More on Ethnic Identities in the Ancient Black Sea Area

Ideological perspectives on the evidence are still prevalent a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain: the 19th-century paradigm that history is to be understood as rivalry between tribes and nations led to the assumption that major events were determined by a conflict between native Iranians and invading Greeks or oppressing Romans. This conflictual approach was cemented in the 20th century by regarding Rome as a precursor of the imperialist West, at least in the eyes of many Eastern European colleagues. Foundational is the work of Michael Rostovtzeff (1919, p. 96):

Mithradates was ruined, not by the Sarmatians or the Scythians, who had to form his last great army, but by the Greeks of Phanagoria, Chersonesus, Theodosia, and Panticapaeum, to whom at a certain time he had served as a rock of safety to cling to when they were on the point of being submerged by the Scythian and Sarmatian tidal wave. But, just as in Asia Minor, the Greeks in the Crimea very quickly understood that their relation to Rome was closer, and that Rome was more disposed to defend them against and shelter them from the invasion of an Hellenised Iran that threatened them, not in the military sense alone. After the death of Mithradates the duality of forces acting in the kingdom influenced the whole history of the Bosporus. The prevailing majority of the population, all the Sarmatian and Scythian tribes included in the kingdom, honoured the memory of Mithradates and were disposed to support his heirs, and the Greeks were ready to submit to any power that would guarantee them the preservation of their nationality and of the remnants of the municipal régime to which they were used. Rome had to reckon with all those peculiarities of the Bosporus and to keep up a constant watch, foreseeing the possible advent of a new unifier, a new Mithridates.

The late Heinz Heinen (1941-2013), Founding Chair of Ancient History at the University of Trier, was one of the first to systematically question those simplistic antagonisms. He repeatedly demonstrated that they publicly displayed affiliations with the ruling power to enhance their prestige among the locals, rather than to arouse their resentment. Historical ethnic identities are vague constructs, insufficient to explain the motivations for hostilities, and perilous when misused in modern ideological conflicts. Characteristic of his argument are the following lines (1997):

The development of thesis by Rostovtzeff laid ground to what is now the common opinion among Soviet scholars. According to this, Dynamis embraced the tradition of her Rome-hating ancestor Mithradates, abandoned the Roman protégé Polemon, in order to defend the independence of the Bosporan Kingdom. … When the atmosphere of the Stalinistic period was imbued with nationalism, the academic question was unduly politicized. From then on, the aim was to demonstrate that “Roman encroachments into the Northern Black Sea provoked the resistance of the inhabitants of the southern parts of our nation, who fought incessantly for their independence.” One is reminded of similiarly nationalistic interpretations of Arminius, Vercingetorix, Ambiorix or Boudicca in Germany, France, Belgium or England respectively.

The most promising way to overcome such barriers is a respectful though critical dialogue beyond geographical and ideological boundaries. Heinen’s whole life had been dedicated to foster this friendly and constructive exchange (e.g., Heinen 1980; 1996; Rostowzew 1993; Coskun 2014).

Such a dialogue is certainly rewarding, but it may at times be demanding and difficult, given the depth of the divide between Eastern and Western Europe. Much of what David Braund – another eminent scholar of the Ancient Black Sea Littoral – formulated in the preface of a conference volume in 2005 (pp. 2f.) is still pertinent today:

However, these burgeoning contacts also highlight the differences which have evolved on the two planets. The process of translation makes these differences all the more striking. After all, even where scholarly contacts and exchange have been the rule for generations (as, for example, between French and British / scholarship), the passage from one language to another is also a transition between cultures, scholarly and otherwise. So much is very well understood as a general principle by students of translation and hardly requires elaborate exegesis here. The point needs to be made because readers of this book must be aware that, in beginning to read many of these chapters, they are stepping into a whole world of scholarship with which most will not be familiar or perhaps even comfortable. Standard-works, argumentation and methodology will often be familiar, but sometimes they—and more besides—may offer unexpected challenges. This has been a dilemma for me as editor. I have not attempted to rewrite contributions to meet every aspect, for example, of British academic taste, itself a many-headed beast. On the contrary, it seems important to ensure that differences of scholarly style be left to enrich the volume, even with what may seem to some to be methodological inconsistencies.


Selected References

(for more introductory readings, see ABOUT, for a larger bibliography, see MATERIALS)

Braund, D. (2002) Steppe and Sea: the Hellenistic North in the Black Sea Region before the First Century BC, in D. Ogden (ed.), The Hellenistic World. New Perspectives, London, 199–219.

Braund, D. (ed.) (2005a) Scythians and Greeks. Cultural Interactions in Scythia, Athens and Early Roman Empire (Sixth Century BC – First Century AD), Exeter.

Coskun, A. (2014) Interconnectivity – In honorem & in memoriam Heinz Heinen (1941-2013). With a Complete Bibliography of His Scholarly Publications, in V. Cojocaru, A. Coşkun & M. Dana, Interconnectivity in the Mediterranean and Pontic World during the Hellenistic and Roman Periods. The Proceedings of the International Symposium (Constanţa, July 8-12, 2013), Cluj-Napoca, 2571.

Heinen, H. (1980) Die Geschichte des Altertums im Spiegel der sowjetischen Forschung (Erträge der Forschung, 146), Darmstadt.

Heinen, H. (1994) Mithradates von Pergamon und Caesars bosporanische Pläne. Zur Interpretation von Bellum Ale­xandrinum 78, in R. Günther & S. Rebenich (eds.), E fontibus haurire. Beiträge zur römischen Geschichte und zu ihren Hilfswissenschaften (=FS H. Chantraine), Paderborn, 63–79.

Heinen, H. (1996) Russen im römischen Trier, in K. Eimermacher & A. Hartmann (eds.), Deutsch-russische Hochschulkooperation: Erfahrungsberichte, Bochum, 134–139.

Heinen, H. (1998) Fehldeutungen der ἀνάβασις und der Politik des bosporanischen Königs Aspurgos, Hyperboreus 4, 340361.

Heinen, H. (2006) Antike am Rande der Steppe. Der nördliche Schwarzmeerraum als Forschungsaufgabe (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz. Abhandlungen der Geistes- und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse, Jahrgang 2006, Nr. 5), Stuttgart.

Heinen, H. (2008) La tradition mithridatique des rois du Bosphore, de Rostovtzeff à l’historiographie soviétique, in J. Andreau & W. Berelowitch (eds.), Michel Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff, Bari, 137152.

Heinen, H. (2011) Kaisareia und Agrippeia: das Tor zur Maiotis als augusteisches Monument, in N. Povalahev & Kuznetsov (eds.) Phanagoreia und seine historische Umwelt. Von den Anfängen der griechischen Kolonisation (8. Jh. v.Chr.) bis zum Chasarenreich (10. Jh. n.Chr.) (Altertümer Phanagoreias 2), Göttingen, 225–240; 345–364.

Rostovtzeff, M.I. (1916): Bronzovyy byust bosporskoy tsaritsy i istoriya Bospora v épokhu Avgusta (The Bronze Bust of a Bosporan Queen and the History of the Bosporus in the Augustan Age), in Drevnosti. Trudy imperatorskogo Moskovskogo archeologicheskogo obshchestva 25, Moscow, 1–31.

Rostovtzeff, M. (1919) Queen Dynamis of Bosporus, JHS 39, 88–109.

Rostovtzeff, M. (1922) Iranians and Greeks in South Russia, Oxford.

Rostowzew, M. (1931) Skythien und der Bosporus. Vol. I: Kritische Übersicht der schriftlichen und archäologischen Quellen, Berlin.

Rostowzew, M. (1993) Skythien und der Bosporus, Band II. Wiederentdeckte Kapitel und Verwandtes. Auf der Grundlage der russischen Edition von V.Ju. Zuev mit Kommentaren und Beiträgen von G.W. Bowersock [et al.] übersetzt und herausgegeben von H. Heinen in Verbindung mit G.M. Bongard-Levin und Ju.G. Vinogradov, Stuttgart.