Heirs of Spartocus: How the Bosporan Kingdom Became the Jewel of the Black Sea | History Hit

Heirs of Spartocus: How the Bosporan Kingdom Became the Jewel of the Black Sea

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By 438 BC, a powerful Greco-Scythian kingdom called the Bosporan Kingdom was emerging on the modern day Crimean or Taman Peninsulas. The land’s wealth of flat, fertile plains, had allowed the Kingdom to prosper, as various Greek cities in the Aegean became more and more dependent on their grain exports. Still, continuity cannot last forever, and great change was fast approaching the kingdom.

For forty years the Bosporan Kingdom had been ruled by a powerful tyranny called the Archaeanactidae – a dynasty likely of Milesian origin. In 438 BC however, there occurred a fundamental change. That year Archaeanactidae rule of the Bosporus ended in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

Whether the family died out naturally or was removed in violent circumstances we do not know. Yet what we do know is that following its downfall the established tyranny was replaced by a man who would go on to create his own far greater dynasty: Spartocus.

The Odrysian Kingdom in 438 BC. At this time, it was one of the most influential kingdoms along the Black Sea coast. It appears this influence even reached the Bosporus.

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Spartocus, who was almost-certainly a member of the powerful Odrysian Kingdom that then dominated much of the Black Sea’s western shoreline, was instated as Bosporan leader in 438 BC. His dynasty would rule for the next 328 years. Under first Spartocus and then his successors – called either the Spartocids or Leuconidae – the Bosporan kingdom entered a new epoch – an epoch that would see the realm flourish.


With Spartocid tyrants at the helm the Bosporan Kingdom gradually expanded its borders; no longer would it be limited to the immediate area each side of the Bosporus. Under Spartocus’ son Satyrus the expansion progressed, gaining not only the rich nearby Athenian colony of Nymphaeum but also taking over cities east of the Cimmerian Bosporus – cities such as Phanagoria.

This was just the start, however, and further conquests followed over the next 80 years as first Satyrus’ son, Leucon, and then his grandson, Paerisades, expanded Bosporan dominion yet further.

The Bosporan Kingdom in c. 350 BC upon the death of King Leucon I. Under Leucon’s rule, Bosporan power had expanded significantly, taking over Theodosia in the west and annexing the kingdom of Sindike in the east. More expansion was to follow.

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By the second half of the 4th century BC, Bosporan power reached far and wide – from Theodosia in the west to the lands of the Maeotae on the north-eastern shore of Lake Maeotis, and Gorgippa to the south. They reaped the rich rewards.

As Bosporan dominion increased, so too did its economic power. Not only did the capture of powerful neighbouring trading ports such as Nymphaeum, Theodosia and Gorgippa drastically increase the exporting power of the kingdom, but the acquisition of the lucrative, fertile lands of the Sindi tribe in Asia provided an even greater abundance of grain to export. For many cities the Bosporan Kingdom thus became the breadbasket of the known world, and one city more than any other came to rely heavily on this.


By the 4th century BC Athens was one of the most prestigious cities in the Mediterranean. Still it had one Achilles heal. The sheer size of the city meant that it could not feed itself – Attica’s farms could not cope. Consequently, the city relied heavily on grain imports. They looked to the Bosporan Kingdom.

Originally beginning to receive grain from the Bosporan Kingdom as early as the latter half of the 5th century BC, Athenian reliance on Bosporan grain continually increased over the next 100 years. The Bosporan tyrants, most famously Satyrus, Leucon and Paerisades, were all too happy to oblige: in Athens they saw a reliable, dependent trading partner always in need of the food supplies they had an abundant surplus of. In Athens they saw profit.

As the Athenian and Bosporan trading relationship grew stronger, honours followed for the Spartocid rulers. Elaborate statues of the tyrants were erected in the heart of Athens; they received honorary titles, for instance ‘benefactor (friend) of Athens;’ and last, but certainly not least, the Athenians bestowed upon the Spartocids Athenian citizenship – despite many Athenians viewing these men as uncivilised barbarians. Athenian reliance on Bosporan trade was clear for all to see.

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

Rich rewards

The special relationship was far from one-sided however. As grain ships departed the Bosporus, so merchant ships loaded with Attic gold and silver returned and Bosporan coffers swelled. Using this great wealth the tyrants continued their great military expansion, hiring various mercenaries to aid them in their wars. Greeks, Scythians, Thracians and Sarmatians – we can presume the conquering armies of Satyrus, Leucon and Paerisades contained all.

Yet Bosporan economic might was not used solely for military purposes. As the kingdom’s power continued to grow, further Bosporan settlements were founded throughout the domain and developed into new, prosperous ports. The kingdom that was once a collection of Greek colonies was now establishing profitable settlements of its own. Throughout this ‘golden age’, happening when many once-mighty states experienced rapid decline, the Bosporan Kingdom thrived.

Dizzy heights

By 311 BC, the Bosporan Kingdom’s power must have been awe-inspiring: the Jewel of the Black Sea. Yet no kingdom enjoys endless-immunity from instability; no ‘golden age’ can last forever. Within a year the kingdom’s seemingly-stable society would descend into a fratricidal civil war that would shake the kingdom to its core. Turmoil loomed.

Tristan Hughes