How Did an Ancient Greek Kingdom Emerge in Crimea?

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

01 Mar 2019

The ancient Greeks founded numerous cities in far-flung places, from Spain in the west to Afghanistan and the Indus Valley in the east. Because of this, many exotic cities have their historical origins in a Hellenic foundation: Marseilles, Herat and Kandahar for instance.

Another such city is Kerch, one of the most important settlements in Crimea. But how did an ancient Greek kingdom emerge in this far-flung region?

Archaic Greece

Ancient Greece at the start of the 7th century BC was very different to the popular image usually presented of this civilisation: of Spartans standing supreme in scarlet cloaks or of Athens’ acropolis gleaming with marble monuments.

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Back in the 7th century BC, both of these cities were still in their infancy and were not central pillars of the Greek world. Instead other cities were prominent: Megara, Corinth, Argos and Chalcis.  Yet powerful Greek cities were not restricted solely to the western side of the Aegean Sea.

Further to the east, situated on the western shoreline of Anatolia, several powerful Greek cities resided, prospering from their access to fertile lands and the Aegean Sea.

Although Greek poleis dotted the length of this coastline the lion’s share of settlements were located in Ionia, a region famed for the rich fertility of its soil. By the seventh century BC many of these Ionian cities had already thrived for decades. Yet their prosperity also brought problems.

Greek colonisation of Asia Minor between 1000 and 700 BC. The lion’s share of Hellenic settlements were situated in Ionia (Green).

Enemies at the borders

During the seventh and sixth centuries BC, these cities attracted the attention of unwelcome peoples seeking plunder and power. Initially this threat came from nomadic raiders called the Cimmerians, a people who originated from north of the Black Sea but who had been expelled from their homeland by another nomadic tribe.

After bands of Cimmerians sacked many Ionian cities for several years, their threat was replaced by the Lydian Empire, situated directly east of Ionia.

For many decades, Greek settlers in Ionia thus found their lands pillaged and crops destroyed by Cimmerian and Lydian armies. This caused a great influx of Greek refugees, fleeing westwards away from danger and towards the Aegean coastline.

Many fled to Miletus, the most powerful stronghold in Ionia that had its roots back in Mycenaean times. Although Miletus did not escape the Cimmerian scourge, it kept control of the sea.

Many Ionian refugees gathered in the city thus decided to board boats and sail north, through the Hellespont to the Black Sea, in their search for new lands to settle – a fresh start.

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The Inhospitable Sea

During the seventh century BC, the Greeks believed this great Sea was highly-dangerous, filled with marauding pirates and shrouded in myth and legend.

Yet overtime, groups of Milesian refugees started overcoming these myths and began to found new settlements along the length and breadth of the Black Sea’s shores – from Olbia in the north-west to Phasis at its furthest-east edge.

They selected settlement locations primarily for their access to fertile lands and navigable rivers. Yet one place was notably richer than all others: the Rough Peninsula.

The Rough Peninsula (Chersonesus Trachea) is what we know today as the Kerch Peninsula, on the eastern edge of Crimea.

This Peninsula was a lucrative land. It boasted some of the most fertile terrain in the known world, while its proximity to Lake Maeotis (the Sea of Azov) – a lake abundant in marine life – also ensured the land was rich in resources.

Strategically too, the Rough Peninsula had many positives for the Milesian colonists. The aforementioned Cimmerians had once inhabited these lands and, although they had long departed, evidence of their civilisation remained – defensive earthworks constructed by the Cimmerians stretched the length of the peninsula.

These works provided the basis for sound defensive structures that the Milesians could take advantage of. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Rough Peninsula commanded the Cimmerian straits, the vital narrow waterway that linked Lake Maeotis with the Black Sea.

The Greek settlers arrive

During the 7th century BC, Milesian colonists reached this far-flung peninsula and established a trading port: Panticapaeum. More settlements soon followed and by the mid-6th century BC, several emporiae had been established in the area.

Quickly these trading ports developed into rich independent cities, prospering as their exports found willing buyers not only throughout the Black Sea region, but also in places further afield. Yet as their Ionian forefathers had discovered centuries earlier, prosperity also brought problems.

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A principle worry for these new urban developments was their evident contact with the neighbouring Scythians, nomadic warriors originating in Southern Siberia.

Regular demands by these ferocious warriors for tribute very likely plagued the cities for many years; yet in c.520 BC, the citizens of Panticapaeum and several other settlements decided to fight this threat when they united and forged a new, joined domain: the Bosporan Kingdom.

Scythian contact with this kingdom would remain throughout its existence: many Scythians lived within the kingdom’s borders which helped influence the domain’s Greco-Scythian hybrid culture – most evident in some remarkable archaeological discoveries and in the composition of Bosporan armies.

Electrum vase from the Kul-Oba kurgan, 2nd half of 4th century BC. Scythian soldiers are visible on the vase and served in Bosporan armies. Credit: Joanbanjo / Commons.

The Bosporan Kingdom went on to experience its golden age at the end of the 4th century BC – when not only did its military strength dominate the northern shoreline of the Black Sea, but its economic power made it the breadbasket of the Mediterranean World (it possessed abundant surpluses of grain, a commodity that always remained in high demand).

This Greco-Scythian domain remained the jewel of the Black Sea for many years; it was one of antiquity’s most remarkable kingdoms.

Top Image Credit: The prytaneion of Panticapaeum, second century BC (Credit: Derevyagin Igor / Commons).