Iron Age Ukraine and European Russia

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The period between about 1000 and 0 b.c. was of crucial importance in the history of the tribes living in the steppe and forest-steppe zones of southeastern Europe (present-day Ukraine and European Russia). It was a difficult period for the people of the region. There were constant movements of population, the appearance of new ethnic groups, Greek colonization, and Roman penetration. Constant movement and migration led new peoples and cultures to appear and others to vanish. Cultures influenced one another, resulting in the creation of new, unique visual art in styles such as Greco-Barbarian, a mixture of Greek and local (non-Hellenic) elements.

This huge region forms the most westerly part of the Great Steppe Zone of Eurasia. In the south, the shores of the Sea of Azov (known in ancient times as Lake Maeotis) and the Black Sea provide a natural boundary. The northern boundary is ill defined, linked to the spread of the chernozem (black earth) that is characteristic of the forest-steppe. The Danube sets the western limit to the region, and, conventionally, the lower Don River is the eastern boundary. Overall the steppes are some 1,000 kilometers east to west, and 500 kilometers north to south: an area that includes the Dnieper basin and the Black Sea lowlands. In times past, this territory was covered in natural, grassy vegetation and forests, encompassing floodplains, terraces, and sandy areas and was watered by the Dnieper, Dniester, southern Bug, Ingul, Ingulets, and many lesser waterways. To the north of the true steppe lies the forest-steppe zone, containing the uplands and middle reaches of the Dnieper and the southern Bug, and extending to the middle Don. North of the forest-steppe was an area of mixed forest. A characteristic of the forest-steppe is the mixture of large tracts of forest with woodless tracts of meadowland.

The Iron Age in Eastern Europe dates to the early first millennium b.c. Throughout the steppe areas of Eurasia, including those of the northern Black Sea hinterland, it corresponded with the transition from sedentary, pastoral agriculture to the nomadism of animal-rearing tribes. The numerous steppe settlements of the Bronze Age population, surface and dugout, had disappeared by the ninth century b.c.; from then until the late fifth century b.c., tribes moved their herds constantly from one area of pasturage to another. But then the nomads began to settle down. In contrast, the neighboring forest-steppe zone was populated, just as in the Bronze Age, by a sedentary population, albeit one subject to invasion and incursion by marauding nomadic hordes who left their mark on many features of the life and culture of the settled population. The local peoples who inhabited this territory had no writing and have left no written evidence of themselves. We know the names of some groups thanks to authors from the ancient Greco-Roman world and the Near East.


The first to be mentioned in such writings are the Cimmerians, to whom the earliest reference is in Homer's Odyssey, where they are described as a tribe living in a mythical land of fog and darkness on the fringes of the inhabitable world. Other Greek accounts also mention the Cimmerians, as do some Near Eastern sources. Both tend to concentrate on those aspects of Cimmerian history of direct relevance to other well-known peoples and civilizations, such as Assyria and Phrygia. In general, little is known about the Cimmerians, and for modern scholars they are still enveloped in fog and darkness. A summary of the written accounts is useful, however.

The first Assyrian references to the Cimmerians date from the period between 722 and 713 b.c. During the reign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705–681 b.c.), the Cimmerians attacked Asia Minor and destroyed the Phrygian Empire: Phrygia's King Midas committed suicide. This presumably happened in 696–695 b.c., although a date twenty years later is possible. A group of Cimmerians probably settled for some time near Sinope (modern Sinop). The military leader of the Cimmerians in their 679–678 b.c. campaign is called Tuspa in Assyrian records. Another group of Cimmerians probably entered Anatolia from Thrace. This is suggested by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the late first century b.c. and early first century a.d. He speaks about an alliance between the Cimmerians and the Thracian Treres and Edoni tribes who later lived in central Bulgaria and in Chalcidice, respectively. The Lydian king Gyges even sought aid against them from the Assyrian king Assurbanapal. An attack on Lydia in 652 b.c. was successful. The Lydian capital Sardis was sacked and Gyges was killed.

Most Cimmerians had left their lands in the Black Sea steppe because of the arrival of the Scythians (see below) from the east, who were in turn under pressure from the Massagetae. This took place before 713 b.c., when both the Cimmerians and, following them, the Scythians reached the region of Urartu. Herodotus, the fifth century b.c. Greek geographer, explicitly mentions the Tyras River (the Dniester) as the place where the Cimmerian kings fought a fratricidal battle and were buried, and from where the common people left their homes. He also describes the Cimmerian's subsequent escape along the Black Sea west of the Caucasus to the area of Sinope. Some Cimmerians, however, remained on the shores of Lake Maeotis (the Sea of Azov). The Cimmerian Bosporus (also known as the Kerch Strait), Cimmerian Walls, and Cimmerian Peninsula are all in this same area (the Crimea and its surrounds), much farther east than Tyras/Dniester, and equally distant from the River Araxes (now known as the Araks), the original eastern boundary of the Cimmerians. The fratricidal battle of the Cimmerian leaders on the Dniester seems to have marked the last stage of the Cimmerian retreat.

These movements in the Near East are all that we know of the Cimmerians from written sources. It is most probable that the Cimmerians were not a single tribe and that this was a collective name for a large number of tribes living in the steppes of the Ukraine and European Russia. This is a very important point when examining Cimmerian culture and the archaeological evidence for it. The archaeological material does not permit us to single out one culture to which the label "Cimmerian" can firmly be attached. Several generations of archaeologists have sought to provide archaeological evidence of the Cimmerians and their culture but without any positive results. The search for the Cimmerians is based on the proposition that, because the Cimmerians were expelled by the Scythians, any pre-Scythian culture throughout the huge territory mentioned above must be Cimmerian.

Another difficulty is that all these so-called Cimmerian cultures have Scythian features, and their objects executed in Animal Style are extremely close to the Scythian and Near Eastern variants of this type. It is practically impossible with current knowledge to distinguish a Cimmerian culture in archaeological terms. It is so close to Scythian that modern scholars have taken refuge in the labels "pre-Scythian" or "Early Scythian" to describe the cultures of the ninth and eighth centuries b.c.


As noted above, the arrival of the Scythians resulted in the expulsion of the so-called Cimmerians. The main sources for knowledge of the Scythians are archaeology and book 4 of The Histories by Herodotus. Like the Cimmerians, the Scythians spoke an Iranian-related language, and the term "Scythians" represents a general name for many different tribes, whose individual names Herodotus lists as Royal Scythians, Agricultural Scythians, Callipedae, Alazones, and others. The Scythians came from northern Siberia at the end of the eighth and the first half of the seventh centuries b.c. Initially, they lived in the steppes of the northern Caucasus, not far from the Kuban River. The crucial point in the creation of Scythian culture was the middle seventh century, when a part of their population migrated to the Near East, remaining there, according to Herodotus, for twenty-eight years. Their presence was disastrous for the Near Eastern empires such as the Assyrian. They destroyed Urartu and they raided as far as Egypt. For the Scythians themselves this period was important in the formation of their culture, upon which Near Eastern civilizations had a very strong influence. When the Scythians returned to the Caucasian steppes at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries, they possessed a strongly formed culture in which Anatolian/Near Eastern Animal Style had taken root. Scythian tombs dating to the period after their return from the Near East have been discovered in the northern Caucasus. They show how Scythian rulers now imitated those of Assyria, Media, and Urartu, and employed Near Eastern craftsmen to this end.

During the sixth century b.c., thanks to close interaction between the Scythians and the local population of the Kuban region (including the Maeotians), Scythian culture showed increasing signs of Greek influence, but it continued to contain Near Eastern features. The failure of the Persian king Darius I to conquer them in 514–513 b.c. enhanced Scythian self-confidence. At the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth centuries b.c., they formed their own political entities: one based in the Crimean steppes, not far from the future Bosporan kingdom; the other on the lower Dnieper, not far from Olbia. Classical Scythian culture, which dates from the end of the fifth and beginning of the fourth centuries b.c., when most of the Scythians were becoming a settled agricultural population, is indeed the result of close artistic links between the Scythian and Greek worlds. Nevertheless, it is not particularly difficult to identify Near Eastern traditions within it.

The most characteristic feature of Scythian culture is the tumulus, or kurgan. Many of the graves belong to the elite. Altogether, about 3,000 tumuli are known. Over time the incidence of the burial mounds varies. The vast majority, some 2,000, date from the Classical period of Scythian culture, especially the fourth century b.c., and are concentrated on both banks of the lower Dnieper. This is where Herodotus located Gerrhi, the burial place of the Scythian kings, in the vicinity of the Sea of Azov and the Crimea. In some cases, Bronze Age tumuli were reused, but most were built specially for burying the elite and were constructed in several stages. The main feature of these tombs is the earth mound, the usual height of which varied between 3 and 21 meters and the diameter between 30 and 350 meters. Another characteristic feature is the stone chamber and the dromos leading to it; antechambers were rare. Usually, the chamber was rectangular and had a step-vaulted stone roof. The chambers were very large and their height varied between 4 and 14 meters. Some tombs have several chambers. Most tumuli were robbed in antiquity, but the richest to survive untouched contained several dozen gold and silver objects (jewelry, vessels), amphorae, and luxurious Greek pottery. Sometimes horses and slaves were buried with their owners.


The Scythians were the principal local people encountered by the Greek colonists who established settlements on the northern shore of the Black Sea. The relationship between the two groups shaped the history of the Greek cities of the region for several centuries.

The first Eastern Greek settlements in the area, mainly Ionian, appeared in the second half of the seventh century b.c. Not much is known about Archaic colonies, including their layouts; however, the first colonies were quite small. In the sixth century b.c. the area of Panticapaeum (which occupied the site of modern Kerch) was about 7.5 hectares, with a population of about 2,000–3,000. The territory of Olbia in the first half of the same century was 6 hectares; in the second half it was 16.5 hectares. In the middle sixth century, Phanagoria was built on a hill; it covered an area of 20 to 22.5 hectares. It was the only early colony to show evidence of settlement planning and regular streets. The thoroughfares had a width of between 1.5 and 3 meters, and houses were constructed next to each other along both sides of the streets. There is (so far) no evidence of the formation of an agora (marketplace) or temenos (sacral place) as a distinct part of any of the towns until the last quarter of the sixth century. Shrines, such as that of Demeter in Nymphaeum, had quite primitive architecture and were not distinguished from dwelling houses. Recent investigation in Berezan has yielded a small temple of the Late Archaic period. Domestic architecture built between the very end of the seventh century and the last quarter of the sixth century b.c. has very distinctive features. So far no aboveground stone dwelling houses are known; instead, so-called dugouts or semi-dugouts predominate. Entire quarters of these pits were found in many Greek cities: in Olbia, for example, there is a street with pit dwellings laid out regularly down one side, and with a few on the opposite side.

The relationship between the first colonists and the local population was quite peaceful. A large amount of handmade pottery has been found in the Greek settlements, representing 12 to 23 percent of the total pottery finds. Because such pottery was mainly a product of the local population, this high concentration seems to indicate that local people lived in the settlements alongside the colonists. Such an arrangement might be evidence of a pacific relationship. Speaking generally, the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. saw no complications in the relations between Greeks and locals. This is indicated by the absence of fortification systems in the northern Black Sea colonies until the Classical period.

In the last twenty-five years of the sixth century b.c., a completely new period in the history of the Greek settlements started. Previously the colonies had not looked very Greek with their pit houses and simple construction, but from the Late Archaic period they exhibited the same characteristic features known in mainland Greece and other areas of Greek colonization. Major cities had designated areas such as an agora and a temenos. All houses were built of stone and mud brick. From the end of the sixth century b.c. all houses were aboveground, roofed with tiles, had cellars or semi-cellars, and were rectangular in plan. Some were of two stories; all followed the rules of Greek domestic architecture. Most rich houses were built using the architectural orders and covered up to 550 square meters; some were stucco-clad. The typical small house covered an area of between 80 and 200 square meters; a large one covered from 200 up to 600 square meters. The number of rooms ranged between three and fourteen.

Streets were paved with stones, pebbles and pieces of pottery. By the fourth century b.c. a comprehensive street pattern had formed. Main streets in the various cities were 6 to 11 meters wide; side streets between 4 and 5 meters wide; alleys and passageways between 1 and 1.5 meters across. The terraces on which Olbia and Panticapaeum were constructed were linked by flights of paved steps. Beneath the streets were stone drains and sewers. There were stone-lined wells and water fountains. In Olbia, clay pipes or small stone channels carried water into individual houses from the main channel that brought drinking water into the city. In major cities, stone temples were built in the temenos, usually rich in architectural decoration. In Olbia, the agora and temenos adjoined. The former extended to 2,000 square meters and was paved with pieces of ceramic, stones, and pebbles. Along the northern coast of the Black Sea the first fortification systems appeared at the beginning of the fifth century b.c., and they were destroyed and rebuilt in various cities between the fourth and second centuries b.c.


As mentioned above, after the failure of Darius I's Scythian campaign, the Scythians established two political entities—one not far from the Bosporan kingdom and the other near Olbia. It was also during this period that the Odrysian kingdom was created in what is now Bulgaria. War soon broke out between Scythians and the Odrysians but ended quickly in a truce, freeing the Scythians to direct their attentions toward the Greek cities, including Olbia and settlements on the Kerch and Taman peninsulas. The Scythians soon established a protectorate over Olbia.

It was at this time that the Greek cities of the two peninsulas unified into a single state, the Bosporan kingdom, with its capital at Panticapaeum. Although the reason for the unification remains a matter of debate, many scholars link it to the need to combat increasing Scythian pressure on the cities. From this period onward, relations between the Greek cities and the Scythians were characterized by the payment of tribute and the giving of gifts. Strabo, for example, tells us that land for settlement and agriculture was given by local tribal chiefs—that is, the Scythians—either by special agreement or in exchange for a moderate tribute. Furthermore, one inscription of the late fifth century, from Kerkinitis in western Crimea, mentions the payment of tribute to the Scythians.

From the cultural point of view, the political difficulties between the Scythians and Greek cities resulted in the creation of a unique phenomenon: Greco-barbarian art. The Greeks produced many highly artistic objects for the local royal family and elite. From the fifth century b.c., these local upper classes were hellenized—a process that went further in the fourth century. Greek craftsmen were active at the courts of local rulers, who employed them, as in Anatolia, to produce objects in the Greek style but adapted to the tastes of the local elite. Herodotus tells an interesting story about the Scythian king Scyles who had been taught by his Greek mother from Histria to know Greek religion and the Greek way of life. He had a house and a Greek wife in Olbia and regularly stayed there.

The Bosporan kingdom, a unique political entity, was, from its establishment in about 480 b.c., similar in all respects to the Hellenistic kingdoms. It was surrounded by local agrarian population—the Maeotae, Sindians, Dandarii, and others near the Taman Peninsula—and the Nomadic Scythians in the Crimea. From the formation of this state, the relationship between Bosporan Greeks and the local peoples around the Taman Peninsula and the Kuban basin remained peaceful, and by the middle of the fourth century b.c. all of these populations were incorporated into the kingdom. Relations between the Bosporan kingdom and the Nomadic Scythians are not very clear, but they were probably quite hostile, in view of the various earthen fortifications found in the Kerch Peninsula. Another people inhabiting the Crimea were the Taurians. After the establishment of Dorian Chersonesus in eastern Crimea c. 422 b.c., they were pushed back by the colonists into the mountains.


In ancient times the northern Black Sea steppes (present-day Ukraine and the south of European Russia) were not just a multiethnic territory but an active contact zone in which interaction between local peoples and between locals and Greek colonists can be studied. The evidence demonstrates not just a trade relationship between Greeks and locals but also how Greeks penetrated deep into the hinterland, even residing in the settlements that formed the political and production centers of local tribes. The most interesting example of this is the Belsk settlement, situated not far from Poltava in the Ukraine (about 500 kilometers inland from the Black Sea). Some believe it to be the city of Gelonus inhabited by the Budini and the Geloni (one of the Scythian tribes). The site has yielded about ten thousand pieces of Greek pottery dating from the Archaic and Classical periods. To understand what kind of settlement this was, let us turn to book 4 of The Histories by Herodotus:

The Budini, a numerous and powerful nation, all have markedly blue-grey eyes and red hair; there is a town in their territory called Gelonus, all built of wood, both dwelling-houses and temples, with a high wooden wall round it, thirty furlongs each way. There are temples here in honour of Greek gods, adorned after the Greek manner with statues, altars, and shrines—though all constructed of wood; a triennial festival, with the appropriate revelry, is held in honour of Dionysus. This is to be accounted for by the fact that the Geloni were originally Greeks, who, driven out of the seaports along the coast, settled amongst the Budini. Their language is still half Scythian, half Greek. The language of the Budini is quite different, as, indeed, is their culture generally.

The excavator of this site, Boris Andreevich (B. A.) Shramko, indeed believes that he has found a small sanctuary of the sixth through fourth centuries b.c. built with wooden columns. Inside is an altar, and not far away is a pit containing cult offerings. This could indicate a Greek population of merchants and artisans, probably small, from the Archaic period.

From the fourth century and in the Hellenistic period, there is much stronger evidence to demonstrate that Greeks lived permanently in local settlements, establishing their own quarters there. Elizavetovskoe is a settlement on the Don River, at a point where three cultural zones meet—Scythian, Maeotian, and Sarmatian. It dates from the end of the sixth century or the beginning of the fifth century b.c. The important feature at Elizavetovskoe is the presence of a quarter populated by Bosporan Greeks. The quarter dates from the second half of the fourth century b.c., when the acropolis was strengthened with stone towers and walls. Detailed investigation has shown that the Greek quarter was the settlement's trading area and was inhabited by Greeks from the Bosporan kingdom. It ceased to exist at some point at the very beginning of the third century b.c., replaced by a new settlement, a socalled Bosporan trading center (emporion), which existed until about 275–270 b.c. The houses of the emporion were built of stone in the Greek manner, and the settlement was fortified against the rest of the city, where the local population lived.

Kamenskoe, a Scythian settlement on the Dnieper, far into the hinterland, is another important site. It was the political and economic center of this part of Scythia, covering some 1,200 hectares. There is very strong evidence that Greeks lived in the acropolis from the fourth century b.c.: it had a stone fortification system constructed using Greek techniques, Greek-type stone dwellings, and stone-paved streets. Not far from the acropolis there was a harbor.

Further examples come from the Semibratnoe and Raevskoe settlements, not far from the Taman Peninsula. Unfortunately, neither has been studied very well, and the archaeological investigations that have taken place have not been published in detail. Semibratnoe, situated not far from Gorgippia, yielded very impressive Greek-type stone architecture and a fortification system. An inscription from it demonstrates that it was the residence of the Bosporan governor/prince within the lands of the local population. Raevskoe dates mainly from the Hellenistic period and has Greek-type domestic and public architecture.

Bosporan Greeks in the Hellenistic period were most active in trying to penetrate the hinterland and establish settlements within the territories of the local population. One of the best studied of such settlements is Tanais, not far where the Don flows into the Sea of Azov. Strabo gives a very clear idea of its character:

On the river and the lake is an inhabited city bearing the same name, Tanais; it was founded by the Greeks who held the Bosporus. . . . It was a common emporium, partly of the Asiatic and the European nomads, and partly of those who navigated the lake from the Bosporus, the former bringing slaves, hides, and such other things as nomads possess, and the latter giving in exchange clothing, wine, and the other things that belong to civilised life.

Archaeological excavation has demonstrated that this settlement was established in the first half of the third century b.c. It had fortification walls and an internal wall dividing the Greek and local sectors.


The period from the late fourth century through the third century b.c. brought massive change. Seminomadic Sarmatian tribes moved in from the Volga area, expelling the Scythians and taking over their territory. Some Scythians were assimilated and others were killed; most fled to central Crimea, establishing a new kingdom. The kingdom's capital was Scythian Neapolis (at the site of modern Simferopol), which lasted until the third century a.d. In the literature these Scythians are called "Late Scythians." The rulers and elite of this new kingdom were heavily hellenized. Scythian Neapolis had Greek-type fortifications, public buildings, and sculptural decorations. Soon these Scythians became hostile to the Chersonesus state and its agricultural territories, leading to a war that lasted from the second quarter of the second century to the middle of the first century b.c. The Scythians captured the Chersonesite agricultural territory in northwestern Crimea and surrounded Chersonesus itself. In response, Chersonesus sought the help of Mithridates VI Eupator, ruler of the Pontic kingdom. In about 110 b.c., he sent his general Diophantus to Chersonesus at the head of a Pontic army. Diophantus undertook a number of campaigns against the Scythians, liberating Kerkinitis, Kalos Limen, and other Chersonesite settlements in the northwestern Crimea and capturing various Scythian fortresses in the hinterland. As a result, the Bosporus kingdom, Chersonesus, and, apparently, the Late Scythian kingdom itself, all became part of Mithridates's Pontic domain. Olbia and other cities of the northwestern Black Sea area had probably been incorporated into the Pontic kingdom by the end of the second century b.c.

The Greek cities of the northern shore of the Black Sea played an important role during the wars between Mithridates and Rome. They were Mithridates' principal suppliers of provisions, people, and ships, to which end Mithridates maintained very close contacts with the local barbarian leaders. Mithridates, after being defeated by the Romans and betrayed by his own son, killed himself in Panticapaeum in 63 b.c. The ensuing political chaos witnessed frequent changes of rulers in the major Greek cities of the northern Black Sea, often at the initiative or with the active connivance of Rome. Gradually, Roman appetite and influence grew, but it was not until the beginning of the second centurya.d. that the whole area became fully integrated into the Roman Empire.

See alsoGreek Colonies in the East (vol. 2, part 6); Scythians (vol. 2, part 7).


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