Scholars' Association News
Issue 24
November 2012


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Herodotus on the Black Sea
Anca Dan (Onassis Junior Fellow, 2009-2010)1

Herodotus' knowledge of the Euxine cannot be compared with the image of a modern traveler in this area. Nevertheless, such assimilations between ancient and modern perceptions of spaces are so usual that, since the XIXth century, most of the publications offer illustrations of the "(Ionian) maps used by Herodotus", "reconstructed" as they have never existed. Thus, one can find modern maps of the Black Sea shores, marked by the ethnics of Herodotus' Scythians, Thracians, Colchians and various Cappadocians who saw, during the Archaic and Classical times, the installation of almost one hundred Greek colonies in this north-east corner of the inhabited world (picture 1).

Fortunately, the contemporary critic of the ancient texts and the generalization of the concept of "mental maps" should prevent us from presenting the Black Sea as a definite geographical entity in Herodotus' Histories. Prior to the invention of the "Scythian arch" this sea was not a region, with well defined limits and center: such a σφράγις, that clearly identifies the Euxine Pontus as a geographical and historical entity appeared only in Eratosthenes and in the Eratosthenian tradition.

However, Herodotus remains the first ancient historian from whom we have gathered more than punctual references to the Pontic space and people. For a correct comprehension of his work, we ought to refer to his oecumene, to the whole inhabited world, as a structure of humans and places staging the history. The Black Sea is only a part of this, chosen as subject of study by us, Modern readers. Thus, we accentuate a geographical break already suggested by different writers of the Vth century, beginning with Pindar (for us the first ancient author to attest the name of the Axine Pontus), continuing with the tragedians (for whom the Thracian Bosporus marked an obvious demarcation between the Aegean and the Behind) and finishing with other logographers, such as Hellanicus of Lesbos.

Without entering the debate about the reality of Herodotus' travels, we can presume that his claims of autopsy are not only a consequence of the rhetorical importance of ὄψις and ἀκούη, already common tokens in the pre-Socratic treaties. Of course, the principle of paradoxography, explicitly announced in the actual proemium of the Histories, plays an important part in the traditional invention of people, places and facts. Also, one should remember the importance of polarity and analogy in the organization and in the development of the ethnographic, geographic and chronographic material. All these are factors which explain what I propose to call Herodotus' "wrinkly writing" (or, in French, "écriture en accordéon"): the amount of information preserved for a topic in the Histories does not correspond directly to the information Herodotus had at his disposal. It depends on what the historian tries to prove. This applies also to the content: the distinction between history, geography and ethnography observed by modern philologists in the Histories is artificial. In Herodotus' conception, people and places, coherent one with the other, make history together. As a consequence, writing history means writing about people and places altogether (picture 2). These are the three concepts directing the three parts of the present paper.

picture 2

Pontic peoples: Herodotus' ethnic descriptions

Herodotus' human world is certainly more complex than the adepts of the bipolarity We-Greeks versus Others-Barbarians have claimed. Herodotus' world could be represented as a web with four concentric cycles (picture 3): the first one, the Aegean, corresponds to the Greeks, and partially, to other Homeric peoples (such as Thracians and some Anatolians); the second is the periphery of the Scythians, Egyptians, maybe Libyans, and it is crossed by the Persian exception. The third ripple is that of the far away populations, which are not directly in contact with the Greeks. Consequently, they are even more different than the previous ones, as barbarianism is, from an ancient point of view, directly proportional to the distance from the sea. The last ripple does not really belong to the oecumene, which is certainly not round and not well defined for Herodotus, as it was for some Ionian cartographers (4.36-45, cf. 4.16): these are the edges of world, occupied by the fabulous creatures, monsters or Hyperboreans. Of course, the awareness of the acculturation process, as early as the Vth century, justified the perception of some "intermediary" ethnic groups, belonging to two adjoining civilizations. This is the case for the Agathyrsoi (4.104), Scythians by their names and by their geographical position, Thracian by their customs, but somehow more barbarian than Thracians and Scythians put together.

The complexity of this ethnographic picture should encourage us to look behind Herodotus' "archaic smile". In fact Herodotus (and of course, probably other contemporary logographers we have since lost) was familiar with some of the sophistic teachings and with their interest in giving a definition of what humans are. The most famous definition of the human being and one of the rare reflections upon the evolution of the humanity we have from the classical antiquity is that of Plato's Protagoras dialogue (320d sq.). Socrates' pupil credits Protagoras of Abdera with the explanation of man as an animal made by the gods, but an animal remained naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed after Epimetheus' gifts distribution to the inanimate world. The Promethean man has the knowledge of the arts and of the fire: thus, he worships the gods, invents dwellings, cloths, sandals, beds and the foods that are of the earth. But it is Zeus who completes the "political" human being: Hermes brings respect and right among men, who are then, only then, able to live in cities, under the governance of the νόµος.

This general definition of man is not only a possible model for specific definitions of human groups in the century when the Greek ethnography was born: the chronological steps of the human creation (Epimethean, Promethean and Jupiterian) can be compared with the different degrees of humanity that are registered on Herodotus' spider web. Epimetheus' animal would correspond to the Herodotean monsters, such as those men with goats' feet, said to inhabit high and impassable mountains in the Northeastern extremity of the world: they are only known from the testimony of the "bald men", who, in their turn, were only visited by Scythian businessmen (4.24-25). The people of the 3rd ripple can be situated on a superior level of evolution, of the Promethean man: they posses the bases of the human civilization, they have a religion, a language, houses and cloths and they produce their food. However, some of them, like the Androphagi, at the northern limit of Scythia (4.106), do not have the νόµος; others, as the Neuri, who otherwise have Scythian customs (4.105), seem to be wizards and thus distinct from the people living under the justice of Zeus. Finally, the Jupiterian man only belongs to the Mediterranean sphere: however, not all the people of the 2nd ripple reach the top of civilization, which is to live in cities: nomads are necessarily inferior to sedentaries, from a sedentary point of view. What happens when this apparently perfectly hierarchic system fails and when the nature of places where the Greeks never went to is different from what they imagined and when thisnature determinates a way of life not very different from the Greek one? I would like to quote here the Gelonian exception (4.108-109):

Budini have a city built of wood, called Gelonus. The wall of it is thirty furlongs in length on each side of the city; this wall is high and all of wood; and their houses are wooden, and their temples; for there are among them temples of Greek gods, furnished in Greek fashion with images and altars and shrines; and they honour Dionysus every three years with festivals and revels.

The Herodotean description of the wooden fort matches the aspect of the constructions excavated in the second half of the XXth century in the Bel'sk region, on the middle Dnjepr. However, this is not the only example of wooden fortified settlement in the woody steppe of Ukraine and we can be certain that Herodotus himself had no precise knowledge of the place. (picture 4). What it is more important for the Pontic historian, is to decide upon the possibility of a Greek trade-center that was so far away from and completely cut off from the Greek seashore. Of course, we have traces of Greek artifacts as far as the region of Kiev; but they cannot express the ethnicity of those who brought them there. Until the discovery of Greek archaic or classical inscriptions on such sites, we can not exclude the possibility that Gelonos is a Greek invention. The Greeks probably did not know anything about the conditions of the woody steppe and of the way of life such conditions imposed to the people corresponding to the archaeological cultures of "the Catacombs", of the "middle Don" and of "Junchov". But they tried to find an explanation for this sedentary enclave in a nomad world. The supposition of a Greek forgotten migration from the Mediterranean centre comforted Herodotus in his general systematization of the humanity.

picture 4

In general, Herodotus not only collected an important amount of facts about the Scythians and the Scythian space (picture 5), but he also rationalized this information, to use it in his coherent geographic and historical world picture. So, he explicitly detailed the meaning of "nomad" in its semantic corposants, through its etymological parents: the nomads are "those who have no fixed city" (ἄνδρας οὐδαµόθι γῆς ἄστυ νέµοντας, 7.10) but also "those who are shepherds" (οἱ νοµάδες νέµουσι, 4.191 for the Libyans, but cf. 4.2 for the Scythians). Thus, this qualification answers two of the fundamental questions of the Vth century ethnographic definition, explaining the Scythian lifestyle through their type of houses and of work for food. Also, it allows developments about the geographical determinism of the North Pontic steppe and about the ethical determinism of this proud people. Herodotus praises them (4.46-47)

picture 5

…in this greatest matter they have so devised that none who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found. For when men have no established cities or fortresses, but all are house-bearersand mounted archers, living not by tilling the soil but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how should these not be invincible and unapproachable? This invention they have made in a land which suits their purpose and has rivers which are their allies; for their country is level and grassy and well watered and rivers run through it not greatly fewer than the canals of Egypt.

Also, their king, Idathyrsos, is fully aware of its tactical advantage and of his total freedom (4.127-128). From a Greek perspective, these nomads could be called sons of Heracles worthy of their father! Indeed, even the three legends registered by Herodotus for their origin – be they Scythian (if based upon cosmological facts) or Greco-Scythian (when containing geographical and historical elements) – are inspired by their movements, by their youth, by their strength and by the relationship with local sacred forces from the Northern Black Sea (4.5-11).

What about the other ethnicities living on the shores of the Euxine? There is no much to say about a Greek Pontian identity in Herodotus: in fact, using the concept of Ponticness for premodern epochs is an anachronism, as the Pontian Greeks only defined themselves as Pontians, in an ethnic sense, only in the XIXth century and through their XXth century diasporas. Speaking about Herodotus' "Greeks who live in the Black Sea area", we are only speaking, in fact, about the north-western part of this sea and, more precisely, about the Borythenitai (picture 6). I assume that Herodotus saw this region and, thus, had made the periplous of the Left Pontus. He mentions the Borysthenes port of trade (ἐµπόριον), which should correspond to an ancient peninsula, at the mouth of the Dnjepr-Bug estuary, the actual Berezan Island (picture 7). He also mentions, under the same name Borysthenes, the ἄστυ and πόλις of Olbia (picture 8), a site which has revealed very important vestiges. All we can say about his brief mentions of these Greeks is that they are identified as a group only for their part in the elaboration of the Histories, as sources of information.

picture 6

It is hardly more profitable to talk about the Pontic Thracians: all we can say is that there is no proper Pontic identity for those who appear as (5.3-8)

…the biggest nation in the world, next to the Indians; were they under one ruler, or united, they would in my judgment be invincible and the strongest nation on earth; but since there is no way or contrivance to bring this about, they are for this reason weak. They have many names, each tribe according to its region. All these Thracians are alike in all their usages, save the Getae, and the Trausi, and those that dwell above the Crestonaeans.

On the opposite side of Pontus, we find the Colchians and the important Herodotean etiology of their Egyptian origin (2.103-106). Connecting the south-Caucasian region of Phasis with Egypt and, implicitly, with the Nile, is certainly not new, if we think of the differentgeographic variants of the Argonautic epos that have been developed since archaic times. What is significant for our focus upon intimate connection between places, people and actions in Herodotus is the meta-historical aspects included in this inquiry: the historian not only explains the reasons for which he believes in the relationship between the two peoples (physical aspect, language, circumcision, line work), but he invites the reader at his working table, to accompany him in his theoretical and practical investigations:

For it is plain to see that the Colchians are Egyptians; and this that I say I myself noted before I heard it from others. When I began to think on this matter, I inquired of both peoples; and the Colchians remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Colchians; the Egyptians said that they had the Colchians to be part of Sesostris' army. I myself guessed it to be so, partly because they are dark- skinned and woolly-haired; though that indeed goes for nothing, seeing that other peoples, too, are such; but my better proof was that the Colchians and Egyptians and Ethiopians are only nations that have from the first practiced circumcision. [...] Nay, and let me speak of another matter in which the Colchians are like to the Egyptians: they and the Egyptians alone work linen, and have the same way, a way peculiar to themselves, of working it; and they are alike in all their manner of life, and in their speech.

Pontic spaces in Herodotus

This brings me to the construction of the first world's "meridian", attested in Herodotus.
Trying to prove the parallelism between the flows of the Nile and of the Istros (2.33-34), Herodotus records what seems to be an already accepted theory for his public:

Egypt lies about opposite to the mountainous part of Cilicia; whence it is a straight five days' journey for an unburdened man to Sinope on the Euxine; and Sinope lies over against the place where the Istros falls into the sea. Thus I suppose the course of the Nile in its passage through Libya to be like the course of the Istros.

The error of appreciation between the ancient and the modern longitudes of the two mouths is surprisingly insignificant: only 1.5° (in other words the difference between the 29°30' east, which is the longitude of the Danube, and 31° east, the longitude of the Nile). How were the ancient Greeks able to see this, at a time when no direct routes were open between the traditional extremities of the world? The solution could be of geometrical nature and be based upon intermediary nautical data available in archaic and classical times. An ancient surveyor of geographer could have noticed that the addition of the distances between the Triopion promontory, at the western extremity of Cnidos (with the modern site of
Kumyer / Deveboynu Burun, to be considered as the South-Western corner of Minor Asia) and Tarsos or Soloi (modern Viranşehir, near Mersin) was almost equal to the addition of distancesbetween Sinope and Sigeion (modern Yenişehir): Sinope, situated close to Halys' mouth, could have been considered as a north-eastern limit of Asia Minor; Sigeion, in Northern Troad, was the north-western corner of the Asia Minor, marking the exit from the Pontic-Propontic-Hellespontic seas.

If we measure these distances on modern maps, the results are quite similar, about 700- 800 km. Thus, when one navigates from Cnidos to Troad advancing in a strait line, from south to north, one easily understands that Sinope and Issos, which were situated at equal distances from these two points but to the east, must be also on one vertical line. Similarly, on the sea, one could have noticed that the addition of παράπλοι between Sinope, Hieron and Istros, to which we could add a παράπλους of the Hellespont, would have been similar to the distance between Issos and the Delta, bypassing Cyprus and following the Syro-Phoenician gulf.

On this image (picture 9), I have drawn two triangles, BB'C and AA'D. Considering the equality between the sums of two sides of the two triangles (BC + BB' and AD + AA') and imagining that their respective angles are equal, one can understand that the two triangles are equal and that each side and angle of a triangle is equal to a side and an angle of the other triangle. By keeping in mind this equality and knowing that when one goes from Cnidos to Byzantium (from A to B), one takes a South to North direction, as when one goes from the Nile's
Delta to Tarsos (from A' to D) and from Sinope to Istros (from C do B'), one can understand that the Danube mouth is on the same vertical line as the Nile's Delta.

This is a hypothetical reconstruction. In any case, the testimony of Aristophanes' Birds (v. 992-1020) provide of a surveyor who pretended to know how to make a square from a circle, as well as the rare information we have about the development of pre-Euclidian geometry and especially about Hippocrates of Chios could prove that such an assumption is not absurd and that in the 430', in Athens, some people knew how to make such deductions.

Herodotus took his data from sources that are lost today; unfortunately for us, he was not really interested in the comprehension of their detail. This is why, despite this geometrical reconstruction, I still cannot explain the 1 000 stadia registered for the continental distance between Sinope and Tarsos: this could be a deduction from lost maritime distances and a lost mental, geometric image of Anatolia. For Herodotus, the main interest was to use such data in his historical inquiries. And a linear distance of 1 000 stadia, a travel of 5 days on foot, explains whythe historical facts like the kinship of Egyptians and Colchians (based on the campaign of the pharaoh Sesostris in the Caucasus) were possible.

Pontic events

This interdetermination between geography and history can explain also Darius' European expedition, often quoted as an example of Herodotus' lies; for me, this would only be an example of how Herodotus makes history, grounding his reconstruction of events upon his ethnographic and geographic knowledge.

From a historiographical point of view, this expedition is particularly problematical: the different ancient sources (among which Herodotus 4.83-144, Ctesias 688 F 13.20-21, Strabo 7.3.14-15, 13.1.22, 16.1.3, Justinus following Trogus Pompeius 2.3.1-2, 2.5.9-11, 7.3.1, 38.7.3) are not in perfect agreement. Moreover, as we have no trace in the Persian records of such an expedition behind the Istros and even less of such a Persian defeat, the modern scholars are divided in accepting its historicity and especially its date. I consider that Darius really had the project to conquer Thrace (Skudra) and to extend his empire till the Istros, as it appears from the statement of Dino of Colophon (fr. 16 Müller FHG apud Plutarch, Alexander's Life §36). This author attests that the waters of Nile and of Istros ware, for the Great King, the symbol of his empire's frontiers. This campaign is to be dated sometimes between 520/519 and 512/511 BC, maybe around 514 BC and archaeological discoveries made in Thrace but also at Histria confirm this assumption. In the dispute which separates scholars considering that Darius made one expedition against the Sakai and those considering that he made an Asiatic and a European expedition, I willingly follow the second scholars: this is actually what Polyaenus says (Stratagemata 7.11-12). Secondly, confusion was always possible in the ancient sources for those called by the Achaemenids, in an ambiguous way, Saka tayaiy paradraya and Sakā Tigraxaudā.

However, considering the Greek evidence of this campaign, its geography remains its main problem: for Ctesias (688 F 13.21), the Great King would have advanced behind the Istros for 15 days. For Strabo (7.3.14), Darius would have been only somewhere not very far away from the northern extremity of the river. Herodotus is the only one who talks about a continental campaign, very far away from the sea shore where the ships of the allies could have assisted the Achaemenid army. 700 000 men would have made the journey from the Istros to the Tanaïs andthe Oaros (maybe the Volga, maybe the Kuban), in other words a 60-days march, in a empty country, for which no landmark is known to the writer. Let's take a closer look at 4.122-126:

"…the advance guard of the Scythians found the Persians about a three days' march distant from the Ister; and having found them they encamped a day's march ahead of the enemy and set about clearing the land of all growing things. When the Persians saw the Scythian cavalry appearing, they marched on in its tracks, the horsemen ever withdrawing before them; and then, making for the one Scythian division, the Persians held on in pursuit towards the east and the river Tanais; which when the horsemen had crossed the Persians crossed also, and pursued till they had marched through the land of the Sauromatae to the land of the Budini. As long as the Persians were traversing the Scythian and Sauromatic territory there was nothing for them to harm, as the land was dry and barren. But when they entered the country of the Budini, they found themselves before the wooden- walled town; the Budini had deserted it and left nothing therein, and the Persians burnt the town. Then going still forward in the horsemen's tracks they passed through this country into the desert, which is inhabited by no men; it lies to the north of the Budini and its breadth is a seven days' march. Beyond this desert dwell the Thyssagetae; four great rivers flow from their country through the land of the Maeotians, and issue into the lake called the Maeotian; their names are Lycus, Oarus, Tanais, Syrgis. When Darius came into the desert, he halted in his race and encamped on the river Oarus, where he built eight great forts, all at an equal distance of about sixty furlongs from each other, the ruins of which were standing even in my lifetime. While he was busied with these, the Scythians whom he pursued fetched a compass northward and turned back into Scythia. When they had altogether vanished and were no longer within the Persians' sight, Darius then left those forts but half finished, and he too turned about and marched westward, thinking that those Scythians were the whole army, and that they were fleeing towards the west. But when he came by forced marches into Scythia, he met both the divisions of the Scythians, and pursued them, they keeping ever a day's march away from him; and because hewould not cease from pursuing them, the Scythians, according to the plan they had made, fled before him to the countries of those who had refused their alliance, and first to the land of the Black-cloaks. Into their land the Scythians and Persians burst, troubling their peace; and thence the Scythians led the Persians into the country of the Man-eaters, troubling them too; whence they drew off with a like effect into the country of the Neuri, and troubling them also, fled to the Agathyrsi. […] All this continuing long, and there being no end to it, Darius sent a horseman to Idanthyrsus…

Such an Achaemenid expedition is absurd and impossible. I think that the text shows that Herodotus or his source had information about the two extremities of Darius' expedition: the first one has no name but it is said to be a 3-day march from the north of Istros, which could mean 100 km at the most, in today's Moldavia, before the crossing of the Dnjester to the East. The second mark is the term of Darius' expedition, the mysterious Oaros on which the King would have undertaken the fortification of a something like a limes. If Herodotus (or his source) heard this hydronyme from an oral source, he could have himself made the assumption that this Oaros was the Volga. But the Iranian radical of this hydronym, "*varu", meaning "spread over", or "var", "pond", is that of the hydronym Var of Jordanes (History of the Goths § 268, « …Danabri amnis…, quam lingua sua Hunni Var appellant… » ), and of the "Varouch" of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus De administrando imperio § 38). It is also the radical of "Borysthenes", the ancient name of the same Dnjepr. So, it is quite possible that an unknown affluent of this Dnjepr was also called by a name from the same family or from the family of the Iranian word "water" ("*vār(i)"). Because he heard this hydronym in the Pontic region, the historian could not recognize it on its mental map otherwise than by identifying it with the great Varu, the Volga or the Kuban. Indeed, he mentions this river among three mysterious rivers, Lykos, Oaros and Syrgis (or Hyrgis), which accompany the Tanaïs in its descent from the land of the Thyssagetai, through the land of the Maeotians, till the Maeotis.

Between these two points, Herodotus had a marching army, a Scythian cavalry and a period of time of about 60 days – sufficient enough for the crossing of the Scythian square (picture 10). In the region of Borysthenes, he probably heard Scythian tales about the courage and the intelligence of the Scythian king Idathyrsos, about the symbolic gifts he offered to Darius, about Darius' respectful attitude. Herodotus probably rationalized such Greco-Scythian traditions and adapted them to his Scythian square geography.

picture 10

This Herodotean history of "Darius against the Scythians" is, in the ancient literature, only the first of a long tradition of great conquerors wanting to exceed the last limit of humanity (picture 11 – main image). Like the king who wants to dominate the whole circle of the world, Herodotus, as I see him, is as a scholar wanting a total knowledge of his topic. Thus, his ethnographical, geographical and historical inquiries, made in the tradition of the Ionian but also recent Pre- Socratic scholars are coherent to each other and with the purpose of reconstructing an absolute, true history.


1 I am very grateful to the Onassis Foundation for the fellowship which allowed me to study for one year in Athens; I also thank Prof. Catherine Morgan, Director of the BSA, who offered me the opportunity to present this paper, a wonderful summer evening at the School. Pictures of Pontic regions were available to me thanks to Prof. Joseph Carter (Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Texas at Austin) and to Dr. Iulian Bîrzescu (Institute of Archaeology, Romanian Academy of Science, Bucarest); other pictures have been taken from the Internet database Panoramio (connected to Google Earth).

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