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Go-Betweens and the Greek Cities of the Black Sea

Stanley M. Burstein


     The growth in World History at the expense of Western Civilization since the 1980s has been nothing short of remarkable. Inevitably, however, the process has been uneven with many important topics being incompletely reformulated in World historical terms, and much of the old Western Civilization framework surviving in the new courses and, of course, the textbooks even to the present. A good example is ancient Greece where classical Athens remains the center of most accounts instead of increased emphasis being placed on topics involving interconnections between Greeks and non-Greeks.1 Particularly striking is the lack of attention given to the frontiers of the Greek world such as the Black Sea and the accommodations Greeks had to make to survive there.

     At first glance this is surprising. Greek settlement in the Black Sea was part of one of the most extraordinary migrations in ancient history, a migration that began about the middle of the eighth century BCE and continued for over two hundred years. The causes of this emigration of Greeks from their Aegean homeland are disputed: land hunger, trade, and refuge from expanding imperial powers such as Lydia and Persia have all been suggested. What is not in doubt, however, is the result. When the waves of emigration finally ended about 500 BCE, the area of Greek settlement had expanded from the Aegean to cover a vast area that extended from eastern Spain in the west to the mouth of the Don River in the east.2

     The Black Sea was the last major area settled by the Greeks. Various Greek cities from the west coast of modern Turkey and southern Greece founded colonies in the area. The most prominent, however, was Miletus, which ancient sources credited with seventy colonies including Odessus, modern Odessa; Olbia at the mouth of the Bug River, Panticapaeum in the Crimea; and Sinope, modern Sinop, in northern Turkey. Unlike the Mediterranean, where the Phoenicians proved to be formidable competitors for prime settlement sites, the Greeks had no rivals in the Black Sea so that by the end of the sixth century BCE, the Black Sea was almost entirely ringed by prosperous Greek cities that were equipped with fine public buildings and linked to each other, their non-Greek neighbors, and their Aegean homelands by steadily growing ties of trade.

     At this point the story of the Greeks in the Black Sea as told in textbooks usually ends, although, of course, history did not. The reasons are threefold. The first is simple inertia, the reluctance to rethink the traditional Aegean centered narrative of Greek history to fit a world historical framework. The second is disciplinary. The bulk of the evidence for the later history of the Black Sea in antiquity is archaeological and epigraphical, and the relevant scholarship is in unfamiliar languages: Russian, Rumanian, and Bulgarian to name only the most important. The third and final reason is politics. During the Cold War western scholars did not have easy access to archaeological sites and museum collections in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and scholars on both sides of the "Iron Curtain" had great difficulty in obtaining the publications of their opposite numbers.3

     The result was a view of the history of the Black Sea that foregrounded the activity of the Greeks and limited the role of their "barbarian" neighbors to being passive recipients of Greek cultural influences that still survives in the few World History textbooks that treat the topic.4 Two examples will suffice. So, according to Worlds Together, Worlds Apart5 "Whether they wished it or not. . .the Scythians to the north of the Black Sea, who were living in nomadic bands, isolated settlements, and small villages became integrated into the expanding cities' networks of violence, conquest, and trade." The story in Traditions & Encounters6 is fuller but essentially the same: "During the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., Greeks ventured into the Black Sea in large numbers and established colonies all along its shores. These settlements offered merchants access to rich supplies of grain, fish, timber, honey, wax, gold, and amber as well as slaves captured in southern Russia and transported to markets in the Mediterranean. . .. As Greek merchants brought wealth into these societies, local clan leaders built small states in. . .the Crimean peninsula and southern Russia where trade was especially strong."

     Interestingly, the same view of Greek-non-Greek relations was also common in the Soviet Union. So, in F. Korovkin's prize winning secondary school textbook, History of the Ancient World,7 which went through twenty editions before being translated into English in 1985, students learned that "trade also grew in the countries where the colonies arose and Greek culture spread there; local tribes moved more quickly from the primitive communal system to slave-owning society." Meanwhile, however, the Cold War ended and the barriers inhibiting collaboration between western and eastern scholars collapsed, making possible the development of a new and very different view of relations between Greeks and non-Greeks in the ancient Black Sea.

     Central to the new interpretation is recognition of an important truth: the Greek cities formed a thin fringe on the edges of a vast non-Greek world.8 In the new view of Black Sea history the implications of that reality became clear in the fifth century BCE with the emergence of powerful kingdoms in the hinterlands of the Greek cities of the west and north coasts of the Black Sea. The dominant state on the west coast of the Black Sea—essentially European Turkey, Bulgaria, and Rumania—was the kingdom of the Odrysian Thracians, whose power extended by the late fifth century BCE from the Propontus to the Danube and included both the tribes of the interior and the Greek cities of the Black Sea coast, all of whom paid tribute to the Odrysian high king. The extent of the Odrysian kingdom's wealth is unknown, but, according to the fifth century BCE Athenian historian Thucydides, the tribute alone was approximately equal to that realized by Athens from its empire at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Although detailed evidence concerning the relations between the Greek cities and the Odrysian overlords is lacking, it is likely that the burden of their tribute was offset by the protection afforded them against raids on their territory by neighboring tribes and increased trading privileges in the territories of the Odrysian kingdom.

     The evidence for the north coast of the Black Sea is poorer than that for the west coast, but what there is suggests that the situation was similar with the central fact of life for the Greek cities being the pressure put on them by the kingdom of the Royal Scythians, which dominated the steppes of the southern Ukraine. Information about how the Scythians exerted their influence over the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea is limited. In the case of Olbia, however, it suggests that the Scythians first tried to rule the city through Greek tyrants, who were then replaced in the mid-fifth century by resident administrators of Scythian origin. Be that as it may, with few exceptions, the over-riding reality for the Greek cities of the Black Sea was that in order to survive they had to find accommodations with their non-Greek neighbors by trading and intermarrying with them, and, most importantly, by seeking their protection. The dominant "barbarian" populations that Greeks had to deal with—Thracians, Getes, Dacians, Scythians, or Sarmatians—may have changed over the centuries, but from the late fifth century BCE to the early second century CE, when the Roman conquest of the Dacians put an end to the last and greatest of the Pontic kingdoms, the negotiation and renegotiation of these accommodations were central to the life of the Black Sea Greek cities.

     The most tangible evidence of the results of these negotiations are the splendid gold and bronze objects found in elite graves throughout the region that most likely were either diplomatic gifts or part of the cities' tribute payments instead of trade goods as was assumed in the old view of relations between the Greeks and their non-Greek neighbors.9 The negotiations themselves, however, were only possible because of the services of individuals the Latin Americanist Alida C. Metcalf10 calls "go- betweens, " men or women, who were facilitators of "social interaction between worlds; translators, cultural brokers, negotiators".

     Unlike the go-betweens in early modern European empires, however, who were often socially marginal figures, and, therefore, invisible in the sources, despite the critical importance of their ability to live in two worlds and facilitate communication between them because of their fluency in multiple languages, the go-betweens in the ancient Black Sea usually were aristocrats. The reason is clear. The Black Sea Greeks were political dependents negotiating from positions of weakness with powerful kingdoms that were ruled by warrior aristocracies who would deal only with their social equals. Hence, go-betweens tended to be drawn from the upper classes of the Greek cities, particularly those with family connections to the Thracian and Scythian aristocracies.

     The Athenian historian Thucydides, himself a member of such a family, gives an illuminating account of such an individual and his role in facilitating relations between Greeks and Thracians, noting that in the summer of 431 BCE "Nymphodorus son of Pythes, an Abderite, whose sister [sc. the Thracian king] Sitalces had married, was made their proxenos by the Athenians. They had hitherto considered him their enemy, but he had great influence with Sitalces, and they wished the prince to become their ally."11 Here the Athenians use a traditional Greek institution, proxenia, guest friendship with the moral obligation of watching over the city's interest, in the hope of gaining the support at the Thracian court of the king's influential Greek brother-in-law.

     The literary sources mention similar figures in the fourth century BCE, but the heyday of the go-betweens in the Black Sea was the Hellenistic period, when attempts by the successor states of Alexander's empire to expand their influence in the region combined with renewed nomadic migrations in the Ukrainian steppes and the northern Balkans destabilized the Thracian and Scythian kingdoms on which the Greek cities depended for their security. Not surprisingly in view of the turbulent conditions throughout the Black Sea, decrees passed by Greek cities honoring such individuals are common. Some were courtiers, both Greek and non-Greek, like the Nymphodorus mentioned by Thucydides, whose influence the cities sought to gain through the award of honors like the proxenia and valuable privileges such as tax exemptions and guarantees of expedited court proceedings. More important, however, were individuals from the cities themselves whose ability to move in both Greek and non-Greek societies enabled them to function as brokers in negotiating the terms governing relations between the Greek cities and their non-Greek overlords. The best known of these figures is Agathocles, son of Antiphilus, from the city of Istria on the north coast of the Dobruja in modern Rumania, whose career is outlined in an Istrian decree of the late third or early second century BCE.12

     The situation facing Istria as described in the Agathocles decree was not unusual in the Hellenistic Black Sea. Put simply, the city was trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place, caught in a power struggle between its overlord, the Getic king Rhemaxos, whose territory was located across the Danube in Dacia, and a Thracian dynast named Zoltes, who was trying to detach the Dobruja cities from Rhemaxos by using his war-bands to intimidate them into paying tribute for the privilege of working their agricultural hinterlands.13 As the decree indicates, Agathocles had to find a way to protect Istria's interest by brokering a deal with Zoltes to guarantee the security of its farmland while not alienating the city's overlord Rhemaxos until the conflict between the two rival kings could be decided. Although the decree contains no dates, the process was clearly lengthy and complex. In the process Agathocles organized the city's defense against Zoltes' raiders on two occasions and undertook five separate embassies. Three were directed to Zoltes' camp during which Agathocles arranged for the ransom of flocks that had been rustled by the king's raiders while negotiating agreements to protect Istria's farmland. The other two involved long journeys through hostile territory to Rhemaxos' court to plead, ultimately successfully, for troops to protect Istria's territory. Much, of course, is left unsaid in the decree. What stands out, however, is that, like all successful go-betweens, Agathocles' success in brokering deals between Istria and its powerful neighbors depended on his ability to function in two world, that of the Greek cities of the Dobruja and that of the royal courts of the Thracian and Getic states in their hinterlands, an ability that even allowed him to discover and frustrate a plot being hatched against Istria during one of his visits to Zoltes' camp.

     The go-between system illustrated in the Agathocles decree is only one of the many features of the culture of the Greek cities of the Black Sea that set them apart from the more familiar cities of the Greek homeland. The hallmark of their political and cultural environment was intense and ongoing interaction between the Greek cities and the non-Greek peoples of their hinterlands. Although that interaction was often turbulent and dangerous as the Agathocles decree makes clear, it decisively shaped the life of the Black Sea cities. The result is most evident in art, where the empathy for Scythian life evident in the often spectacular gold objects found in Thracian and Scythian elite graves has no parallel in Aegean Greek art with its stereotyped portrayals of barbarian "others". It is also evident in their ready acceptance of intermarriage between Greeks and non-Greeks and their willingness to incorporate local deities in the pantheons of their cities and even to adopt elements of steppe dress such as leggings. Moreover, despite problems such as those between Istria and its Thracian and Getic neighbors, the cities clearly thought good relations with their "barbarian" neighbors were worth cultivating both for the security they provided and the military support they could bring the cities when they were threatened by hostile neighbors such as Zoltes and his Thracians or powers from outside the region as, for example, happened when Olbia was attacked by one of Alexander's generals and rescued by Scythian forces. It is not surprising, therefore, that visitors to the Pontus from the Aegean homeland from Herodotus in the fifth century BCE to the end of antiquity express a certain ambivalence about the Greekness of the society and culture of the Black Sea Greek cities.

Stanley M. Burstein is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Los Angeles and former president of the Association of Ancient Historians. His research focuses on relations between Greeks and non-Greeks in the Hellenistic Period with particular emphasis on the Black Sea and Africa. His numerous publications include: Outpost of Hellenism: The Emergence of Heraclea on the Black Sea (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), The Hellenistic Age from the battle of Ipsos to the death of Kleopatra VII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Agatharchides of Cnidus, On the Erythraean Sea (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1989), and The Reign of Cleopatra (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004). He can be contacted at


An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 2012 meeting of the World History Association in Albequerque, New Mexico.

1 The problems involved in rethinking ancient history in terms of World History are discussed in Stanley M. Burstein, "Ancient History and the Challenge of World History, Syllecta Classsica 18 (2007), 225–240.

2 The standard account of Greek colonization is John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade, 4th edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

3 Soviet scholarship on the ancient history of the Black Sea is surveyed in D. B. Shelov, "Der nördliche Schwarzmeerraum in der Antike (1977)" in: Heinz Heinen (ed.), Die Geschichte des Altertums im Spiegel der sowjetischen Forschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980), 341–402.

4 Of thirteen world history textbooks I examined, only four included more than a bare mention of Greek colonization of the Black Sea.

5 Robert Tignor et al., Worlds Together; Worlds Apart: A History of the World, From the Beginnings to the Present, 3rd Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 196.

6 Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, 4th Edition (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008), 238–239.

7 F. Korovkin, History of the Ancient World, Sergei Sossinsky, trans. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), 140.

8 Cf. Stanley M. Burstein, "The Greek Cities of the Black Sea" in: Konrad Kinzl (ed.), A Companion to the Classical Greek World (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 137–152.

9 Cf. Zofia H. Archibald, "Thracians and Scythians" in: The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume VI: The Fourth Century B.C., 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 461–462.

10 Alida C. Metcalf, Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil: 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 12.

11 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Richard Crawley, trans., 2.29.

12 ISE 131, Stanley M. Burstein, The Hellenistic Age from the battle of Ipsos to the death of Kleopatra VII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Nr. 68.

13 For the details see D. M. Pippidi, "Istros et les Gètes au IIe siècle. Observations sur le décret en l'honneur d'Agathoclès, fils d'Antiphilos," in: Scythica Minora: Rechercehes sur les colonies grecques du littoral roumain de la mer Noire (Bucharest: Editura Academiei, 1975), 31–55.

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