by Jonathan Mann

Cimmerian Bosphorus Bronze Coin

A city-state founded on the edge of the known world

In the 7th century B.C., Miletus, a Greek colony on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) sent a daring group of voyagers to search for new lands. They would venture all the way across the ‘inhospitable sea’ (the ancient Greek term for the Black Sea) to its northern shores where lush, fertile pastures were awaiting them. Settling on the eastern coast of what is now Crimea, Miletus’ colonists founded the ancient city-state of Panticapaeum (‘fish road’) on a strategic peninsula which dominated the Cimmerian Bosporus. This narrow strait was the nautical superhighway between Lake Myatis and the Black Sea meaning that, as a trading port, Panticapaeum would soon become an economic powerhouse. First, however, the Milesian settlers would have to contend with the locals. Powerful barbarian tribes known to the Greeks as the Tauri and the Scythians didn’t take kindly to their new neighbours and needed to be dealt with if Panticapaeum was to flourish.

Both the Tauri and Scythian cultures practised human sacrifice and possibly cannibalism so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Just like the Vikings, Scythian raiders would regularly demand tribute, i.e. large sums of money, in return for leaving peacefully. Panticapaeum, in this harsh environment, managed to find a compromise with its new neighbours. Over time it could be seen that mutual cooperation was actually much more beneficial and out of this cooperation came riches and success. At the turn of the 6th century B.C. Panticapaeum joined with other Greek settlements around the Cimmerian Bosporus to form a Kingdom. Power in numbers was the order of the day and the dividends were massive. Trade abounded and exports of Bosporan grain, salted fish and slaves were dispatched right across the Black Sea and into Greece, reaching powerful city-states such as Mytilene and Athens. By 480 B.C. Panticapaeum had become a capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus and was veritably called the jewel of the Black Sea. As a Greco-Scythian hybrid domain the Kingdom is now recognised as the first truly ‘Hellenistic’ state in that its fusion of cultures adopted Greek as its language and civilisation. This fusion did, however, inevitably lead to the birth of a Bosporan Greek identity which today is well recognised as being unique within the ancient world. 

The unsung hero of Athens’ golden age

What also drew Panticapaeum and the Bosporan Kingdom into the limelight was the extent to which the most powerful city-state of the age was reliant upon them; Athens. Despite all its success and prosperity, Athens had one major achilles heel; it was unable to feed itself. The Bosporan Kingdom became a much-valued ally in providing an abundance of grain upon request. It was imperative to Athens that this flow of sustenance was maintained and so militarised colonies were set up in the cities of Amisos and Sinope on the southern shore of the Black Sea thus maintaining ready access to the Cimmerian Bosporus. Further Athenian ‘fortress’ colonies were founded in the Cimmerian Bosporus itself such as Athenaeum, Nymphaeum and Stratokleia, which secured even further their position as Panticapaeum’s number one client.

In 438 B.C. a signal shift took place at Panticapaeum which sent shockwaves across the kingdom. The rule of the powerful Archaenactidae tyrants who had reigned for over 40 years came to a sudden and mysterious end. In their place came the Spartocids, a dynasty of far greater power and ambition who would go on to rule for 320 years. Its founder was Spartacus, the head of a powerful aristocratic family of Panticapaeum whose rise to power would see the kingdom’s prosperity reach heady new heights. Under the Spartocids, the kingdom would expand, taking in new city-states, trading ports and commercial centres, acquiring their territories and vastly increasing its capacity to provide sustenance to the Black Sea and far beyond.

This was to be the Bosporan kingdom’s golden age and it came with a bang. Athens’ first move with the new ruling elite was to ensure their continued position as controller of export trade via their military colonies in the Bosporus. Spartacus was happy to oblige his best customer of Bosporan grain imports and he and his successors were duly buttered up by the Athenian top brass. It was ensured that Athenian writers made numerous references to the ‘special’ relationship between the two powerful city-states and citizenship rights were granted to Spartacus’ grandson, Leukon I, who had granted special privileges to Athenian ships at Bosporan ports. All good things must come to an end, however, by the time Athens had lost a crippling war with the Spartans in 404 B.C all but ending its trade affair with the Bosporan kingdom, Spartacos’ successors were already making their mark as kingdom builders. It is against this background of enterprise, expansion and economic dominance that the Bosporan Kingdom’s coinage comes into its own. 

Going for gold

The bronze coins minted at Panticapaeum during the 4th century B.C. are little artistic wonders in their own right and they perfectly convey the fusion of cultures which made the kingdom so unique. On the obverse is depicted the forepart of a beautiful mythical beast which has its origins in the distant past of Scythian and near eastern culture; the griffin. This majestic animal had the body, tail and hind legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The griffin, or ‘grypas’ in ancient Greek, very deliberately combined the king of the skies and of the land in one creature to convey its special status among the beasts of mythology. To the inhabitants of the Bosporan Kingdom the griffin was never far out of mind as they were believed to inhabit the mountains of Scythia. Here they reputedly battled with a tribe of one-eyed people known as the Arimaspians. An ongoing battle of wills took place each day for the rich gold deposits which were present in the Scythian mountains. Griffins were said to be able to dig this out with their strong beaks before depositing it in their nests. This mined gold was supplemented by the solid gold eggs laid by the griffins, a highly prized possession amongst the gold-loving Arimaspians. Fiercely protective of every nugget, large or small, a griffin would tear to pieces any Arimaspian who dared try to steal their prized precious metal.

One Roman writer called Aelian wrote about the underhand  tactics used to steal this gold; ‘Dreading the strength of these animals, do not set out in quest of the gold by day, but arrive by night, for at that season they are less likely to be detected. Now the region where the Grypes live and where the gold is mined is a dreary wilderness. And the seekers after the aforesaid substance arrive, a thousand or two strong, armed and bringing spades and sacks; and watching for a moonless night they begin to dig. Now if they contrive to elude the Grypes they reap a double advantage, for they not only escape with their lives but they also take home their freight, and when those who have acquired a special skill in the smelting of gold have refined it, they possess immense wealth to requite them for the dangers described above. And they return home, I am told, after an interval of three or four years.”.

As the capital of a Kingdom laden with Scythian influence, Panticapaeum chose the griffin to grace its bronze coins, likely as a means of expressing its cultural identity. This was the edge of the known world and the influence of Scythian and near-eastern culture was clearly something the rulers of the Cimmerian Bosporus wanted to shout about. Upon the coins the griffin sits above a sturgeon, a variety of fish which is abundant in the waters of the kingdom. Around the griffin are the letters P A N denoting that the coin was struck at Panticapaeum. 

Pan, pan pipes, panic and Panticapaeum’s world panning record

The reverse of Panticapaeum’s bronze coins show in profile a truly ancient deity, his eyes seemingly filled with madness. This is Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and flocks, fields, groves, mountain wilderness and wooded glens, hunting, rustic music and a fair bit more. One of the more obscure gods, Pan had the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat and spent most of his time wandering through the wilderness playing the Syrinx or pan pipes. Now a well-known instrument, the pan pipes have various origin stories attached to them in mythology.

One of these stories related to a nymph named Syrinx whom Pan had fallen in love with. Fleeing from him, Syrinx returned to her sisters who turned her into a reed. Not knowing which reed this was, he picked several and joined them together. Realising that blowing upon them produced a beautiful melody which encapsulated those around him, Pan had created the Pan pipes. He could be seen gleefully playing them as he skipped through the forest but he was not always so full of the joys of spring, despite being a god traditionally associated with that very season. The word panic originated through his name as his menacing voice frightened anyone who was unfortunate enough to stumble upon him. Pan’s nature was wild, his spirit rooted in nature, in ancient mystery and the forest.

Nature can be unpredictable and so was Pan who enjoyed tricking, confusing and tormenting those who were unlucky enough to attract his attention. He is written as once having challenged Apollo to a musical contest. This brazen challenge was duly accepted by Apollo who was certain to win and win he did, however, this was challenged by one of the judges, a certain King Midas (of golden touch fame). Apollo was so disgusted by this insult that he transformed Midas’ ears into those of an ass. Pan, too, can be seen sporting the same ass’s ears in his portrait on the bronze coins of Panticapaeum, the city to which he is a patron god. Despite these ass’s ears, menacing appearance and slightly unkempt hair, in the case of Panticapaeum’s coinage, Pan has become a world beater. In 2012 a gold stater of Panticapaeum with the same designs as the bronze coins (except Pan is seen from a slightly different angle), sold for a cool $3,250,000. This result still stands to this day as being a record for the most expensive ancient Greek coin ever sold and goes to show that Panticapaeum’s coins pack an artistic, cultural and aesthetic punch above all others. 

Jonathan Mann is a numismatist specializing in medieval British coinage and is a member of the British Numismatic Society. His experience comprises over a decade in the British coin trade, as well as a position at the UK’s leading coin auctioneer, Spink & Sons as their hammered coin specialist. Jon has also represented Mayfair auctioneer, Dix Noonan Webb as their rep in the north of England. One of his biggest claims to numismatic fame is being responsible for handling and cataloguing a gold sovereign of Henry VII which set a world record as the highest price ever achieved at auction for a Tudor coin; £372,000. Jon is also proud to have represented the finder of the 2014 Lenborough hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, helping him and the landowner to achieve an award of £1.35m from the British Museum Treasure Valuation Committee.

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