Early Ukraine History: Of Scythians, Thracians and Greeks

Hello Readers,

My continued read about the Scythians, especially the Scythians in the west, has lead to a fascinating period of time in early history, overlapping with the Hellenistic Period called the Kingdom of the Bosporus. The Kingdom of the Bosporus, later part of the Kingdom of the Pontus, survived in one form or another from the 5th century BC to the late Roman Imperial period in the year 370 AD (roughly 800 years). As you can see from the map, it started very small, just a collection of Greek colonies bound by mutual defense, and grew in size into a much larger kingdom that included the Crimean peninsula and parts of modern-day Ukraine.

The Bosporan Kingdom at various points in history, File:Bosporan Kingdom growth map-pt.svg: Sémhur (talk · contribs)derivative work: Morningstar1814 (talk · contribs), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Later growing into a much later kingdom that went to war with Rome:

Javierfv1212, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes the Kingdom of the Bosporus / Pontus fascinating is the convergence of Greek, Thracian, Scythian and other cultures, and the exchanges between them. Let’s take a brief look at each…

The Greek Colonies

The humble beginnings of the Kingdom of the Bosporus began as a hodge-podge of Greek colonies in the Black Sea. The ancient Greeks were prolific colonizers in the Mediterranean because the lands of Greece have low agricultural output, and as populations grew, they needed places to grow and stretch. Famous colonies include Syracuse on the island of Sicily (home of Archimedes!), southern Italy a.k.a. Magna Graecia, Cyrene in modern-day Libya, as well as countless colonies in Spain, southern France, Asia Minor and so on.

Colonies in the Black Sea, including the modern Ukrainian city of Odessa,1 mostly originated from the Greek city-state of Miletos which had been aggressively colonizing all around the Black Sea. Even now, old Greeks relics can be found. The Greeks were colonizing hostile territory, so they tended to build fortresses on off-shore islands, or just inland from a river. From the inland communities, the Greeks would get raw materials, grain and other foodstuffs to ship back to the Greek metropolises back home. In turn, they would bring wine (much prized by the Scythians), crafted luxury goods and spread Greek culture.

From the perspective of the Greek world, the Black Sea and colonies around the Crimean peninsula were the very edge of civilization. This was the frontier, where only the bravest, or the punished would go.

The Native Thracians

The Thracians are an influential people who lived north and east of Greece proper, but are not well-attested in history. Thracian culture shows considerable Greek influence, but they spoke a different language (now lost), and had a more loose, more tribal political structure than the classic Greek polis.

But the Thracians weren’t slouches either. They frequently combated with the northern Greeks, especially Phillip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, and the Odryzian Kingdom was a serious attempt by the Thracians to unify and challenge their Greek neighbors.

The Kingdom of the Bosporus, the subject of this post, was perhaps their most important contribution, though, because the founder of that kingdom was a man named Spartacus. No, not this Spartacus:

The name “Spartacus” is a distinctly Thracian name, and the founder of the ruling dynasty of the Bosporan Kingdom was a Thracian man named Spartokos I, first as the strongman or “tyrant” of the Greek colony of Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), and then gradually uniting the nearby colonies in a system of mutual protection.

The Steppe Warriors

Starting with the Cimmerians, steppe nomads would often encroach into the steppe lands of modern Ukraine and Hungary, the westernmost extent (as well as the most hospitable) of the Eurasian steppes. Having driven out the Cimmerians, they settled and lead a confederation of tribes that dominated the lands for centuries, until they were eventually defeated by the Sarmatians.

The nomadic Scythians were at first largely hostile to the settled Greco-Thracian cities along the coast, and there is evidence of war and violence at some places, hence the colonies banded together for mutual defence. Gradually, though, the different cultures learned to get along and began mutually beneficial trade. The Scythians liked Greek commodities and helped ship raw resources from other cultures further north down to the Greek settlements.

The kurgan tombs of Scythian warriors also began to show more Greek architectural influence, such as the great kurgan at Kul-oba, and a tomb at Bliznitsa near the colony of Phanagoria that depicted the goddess Demeter, hinting at the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Further, a number of famous Greeks have (often dubious) claim to Scythian ancestry such as the Athenian orator, Demosthenes, so intermarriage did occur between the colonists and steppe nomads. Herodotus’s historical accounts of his travels in these lands also provide invaluable information about the people of the Bosporan Kingdom, the Scythians beyond it, and more.

The Wider World

How the Bosporan Kingdom fit into the wider Hellenistic and Roman world is interesting too. Because of its location, it was luckily not involved much in the power struggles between Alexander the Great’s successors, nor did it tangle with the Roman Republic until much later during the Mithridatic Wars. All three of them.

Further, the mixed ethnic composition of the Bosporan Kingdom meant that it was an unusually cosmopolitan place, and held a certain mystique among the more urban residents of the Greeks and later Roman empire. When Ovid was banished there, though, he often whined about how hard and rustic the life was, but he would, wouldn’t he?

Anyhow, even when we watch the news about events in Ukraine, especially southern Ukraine, it’s helpful to remember that these lands have a long and fascinating, multicultural history, and we haven’t even gotten to Kievan Rus’ yet.

1 Which, as of writing, remains free thankfully. Слава Україні! 🇺🇦

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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