumelos and Aripharnes made their move, overwhelming Prytanis’ small garrison at a place called Gargaza (perhaps Gerousa or Gorgippa) and capturing the coastal city.

Map showing the early growth of the Bosporan Kingdom.

Image Credit: User Morningstar1814 on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Slowly Eumelos turned the screw on Prytanis’ army, defeating his elder brother in battle and forcing him to flee to the shores of Lake Maeotis. Realising there was no escape, Prytanis swallowed his pride and submitted to his younger brother, handing over his kingship and the army. Eumelos was now king. Yet this was not the end of the fratricidal civil war. There was still one more twist in the story.

Prytanis casts his die one last time

The fragile peace between Eumelos and Prytanis did not last long. Soon after, Prytanis cast his die one last time in an all or nothing move. Having entered Panticapaeum, Paerisades’ middle son proclaimed that he was Satyrus’ rightful heir, hoping to somehow topple his younger brother.

Unable to gather enough support, Prytanis’ campaign evaporated. He and whatever supporters he had were overpowered and the claimant fled across the Cimmerian Straits to Cepi, known as ‘the Gardens’. There would be no escape for Prytanis this time however. Upon reaching the Gardens, Prytanis was slain. Two of the brothers now lay dead.

Thus ended the Bosporan Civil War. Through blood and iron, Eumelos had waged a ruthless and risky war for control of the lucrative kingdom. Still, the gamble had paid off – at the expense of his brothers’ lives. Yet for Eumelos, it was worth it.

King Eumelos

As soon as he heard that Prytanis’ body ran cold, Eumelos set about securing his hard-won rule. He had all but one of his dead brothers’ family and friends swiftly put to the sword (only Satyrus’ young son escaped the slaughter), while Eumelos quelled any unrest by greatly lightening taxes. With such brutality and benefaction, Eumelos secured his spear-won rule.

For the next five years, Eumelos set about increasing Bosporan might further. Not only did his powerful navy rid the Black Sea of menacing pirates – a Bosporan merchant’s greatest fear – but he also followed in his forefathers’ footsteps and embarked on ambitious military campaigns.

Taking advantage of the experience he had gained fighting his brothers, Eumelos conquered neighbouring Scythian lands through blood and battle; his ambitious aim to become the leading power along the Black Sea was slowly taking shape. Eumelos’ successes proved he was every bit his father’s son.

As for Aripharnes, following the Civil War nothing survives on what happened to him. Most likely, Eumelos rewarded him and his Siraces with more land in Bosporan territory – perhaps at the expense of their rival Scythians. Yet this is merely a theory and the answer remains shrouded in mystery and lost (at least for now) in history. As Eumelos’ power increased, so too did his fame.

Byzantium, Sinope and Callantia were powerful Greek cities that became indebted to the Bosporan King. Within a short time Eumelos had become the guardian angel of the Black Sea communities and the ruler of a kingdom that could rival even Lysimachus – the powerful Successor king ruling in Thrace. By 304 BC, Eumelos’ struggles during the Civil War must have seemed a distant memory. Just as Eumelos’ power was enjoying a seemingly-unstoppable rise, death came knocking, albeit in rather bizarre circumstances.

The end of Eumelos

Just as his elder brother Satyrus had a prophetic end, so too did Eumelos:

The warning was that he [Eumelos] should be on guard against the house that is on the move Therefore he never afterward entered a house freely unless his servants had previously examined the roof and the foundations.

Diodorus Siculus XX. 26. 2

Despite Eumelos’ best efforts the prophecy rang true. On his way to conduct a sacrifice, the horses pulling Eumelos’ carriage were startled and became uncontrollable. Fearing for his life the Bosporan king jumped from his ‘palace on wheels’ hoping to escape. It was not to be.

As Eumelos jumped,

…his sword caught in the wheel, and he was dragged along by the motion of the carriage and died on the spot.

Diodorus Siculus XX. 26. 2

Thus ended the reign of Eumelos – a reign that would mark the high tide of Bosporan might. Following his passing a slow and steady decline for the kingdom soon followed. In 109 BC, the kingdom bid farewell to its independence when it came under the rule of King Mithridates VI. Although the kingdom continued to exist down into the Roman period, never again did it enjoy the same prosperity of the fourth century BC.

Tristan Hughes